Jonny Wilkinson landed the kicks when it counted, giving England a 14-9 win over France and a chance to win unprecedented back-to-back World Cup finals.
Wilkinson missed two place kicks and two dropped goals in a grinding match on Saturday at the Stade de France, but drove his penalty shot from 30m right through the middle in the 75th minute.
That put defending champions England ahead for the first time in almost an hour. Then he nailed a dropped goal from 40m three minutes later to increase the margin to five points, meaning France needed to score a try that never came.
The victory continued England's improbable rise at this tournament. The English were in danger of missing the knockout round after a 36-0 group stage loss to South Africa. That compounded a woeful recent record, including seven-straight defeats last year and a winless away record this season, and criticism was sharp.
"From the first few weeks the guys have dug deep," Wilkinson said. "They have done a lot of stuff on the run. The guys have learnt about each other very quickly under huge pressure."
"Raw guts and determination have saved us. The guys want to be in this tournament," he said.
Having Wilkinson back for the four matches since the South Africa game has changed the direction for England.
"People talk about his kicking but just having him in the team gives us confidence," England captain Phil Vickery said.
His kicking feats can look like the "same old thing," Vickery said, but it takes a team effort to put Wilkinson in position to kick penalties and drop goals.
"Then he duly steps up like he's having a stroll in the park on Sunday afternoon," Vickery said.
Wilkinson, who won the 2003 World Cup with an extra-time dropped goal in the final against Australia, fired a hurried right-foot attempt into the left upright in the 59th minute and it ricocheted 15m back upfield.
The French seemed to gain inspiration from the miss and started dominating possession.
A try loomed in the 68th minute when the French kicked high and wide and winger Vincent Clerc collected Julien Bonnaire's improvised push pass and charged for the line.
But replacement backrower Joe Worsley ankle tapped Clerc to slow him down and three England defenders then dragged Sebastien Chabal down 1m from the line to shut down France's best chance.
England will meet the winner of yesterday's semi-final between 1995 champions South Africa and Argentina in the Oct. 20 final. France go into the third-place match.
It was the second defeat at the Stade de France this tournament for France, following the upset 17-12 loss to Argentina in the opening match.
France captain Raphael Ibanez said England adapted better to the occasion.
"England did exactly what they had to do. We didn't have the tempo," he said. "We worked really hard after a bad start to the tournament. We believed in ourselves. We thought we could do it, be world champions. In the end, we couldn't."
England and France advanced to the semis on upsets, the French rallying from 13-0 down to shock Cup favorites New Zealand 20-18 in Cardiff and the English edging Australia 12-10 at Marseille on four Wilkinson penalties.
So the 28-year-old flyhalf sunk Australia and France on consecutive World Cup weekends, again.
Wilkinson did all the damage on the scoreboard in the last World Cup semi-final, landing five penalties and three dropped goals in the 24-7 win over France at Sydney four years ago.
France coach Bernard Laporte criticized his team for not mixing up the game enough when they fell behind, but praised England for being mentally strong.
"England showed it is a great rugby nation. We've lost two semi-finals to England now," he said. "In 2003, England was superior. I don't think they were this time, but we still didn't manage to change the outcome."
England is only the second team to make back-to-back World Cup finals; two-time champion Australia won in 1999 and lost the 2003 decider.
The Anglo-Gallic semi-final was expected to be tight and that is exactly what transpired -- with Josh Lewsey crossing in the second minute for the only try of the match.
Andy Gomarsall took a quick free kick from the first scrum and kicked into the left corner, where the bounce wrong-footed fullback Damien Traille and popped up perfectly for Lewsey on the fly.
France made efforts to spread the ball wide but both teams relied primarily on deep, driving kicks for field position.
The French led 6-5 at halftime on two penalties for 21-year-old flyhalf Lionel Beauxis in the 8th and 18th minutes -- the second a 48m shot after England loosehead Andrew Sheridan dragged down the scrum.
He kicked from 40m to give France a 9-5 lead four minutes after the break. But England replied almost immediately with Wilkinson landing a shot from wide on the left after Lewis Moody plucked down a French chip kick to spark an attacking phase that resulted in Matthew Tait getting within 5m of the tryline.
Laporte made two key changes after 50 minutes. He replaced Beauxis, who missed three dropped goal attempts, with the more experienced Frederic Michalak and skipper Raphael Ibanez with Dmitri Szarzewski at hooker.
It was Szarzewski who committed the blunder in front of his own posts with a high tackle on England fullback Jason Robinson leading to England's go-ahead penalty.
Robinson, playing his 50th Test, summed it up: "It wasn't a pretty game but we came up with a great win, a great win."
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