England on verge of a miracle
6:29am Saturday 20th October 2007 in Sport
World Cup underdogs England are ready to complete one of sport's greatest comebacks, with captain Phil Vickery declaring: "We thoroughly deserve our chance to be here.''
Just five weeks after South Africa - their opponents in tonight's final at Stade de France - smashed them in record-breaking 36-0 fashion, England are remarkably one win away from glory.
By Vickery's own admission, England were "staring down the barrel" after that Springboks debacle, but successive victories over Samoa, Tonga, Australia and France mean they are on course to retain the Webb Ellis Trophy.
It would be an achievement without equal in world rugby, and possibly even eclipse the heroics of Martin Johnson and company four years ago.
Vickery said: "Four weeks ago, we were staring down the barrel of a gun and on the way home.
"But we are in a World Cup final, and we've achieved a lot of things to get here.
"We thoroughly deserve our chance to be here, but being here is not good enough - we want to retain our trophy.
"I don't think the guys need much motivation. There are huge amounts of expectation.
"The challenge is for us to up our performance on the biggest stage in world rugby, which is not an easy feat to achieve."
England have defied overwhelming odds to secure another appointment with the Springboks, and more than 50,000 red rose fans are expected to flood the French capital - many of them without tickets.
The mere possibility of England contesting another World Cup final was dismissed as pure fantasy in the aftermath of South Africa's embarrassingly easy stroll.
Vickery and company though, through a stirring combination of sheer cussedness, determination and no little skill, have proved everyone wrong.
He added: "We all trust each other implicitly within the side, and we need to produce a performance that will compete with South Africa.
"It's great we are here in the final. It's not by luck, we have deserved to be here, and credit to everyone involved.
"Playing for your country is always a huge honour. I have been lucky enough to be part of some fantastic occasions, but I don't want to go back home without that cup.
"We are very close, and we want to achieve it now. I am sure there will be some pretty crazy things going on (back home), but let's win a game of rugby and do ourselves and our country proud.
"Five weeks ago, we were beaten by a far better side. There was a lot of hurt felt by the players, but we didn't perform.
"The challenge is there for us all tomorrow."
Despite coming under fire himself following the Springboks loss, England head coach Brian Ashton never lost faith in a squad whose experience has shone through in adversity.
And the return of fly-half talisman Jonny Wilkinson - 61 points in the last four games after he started the tournament on crutches due to a training injury - has also proved critical.
Ashton said: "Looking back, we were far too complacent in our approach to playing America in the opening game, and then against South Africa we were outplayed.
"It is a massive challenge, and one we are well aware of.
"Obviously, you like to dominate every area of the game, but the opposition gets better and better as you get to a World Cup final.
"I understand what a momentous occasion a World Cup final is in any sport, and the fact we are here is probably a massive surprise to everyone around the world, apart from the guys who are here.
"Every player in the squad has been important, and as the games get bigger and bigger you look to the experienced players on the field to step forward.
"They know how to handle it, and they've been there before.
"It is gratifying to have the experience there. These guys have proved over the last two weeks they can control their emotions when it counts.
"If you want to win a tournament of this nature playing against the best sides in the world in hostile environments, then you are probably far better off with experienced people in the squad than without them.
"We've had four cup finals in the past four weeks. At any stage, we could have been on the way home."
Despite England's astonishing resurgence, they again find themselves in a familiar position tomorrow - that of underdogs.
Quarter-final opponents Australia could not handle England up-front, while semi-final rivals France proved tactically bankrupt when the pressure came on.
South Africa though, have the power game to compete with England in every facet - lineout, breakdown and scrum - while wing Bryan Habana is unquestionably world rugby's finest finisher.
If England can stay in touch entering the final quarter, then they have every chance of completing another stunning triumph, but the Springboks look unstoppable - even for Vickery's heroes.