Rugby Union: A day that means the world

Steve Bale looks ahead to 'the most important game in rugby's history'
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The Independent Online
If Jonah Lomu doesn't get you, someone else will. When South Africa play New Zealand in this afternoon's World Cup final at Ellis Park, they will not be deluded by England's tendentious delusion that the god-fearing wing, who puts the fear of god into opponents, was the difference between Will Carling's team and the All Blacks.

We all know what happened to England - the semi-final defeat was followed by a degree of ignominy against France - so even the South Africans, who are still learning street wisdom three years after their readmission to the rugby world, can hardly be taken in.

As Laurie Mains, the New Zealand coach, is pleased to point out, three of Lomu's four tries against England could equally well have been scored by Jeff Wilson, the other All Black wing. And in any event Lomu has yet to betray any of the defensive weaknesses that England fondly imagined him to have.

Last Sunday the All Blacks played to Lomu. Today Mains anticipates minor adjustments, and could even keep the ball away from his midnight express, using him as a decoy in the knowledge that if there is one certainty it is that South Africa will have to pay this one man their undivided attention.

It would be good for rugby if the New Zealand strategy, however Mains adapts it, brings them the trophy and beyond the dedication and devotion expressed in the Springboks' slogan "one team, one country" there is no persuasive reason to suppose they will not.

To too high a degree the tournament has been pervaded by the essentially banal twin objectives of possession and position. Look at England: Carling spent the whole time telling us they had to get down there before they could play any rugby. And what then? Well, hope for penalties, of course.

The All Blacks have destroyed that shibboleth by their appreciation that there is nowhere from which it is impracticable to attack. The Springboks have played more in the England way but are here today because they have done it rather better.

Their prime objective this afternoon is to isolate Andrew Mehrtens, the New Zealand stand-off, and thereby keep the ball from Lomu. The All Blacks, by contrast, say it is their own pattern - or total rugby, as it is being called - they wish to impose on the game and never mind the South Africans.

What is more, unlike England when they talk this way, they really mean it. "You can't play any sort of rugby if the tight forwards don't do their job, so we never get away from the basics of hard work and technique," Mains conceded. "And because we are smaller than some of our opposition we have to have our technique better than theirs.

"The way we play, away from and not into our opponents' strength, is a positive not a negative. The overall structure of our game wouldn't change much between the England game and the final, but there are some things we will have to do differently. There are all sorts of forces working against us but we will attempt to be proactive."

This means sustaining the pressure for longer than against England and Scotland, high-scoring wins which left Mains troubled that a recurrence would cost New Zealand the final. The fact is that keeping up the pace for 80 minutes is asking the impossible - or it would be for any other side.

This, though, is the time more than any other to do it. Today's final - with South Africa not only in their own final but also in the World Cup for the first time - can fairly be regarded as the most significant rugby union match in the history of the game, and from Francois Pienaar and Sean Fitzpatrick downwards the players can feel the weight of that history.

Fitzpatrick, a winner eight years ago, is the only survivor of the inaugural final still playing for New Zealand. But even after 67 caps he has never known anything like this: "It is undoubtedly the biggest match that I've ever been part of, the biggest moment of my career. In 1987 I was a little young and naive to appreciate what it all meant."

Put another way, it is a definitive moment in the history not just of the Springboks but, because President Nelson Mandela has deemed it so, of South Africa itself. Sticking to the rugby, Morne du Plessis, the South African manager, said: "There has never been a match of this magnitude in rugby folklore in this country.

"This will go down as a moment that changes the course of rugby history in this country. How much bigger can you get than that?" So South Africa is in party mood. But after 104 matches all over the globe contested by 51 countries, the 1995 World Cup is about to reach the end of a long, long road with the All Blacks as the party-poopers.


at Ellis Park, Johannesburg

A Joubert Natal 15 G Osborne North Harbour

J Small Natal 14 J Wilson Otago

J Mulder Transvaal 13 F Bunce North Harbour

H le Roux Transvaal 12 W Little North Harbour

C Williams Western Province 11 J Lomu Counties

J Stransky Western Province 10 A Mehrtens Canterbury

J van der Westhuizen N Transvaal 9 G Bachop Canterbury

P du Randt Orange Free State 1 C Dowd Auckland

C Rossouw Transvaal 2 S Fitzpatrick Auckland, capt

S Swart Transvaal 3 O Brown Auckland

J Wiese Transvaal 4 I Jones North Harbour

J Strydom Transvaal 5 R Brooke Auckland

F Pienaar Transvaal, capt 6 M Brewer Canterbury

M Andrews Natal 8 Z Brooke Auckland

R Kruger Northern Transvaal 7 J Kronfeld Otago

Referee: E Morrison (England). Kick-off: 2.0 (ITV)