Will and I still reminisce about that November morning; the whole day in fact. Whenever it’s brought up, sometimes even if Jonny’s name is mentioned, he’ll declare, almost seeking out the sneers that inevitably come, ‘that was the best day of my life.’ We dragged ourselves up to our Church hall at silly-o’clock in the morning to watch it on a big screen, ate bacon sandwiches at half time, abused the referee after every blatant pro-Aussie decision and, of course, cheered and hugged and danced and sang as George Gregan stretched to block the kick that was never going to end up anywhere else.
We were inspired. And four years later we’re feeling the same. I’m standing in the Rose and Crown and we’re singing and jumping all over again. From the moment Josh Lewsey appeared at the side of the close-up and flattened the French full-back, the only try of the night, there was a sense that we might just make it. I read somewhere that Mike Catt grabbed our number 10 in the dressing room before kick off and said, ‘This is Jonny Wilkinson time.’ And oh how it was. I don’t think anyone had seen him kick a sweeter drop goal. Gomersall to Wilkinson. The familiar pause. The three points. A place in the final.
But this moment had serious ramifications. What had seemed like an idle threat two weeks ago had become a reality. Jokingly, we had declared that if, somehow, England made the final we’d rent a minibus, all climb inside and try and accost a couple of disappointed Kiwis for their final tickets somewhere outside Calais. We laughed; it wasn’t going to happen. But two genuinely heroic performances later and Dave’s booked a ferry, we’ve filled my 1 litre Corsa with enough sausage rolls and scotch eggs to last a weekend and we’re on our way to Paris. Literally everyone on board is there for the rugby and the tension mounts as we edge ever closer. It sounds strange, and maybe even a tad melodramatic, but there’s something about sport, especially international sport, that resonates within you. No longer did it feel like we were popping over the channel to lend our support to some far off professionals, yet that in some way, we were taking part. Turning up, our boys having just beaten the French, in their own tournament, in their own backyard, you couldn’t help but feel the whole experience just mattered. Perhaps that was behind Mike and Euan’s decision to start drinking at 8 in the morning, but then again probably not.
Four hundred miles later, a scuffle with a security guard in Carrefour aside (Mike fumbles a crate of beer, thus smashing the entirety on the floor), covered in face paint, flags in hand, we arrived at the Eiffel tower. The thousands of England fans stood together, screamed out the anthem, and prepared to see the underdogs come through, the journey completed.
But we didn’t. Cueto goes over, we see it from every angle, and with the absence of English commentary, every angle seems to makes sense. It’s gutting, absolutely gutting. All this chat about reaching the final being an achievement is all well and good, but you won’t hear it from me, it was there, it was achievable. Without a doubt, if that try was given, it’s a different story. From that point on, you back England to last the eighty or bring out something special. The whistle blows and there is no repeat celebration, bottles are hurled and the screen goes blank. Only those in green are still singing.
By now, the pubs across England are emptying, televisions are being turned off and people are going to bed. Beside the Eiffel tower, sleep doesn’t come quite so easily. Across the grass and in between crowds, rugby matches of fans’ own creation are appearing. Amid the genuine ache of defeat, there’s a chance to work out our disappointment; in fifty man rucks, in arrogant drop goals aimed into the night. Matt gets picked up in a line-out (but still manages to drop it) and Mike absolutely nails some Frenchman, who by the looks of it, has just turned up for a fight. For me it’s made all the better that he’s still wearing his England flag as a cape. Shakespeare would have been proud. All night, moments like that made the overnight stay in a multi-story car park and the long drive through empty Parisian streets and pitch-black country roads worthwhile. Sure, the boys may have done us proud, as one bloke attempted to console Matt on the Metro journey, but nothing could quite shake off the lingering feeling of what might have been.
By Andy Straiton