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England fulfil promise made to themselves
- RUGBY WORLD CUP - Clive Woodward’s side ascends to greatness

Great sporting achievement needs context in order to evaluate it properly. How good was England’s 20-17 victory over Australia on Saturday to win the 2003 World Cup' I’ll tell you how good it was.

In the week leading up to the final, some mischievous Australian media pundits suggested that Wallaby fans stick pins in a voodoo doll of Jonny Wilkinson to put him off. Others advocated that supporters should create a din outside the team’s hotel on Manly beach the night before the final to deny them sleep.

An Australian television advert ran a picture of England captain Martin Johnson with the question: pensioner or performer' A newspaper used a photograph of the England team, hands aloft, applauding their fans after the semi-final defeat of France. The caption read: ‘Hands up if you think we’re boring.’

That was the baggage England took with them into the game. They brought some of their own too. This was a team that had set eyes on this World Cup 18 months ago. Every performance, every dip in form, was judged against that objective. They fronted up to that responsibility. They acknowledged their status as favourites, revelled in it even.

They put pressure upon themselves, in games against Australia and New Zealand in the summer and at their training headquarters in Bagshot, to see if they would crack. “We’re here to win the World Cup,” coach Clive Woodward frequently said when he arrived in Australia. “Nothing else will do.”

That was the baggage England took with them into the game. And for a long time in this tournament it looked as if they would go home empty, just another England sports team, pumped and puffed by the home-based media, that failed to deliver. But they dealt with that too. They simply added it to the burden.

Against South Africa, Samoa and Wales, the games that mattered early on in this World Cup, England were flawed. Off the pace against the Boks, given the hurry up by Samoa, bewildered and bewitched by Wales, they were far from the best side in the competition. And still they laughed off the questions and the doubts and the knives which were being sharpened.

That was the baggage England took with them into the game. And in the match itself, the biggest, single most important match of their supposedly aging, waning careers, they fell behind to an early Australian try by wing Lote Tuqiri. Yet they regrouped. They fought back and they got to within 10 seconds of a result when Elton Flatley levelled the scores at 14-14.

That was the baggage within the game.

In extra time they nudged ahead. Martin Johnson was bustled out of a lineout, Jonny Wilkinson struck over another penalty to give them a three-point lead and with two minutes of extra time remaining Flatley replied to level the scores again.

That was the baggage within the game.

And yet this England side came through finally with only 24 seconds of the end of the second half of extra time left to fulfil a promise they made to themselves all those months ago. That is what makes their achievement great. That is the context.

Sport is littered with examples of sides slipping through on the blind side to win tournaments.

A coincidence that this England squad once had a chat from Sir Steven Redgrave before a Test' Neil Back, England’s flanker, remembers. “He told us that in the last minute of the race when he feels like dying,” Back said, “he knows that his opponents feel a lot worse because of the conditioning he’s put himself through. That’s how I felt out there tonight. That’s what it takes to win a World Cup.”

The Sunday Telegraph

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