England's weekend of sporting glory?

SHAUN LOWTHORPE England is on the brink of a weekend of sporting glory today as the nation dares to dream the crowning of world champions in two sports.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

England is on the brink of a weekend of sporting glory today as the nation dares to dream the crowning of world champions in two sports.

All eyes will be focused on Paris this evening as the country's battling rugby heroes launch a final bid to retain the world cup against mighty South Africa.

Millions are set to be glued to their TVs willing the team to victory - and tens of thousands more fans in red and white will descend on the French capital despite disruption caused by strike action.

And, on Sunday, attention will shift to Brazil and Lewis Hamilton's bid to become the youngest driver to win the Formula One World Championship.

Supermarkets are braced for soaring sales of alcohol and snack food as fans stock up ahead of England's rugby final.

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Some said a national "feel-good factor" had pushed up demand for champagne and luxury foods such as lobster over the past week - and even plasma televisions have seen a 36pc sales upturn in the wake of England's semi-final success.

A fleet of buses, some liveried in the cross of St George, left London's Victoria coach station, and British Airways has also laid on extra flights to the French capital.

The one scheduled flight to Paris from Norwich International yesterday was full to capacity with St George's Cross-clad fans hoping to see England retain their coveted title in the world cup final.

England's rugby stars have been flooded with messages of high-level support ahead of the final.

The Queen penned a special good-luck message to be read to the squad before they go out against South Africa, and it was confirmed yesterday that Princes William and Harry will be cheering the team on in the stadium.

Coach Brian Ashton joked that he was now "on Christian name terms" with prime minister Gordon Brown after receiving two faxes of support, and said England's cricket and football teams had both sent messages.

James Bond actor Daniel Craig telephoned the coach in Paris to offer his best wishes to the team who bid to retain the Webb Ellis Cup, he revealed yesterday.

And the country's other sporting hope for this weekend, racing driver Lewis Hamilton, has given his backing.

In a special message to broadcast on ITV1 tonight he says: "I just want to say to you all - keep your heads down and stay focused as there's a lot of pressure on you but it's the same here for me in Brazil.

"But I know we can do it. I've got a lot of confidence in you. So get out there and do it for the country and do it for yourselves. Good luck.'

With the nation gripped by rugby fever Rugby for tonight's final, Brian Ashton's men are the inevitable underdogs in the tie after their 36-0 thrashing by the Springboks just a month ago.

South Africa remain the favourites to lift the trophy but England's recent run of form, felling Australia and France on the road to the final, have seen the odds slashed.

Ladbrokes was offering odds of 4/11 on the Springboks emerging victorious but the 2/1 on England to do so compares with odds as high as 80/1 earlier in the tournament.

Punters were also being offered bets on which dignitary would appear first on television - with Prince Harry at 2/1 and Gordon Brown at 4/1.

The firm is also offering 8/11 on Nelson Mandela doing so - despite the announcement on the website of the former president's foundation that he would not be able to attend.