Rugby Union: Remember Juan, the American who crossed the line

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The Independent Online
Ken Jones

NEVER MIND John Eales, Tim Horan, Jonah Lomu, Jannie De Beer. Step forward Juan Grobler - strike a medal for him. When it was all over at the Millenium Stadium, when the glittering trophy had been handed over by the Queen to be fed through trembling Australian hands and the last rocket had burst, Grobler was out on his own.

Perhaps somebody should have called Grobler in Denver, Colorado, and put the question: "How does it feel, Grobby old pal, to be the only player in the 1999 rugby World Cup to cross Australia's line?"

How many people out there remember the name, the place, the moment? Well, 14 October, Thomand Park, Limerick, not against Australia's strongest team, but the try Grobler scored for the United States would put him into the record book, a sort of back-handed compliment to suffocating efficiency.

Nobody was prepared to risk a charge of churlish probing when some of Australia's heroes presented themselves for interrogation after Saturday's triumph but a legitimate question can be asked of them that is really a question for all rugby's gurus.

It is whether the 1999 World Cup, not just the final itself, turned out to be a missed evangelical opportunity. Certainly, the final will have done little to spread the gospel for a game that has not yet come fully to terms with professionalism.

From what we have seen there is no new knowledge that offers a happy alternative to international rugby's modern reliance on power and collective competence.

Maybe we have come to hope for too much, maybe not, but nobody should have been suprised when the final descended into a twilight of conservatism that seldom enthused the audience.

It is a matter of individual opinion whether reaching the World Cup final put Australia and France under any obligation to achieve more than national satisfaction. Eales appeared to feel that it did not, for his main reaction to victory was one of joy over what this meant for his country.

Indeed, the fact that Australia had added further to an impressive haul of international sporting achievements justified the celebrations that spilled out onto the streets of Cardiff and continued long into the night.

The uncertainties of sport are always with us and neutrals had fervently hoped that France would be able to rein in their notoriously volatile tempererament and make a real game of it by reproducing at least some of the instinctive invention that did for New Zealand.

Good-natured debates between rival sets of supporters (unrepeatable north of the border next Saturday) in the bars and cafes centred on this possibility: "If France have the confidence to take risks, run the ball as only they can, who knows?" Heads nodded.

As it turned out, the substantial theory that France had left their best game on the field at Twickenham last week did not matter as much much as the persistent application of Australia's belief that the way to win was to drive unremittingly for field position and punish errors.

This expressed a form of reasoning presently employed at the topmost level of all team sports. Winning is what matters. Will England's football supporters complain if their team gets past Scotland in the grimmest style imaginable?

Times have changed since critics carped about the strategy Alf Ramsey adopted to win the 1966 World Cup but not necessarily for the better.

To this onlooker, the importance of Australia's victory was that it held coaches accountable for the way rugby has been moving and what the future holds.

Driving home from Cardiff I came across what appeared to be a small group of French supporters turned out in Les Bleus shirts with tricolores painted on their faces. They were in fact English impersonators. "We [the French] didn't start to play," one of them said. Truth was that Australia did not let them.

It leaves Juan Grobler with a tale to tell on cold winter nights in the future. "What did you do in the 1999 World Cup grandad?" "Not much, but I was the only guy who found a way through the Aussies."