England can beat All Blacks if they maintain self-belief

WORLD CUP COMMENT
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The Independent Online
After four years of blood, sweat, tears and toil, it comes to this. Australia played England in a thrilling rematch of the 1991 World Cup final yesterday. England won, we lost and they now progress to a semi- final clash with the All Blacks.

Such is life. Not that the result was ever going to be decided until the referee blew his whistle for full-time, such was the ferocious pace with which this pulsating game was played. It was a match worthy of a final. Although England had set the early running with a good counter- attacking try, I always thought the team had enough in reserve to match them. In fact, the further the game progressed, the more I began to believe we could ultimately win.

The scoreboard reflected that optimism at 22-22 with just five minutes to go. We had conceded an early lead, fought back well, and were playing with the sort of confidence, courage and forward momentum which I believe we could have sustained for the 20 minutes of extra time.

But it was not to be. Despite the courage with which the Wallabies had played to return from a 13-3 deficit, England proved themselves a team of champions by working play back down deep into Australian territory. They steadied, won clean ball and Rob Andrew calmly potted the field goal which sunk us and our desire to be the first team to win the World Cup and retain it in successive tournaments.

I think England's great strength yesterday was their ability to stick to the game plan. They gave the ball plenty of air with judicious downfield kicking throughout and then consolidated their position. They played superb rugby for the opening 20 minutes which set the Wallabies on the back foot and they showed the mark of a good team by being able to translate this early pressure into valuable points.

The secret to this English team's success is best summed up in one word: control.

Our loss was based on a chronic inability to stick to our game plan at the critical moments when we needed it most. We also once again too often failed to find touch with our line-kicks and this cost us dearly. There is no point in securing possession in rugby at this level without returning it to the opposition with interest.

As far as individuals go, John Eales was easily the best player from either side out there. He would have to be the first man picked for any World XV based on his World Cup, with Andrew not far behind in the fly- half position.

That accounts for the physical contest. Sport at this level is also a cerebral pursuit, where the mind will influence the result as surely as the body. Where do England go from here?

They have one week to regroup and prepare for New Zealand. Psychologically they can draw heart from the way they stuck to their task yesterday and refused to be cowed into submission. They never panicked and always seemed to have something extra up their sleeve ready for when they needed it. This is an asset they will have to take in against an All Black side which is looking ominously composed.

Still, the distractions will abound for Carling and Co, as will the temptation to be satisfied with their last game rather than look forward to the next. They can beat New Zealand if they remember that they have a good forward platform, great finishing wingers and a kicker who can save any match.

Such are the essential building blocks which a team must utilise if it is to aspire to world champion status. Only self-doubt from here on in will be their undoing and the tournament as a whole looks wide open. No nation has the look of invincibility about it - yet. As for Australia, I think the position we are in now resembles that of the All Blacks in 1991. Going into that World Cup series they also held the Bledisloe Cup and had lost just two of 21 matches preceeding the tournament. They consequently played just below their best form, but it was enough to let a team like Australia pass them.

I suppose the same can be said of Australia yesterday. Although the game was so incredibly close, it really could have gone either way, only one team was ultimately going to win. Regrettably, this time we were the losers.

Now it is back to the drawing-board to begin planning for Wales and the 1999 World Cup. An era of Australian rugby supremacy has passed and I personally would like to have input into starting the next.

Interview: Simon Kent

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