Australia apologises: 'You were not too old or slow'

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The Independent Online

Australia woke up feeling fragile and a little chastened but full of goodwill towards the team that had prised the rugby World Cup from its tight embrace.

Overnight, the tide of Pom-bashing suddenly dried up, replaced by praise for England's performance and recognition of the thrilling rugby played at Saturday night's final. The hosts were also consoled to be told that they had staged the best World Cup ever, and that Sydney had once again put on a superlative party.

Apart from a couple of headlines - Sydney's tabloid Sunday Telegraph called Jonny Wilkinson "Jonny Rotten" and wailed "Jonny Ruins Our Dream" on its front page - media coverage of the match was balanced and restrained.

John Eales, who captained the Wallaby side that won the World Cup at Twickenham in 1999, told the Sun-Herald, another Sydney tabloid: "Quite frankly, if that's not the best game of rugby I have ever seen, I have never seen a game of rugby." Bob Dwyer, coach of the Wallaby side that beat England in the 1991 final, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph: "England thoroughly deserved their victory."

The Australian media had spent weeks caricaturing the England team as boring and elderly, reliant on Wilkinson's boot. Today's early edition of the Sydney Morning Herald happily eats humble pie. "Hear ye, hear ye," it states in a headline. "To England and its sports fans. Regarding your magnificent football team's 20-17 triumph. On behalf of all Australians, we would like to admit the following: You were not too old. You were not too slow. You scored as many tries as we did. You kicked no more penalty goals than we did. You ran the ball as much as we did. You entertained as much as we did." And so it goes on.

The commentators even paid tribute to Wilkinson. One wrote: "He can do much more than kick. Much more. Place kicks, 99th-minute drop kicks to win World Cups. He can do it all - and he can also tackle." Crowned world champions twice already, the Australians can afford to be gracious in defeat. But it is part of their sporting ethos to be good losers, not that they get much practice.

In central Sydney, where tens of thousands watched the match outdoors on big screens, the atmosphere was festive on Saturday. Opposing fans exchanged good-natured banter during the game. When Elton Flatley equalised at 14-14, one Sydneysider told a despairing England fan: "Don't worry, mate, it's only a game." When the final whistle blew, the Wallaby supporters sighed and then shook hands with their adversaries, clasping their shoulders and patting them on the back. "Enjoy it, we've had it twice," one Australian told a group of Englishmen who were bouncing ecstatically up and down near the Opera House.

For the Wallabies, whose cupboard is now bare - they had already surrendered the Tri-Nations trophy and Bledisloe Cup - there will no doubt be post-mortems and recriminations. But yesterday they were national heroes; the public wrote them off early on and was amazed that they even reached the final.

For Australia, the World Cup is expected to reap benefits long after the last fans leave. In New South Wales alone, it generated $350m (£148m) for the state's economy. Tourism officials hope the tournament may be a turning-point for an industry in a prolonged state of slump.