Rugby World Cup final: England 6-15 South Africa

England 6-15 South Africa

For weeks, England's obdurate, unfashionable old troupers had defied logic. At the final reckoning, striving against the rugby gods once more, they were forced to accept the reality of their shortcomings, although again not a soul present or watching from afar could fault their commitment.

South Africa, the arch apostles of pragmatism, deserved their win, their second Webb Ellis Cup, five goals to two, an old-style, tryless grind that failed to excite, not because they were that much a better side but because they were marginally more efficient, and just as stubborn. And in one area, the line-out, they got the better of jumpers who had done so well all tournament. There could be no arguments. And there were not.

Nobody expects a classic running final - especially not at the tail end of this extraordinary tournament - but there were extended periods last night when both teams were treating the tradition of a game started, according to legend, by a schoolboy who picked up the ball and ran, as some form of elaborate joke. It often looked more like Australian Rules than rugby.

The ball went up. And up. And up again. It was as if they had signed a pact not to mark the Stade turf with too much of that nasty contact stuff and wait for a kind bounce, a dropped ball here, a fluff ed clearance there. It has been like this since the minnows went home, the serious players tensing up under the strain of expectation .

Both teams were running with the choke full out on the chilliest night so far. The rugby was cold, clinical, cautious. It seemed this sixth Rugby World Cup final would be a night when discipline triumphed over adventure.

There were hopes that the thunder in the scrummage and at the breakdown would warm proceedings up. It did not start quite that way. England's renowned heavyweights, the tournament bouncers who had somehow got the team here in the fi rst place, were not going to be drawn into a street brawl; they twisted and bullied at the set piece, mauled as a tight unit and strove to ensure Alain Rolland had no reason to respond to the pre-match suggestions by South Africa's coach Jake White that their front row were law-breaking thugs.

The first half went marginally South Africa's way, Percy Montgomery potting all but one of this four chances, Jonny Wilkinson guiding over a diffi cult penalty, but missing a rather straightforward drop goal with his left foot from just outside the 22.

England had 68 per cent of the ball in the first session and rarely scared the defence; they had two turnovers each and England's vaunted pack had a slight edge. But the South African backs went looking for it with more verve and, but for a knock-on on the England line five minutes before the break, would have capitalised on the best three-quarter minute of the stanza. England's defence held, but an England hand in the ruck did not go unnoticed and Montgomery was clinical in his punishment.

Then, when they returned, some proper rugby at last. Andy Gomarsall set Mathew Tait free and he sliced open a defence that has often been static in the early rounds. Mark Cueto, so grateful to be here again after replacing the injured Josh Lewsey, dived through Danie Rossouw's tackle next to the left corner flag . But the packed stadium had to wait an inordinately long time for the Australian video referee Stuart Dickenson to make his judgment , eventually ruling that the winger had put a foot in touch. Then the referee restarted with a penalty for Schalk Burger going over the top on Tait in the tackle. This game is a mystery sometimes even to those who play it , but Jonny was unfazed and pulled back three points from a handy angle.

England had the momentum now. Their forwards were in control, their backs lifted by Tait's exhilarating run, Cueto's thrilling but vain dive for the line. And then the sight nobody wanted to see: Jason Robinson, the comeback kid, the man with no club and a million friends, limping off eight minutes into the second half. How he wanted to help England over the line here again, as he had so valiantly done in Sydney. Four years older but every bit as inventive, dangerous and committed, this was his last game for England - his last game for anybody, in fact. He did not look back. He had no regrets.

Montgomery soon had South Africa six points ahead again, as England sought to replenish their resources with more youth, Toby Flood taking over from Mike Catt. He, too, has finished his stint for England. While his return was more of a surprise than the recall of Robinson last year, he has given all he had left here.

With only a converted try separating them, this was getting down to punitive rugby, playing the percentages, keeping it tight and waiting - with all eyes on Mr Rolland's whistle. All eyes on Jonny and Percy. The question fairly to be asked was would the referee hold his nerve alongside the players? A wrong call by the Irishman and the finale could be ruined.

Flood pushed Montgomery over the hoardings in following through on Gomarsall's devilish, teasing chip, the full-back clattering a TV cameraman. No hard feelings - apart from the bruises. Then Rolland goofed. Badly.

He saw an obstruction that wasn't there when Cueto took the ball up passed the stationary Paul Sackey and Ben Kay and Montgomery landed the long penalty. It was a superb kick, though, and England needed two scores to hold their title.

With a quarter of an hour left, the championship stretch, the very last chance, South Africa were fi nally breathing fire; England, throwing on their replacements in hope rather than expectation, had lost some of their zip.

They did not give up, it is almost redundant to say. Flood ran crazily and often. Tait was snapping like a bad-tempered dog. And Cueto was downright bemused when John Smit shoulder-charged him off the ball. Wilkinson drove them deep and England were roused again.

Still, high ball or drive through route one, box-kick or maul, they couldn't crack the Boks. Time, as it has been for four years, was against them. It wasn't that they had grown old - their youngsters now were carrying the fight - but they had run out ideas, space, time, energy. Their line-out, so dependable in the games they had won to get them this far, was poor.

France could not run the clock down clinging to a one-point lead for 75 minutes last weekend; the Springboks showed how to do it here. There would be no more challenging logic. England, with honour but no title, got what their endeavours deserved - and sport can't deliver a fairer verdict than that.

Stade de France: 80,000

England: Robinson (Hipkiss 47); Sackey, Tait, Catt (Flood 51), Cueto; Wilkinson, Gomarsall; Sheridan, Regan (Chuter 61), Vickery (capt; Stevens 43), Shaw, Kay, Corry, Moody (Worsley 64; Richards 71), Easter (Dallaglio 65) Pens Wilkinson 2

South Africa: Montgomery; Pietersen, Fourie, Steyn, Habana; James, Du Preez; Du Randt, Smit (capt), Van der Linde, Botha, Matfi eld, Burger, Smith, Rossouw (Van Heerden 73) Pens Montgomery 4 Steyn

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland)


Kevin Mitchell at the Stade de France

The GuardianTramp

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