Key Points:

PARIS - England's slogan heading into this World Cup was "shock the world": whatever happens in Saturday's final against South Africa they've already more than lived up to those words.

It is hard to exaggerate just what a long shot the defending champions, who are now just 80 minutes away from becoming the first team to win back-to-back World Cups, were to defend their title when the tournament got underway over a month ago.

Then, in their second match in France, England were thrashed 36-0 by the Springboks in a Pool match - their record World Cup defeat.

That result seemed merely to emphasise how much England had failed to build on their success of four years ago.

In between this World Cup and the last they had won just 16 out of 40 Tests. The wretched sequence was overseen by three coaches who, between them, got through numerous combinations in both the key areas of midfield and the back-row

Indeed, with the midfield still a problem, it is remarkable how a team showing quite so little in the way of creative spark has made it to the final of a World Cup.

Meanwhile an ongoing 'club v country' row over player release didn't help.

So, how did England get from where they were following the South Africa match to the tournament's climax?

The scale of that defeat made many critics forget the title-holders were widely expected to be beaten by the Springboks - this was after all their fourth straight defeat at the hands of Jake White's men.

Jonny Wilkinson, whose numerous injuries had been a handicap to England since he landed the drop-goal that sealed victory in the 2003 final and who had been sidelined from the opening two matches of the title defence with an ankle problem, then returned.


The assurance Wilkinson brings to England even when, as he has been this tournament, uncharacteristically off-target with his goalkicking is immense - when it really matters most he has the happy knack of making sure they go over.

Even so, there should never have been any question of England beating Pacific Island nations Tonga and Samoa.

Australia, one of the more attractive sides in world rugby union, came next. But never was the old adage that "forwards win matches and backs decide by how many points" as appropriate as it was in England's 12-10 quarter-final win over the Wallabies where prop Andrew Sheridan, not for the first time, wreaked havoc upon the Australia scrum.

Semi-final opponents France, despite the resources at their disposal, chose to engage England in a kicking game. As one France fan lamented after the holders' 14-9 win, "you don't beat England by playing an English game".

The champions head into this weekend's showpiece with the lowest per match points-scored average (22.33) of any previous finalist and the truth is they couldn't care less.

England's detractors say a World Cup win for a team that are playing so 'negatively' is bad for the promotion of the global game and the message it sends; Red Rose fans insist the nay-sayers are so used to the 'basketball' on offer in the Super 14 they've lost sight of the virtues of forward play.

"The last few games we came from behind and to come from behind playing world-class teams shows massive strength of character," said Ashton.

"But not only that - because I know they have strength of character, that's why they are here - but there is a massive amount of rugby playing ability that I don't think many people have recognised."

They might just do that if England win this weekend although they will surely have to expand their play a touch to overcome South Africa's all-round game. Yet such has been their ability to confound expectation, England might yet triumph playing the way that has seen them through thus far.

- AFP