Rugby fans go for gold as World Cup fever grips Australia

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The Independent Online

England rugby fans draped a giant-sized England jersey across the steps of Australia's most famous building, the Sydney Opera House, yesterday in a cheeky gesture comparable with hoisting a huge inflatable kangaroo up the flagpole at Buckingham Palace.

The action, which provoked retaliatory cries of "Go Wallabies!" from a group of watching businessmen, was the latest salvo in a mostly good-natured war of attrition in the run-up to tomorrow's World Cup final.

Sydney, bursting at the seams with visitors, is gripped by excitement and anticipation not experienced since the 2000 Olympic Games. The match at the former Olympic stadium will be Australia's biggest event since Cathy Freeman, the Aboriginal sprinter, won the 400-metre final in Sydney.

The gold medallist, now retired, is among high-profile Australians voicing support for the Wallabies as they seek to retain the William Webb Ellis trophy and win the World Cup for the third time. She visited their training camp in Coffs Harbour, north of Sydney, this week to pose for pictures with the team.

It took Australians a while to warm up to the World Cup, thanks to lopsided group matches and low expectations of the home team. The indifference evaporated abruptly on Saturday when the Wallabies unexpectedly beat New Zealand. A day later, when it became clear that they would face England in the final, the country was seized by World Cup fever. The rugby gods could not have dreamt up a more fitting finale: the local heroes versus their old foes.

The men in green and gold will have the home advantage, but England supporters are expected to fill up to half the seats in the 83,500-capacity Telstra Stadium. The stakes are high for both sides. England is agonisingly close to winning its first major world championship since the football World Cup of 1966, while Australians regard it as a matter of national pride to defend their title and trounce the English.

The nation is pulling out all the stops to help the Wallabies. Visitors to an outdoor sculpture exhibition near Bondi Beach have deposited notes at a work that depicts the Virgin Mary, asking her to intercede on behalf of the Wallabies.

Three hours before kick-off, the unofficial national anthem, "Waltzing Matilda", will be played in unison on radio stations across the country. The iconic sails of the Opera House will be bathed in golden light - a step reportedly ordered after Australians complained that the white building matched the England team's kit.

Sixty members of England's Barmy Army marched on the Opera House yesterday, wrapped in white and red flags. They produced the giant jersey, measuring 18 metres from collar to hem, and signed by 35,000 fans, to the strains of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot".

Brian Richardson, 59, from Essex, said: "We're celebrating England's victory early. We're 105 per cent sure they're going to win." His wife, Val, added: "We've got Jonny Wilkinson, and the only way they can stop him is by kidnapping him."

The Wallabies may not have Wilkinson, but they have a fiercely partisan media that has been pouring scorn on the England team. The Daily Telegraph, a Sydney tabloid, published a Wilkinson "voodoo doll" yesterday for readers to cut out and stick pins in at crucial moments of the match.

One thing beyond the control of Australians is the weather, which is forecast to be cool and damp. Perfect conditions for the English.