Rugby Union: Forgetful French lose the muse

Open roof remains unraised in a final to forget as Wallabies break out of an infuriating stalemate
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The Independent Online
THIS IS roughly where we came in six weeks and 41 matches ago. Two teams kicking each other to oblivion and an over officious referee stamping on any sparks of flair like a fire warden on bonfire night. In fact, it would be better to erase yesterday from the files, wipe it off, expunge it, pretend it never happened, rewrite history as they used to do in the days before the wall came down and pretend that the climax of a stuttering tournament came at Twickenham wrapped in the Tricolore last Sunday.

This was not a finale fit to set before the newly confirmed head of the state of Australia. And if conversation between Tony Blair and Lionel Jospin drifted off into discussion of the beef war, they did not have to search far for the offal. The best team won, deservedly adding a rugby world cup to the cricket equivalent won with a similar display of sport's less glamorous attributes in the late spring. Victory, though, was not the popular one, not the one the corporate brigade had anticipated as they disgorged from Cardiff station, clutching directions to their pre- match feasting, not the one the tournament needed.

The French had spent the week in Gallic contemplation of the chances of raising their game once again. Silently perhaps, they presumed their tournament was over; consistency is not their game and to be invested with the hopes of the northern hemisphere and of all right-minded neutrals proved too heady a burden for such a mercurially talented team to shoulder. After all, this was a team in disarray a week ago. "We were a bit like kids saying: `We're in a world cup final'," said the French captain, Raphael Ibanez. "The Australians are more used to playing at this level."

It was hard to pinpoint blame for the sterility: Australia's fear of the French, expressed in anxious tones by their impressive coach, Rod Macqueen all week, France's inability to summon the muse for the second successive weekend or the referee Andre Watson's determination not to let anything approximating a rugby match spoil his big day. The only South African on the field drove the French to distraction, ensuring that the one representative of the defending champions had a say in the annointing of their successor. But the French did not help themselves, that stubborn streak of indiscipline surfacing with infuriating regularity.

So kick followed kick and the best two teams rugby has to offer muddled their way through long bouts of stalemate, enlivened only by a superbly worked try for Ben Tune, a bullocking effort by Owen Finegan in the closing minutes and a series of penalties from Christophe Lamaison and Matt Burke. The lucky ones were the doves of peace released just before kick-off. The crowd began to follow them long before the Webb-Ellis cup was handed to John Eales.

The standing ovation accorded the French as they completed their lap of honour was at least as effusive as the applause deservedly given the new champions, reflecting the lift the French have brought the tournament. "I accept and respect this result," the Queen said. She was talking about the decision of Australians to retain their allegiance to the crown, but she might have been commenting on the ruthless efficiency of the Australians' victory. Because that, not the emotion that had lifted the French to spectacular heights against the All Blacks six days before, was the currency on the patchy green dealing tables of the Millennium Stadium yesterday just as it has been the dominating theme of the tournament before the French reminded us of more spontaneous qualities. "We had to match the passion of the French," Macqueen said. But his interpretation of passion was subtly different.

Afterwards, John Muggleton, Australia's defensive coach imported from Rugby League, talked of the personal pride his players took in defence. "We aimed for no missed tackles," he said. "It's pie in the sky, but that's what we set out to achieve. If someone missed a tackle and then made the next, you'd see the guys really give him a pat for that. If you miss one, it's personal." The Australians have set the defensive standard for the next four years and if that might not produce a feast of running rugby, no one can blame them for concentrating on an area of the game neglected for too long. It is not their fault that the new champions will be measured in largely negative terms. The individual talents of Tim Horan and Ben Tune were rigidly harnessed to the common good.

The French were unable to match the Australians for discipline and sheer grinding power. "We lacked the physical presence," said Jean-Claude Skrela, the French coach. Slowly, the realisation dawned on the French that this Australian side was made of sterner stuff than the All Blacks. For all Macqueen's concern for Gallic unpredictability, somewhere between Twickenham and Cardiff, the French lost the element of surprise.

12-6 at half-time, four penalties to two, was hardly a fair reflection of French efforts. We waited for the riposte, the swash-buckling swinging from the chandelier stuff which had so overwhelmed the All Blacks in the second half six days ago. Instead, Burke increased the Australian lead with a penalty from under the posts to renew Australia's momentum.

The tries did come, almost too late to matter. The Australians' superiority had already seeped through French minds and hearts. There was to be no repeat, no second coming and no halting the Australian juggernaut. The Millennium Stadium acclaimed worthy champions. Whether anyone will remember them beyond the engraving on the Webb Ellis Trophy is another matter.