Rugby Union: Strong case for defence to be attacked

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The Independent Online
THERE MIGHT have been more fireworks after the game than during it, but you have to salute the Australians for a triumph that was richly deserved. The fact that their strength is based on brilliant defence might not serve up spectacular stuff all the time, but you have to admire it. The fact that they have only conceded one try, and that when their second string were playing, says it all.

The Millennium Stadium might have seemed a bit muted and flat but I believe that was due not to the quality of the game but because there weren't enough Australians or French to create the sort of partisan noise we're used to when Wales are playing.

But that doesn't mean it wasn't an absorbing game, even though you felt after 30 minutes that the French were done for. Whatever they tried they seemed to be swallowed up by the Australian control. The Aussies just held firm, drove through the middle and wore the French down. The French had to do so much defensive work that they tired in the last 20 minutes and that's when the tries came.

When the medals were being presented by the Queen, the referee, Andre Watson, received a bit of booing. Although this was probably directed at his failure to let the advantage go, I believe the response was more of a commentary on the overall standard of refereeing, which I don't think has been very high.

In the first half the main feature was a penalty duel between Christophe Lamaison and Matt Burke, and although Burke's greater number of opportunities put the score at 12-6, it was not a reflection on the prospects for the second half. But when Lamaison missed an early chance after the interval and Burke slotted over another one to make it 15-6 the seal was on the Australian win.

At that point Australia lost the centre Daniel Herbert. He was substituted by Jason Little, whose first act was a crunching tackle on Richard Dourthe that showed that the change would make no difference.

Tim Horan played very well again and is my choice as player of the tournament. My forward is Abdel Benazzi but as well as he played in this game he was unable to make any difference to the result. If Australia have had any luck at all it is that the two key players who were recovering from injury when they entered the tournament, Stephen Larkham and skipper John Eales, not only came back to fitness but back to top form as well.

As hard as the French tried they always seemed to be outnumbered both in attack and defence. The final try was mainly due to the tiredness of the French defence but it was scored by Owen Finegan, who had not been on the field long but found it easy to make his mark. That was another impressive strength of the Australians. They could replace people without any reduction in the team's performance.

When we look back over the tournament I think rugby ought to take close notice of the way that defences dominated the outcome. That such a prime defensive side should have won it deserves some study. I have no doubt that the close association between rugby union and rugby league in Australia has played a big part in moulding their tactics. Now the rest of us have to learn how to combat defences as strong as that, otherwise the game is going to be driven towards stalemate.

We've got to look at angles of running, at using pace better and at finding new ways to break open the defensive locks. Whatever else the World Cup has done, it has given the world plenty to think about before we all meet again in 2003.

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