LONDON, England -- Coach Brian Ashton is confident England can become the first nation to successfully defend rugby's World Cup when they face South Africa in Saturday's final at the Stade de France.
Coach Ashton is confident England can this week become the first nation to retain rugby's World Cup.
"I can't imagine this group of players would ever be satisfied just by getting to the final. They have come so far on a very difficult journey during the World Cup. They want to create history," said Ashton.
However, they must do it without wing Josh Lewsey, a winner four years ago, who suffered a hamstring injury in Saturday's dramatic 14-9 semifinal triumph against hosts France.
England were trounced 36-0 by the Springboks when the teams met in the pool phase four weeks ago -- but Ashton believes it was probably the best thing that could have happened!
The holders of the Webb Ellis Cup had slipped to 50-1 outsiders and were being labelled the "feeblest reigning world champions in history."
Since that day, Jonny Wilkinson has returned to the side at fly-half and formed an effective combination with Mike Catt -- he is expected to shrug off a groin problem -- while the likes of Simon Shaw and Andrew Sheridan have been inspirational up front.
"That South Africa match came at the right time. It gave us a massive wake-up call and so far, that was the defining moment of the tournament for me," said Ashton.
"Since then we have won four games on the bounce and hopefully we will make it five next week."
He added: "If you had asked me the question five weeks ago -- are you going to get to the World Cup final? -- I would have had to think deep and hard before I said yes.
"Now they are in the position they are in, it wouldn't surprise me if they completed the job."
The 61-year-old Ashton, whose own reward will come in the shape of a new contract, plays down his part in England's revival that also includes a quarterfinal victory over Australia.
He trusts his men implicitly and when the semifinal reached its climax on Saturday night, with England trailing by one point, he knew France could not match them.
England worked the territory and presented Wilkinson with the chance to land a penalty and a drop-goal in the last six minutes to win the game.
"We've got the players who know how to win a game," said Ashton. "We have got the armoury within the side to get us in positions where we know we can win it. I think that was the big advantage we had over the French team.
"This squad was specifically selected to defend the World Cup and that is exactly what they are doing.
"I give the responsibility to players. When they go on the pitch it is their game."
Lewsey's absence was put into context by England back-row Lawrence Dallaglio, his captain at English clubs Wasps.
"He's played in one World Cup final and I'm sure he was looking forward to playing in another. The loss of Josh will be unfortunate for him and the team," Dallaglio told reporters at the England hotel.
"He did set the tone for the game at the weekend with a great opening try and put the pressure on France for the rest of the match.
"But one man's disappointment will be an opportunity for someone else. World Cups are not won by one person, they are won by a squad," he added. E-mail to a friend
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