Rugby Union: Grandmasters adept at breaking stalemate
Wednesday 10 November 1999
I have the greatest respect for the Australian sporting culture. These people live for their games; they love the thought of getting out there and competing. Is it simply the climate that encourages them to start running and training as soon as they climb out of bed in the morning? It helps, I suppose, but no amount of good weather can explain the breadth of their accomplishment. It has been said a thousand times before, but it is worth repeating that rugby union is the third oval-ball game in the country, behind league and Aussie Rules. To my mind, that fact alone makes the Wallabies' triumph very special indeed.
Yet much of what they do is based on common sense rather than inspiration. They have the right attitude, to start with; the very existence of a national Institute of Sport is symptomatic of their organised approach and their determination to achieve. And in union specifically, they know the game and understand what it takes to win. Over the decades they spent living in the shadow of Big Brother, otherwise known as New Zealand, they learned, first, how to challenge their neighbours, and then how to beat them on a regular basis. They have constructed a model that works for them and allows them to evolve continuously.
We attempted something similar at Bath in the early 1980s, with considerable success. The key is management, not least the way you manage your team- building: get that right initially and you can keep things rolling along with some judicious development in terms of personnel and tactics. Once you get into radical upheavals and wholesale changes, your progress will inevitably be hindered.
To my mind, the final unfolded along the expected lines. The Wallabies had improved with every game and by the time they arrived at the big occasion, they looked a highly competent all-round team. They are great chess players, these Australians, in the sense that, as well as being supremely fit and skilled-up, they move their opponents around the pitch, maintain their patience and composure and strike when the time is right. When Tim Horan, an outstanding centre, made his breaks, it was often because someone had read the game two or three phases ahead and created a situation for him to exploit.
And then there was that defence of theirs, which smothered the French and exposed the frailties of the Tricolore game. Placed under pressure, the French reflex is to run the ball. On Saturday, the penalties mounted as they ran into big tackles and repeatedly lost a great deal of ground. In a sense, the entire game was encapsulated in the moment when Fabien Galthie and Olivier Magne attempted to run slow scrum ball from beneath their own posts. It was pure suicide; if the penalty awarded against Magne was harsh, the French were always going to find themselves in some sort of trouble.
In common with many others, I enjoyed the day rather more than the game itself. The atmosphere in the centre of Cardiff, which was kept free of traffic after midday, was wonderfully warm and uniquely Welsh, even though the Wales challenge had faded a fortnight previously. The match was too claustrophobic, though; big finals are tense occasions by nature and it requires a combination of factors, not least some sympathetic refereeing, to make the most of the situation. There was a better game of rugby in there somewhere, but the officials failed to squeeze it out into the open.
Andre Watson, the South African referee, should have done more to speed things up; a quick game generally results in minimal skullduggery. Unfortunately, Watson did the opposite. He should certainly have come down more heavily on the Wallabies and their interminable injury stoppages near the end. At times, it seemed there were more Australians in track-suits on the field than Australians in rugby kit. I suppose the back-room staff deserved their medals and their royal handshake from the Queen; after all, they'd spent as much time on the pitch as some of the players.
What have we learned, then? It is now more clear than ever that the only way to match a rugby nation as accomplished and resourceful as Australia is to compete off the pitch as well as on it; some of us have been arguing for a Wallaby-style integration of organisational skills across the whole of English rugby for many years now, without any obvious success. We also know that on the field, defensive thinking is well in advance of attacking theory, especially with a side like the Wallabies, who are so adept at denying their opponents quick possession. This potential stalemate is a challenge for rugby union across the world, because in a competitive sporting market-place we need to maximise the attractiveness of our sport.
To my mind, many of the solutions are already staring us in the face; all we have to do is watch a little rugby league, where offensive defence, to use the current jargon, has long been part and parcel of the game. (I might say at this juncture that for the want of a Connolly or a Newlove in midfield, England might easily have done famous things). Teams will need to brush up on their chess game, not least in the kicking sense. The chip over the top, the push-through kick, the high punt to the corner: these techniques can break the line-across defence that dominated so much of this tournament. In addition, refereeing interpretations at the breakdown need to be hammered out and rehearsed at least a year before the next World Cup, rather than cobbled together on the hoof. The uncertainty resulted in a lottery; there were far too many penalties for the good of the game.
From an English perspective, the quarter-final defeat in Paris was a disappointing return on months and years of hard work. I felt we had a real chance this time, but in the games that mattered we were as short on strategy as we were long on effort. I am optimistic, however. The Allied Dunbar Premiership and the ever-closer ties with Europe will ensure a strong base from which to prepare for 2003 and I am encouraged by some of the youngsters working their way up the ladder. Matt Perry and Dan Luger are very promising international players and I am convinced that Jonny Wilkinson will make us stronger at outside-half than at any time since Rob Andrew retired from international rugby. I also like the look of Bath's Mike Tindall, a natural outside centre with some pace and wit about him.
To end on a personal note, I felt for John Hart, the All Black coach, when he announced his resignation after last Thursday's play-off match. He was - and still is, in all probability - an outstanding coach and, what is more, a thoroughly civilised man. He inherited a superb team from Lawrie Mains in 1995 and added his own dimension to secure a momentous series victory in South Africa, only to see it fall apart a year before this World Cup. He attempted, perhaps belatedly, to create something new, but was washed away by a tide of French brilliance. Where would this tournament have left the game had not France given it hope for the future?
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