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Premiership Rugby

Wilkinson boots England into Final

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

The game will not win any beauty pageants, but England demonstrated the versatility that has put them at the top of the Zurich World Rankings by reacting to the adverse weather conditions to eke out a controlled 10-man victory.

Their style of play may not win them any admirers in the purist camp, but it was exactly what was needed in this game, and it was France's inability to adapt to the conditions that washed away their World Cup dreams.

With the greasy conditions putting pay to any free-flowing hopes, the contest was reduced to a head to head between the two kickers; Wilkinson and Frédéric Michalak. In the end it as the English 'veteran' who saw off the French prodigy by kicking all 24 of his team's kicks, including three drop-goals.

Michalak, who came into the game with over 100 points in this tournament, was tipped by many to oust Wilkinson from his exalted plain – but the Frenchman clearly missed the dry ball and could not tune in his weather satellite. He was duly replaced with just under 20 minutes to go after adding only one score – a conversion to flanker Serge Betsen's try.

Given the huge stakes of this game, both sides looking nervous in the opening exchanges.

France were clearly not enjoying the rain, and if it was England's plan to unsettle them in the tight it worked, and the early stages were peppered with some bad-tempered exchanges.

For all their inspirational back play it was France's scrum that destroyed Scotland and Ireland, but England were up to the challenge and had the upper-hand. Their domination in the tight hurt France and had a knock-on effect through the spine of their team – for once in this tournament they looked far from cool and collected.

As the English pressure grew, so did French mistakes, and a deep kick drew an awful knock-on from France wing Aurélien Rougerie. The scrum put Wilkinson in a decent position for a drop-goal and England's fans erupted in joy as he opened the scoring with less 10 minutes played.

But France replied immediately after Betsen collected a loose ball from the back of a line-out and crashed over the England line. A late dive by ever-present Richard Hill looked like it prevented the try but the video ref was of a different opinion and France had the lead.

Michalak stepped up and scored a wonderful conversion form the touch-line, but it was to be his first and last entry in the day's score book.

Betsen's try focused France and they looked sharp as their industrious back row hassled England's midfield out of space and time.

But England got off the hook as Michalak missed two penalty attempts, and the game descended into a slug-fest marooned between the two 10-metre lines as the sides tried to make sense of the conditions that were getting worse by the minute.

With the swirling winds and greasy ball reducing both team's line-out to a lottery, it was becoming clear this would be game that came down to kicks.

But even the surgical Wilkinson was having trouble with the conditions and he missed a penalty awarded to England after wing Christophe Dominici brought down Jason Robinson with a blatant trip.

The electric French wing could have made a difference to this game, but he was shown a yellow card for his efforts. To make matters worse, he injured himself in the process of fouling Robinson and never returned to the game.

As the rain grew heavier England's control grew stronger, and soon the bullocking forwards had their fly-half in a position to kick an easy penalty which he soon followed up with another drop-goal to snatch back the lead.

England had found their water-wings, and Wilkinson put over another penalty from the limit of his range at the stroke of half-time to give England hope for the second half.

England began the second period in the same limited but hugely effective style – but when a Wilkinson penalty was blown off course, France sensed it was time to get out of jail.

Les Bleus looked to inject a little free-running into the proceeding and were immediately awarded a penalty. When Michalak misses again one could sense France didn't no where to turn and a series of uncharacteristic errors crept into their game – including a poor knock-on from the normally unflappable Olivier Magne.

Magne's outstanding partner Betsen was soon shown a yellow card for a late tackle on Wilkinson, but the England fly-half responded to the heavy challenge by getting to his feet and slotting the penalty to put daylight between the sides.

Those three points hurt France, and England took full advantage of their overlap and went about crushing up through the fringes.

France defending stoutly and at no time did England look like finding a gap for the try, but with centimetres of space to work in Wilkinson coiled his boot around the ball from the back of a ruck to score his third drop-goal to put England even further ahead.

When Wilkinson slotted yet another penalty after Michalak's fifth attempt fell short, French coach Bernard Laporte pronounced the battle of the fly-halves officially dead by bringing on Gérald Merceron as the French fly-half's replacement.

Merceron had a brief to add some urgency to the French game and managed to get the gears going in the backs, but their intentions didn't suit the conditions and the game was up when Wilkinson stepped up to put away another penalty.

Les Bleus spent the last 15 minutes of the game pinned – nailed, rather – in their own 22 as England looked to score a try that would silence any residual doubters.

The try still hadn't come by the time referee Paddy O'Brien finally put France out of their misery by blowing for full-time, but England had shown what they are capable of – even when reduced to scraps.

Man of the match: Jonny Wilkinson had the boot, but it was the tireless work of his halfback partner Matt Dawson that kept England on the front foot with some fine sniping and good distribution. The fact that Dawson had such a fine platform to work off had a lot to do with the return of Richard Hill, who added the invisible touches that England had so sorely missed.

Moment of the match: He may have shuffled on for a minute early in the game as a blood replacement, but it was not until he came on for real in the 78th minute that Jason Leonard received the applause he deserved for becoming the most-capped rugby player ever – 112 not out. A fantastic achievement from a terrific competitor.

Villain of the match: Betsen may have knocked off a few years from Clive Woodward's life after he took out Wilkinson with a late tackle, but it is Christophe Dominici who limps away with the award after his blatant trip on Jason Robinson. The England wing had beaten the Frenchman on the inside and there was little he could do to save his pride save to stick out his leg. Poor form!

The scorers:

For England:Pens: Wilkinson 5DGs: Wilkinson 3

For France:Try: BetsenCon: Michalak

The teams:

England: 15 Josh Lewsey, 14 Jason Robinson, 13 Will Greenwood, 12 Mike Catt (Mike Tindall, 68), 11 Ben Cohen, 10 Jonny Wilkinson (vice-captain), 9 Matt Dawson (Kyran Bracken, 40-41, 69), 8 Lawrence Dallaglio, 7 Neil Back, 6 Richard Hill (Lewis Moody, 73), 5 Ben Kay, 4 Martin Johnson (captain), 3 Phil Vickery (Jason Leonard, 3-5), 2 Steve Thompson (Dorian West, 78), 1 Trevor Woodman (Jason Leonard, 78).Not used: 18 Martin Corry, 22 Iain Balshaw.

France: 15 Nicolas Brusque, 14 Aurélien Rougerie, 13 Tony Marsh, 12 Yannick Jauzion, 11 Christophe Dominici (Clément Poitrenaud, 33), 10 Frédéric Michalak (Gérald Merceron, 63), 9 Fabien Galthié (captain), 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Olivier Magne, 6 Serge Betsen (Christian Labit, 63), 5 Jérôme Thion, 4 Fabien Pelous, 3 Sylvain Marconnet, 2 Raphael Ibanez, 1 Jean-Jacques Crenca (Olivier Milloud, 61).Not used: 16 Yannick Bru, 18 David Auradou, 21 Damien Traille.

Yellow card(s): Christophe Dominici (France, 23), Serge Betsen (France, 52).

By Andy Jackson


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