Hope and Glory

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Amodel's face, handsome and boyish, masks the ardor of a poet. Perhaps no one in the world kicks a football better than Jonny Wilkinson - and no one makes the experience look more draining. At the top of his approach his peculiar technique unfurls: he lowers his body as though resting on an imaginary stool, then clasps his hands in front of him to center his energy and block out the din of the crowd. As his face contorts in concentration, in his mind still stranger things are happening. Sometimes he pictures a woman called Doris sitting in the stand behind the goalposts, holding a can of drink; he imagines sending the ball soaring toward her, knocking the drink from her hands. Wilkinson had honed his kicking skills for hours, every day, for four years. And on Nov. 22 in Sydney, his dedication helped give his country its greatest sporting triumph in nearly 40 years.

For that, England will love him forever. "He's going to need a few minders when we get home," coach Clive Woodward said after the nerve-jangling final, which Wilkinson sealed with a field goal in the last gasps of extra time. Is any emotion more exquisite than profound relief? More than the vanquished Wallabies, England had much to lose at the Cup. Theirs is a fine team - composed, versatile and superbly drilled - that arrived in Australia having barely lost a match in four years. Most people thought they'd win. And yet... they were England, land of the teams (cricket, soccer, rugby league) that falter when it counts. Led by intense men - Wilkinson, captain Martin Johnson and Woodward, who seemed to be loading more pressure on his squad with his gentle baiting of opposition sides - they looked shaky until their final two games. Even on Saturday night, some strange force seemed to be working against them: they were clearly the better team, yet needed 100 min. to prove it. "If we'd managed to lose it," said Johnson, "I have no idea what we'd have done with ourselves."

As it happened, they not only won (20-17) but scotched some misconceptions in the process. Condemned by many for playing a boring style of rugby, England in the final were more adventurous and penetrative than their supposedly bolder rival. And their forwards - dubbed "Dad's Army" - were still surging at the end. Australian coach Eddie Jones noted that England had the best scrum and lineout in the game, and that it was up to other countries to catch them in those areas and find another in which to grab an advantage. "England should be lauded as the best team in the world," Jones said. "They play to their strengths . . . they do what they have to do to achieve their victories."

In the spirit of goodwill that blossomed during the tournament, few Australians begrudged England their win, their first in any world cup since their 1966 success in soccer's premier event. Causing more sadness than the Wallabies' loss was the knowledge that the 48-Test, 10-city party was over. The question is not whether this was the best Cup - by almost any measure, it was - but whether future ones have a hope of surpassing it. After a tournament where close to 2 million tickets were sold, where tens of thousands of people at a time turned out in non-rugby cities to watch - and celebrate - unappealing games and where television ratings records were smashed, the sport's guardians must be wondering whether RWC '03 will be the game's apogee. "This tournament has raised the bar - considerably," says Syd Millar, chairman of the International Rugby Board.

While the Cup's grown bigger at each instalment, the guardians will know that everything fell into place this time. For sports-loving Australians, the event was a chance to resume the fun of Sydney 2000 with 40,000 good-natured visitors. And as sole hosts, Australians accepted with alacrity the task of making it work. To the puzzlement of some observers, the one-country model isn't about to become mandatory. France have the '07 Cup, but Britain and Ireland will host some matches. "It's madness," says former Scottish international Gavin Hastings. "It would be tragic if we don't learn from the success of this tournament and leave it all in one place."

As many have realized during the past six weeks, rugby isn't so intrinsically captivating that it can afford to take its audience for granted. At its best, the game sweeps and flows. But stripped of their grand context, most of the pool matches were error-riddled tests of patience in which no player was as conspicuous as the referee. Where the anthems promised fire, each shrill of the whistle was a pail of water. The breakdown - the point at which the ball carrier is tackled and a contest for possession ensues - is a shambles where the referee can empty his lungs for any one of 40 reasons. "We've created a whole new wave of fans," says Hastings, "and somehow we have to keep stimulating their interest."

That will be hard for as long as a good chunk of most matches is taken up watching a pair of sharpshooters lining up kicks at goal. Many Australians who attended their first rugby match at this Cup remarked that they enjoyed the occasion more than they did the game. The laws need "more than just tinkering with," says the IRB's Millar; but an overhaul would be misguided. It would be easy, he says, for the IRB to sit down with a marketing whiz and design a game in which all of rugby's boring bits were excised. "But if you remove the contest for the ball you're not playing rugby anymore," he says. "You'll take out the little guys and the tall guys, and you'll end up with all six-foot, 15-stone guys running around the field. And what game is that? We've got our own game. It's a far more varied game than rugby league."