Rugby Union: The stranglers' reward

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The Independent Online
OLIVIER MAGNE, a definite contender for the player of the tournament award, leapt like a salmon to tap back a cross-kick from Christophe Lamaison into the hands of Abdel Benazzi, and the giant lock crashed over the Australian line.

The tragedy is that Magne's initiative was forward and the try was disallowed. It happened in the 16th minute of the game, when the score was 6-6 and who knows what might have happened had the try been legitimate? As it was, Australia went on to steamroller their way to an anticipated victory in the World Cup final. In other respects it was an official nightmare, the official in question being being the referee Andre Watson. The occasion got the whistle-blower as much as the players.

One of the keys to the remorseless progress of the Wallabies has been the philosophy and approach of their coach, Rod Macqueen. Australia may not have been the most impressive winners of the World Cup (about as impressive, perhaps, as the Nick Farr-Jones class of '91) but they are incredibly difficult to play against.

They suffocated the life out of Ireland in Dublin a month ago, and almost nobody could understand why; they did the same to Wales here in the quarter- finals and again kept their line intact against South Africa in the semi- finals at Twickenham last Saturday. They are very good without ever giving the impression that they are truly great. Nevertheless, their defence is phenomenal.

Under Macqueen and the brilliant captaincy of John Eales, they may not be the greatest, but they are one of the most relaxed and contented squads in professional rugby. After beating the United States in Limerick, for example, when, incidentally, Juan Grobler of the Denver Barbarians became the only player to score a try against them, the Wallabies were given a two-day pass. Not only did they fully exploit it, but found a watering hole, in Limerick, which was tailor-made for letting their hair down.

France, inspired and quicksilver in their annihilation of the All Blacks in the semi-final at Twickenham, found it as hard yesterday as Ireland, Wales and South Africa had done during Australia's progress to the final. Apart from Benazzi crushing the Australian line, they never had a sniff. After France's renaissance against New Zealand, Australia, who watched that match in disbelief like everybody else, went back to the drawing board. They had expected to play the All Blacks and planned accordingly. Fresh video sessions intensified but it is doubtful whether the result would have been any different whoever they had played.

In Eales, Australia had the captain of the tournament; in George Gregan, the scrum-half of the tournament; in Toutai Kefu, the most powerful No 8 of the tournament, the man who punched his weight; and in Tim Horan, the centre of the tournament. Everywhere else they had the tacklers of the tournament.

France, who had found Twickenham seven days ago an enterprise zone, found Cardiff, enveloped by gold jerseys, claustrophobic. In the end it looked like a contest between a heavyweight and a light-middleweight, with Owen Finegan (an Irish passport holder and therefore making the only significant Irish contribution to the tournament) typifying the whole ball-game by smashing through a weary French defence from 25 yards. France were left not only in Finegan's wake, but Australia's.

The Wallabies, who began the World Cup as second favourites behind the All Blacks, had a logo to go with their campaign: "Bring back Bill" - an abbreviation, in true Aussie style, for the William in William Webb Ellis.

So it's four World Cups - two to Australia, one to New Zealand, one to South Africa; making it the southern hemisphere four, the rest of the world nil.

The next one up, in 2003, is in Australia and New Zealand. Can anybody release their grip on the Webb Ellis trophy Down Under? There has to be hope. In four years' time the Wallabies won't have world-class players like Eales, Horan and Gregan.

Verdict of the coaches

A LOT of preparation has gone into today and it was a very emotional dressing room afterwards. A lot of sacrifices have been made. Rugby is a very demanding sport these days, and it is nice to see the players reaping the rewards of their hard work. We've had some wonderful support from people across the board, and we went into this game knowing that everyone was behind us. Rod Macqueen of Australia

THEY WERE better than us. They kicked well, passed well and didn't lose the ball. They have superb players and also scored two superb tries. They alternated well between playing to hand and to feet and forced us into making many errors. Of course, we have regrets after getting this far, but we're still very happy with what we've done.

Pierre Villepreux of France

Final man-for-man marking By Alex Hayes

AUSTRALIA

Matthew

Burke

Rare mistake under the high ball in the first minute gifted France three points. Otherwise, his positional play was sound and penalty kicking as reliable as ever. An average day.

7

Ben

Tune

Eventually made an impact on the game towards the end of the first half when he started cutting in from the wing. Brave in the tackle, his second-half try capped move of the match.

8

Dan

Herbert

Often overlooked and underestimated but he plays the side-kick role to perfection. His tackling is good and his clever, unselfish runs created space for the other three-quarters.

7

Tim

Horan

Continued with the superlative form he has shown throughout the tournament. His shimmy and run after 15 minutes was typical of his all- round display. Outstanding.

9

Joe

Roff

Received very little service and got himself involved in a pointless fracas in the opening 40 minutes. Eventually forced his way back into the game and fell agonisingly short late on.

7

Stephen

Larkham

Brave dive on the touchline just before half-time prevented a certain try. Attacking-wise, he never managed to control the game as dominantly as he had in previous games.

7

George

Gregan

Took a while to settle into his usual controlled passing rhythm, but once found his range, he varied his distribution to great effect. Clever as ever, he ran the show in the second half.

9

Richard

Harry

Helped to anchor the scrum when the Australian forwards were under early pressure, he had one of his very best games for the Wallabies and got the better of Tournaire.

8

Michael

Foley

Threw well enough at the line-out and was always a willing option in the loose, but he was too often guilty of giving away needless penalties. Not yet the new Phil Kearns.

7

Andrew

Blades

Failed to impose himself in the early stages, but became more effective as the match wore on. A deceptively quick prop, he punched many holes through the French defence.

8

David

Giffin

Won good line-out ball and made a couple of telling breaks in the loose towards the end of the first half. Protected his captain admirably and defended well throughout.

7

John

Eales

Not his best display. The captain was yellow carded in the opening 20 minutes for throwing a punch. Started to impose himself more at the line-out thereafter and called tactics well.

7

Matt

Cockbain

Tackled bravely around the fringes but never lent any weight to the limited Australian attacks in the first half. Played well enough and jumped high at line-out. Replaced by Finegan.

7

David

Wilson

Kept continuous pressure on Galthie and Lamaison. Stuck to his defensive duties doggedly in the first half and then ploughed forward as the French defence weakened late on.

8

Toutai

Kefu

Excellent display. Made no mistakes dealing with the many high balls that were kicked down his throat. Equally adept at carrying the ball forward, he was a constant danger. Superb.

9

Jason

Little

Replaced Herbert on 46 minutes and was immediately at ease alongside his old companion in crime, Horan.

8

Owen

Finegan

Came on for the tiring Cockbain and added more attacking impetus to the Wallaby pack. Late try had shades of Lomu.

8

Marc

Connors

Played the final 10 minutes in place of Wilson. Did well enough defensively but never threatened.

7

Jeremy

Paul

Sent on for the dying seconds as a replacement for Foley, he did at least take charge of one line-out throw-in.

Chris

Whitaker

Was only put on for the last few seconds to get a taste of the victory. Ran on well enough.

FRANCE

Xavier

Garbajosa

Cemented his position as one of the genuine surprises of the World Cup. Defensively, he read the game very well, while his kicking out of defence repeatedly relieved his forwards.

7

Philippe

Bernat-Salles

Jinking runs in the first half caused the Australian defence problems. Spent much of the second period defending - a task which he performed well as he averted a certain try.

7

Richard

Dourthe

Had a quiet game and was not capable of exploiting any gaps in the tiring Australian rearguard. Never in the game, he was eventually replaced after being hit in the face by the ball.

6

Emile

Ntamack

Patchy. Never a centre, he knocked on in the early stages when the overlap was available and never made serious inroads into the Australian defence. Looks a spent force.

6

Christophe

Dominici

Veni Vidi Dominici. He came, he saw, he dominated early exchanges on the left wing. Too often isolated the rest of the match, though, he was unable to repeat his semi-final show.

7

Christophe

Lamaison

Try as he did to get his backs going, he was brilliantly marshalled by the Australian defence and unable to find any space. Penalty kicking was accurate but not enough to win.

7

Fabien

Galthie

His passing and all-round directional play from the base of the scrum was good, but he suffered from a lack of cover from his forwards and, as a result, rushed too many of his passes.

7

Cedric

Soulette

Did well early on in the battle of the front rows, but was too indisciplined, often being caught attempting to play the ball from the ground. Replaced early in the second half.

6

Raphael

Ibanez

The French captain did his best to calm his forwards by throwing accurately at the line-out. His discipline let him down, though, as he was guilty of giving away silly penalties.

7

Franck

Tournaire

He tackled his heart out and tried to get involved in the rare French forward forays, but he never got the measure of Harry and commited numerous fouls. Poor showing.

6

Abdel

Benazzi

Played with his customary gusto and pride on this possibly his final appearance for the Tricolores. Was one of the only French forwards to make any impact. Can go home proud.

8

Fabien

Pelous

He was the main target at the line-out in the first half, before moving to eight in the second. Made presence felt in rucks and mauls but spent too long defending to have an impact.

7

Marc

Lievremont

Difficult to fault his enthusiasm and determination. Had a quiet game, though, and gave too much room around the scrum. Also failed to close down Oz backs quickly enough.

6

Olivier

Magne

Ran and tackled his socks off for 80 minutes. He was everywhere in the first half and nearly set up a try for Benazzi with a tap-back. A loser, but he has rediscovered his form.

8

Christophe

Juillet

Not in the same class as Kefu, he was another weak-link in the French back-row yesterday. He controlled the scrum well enough, but added too little offensively. Replaced at half time.

6

Olivier

Brouzet

Proved a worthwhile replacement for the ineffectual Juillet. Played well and won several line-outs. Should have started.

7

Peter

De Villiers

Replaced Soulette but struggled just as much against the powerful Australian forwards.

6

Stephane

Glas

Came on for Dourthe and also failed to break down the Australian defence.

6

Albert

Costes

Took over Lievremont's damage limitation role by tackling everything in yellow. Tried in vain to carry the ball forward.

7

Ugo

Mola

Played the last 12 minutes as a result of Garbajosa's arm injury. Could do little by then to reverse the losing trend.

6

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