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Last Updated: Monday, 17 November, 2003, 06:09 GMT
Back-row legends confirm status
England's Neil Back leaves Yannick Jauzion and Imanol Harinordoquy
Neil Back leaves the younger Imanol Harinordoquy in his wake
France's back row will not need reminding of the saying class is permanent and form is temporary.

Olivier Magne, Serge Betsen and Imanol Harinordoquy came into the semi-final against England lauded for their World Cup displays, but left battered, bruised and beaten.

It was England's back row of Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio which left Sydney with the spoils - a 24-7 win and a World Cup final spot.

Hill's return from injury meant the best back rows in world rugby went head-to-head in the semi-final.

It was the first time all six had started a match between the fiercest of European enemies and it promised to be a titanic tussle.

But by the final whistle of a match played out in torrential conditions, the French trio had sunk without trace.

England coach Clive Woodward was never in doubt his ageing stars would win the back-row battle and retain their title as the best in the business.

ENGLAND'S BACK-ROW
Neil Back
Debut: 5.2.94 - 65 caps
Richard Hill
Debut: 1.2.97 - 62 caps
Lawrence Dallaglio
Debut: 18.11.95 - 64 caps
35 matches together
Won: 27 - Lost: 7
77.1% win ratio
Last loss: 17.6.00 v Sth Africa
"To see Hill, Dallaglio and Back against the French back-row is going to be one hell of a clash - but I know who my money is on," he had said before the match.

Woodward described the French as falling apart, and nowhere was that more obvious than in the back row.

By the final whistle, with the French knock-on and penalty count rising, Magne and Harinordoquy were forlorn figures in the rain.

Betsen had long since left the action, repeated infringements and a late tackle on Jonny Wilkinson resulting in a yellow card. He never returned from the sin bin.

It had all started so differently, especially for the Cameroon-born flanker. He scored the only try of the match to give France a deserved early lead.

Betsen burst from an attacking line-out, needing no second invitation to make the most of space that should have been covered by Hill.

The Englishman's sliding, smothering effort at holding up the ball on the line came to nothing and the soft score hinted at a hard night's work.

Hill's return to England colours had been labelled as crucial to his country's chances in a campaign they have largely stumbled through like a punch-drunk boxer.

And the back row represented a microcosm of their problems, overcoming injury and poor form just to reach the last four.

Having seen off the challenges from within the squad, most notably from Lewis Moody, they had to see off formidable French opponents.

FRANCE'S BACK-ROW
Olivier Magne
Debut: 15.2.97 - 71 caps
Serge Betsen
Debut: 22.3.97 - 36 caps
Imanol Harinordoquy
Debut: 16.2.02 - 23 caps
18 matches together
Won: 13 - Lost: 4
72.2% win ratio
Last loss: 16.11.03 v England
England's only two defeats in the last two years came against French teams that included Magne, Betsen and Harinordoquy.

The pre-match form suggested the Tricolore trio would make that three wins and 10 minutes in it looked as if Woodward's bankers would come out second best.

In heavy conditions that challenge would only get harder.

But they confounded the doubters and fell back on their wealth of experience - 191 caps and counting - to meet the challenge head on.

They did the basics with no fuss, kept the ball close and rumbled forward into areas from which Wilkinson could slot penalties.

And while Wilkinson prospered, opposite number Frederic Michalak was pressurised out of the game, Hill and Back his persecutors in chief.

Magne, Betsen and Harinordoquy had been spectacular throughout the tournament, but this was a day for solidity.

Long before the final whistle they had been played out of the game. England were spectacularly solid and Hill, Back and Dallaglio played the conditions to perfection.

Both back-row units came into the match with identical success rates, but the French left with lessons to learn from masters of their art.

Their time will come again, but England's is now.





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