Rugby Union: Australia's crown lacking in jewels

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The Independent Online
CHIT-CHATS WITH royal personages are supposed to be kept private, but who would not have loved to earwig the exchange between the Queen and Macqueen as Australia's coach received his winner's medal from the sovereign's hand in Cardiff on Saturday evening?

"G'day," one can imagine Rod Macqueen saying to the woman who had just managed, that very afternoon, to retain her own title as his head of state. "So we both got a result, then."

Above the rim of the Millennium Stadium the rockets and roman candles screamed and crackled, multi-coloured starbursts illuminating the darkening sky. Around the country, similar displays were commemorating the failure of an earlier, more informal attempt at constitutional change.

But Elizabeth's crown is safe, for now, and so is Macqueen's job. Elsewhere, heads are already rolling. John Hart has paid the price of failing to live up to the All Black legend. In France, Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux may survive, but only by virtue of their semi-final triumph. Clive Woodward is under pressure in England, but seems likely to benefit from the lack of hysteria attending his team's dismissal at the hands of a very ordinary Springbok side.

So did they get what they wanted, the organisers of the 1999 Rugby World Cup? Did they preside over a tournament which spread the message of the game to a broader audience? Did they see it end in a blaze of glory, in a showpiece of irresistible drama and beauty?

The truth is that the tournament got the final it deserved, a match of intense effort but prosaic virtues and, in the end, pleasing only to the winners. Australia deserved their victory over France by 35 points to 12, but their success, which made them the first country to win the William Webb Ellis Trophy twice, will have produced few converts to the 15-man game.

The fourth Rugby World Cup was won by a businesslike but colourless team which performed its tasks with the sort of skill, efficiency and determination that would delight any coach. Yet the Wallabies lifted few hearts, except those of their own supporters, and will have left few memories. George Gregan's tireless feeding and Matt Burke's solid place-kicking were the dominant features of their performance on Saturday, although the first of their two tries, scored by Ben Tune after 65 minutes, was worthy of a more distinguished match, having its origin in one of Tim Horan's breaks and coming to a climax with a move involving Gregan, Horan and Owen Finegan which represented a copybook example of continuity and resolution. Finegan's own try, five minutes into injury time, was little more than a stroll through exhausted and dispirited opponents.

Would the outcome have been any different had Andre Watson not blown for a knock-on after a quarter of an hour? The score stood at six-all when Olivier Magne tipped Christophe Lamaison's diagonal kick to Abdelatif Benazzi, who plunged across the line to ground the ball. Watson's decision was correct, however, and France were never able to cross the line again.

Those who were sceptical of France's ability to repeat their form of the previous Sunday were proved correct. There was no real sign of the spark that would have ignited the tinderbox. The grubber kicks that had bounced up into French hands the previous Sunday now tantalisingly rolled out of reach. Persistent infringements and slightly pedantic refereeing created a staccato rhythm that discouraged fantasy. Nevertheless Australia must be given credit for the smothering depth of their defence, which never allowed the French backs the opportunity for the swift incisions that had mortally wounded New Zealand. The winners' other salient characteristic was the pitiless rhythm of Burke's right boot, piling up the points to keep the opposition at bay until the tries started to come in the last quarter.

Of all the competition's matches, France's display against New Zealand at Twickenham was the only one to catch the imagination of non-adherents. That was also the only day during the whole five weeks of the tournament on which I saw a couple of small boys taking a rugby ball to the park. Given the limited opportunities for schoolchildren to play the game, it is hard to imagine that this World Cup has done much to attract a new generation of players. For that, England must bear some of the blame, thanks to their coach's inability to create a platform for whatever flair his squad might possess. And Woodward's decision to leave Jonny Wilkinson out of the quarter-final simply handed his critics a sharpened blade.

But is rugby, in any case, a good enough game to bear the scrutiny of such a tournament? Good enough, that is, for the spectators. Football appears to have established a template against which many other sports aspire to measure themselves, in terms of appeal to the general public. Rugby is a great game for those who play it, and sometimes, too, for those who merely watch. But the rules are too complex and the action too confusing and occasionally - as in the case of lifting at lineouts - too absurd to make it consistently satisfying to the uninitiated. Many people who finally learnt the different between a ruck and a maul during the last few weeks will have forgotten again by the time the Six Nations contest comes around in January.

Once upon a time, this would not have mattered a bit. In the amateur days, the game was all about the players, and spectating was a by-product - sometimes exhilarating, sometimes the opposite. But if you are going to pay players the sort of wages that soccer players get, then a new equation is formed. When money goes in, spectator satisfaction must come out.

So far, the great professional revolution has brought a very mixed blessing to the home countries. One day, the sad demise of Richmond and London Scottish will probably be seen as historically inevitable, but the process - and others like it - has not made an attractive sight. In football, World Cups are traditionally followed by spurts of growth at all levels of the game. If this World Cup was supposed to provide the impetus for the next phase of rugby's development at lower levels, it is hard to be optimistic about its success.

The tournament's organisers committed many errors, among the worst of which was to destroy the atmosphere of the final by making too many tickets available to neutral spectators, a high proportion of them beneficiaries of the dreaded corporate hospitality. A pair of sensational semi-finals perhaps guaranteed that the ultimate showdown would be a less than spectacular match, but both teams must have felt the effect of the hole where the noise should have been. Few people would have placed a bet, when the tournament started, on the atmosphere at an England-free Twickenham bettering that of the final in Cardiff, but that is what happened, and by a considerable margin. The final was, purely and simply, flat.

It also had no real star, and the World Cup's failure to throw up a new cast of young heroes was only partly due to the confusing split of television coverage between ITV and Eurosport. It is not hard to envisage how the BBC, had it been granted sole rights, would have given the event a clearer and more effective focus.

More significantly, the suppression of the players' individual character is an inevitable by-product of the game's tactical and strategic evolution, which has most recently emphasised the primacy

of defence and the absolutenecessity of tactical discipline.

Only when you can defend, say the coaches, can you attack. Multiple-phase rugby is a great deal more sophisticated thanthe old kind, far more demanding of the players' dedication and willingness to take punishment, and very satisfying when it goes right. It evenpossesses a certain peculiar aesthetic appeal. But it is hard to see it consistently producing the sort of games that would present football with a serious rival for the general public's affections.

Weakened by the decision to spread the matches between five countries and by poor scheduling, damaged by its organisers' mindless identification with corporate culture, distorted by the unrealistic expectations of England andWales, and somewhat let down by the coaches and players of the leading nations, the 1999 Rugby World Cup will not take a place among the great tournaments of our time. But don't try to tell that to the Uruguayans, or to the Fijians, who left the competition with nothing except the satisfactionof taking part and the honour of improving their status.

If there is any advantage to be had from the fact that rugby is not football, here it is. The world of this World Cup is still small enough that the Uruguays and the Fijis matter just as much, or should, as a bunch of disappointed favourites.

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