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Drop kick takes Jonny-come-lately near Beckham’s turf

London, Nov. 25: The acting Indian high commissioner in London, Satyabrata Pal, has congratulated England’s victorious rugby World Cup squad on behalf of the Indian government.

The victory, which has become the main talking point in England, has lifted the mood of an otherwise depressed nation and thrown up competition for poster-boy David Beckham, the footballer.

At a belated Diwali dinner hosted by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Pal said he had watched the game on television at his home in Hampstead, north London. “Afterwards, when I came out, all around me was silence,” said Pal.

“Had it been India, there would have been firecrackers everywhere.”

Firecrackers, said Pal, had been a British gift to India, with the first factories to manufacture them set up in Bengal.

India has not had a major world cup victory to celebrate since Kapil Dev’s side beat the West Indies at Lord’s in 1983. For England, the wait has been 37 years when Bobby Moore’s team made footballing history by beating Germany 4-2 at Wembley in 1966.

Firecrackers are simply not the British way but no one should be in any doubt that the English think once more that they rule the waves. “It’s too much,” remarked a group of sour Indian journalists at the Diwali dinner last night.

Early this morning, the England rugby side, which beat Australia 20-17 in the final in Sydney, flew into Heathrow. Although it was 4.35 in the morning, there were thousands of rapturous fans to greet the side which has given all England, even those who do not care much for rugby, a new sense of purpose.

Although Britain’s leading psychiatrist, Raj Persaud, argues it is unhealthy for individuals to link their personal state of mental well-being to national sporting achievement, there is no denying that the country is on a high.

Even President Jacques Chirac of France, who had talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday — the two have been at loggerheads over Iraq — complimented England on “your brilliant win”.

The immediate consequence of the victory is that England has a new sporting hero in 24-year-old Jonny Wilkinson, whose drop kick won the match for his country with just 26 seconds of extra-time remaining. Although he has said he intends to remain a normal human being, it is being predicted he will be named the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, honoured by the Queen and make as much as £20 million in sponsorship deals.

Wilkinson has already been named player of the year by the International Rugby Board. His own reaction was charmingly modest: “I want to continue being myself. I’m after a bit of peace and quiet. I want to get back now to be with my family, where I feel totally comfortable and totally myself.”

He added: “I’m overawed by the support — it’s hugely humbling and massively uplifting. The guys all appreciate that more than they can put into words.”

However, he will quickly discover his life is no longer his own for England has an icon to rival Beckham, the England soccer captain who has not so far won anything but who makes millions from advertising everything from T-shirts to mobile telephones and sunglasses.

Beckham has warned Wilkinson to expect a “crazy” life from now on. Beckham and Wilkinson have been friends since they shot an advert together.

Beckham, who was characteristically generous in heaping praise on Wilkinson, revealed that the two have had a chat about the pressures of being a star. “I think Jonny has inspired everyone around the country,” acknowledged Beckham. “The best thing was Jonny’s face when that kick went over.”

He said: “He’s on cloud nine and it hasn’t sunk in yet.”

Warning him of the burden of expectation, Beckham commented: “It can get too much and that’s where his family and those around him come in. He’s got a lot of strength there and he’s a very down-to-earth person. It’s nice to have a friend in a similar position and it’s going to be amazing for him.”

In 1966, Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, associated himself with England’s soccer triumph. It is assumed that Blair will hold a celebration reception at Downing Street for the victorious rugby team.

The Prime Minister, who watched the game at his country home at Chequers, has hailed the result as a “fantastic day for England”.

There are bound to be many spin-offs. The Centre for Economics and Business Research has predicted that the win could result in a £ 70 million boost from increased advertising, higher spending and bigger gates at rugby matches.

Rugby, everyone concedes, will never overtake soccer but the recent behaviour of many highly paid football players, some of whom have been accused of rape, has tarnished the game’s image.

Tony Banks, a Labour MP and a former sports minister, said it was good to have a sporting celebrity in Wilkinson who could rival Beckham as a role model and icon.

The England rugby coach, Clive Woodward, today summed up the national mood: “I’m certainly proud to be English.”

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