On a day of confused emotions, sport was kept free of politics

Ian Wooldridge

Last updated at 00:00 17 February 2003

THE whimsical decision by Mr Paul Honiss, the New Zealand referee, to tack rather more than 12 minutes' injury-time on to Twickenham's second half gave us space to reflect on a day of confused emotions.

First and all-pervading was the reminder of sport's insignificance when suddenly and shockingly intruded by genuine tragedy, for the death of Nick Duncombe, aged 21, on the eve of the match was no less.

With two England caps behind him and almost certainly a glittering future ahead, this vibrant, extrovert young man revealed his burgeoning talents as a kid in the Daily Mail Schools' Rugby tournament and returned, virtually as a Daily Mail Old Boy, to infect his successors with his encouragement and enthusiasm at last year's schools' finals at Twickenham. He personified all that was good in sport and we adored him.

Mercifully, neither sound nor movement desecrated the minute's absolute silence as the vast crowd, traditionally at its most excitable when England play France, stood in tribute. Equally mercifully, the recent innovation of greeting the teams with a blast of fireworks and a pall of smoke was abandoned, hopefully for ever.

Then came another testing moment: the playing of the national anthems. In view of the apparently strained relations between our two countries, would some chauvinist rosbif abuse the Marseillaise or would an indignant frog chirp through God Save The Queen? None did. For 80 minutes - well, considerably longer because of Mr Honiss's elastic timepiece - sport was free of politics.

SOMEHOW the mood of the entire afternoon was set by these admirably restrained preliminaries.

English fans, though buoyed by the three glorious autumn weeks which had seen the bully-boys of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa all defeated, were too historically acclimatised to assume the French would be pushovers.

They weren't, although at 25-7, almost entirely thanks to Jonny Wilkinson's infallible left boot and his marvellous drop goal, it was heading that way.

England's only resurrection of that autumnal dominance was restricted to the opening 15 minutes of the second half, after which the match degenerated into such a shambles of lost concentration, flying fists and refereeing indecision that Will Greenwood said: 'We were rubbish. We should've gone for the jugular and I don't know what happened.' This was a pretty harsh self-assessment after a 25-17 victory on an emotionally trying day, but nonetheless welcome evidence that an eventual and deserved victory was no grounds for the slightest complacency.

Equally acknowledging that England hadn't set Twickenham alight was their coach, Clive Woodward, who said: 'Our only objective was to win.' At the end of a doleful, even disgraceful, week of English international sport, here at least was one man whose salaried assignment is to produce results with strong discipline and without frills when necessary.

Compare that with England's soccer coach, Mr Eriksson, whose gibberish excuses for that abysmal surrender to Australia on the football field were compounded by the revelation that his first-half all- star team showered swiftly during the interval and sloped off to the bar or to be with their wives in executive suites.

Compare that with England's cricket coach, Mr Duncan Fletcher, whose dumb- ox presence at the World Cup abandoned his captain, Nasser Hussain, to cope single-handedly with one of the most serious crises ever to engulf an England cricket team abroad.

A satisfactory win, in short, but I fear, as usual, there has to be a sting in the tail. If the Rugby Football Union had introduced their own traffic congestion penalties around the Twickenham ground ahead of Mayor Livingstone's iniquitous scheme this morning, they would have raised enough money to transform their North car park from something resembling an equatorial swamp.

As I left at 7pm, the roads were still gridlocked like molten metal. And this, of course, on the outskirts of a city which has the absurd illusion that it can host a smooth, efficient Olympic Games.

i.wooldridge@dailymail.co.uk TWICKENHAM proudly paid its respects to Nick Duncombe (above left) on Saturday, following his tragic death at the age of 21, but the day was filled with emotions of many kinds, not just the elation of a 25-17 defeat of France. Jason Leonard, pictured limping off with a hamstring injury after 33 minutes, celebrated his 100th cap, but he admitted his joy was tempered by the demise of his Quins and England team-mate. Main picture: ANDY HOOPER