Rugby Union: World Cup: Horan's artistry paints the perfect picture

Australia's midfield master relishes pitting his vast big-match experience against France's sharp thinkers in tomorrow's final
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The Independent Online
THIS TIME last week, Tim Horan was, to use his own expression, "a little bit crook". He might as well have described Jonah Lomu as a little bit large, the water lapping around his Cardiff Bay hotel as a little bit wet or his next game of rugby as a little bit important. The most accomplished inside centre of them all lost something in the region of half a stone to a gastric bug during the run-up to Australia's World Cup semi-final with South Africa at Twickenham six days ago, yet rose from his sick bed to make the decisive contribution to a famous Wallaby victory.

"I wouldn't mind a piece of that bug if it helps me play like Tim," grinned Jason Little, Horan's closest friend and the marginally less celebrated half of the midfield double act that brought a shaft of Queensland sunlight to the Australian side between 1989 and 1998. Little spends most of his Test career as a Wallaby bench-bunny these days, having been forced to give best to a third Queenslander, Daniel Herbert. But Horan, 29 going on 19, is still out there on the paddock at kick-off time, prodding and probing and poaching and relishing every last minute of it, even when he feels like death.

As he did during the 74 minutes of witheringly physical rugby he endured against the Springboks last weekend. "It wiped me out, that gastric problem; it wasn't until this Tuesday that I was sure I'd shaken the thing off. But once I'd made the decision to play, that was it. If I'd gone out there and missed a truck-load of tackles, or chucked a few balls on the floor, I wouldn't have blamed my illness. You can't do that, can you? If you're on the pitch, there can be no excuses. I'm just pleased it came good."

It came good, all right. Horan produced a minor masterpiece of midfield expressionism against the South Africans, drawing on years of experience and using every tool, physical and mental, at his disposal to guide his side into tomorrow's final. "Tim's a special sort of bloke," said John Eales, the Wallaby captain, after the match. "You don't need to think twice about him, to wonder whether he's on his game, because you know he'll deliver on his own terms and in his own way.

"It's a privilege to play with some people and I would always put Tim in that category." Quite an endorsement, coming as it does from the best player on the planet.

More than many of the other stand-out Wallabies of this golden age of Australian union - the David Campeses, the Michael Lynaghs, the Nick Farr- Joneses - Horan is a true product of the World Cup generation. He watched the first undisputed tournament classic, the Australia-France semi-final in 1987, on television. "I'd just turned 17 and I was in 12th grade at school," he recalled. "I remember it being a wonderful game, but I also remember being bitterly disappointed at the result. I still wince when I think of Serge Blanco scoring in the corner in the last few seconds." Although Horan would not have dared imagine it, he would win his first cap within two years, while still a teenager.

The next final, in 1991, would belong to him, as much as it belonged to anyone. The match against England was as tight as the proverbial drum; no time to draw breath, no space in which to move. Yet Horan found both time and space at a crucial juncture during the first half, just as the initial English storm was blowing itself out. His defensive instincts sharpened by the occasion, he read a dangerous Rob Andrew kick towards his own right corner flag more quickly and accurately than any of his countrymen, slipped away from an entire battalion of English tacklers and hared off down the touch-line in the one clean break of the 80 minutes. As Will Carling thundered across field to cut him off, he sent a perfect grubber kick deep into the English 22, forcing Jon Webb to concede the close-range line-out from which Tony Daly, the roly-poly prop from New South Wales, claimed the decisive try.

Andrew claimed revenge four years later, drop-goaling the Wallabies out of the tournament in a quarter-final epic in Cape Town. Bad days, bad memories. Horan had suffered a desperate knee injury in the 1994 Super 10 final between Queensland and Natal in Durban and only just made it to the finals. The way he tells it, the collective calamity at Newlands was far more painful than the personal calamity at King's Park. "We arrived at the airport to fly home and there they were: hundreds of Australian supporters, queuing to catch the first plane out of South Africa. If we didn't already understand what it meant to fail in a World Cup, we understood at that moment."

This time, those supporters have been treated to the full itinerary. The thought pleases Horan. "I'm probably more excited about this final than I was eight years ago. I was only 21 then, still a kid in many ways; I'm not sure I got the full message. Now that I'm at the other end of the scale, I'm relishing every experience this tournament throws up. I've signed up for another year with the Wallabies, but I guess that'll be my lot. I won't rush into anything - you're a long time retired, after all - but the way I see it right now, I don't think I'll get to the Lions tour in 2001, let alone another World Cup in 2003. Apart from anything else, the knee gets pretty sore these days." Remind us, Tim, which knee was it? "Can't tell you that, mate. There are French journalists around."

According to Rod Macqueen, the Wallaby coach, Horan's sense of humour is as precious an attribute as any in his possession. "It's what keeps him fresh," said Macqueen this week. "Tim is closing in on 80 caps now and that's a lot of pressure rugby, but he knows how to step back from things and smile a little." Horan, a dedicated practical joker of considerable ingenuity, agrees with every word. "It was Bob Dwyer, my first Wallaby coach, who emphasised the importance of switching off at the right time, as well as switching on. You can't be too highly strung for too long before a big Test, and that includes a World Cup final. It's counter-productive. When we're on the training field, we're serious. At the end of the session, when we're playing touch or just kicking a ball around, we lighten up.

"I think I'll be pretty relaxed in the dressing-room before kick-off this weekend. I usually am. I'll go through the moves in my head, go over the game plan quietly and calmly, just as I did before South Africa last week. That was one of the best games I've ever been involved in; certainly the best match in which neither side scored a try. And I expect something of similar quality in the final, because the French are on a roll and they have so many gifts, so many sharp rugby thinkers.

"Because they threaten from everywhere, we won't make the mistake of targetting specific individuals. Last week, we had this idea of putting Jannie de Beer under a heap of pressure; he'd kicked all those field goals against England in the quarter-final and was the obvious weapon in the Springbok locker. It didn't really work for us, though. While we were looking at him, back there in the pocket with 'drop goal' written all over his face, Joost Van der Westhuizen was dummying from the breakdown and slipping through our defence. It just proved that you can't afford to plan your strategy around one player in isolation."

Horan may or may not finish his career in the English Premiership; he seriously considered renewing his acquaintance with Dwyer at Bristol before renewing his Wallaby contract during the summer, and an entire crop of fresh carrots will be dangled before him at the end of next year's Tri-Nations series. Whatever his decision, he will have no regrets. "Win, lose or draw against France, I'll be happy with the way my career has turned out," he said, a sanguine smile spread across his sunny features. "It's been fantastic, the whole thing, and to have made two World Cup finals in three attempts...well, that's not bad. I'm not too sure what fulfilment is meant to feel like, but I guess it must be something like this."