A sporting event that changed a nation

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The Independent Online
STEVE BALE

If the World Cup can help build a nation - and that is the refrain we have heard throughout South Africa over the past momentous month - then it is truly a force for good. However grandiosely you pitch it, the coming-together of the people of this country has been remarkable to witness and wonderful to experience.

It is a beautiful thing to imagine that South Africa will never be the same again because 16 teams came and played with "the thing that is not round", as the Xhosa people call a rugby ball. And as far as rugby itself is concerned, there is nothing imagined about the certainty that it will never be the same again.

This is a familiar refrain that followed both the previous World Cups. The globalisation of rugby union may not have been reflected in the progress through this tournament of the less eminent rugby nations but the international game has had international exposure as never before and on the whole has been worthy of it.

Even if much of the rugby has been conservative and narrow-minded, with many more teams than England abiding by the supposedly irrefutable dictum that you play rugby only in the opposition 22, there has been a gut-wrenching tension to many of the matches - especially the final itself - which has made up in atmosphere for what may have been lacking in adventure.

That the Springboks ended up winning the Webb Ellis trophy, far from being preordained as Louis Luyt unpleasantly remarked, was a triumph of collective will reaching far beyond the members of the squad. It would, for instance, have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago for the Sowetan, South Africa's biggest-selling daily, to run such a front-page headline, all in capitals, as "ALL BLACKS WANT THE SPRINGBOKS TO WIN".

Come to think of it, it would have been unthinkable for the Sowetan to bother about rugby at all, let alone run it as its lead story, until Francois Pienaar and his team assumed the responsibility of taking themselves, and with them rugby, to all colours of the Rainbow Nation. They will be showered in tickertape when they parade through here on Thursday.

But the World Cup was the easy part, when profiles were high and rugby the winner without having to try that hard. "There is a cautionary note: no one in rugby should think because we're world champions we're all right," Edward Griffiths, chief executive of the South African Rugby Football Union, warned yesterday.

"We have a long way to go to become a truly national sport and a truly national sport doesn't have a team of 15 with 14 whites in it or have a stadium of 65,000 of whom 98 per cent are whites. This is the first step in a 100-mile journey, but the first step might just have been the hardest.

"Rugby is a game for dusty townships as well as green suburbs. Rugby is suddenly visible in the townships and now top rugby must be visible in the townships as well." To this end the first match of the All Blacks' tour here next year will take place in a township stadium.

"Rugby was separate and isolated from the vast majority of people in South Africa," Griffiths added. "There's an analogy of two people seeing each other across a crowded room: during this World Cup our eyes have met but there is still a whole courtship to go through and then maybe a marriage."

All of which makes the problems of British Isles rugby decidedly downbeat. Broadly speaking, the World Cup has simply confirmed what we knew: that England are significantly better than any of the other home countries, that Wales are grossly but deservedly under-achieving, that Ireland cannot survive on spirit alone, and that on this sort of stage Scotland are the one side who can be relied on not to under-achieve.

It is a gloomy outlook. By organising themselves as they did last week when they signed up for pounds 370m of Rupert Murdoch's money, the three big southern-hemisphere unions are taking both international and representative rugby on to a different plane, so much higher in fact that it makes the move towards a European club competition appear pathetically inadequate.

The Five Nations intend ensuring regular fixtures with Italy swiftly culminating in the formal expansion of the present championship but with the best will in the world this is unlikely to do more than increase the commitment players have to make to the game and do little to maintain playing standards, never mind close a widening gap.

With England, who after all were among the favourites for this tournament, you could almost say we have been duped. During all this time when they have been talking a good game, how many times have they produced one? Canada and France last season, Australia in the World Cup quarter-final - though that was a triumph of the will rather than of the new dynamism of which we have heard so much.

The cheerless reality is that with the exception of the Western Samoa match, when England were at their freest and easiest and coincidentally had Mike Catt as their outside-half, the back division almost ceased to function as a first-up attacking unit. Rob Andrew for the most part reverted to doing what he used to do, sitting back in the pocket like a gridiron quarter-back, and so never committing any defenders.

This is a problem Jack Rowell, as coach, will have to address and, though he has pledged loyalty to the group of vastly experienced players who have seen England through some successful times, he is bound to be looking at the next generation. If only it existed, that is.

Much has been made of the structures now in place in English rugby to ensure a flow of talent but Rowell is concerned that in fact the flow is more restricted than Twickenham may have realised. In other words, if he wanted to replace Andrew and Brian Moore, for instance, where are the players for him to introduce in their stead?

This makes John Elliott's post-World Cup departure from the England management to become the RFU's player-development officer a more critical appointment than could conceivably have been imagined.

n Jonah Lomu, the outstanding All Black winger who has been the subject of offers from rugby league, said yesterday that he wanted to stay in rugby union. "Money talks for some people but not for me," he said. "All I want to do is stay an All Black."

10 World Cup winners

Francois Pienaar, a statesman of rugby.

Nelson Mandela, a statesman.

15-man rugby, as played by New Zealand but no one else.

Chester Williams, for being a role model.

South African hotels, for making a killing.

Sean Fitzpatrick, for magnanimity in defeat.

Michael Lynagh, ditto.

Sanza, for persuading Rupert Murdoch to part with $550m.

Jonah Lomu, a natural subject for hype.

10 World Cup losers

Max Brito, whose injuries make the World Cup pale into insignificance.

The England team, for imagining they were better than they were.

Geoff Evans, for saying Wales were "fitter, faster, stronger" than the All Blacks.

Mike Hall, for saying the All Blacks were "there for the taking".

Louis Luyt, for twisting history.

Boet Erasmus, for lighting problems.

Durban weather, not what it was cracked up to be.

James Dalton, for doing what comes naturally once too often.

Ric Salizzo, for being the All Blacks' media liaison (aka prevention) officer.

David Campese, for finding his reputation in shreds.

Jonah Lomu, a natural victim of hype.

TEAMS OF THE TOURNAMENT

Steve Bale's team Tim Glover's team

A Joubert (South Africa) 15 A Joubert (South Africa)

E N'Tamack (France) 14 E N'Tamack (France)

J Little (Australia) 13 J Little (Australia)

W Little (New Zealand) 12 W Little (New Zealand)

J Lomu (New Zealand) 11 J Lomu (New Zealand)

A Mehrtens (New Zealand) 10 A Mehrtens (New Zealand)

J van der Westhuizen (S Africa) 9 J van der Westhuizen (S Africa)

P du Randt (South Africa) 1 F Mendez (Argentina)

S Fitzpatrick (New Zealand) 2 P Kearns (Australia)

P Noriega (Argentina) 3 C Califano (France)

J Eales (Australia) 4 J Eales (Australia)

I Jones (New Zealand) 5 M Andrews (South Africa)

A Benazzi (France) 6 F Pienaar (South Africa)

Z Brooke (New Zealand) 8 M Otai (Tonga)

L Cabannes (France) 7 R Kruger (South Africa)

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