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Premiership Rugby

Forget the style, it’s all about winning

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

After a week in which the international media corps had behaved towards Les Bleus like love-struck teenagers pining after some unattainable nymphette – the main French press conference in Bondi Beach more like a 1960s southern Californian love-in than a normal run-of-the-mill 'meet the team' day – it was a night that reminded you of what rugby is really about, the final score.

On several occasions in the build-up to the semi-final, when journalists had asked him how he expected his fairly stolid team to stand up to the brilliance of the French team, England coach Clive Woodward had talked about the fact that there are no awards dished out for style in Rugby Union and that putting more points on the scoreboard than your opponent was all that mattered – and so it proved on a night when all 24 of England's points came from the boot of Jonny Wilkinson.

The result – along with Australia's semi-final win over New Zealand- vindicated utterly Woodward's thesis that playing flowing, attractive rugby will earn you rave reviews from the press (most of whom are rugby romantics), but if you cannot translate that style to winning rugby you have got your priorities wrong.

Following the French match – England were once again outscored in the try-count, as they were against Wales – Woodward was utterly unapologetic about the style of rugby that his side played, dismissing questions about whether the wet conditions at the Telstra Stadium had favoured his team over the traditionally free-running French.

"The conditions are the conditions. You've got to win the game – it's all about winning," said the England coach.

"I think we would have beaten France in the wet or dry. I've been in Martin's [Johnson's] company for many years now and it is about winning the game and then moving on."

Indeed, Johnson echoed Woodward's sentiments about England taking a pragmatic approach to each game, pointing out what he believed was totally unfair criticism of England following their win over Wales in Brisbane a week ago and expressing his delight about being just one match away from lifting the Webb Ellis trophy.

"It's a World Cup semi-final – either team will take a one-point or three-point win," said Johnson. "It was a fantastic win as it was a difficult week. We win a World Cup quarter-final and we get criticised but that's the world we live in, that's fine."

Johnson was also quick to point out the contribution of underfire Wilkinson to the victory, despite the fly-half having been compared unfavourably to his opposite number Frédéric Michalak several times during the preceding week.

In the end, it was Wilkinson who was the match-winner with Michalak shambling off the pitch late in the second half after a nightmarish time at No.10, to be replaced by Gérald Merceron.

"Jonny controlled the game brilliantly, his kicking was fantastic and he kept us ticking over in a close game, so I don't know what more you could ask for," said the England skipper. "A lot of stick came his way this week, totally unwarranted in my view, but there you go."

Of course, Wilkinson was allowed to flourish by the platform provided by the pack. England's game was based squarely on their forward efforts, the men up front roasting their counterparts, rocking them backwards with a series of magnificent drives to set up scoring positions for Wilkinson.

Described as "spectacular" by defeated French coach Bernard Laporte, the English forwards – spearheaded by the extraordinary efforts of Martin Johnson and Richard Hill – were the key to this victory, their sheer power up front and belligerence in every facet of their play disrupting the entire French gameplan from the outset.

"When it comes down to it it's quite a simple game," said Johnson. "When you win the ball, go forward with it and play a good kicking game – we edged those tonight and that's why we won the game."

Now the stage is set for a huge crunch game between England and host nations Australia and you can bet that Woodward and co. will not be throwing caution to the wind to go out and impress with flowing, attractive rugby.

They just want to win – a notion most Australians would be very familiar with.

By Justin O'Regan in Sydney

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