SYDNEY — England set up a repeat of the 1991 Rugby World Cup final with a 24-7 semifinal win over France at a wet Telstra Stadium in Sydney on Sunday.
That England qualified for the final against host Australia next Saturday was due largely to the dismal “English” weather, the golden boot of flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson — who scored all England’s points — and the far-from-golden performance of Les Bleus.
“Today the best team won the match, we cannot deny it. The conditions were not good for us, England was better than us,” said French captain Fabien Galthie. “It was very difficult to play with rain, we like to run with the ball.”
In a twist of irony, it was drop goals that sent England on the path to victory — England had been dumped out of the 1999 World Cup by Springbok Jannie De Beer’s four drop goals — while the French had trouble kicking, catching and passing the rugby ball — fundamental in seeking to put points on the board.
“It’s about pressure, and Australia put New Zealand under pressure and we did the same today,” said England captain Martin Johnson.
Wilkinson set the tone for the match with a sweetly executed drop goal in the eighth minute. England’s lead, however, was shortlived as a minute later France scored what would prove to be its only points of the game.
Flanker Serge Betsen, grabbed a lineout ball that eluded everybody else and found himself in enough space to surge over the line for a try confirmed by the TV match official.
French flyhalf Frederic Michalak added the conversion and France found itself 7-3 up. This was also to be Michalak’s only successful attempt at anything throughout the match. As significant as Wilkinson’s contribution with the boot was to the outcome of the match, so too was Michalak’s disastrous display.
Usually reliable with the boot, Michalak missed four crucial penalty kicks at goal and added four miscued up-and-unders that put pressure on his own team. The French coach ended his misery early, replacing him with Gerald Merceron in the second half.
Not helping France’s cause either, was its lack of discipline. Penalties were conceded in its own half — suicide when the opposing team has as accurate a kicker as Wilkinson.
France also played a quarter of the match with 14 men as winger Christophe Dominici was sin-binned for a soccer-style tackle in the 23rd minute and later Betsen was to turn from hero to zero with a late tackle on Wilkinson that earned him 10 minutes on the sidelines — a period in which England added nine points.
Although Wilkinson uncharacteristically missed three kicks at goal, he more than atoned for his errors with three drop goals — one of them an audacious left-foot effort to keep France chasing the game.
A mistake-riddled first half ended with England holding a slender 12-7 lead after both sides had struggled to control the ball with fluid backline moves a rarity — the whiteness of England winger Jason Robinson’s shorts confirming this fact.
With a steady drizzle and massive support among the 82,000-strong crowd, England could have been forgiven for thinking it was playing at Twickenham, and in the second half it played as if it was at Twickenham, where it has seldom lost in recent years.
Its discipline in the second half contrasted sharply with the lack of discipline shown by its French counterparts.
England’s powerful pack gradually wore down the French and with Wilkinson’s reliable boot pegging the French back and keeping the scoreboard ticking, French heads dropped.
The writing was on the wall as early as the 57th minute when Wilkinson’s third drop goal sailed between the posts to make the score 18-7.
For England, an intriguing battle against host and reigning champion Australia awaits.
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