Rugby Union: Gods on the pitch defy devils in the detail

Rugby World Cup
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The Independent Online
IT WAS a long time before the earth began to move, but the impact of the semi-finals on the World Cup and on the nation's consciousness has saved the day. Admittedly, there have been other ground-shaking events to occupy the mind. The helicopters, red carpets, prayer mats and Tony Blair were rolled out in an attempt to impress the delegates from Fifa that England was a fit place to host the football World Cup in 2006.

Conspicuous by its absence, however, was any form of official recognition for rugby's equivalent, which is nothing short of scandalous given that the boost to the economy, both directly and indirectly, from the rugby World Cup is estimated to be in the region of pounds 800m. Clearly rugby is not enough of a people's sport to appeal to the Blair administration, although the people rose as one to acclaim it last weekend. Both matches, in their different ways, will be talked about for as long as rugby is played.

Promotion, or rather the lack of it, has been a running sore. For this the organisers have, along with the scheduling of matches, the citing of law-breakers, the number of teams, the ticketing, the refereeing and the pitiful crowds in Scotland, taken the brunt of the blame. Some of it has been justified, much of it ill-informed or mis-directed. Promotion requires the whole-hearted support of all the parties involved, particularly television, and here, as in a number of other areas, ITV have been found wanting. Their promotional efforts in advance of the tournament were feeble, and the energy and imagination which they brought to their first World Cup in 1991 has evaporated in the intervening years. Channel 4 have shown the value of support programmes in their cricket coverage and have proved that it is possible to produce instructive and educational material which is also entertaining.

The award for television punditry goes, nem. con., to Francois Pienaar, who was at all times informed, informative, eloquent and professional. Contrast this with the match summarisers, who too often fell into the elementary trap of stating the glaringly obvious, even to the unpractised eye. They contributed nothing to the commentary but hugely to the irritation factor, which reached fever pitch with some of the self-indulgent camerawork and direction. To miss the flypast of the Red Arrows at the opening ceremony was forgivable; to miss Jeff Wilson's try against England was not. The scheduling of the highlights programmes so late at night, and on occasions early the following morning, was more deserving of criticism than the apparent cavalier scheduling of the matches.

Perhaps it would have been possible to stagger the early pool matches over the first couple of weeks in order to build interest, but to arrange fixtures in such a way that each side were given a decent rest period would probably have been beyond the capabilities of man and his computer. The decision to increase the number of teams was surely admirable, even if it did lead to a higher number of mismatches.

What is important is that resources are made available to the emerging countries from this tournament to assist in their continuing development. After all Fiji, who failed to qualify for the last World Cup, were impressively competitive and, with luck and better refereeing, might easily have beaten France into the last eight. Tonga, apart from their big freeze at Twickenham, are also a fast- improving force.

The citing procedure was, in the same way, a good idea in theory, although in practice it was dogged by inconsistency and by the fact that so many players were prepared to risk detection and punishment for the sake of a few cheap, violent shots. Overall, the standard of refereeing was no more than moderate, particularly in relation to some of the weaker countries, against whom the referees appear to operate a policy of zero tolerance. For me the two outstanding officials were Scotland's Jim Fleming and, above all, Derek Bevan of Wales, whose handling of the first semi-final, a game of shuddering physical intensity, was as near to flawless as it is possible to come.

What is certain is that the tournament must never again be played in five countries. It dilutes the interest and diverts the main thrust of the support services. The crowds in England, Ireland and Wales were consistently good, less so in France, and in Scotland they were a positive embarrassment. Whatever the reasons, the Scots did little to help themselves. They failed abjectly to use the World Cup as a heaven-sent opportunity to revive rugby's fading appeal by staging matches at smaller venues in different parts of the country, reinforced by lively promotion. If the event passed the burghers of Edinburgh by, what hope was there for the good folk of Auchtermuchty? A rare chance has been lost.

Despite the woeful support north of the border, attendances for the tournament have been remarkable. The average across all 41 games was 41,000 and for the knock-out stages 65,000, comfortably in excess of the attendances in France for the football World Cup last year. Wales, as the host country, have taken the tournament to their heart, and no praise is too high for the support and the enthusiasm that the Welsh people have displayed throughout.

There was no doubt about the match of the tournament, which will also go into the hat for nomination as the match of the century. There are no words left to describe it but, hallelujah, the French in their triumph over the All Blacks have revived this jaded old hack and by their sheer artistry and joie de vivre reaffirmed the glorious uncertainty of a game which was becoming all too predictable.

The individual performances of Olivier Magne, Abdelatif Benazzi, Christophe Dominici and Christophe Lamaison all deserve their place on the honours board. With them go Jonah Lomu, a god still despite the rapid descent of his colleagues from the celestial heights and, a stranger in this paradise, Jannie de Beer. The Springbok flankers - Rassie Erasmus and Andre Venter - were consistently sound and, for as long as he went, so was Lawrence Dallaglio.

It has been a World Cup for the big boys, a tribute to improved fitness training and to creatine. Allied to speed and athleticism these giants are proving to be irresistible to all but their own kind, yet for me the two outstanding players are compact enough to come into the Artful Dodger category. George Gregan, the Australian scrum-half, is a pigmy alongside the behemoths in front of him, yet was a colossus on the field. We shall wait a long time, however, to see a demonstration of centre three-quarter play to match Tim Horan's in the semi-final against South Africa. Supposedly enfeebled by a stomach complaint, he produced an exquisite demonstration of what appeared to be an art lost in the defensive forests of the modern game. Like the French 24 hours later, Horan carried the torch for the fast- diminishing band of romantics who still cling to the belief that brain will always beat brawn and that speed and subtlety, fully liberated and freely expressed, are uncontainable.

And so, at the end of the rugby World Cup '99, the toast is to Horan and to France.

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