Rugby World Cup: Coronation day for Macqueen's Australia

RUGBY WORLD CUP FINAL Wallabies possess both the gifts and guile to overcome the brilliant but unpredictable French today
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The Independent Online
A POWERFUL force, this rugby business. While seasoned political analysts in New Zealand are seriously suggesting that the All Blacks' defeat by France at Twickenham last Sunday may lead, at least indirectly, to a change of government later this month - apparently, the feel-bad factor is a major negative for the incumbents with an election looming - the most significant public debate in Australia for a generation has been overshadowed by the achievement of 15 gold-shirted heroes in making it all the way to this afternoon's World Cup final. Just at the moment, "God Save the Queen" means rather less to the Wallaby nation than "God Save Macqueen".

As in Rod Macqueen, the 49-year-old national coach, who will need all the assistance heaven can provide if the French, those dyed-in-the-wool republicans, launch another of their occasional uprisings designed to separate a few distinguished heads from their presumptuous bodies. "At bottom, we ourselves stand between winning and losing the Webb Ellis Trophy," said the undemonstrative Sydneysider yesterday as he weighed up the chances of his side emulating Steve Waugh's cricketers and claiming a second global ultimate in the space of five months for the most resourceful sporting nation on earth. "If we don't play to the best of our ability, then France will win this match."

If Macqueen's sentiments were similar in content to those of Mario Zagallo, the Brazilian football coach who saw his side mugged by the Les Bleus at the "other" World Cup final some 16 months ago, they were probably more sincere. Unlike the self-appointed deities of the round ball game, the Wallabies are genuinely fearful of the things the French may bring to this afternoon's jamboree in the centre of Cardiff, largely because they have no real idea of what those things might be. "Who can tell what will happen?" said Jean-Claude Skrela, the French coach, last night, by way of suggesting that he knew only as much, or as little, as his opposite number.

The assumption is that France will climb only part of the way up the mountain today, that for all their passion and unorthodox virtuosity they will fail to revisit the heights they scaled against New Zealand six days ago. Marc Lievremont, their intelligent and influential blind- side flanker, is still struggling to overcome the thigh strain that cut short his assault on the All Blacks, and the Tricolores will miss every hair on his dark head if he withdraws after a fitness test this morning.

What is more, the French themselves accept that a repeat of last week's attacking extravaganza is a "big ask", as their rivals would undoubtedly put it. "There is no reason why we should be intimidated by the Wallabies; we are both unbeaten in this competition," asserted Christophe Lamaison, the outside-half from Brive. "But I agree that the main difficulty for us is re-discovering the motivation we generated at Twickenham. That was not a conventional performance."

But assumptions are as dangerous as a French back-line on fire; Lamaison himself proved as much last weekend when he scored 28 points in "full house" fashion - a try, four conversions, three penalties and two drop goals. Prior to Sunday, he had been dismissed as a poor man's Thomas Castaignede, a workaday fill-in for the bottle-blond genius from Castres, whose injury problems early in the competition appeared to end the Tricolore challenge almost before it had moved out of first gear. Suddenly, he is the talk of the tournament. Pierre Villepreux, the talismanic French coach who knows a half-decent player when he sees one, says Lamaison possesses "the capacity to be prevalent". Well, you get the drift.

If the French pack can summon another collective effort "from the depths of the soul", to borrow a favourite phrase of the great Abdel Benazzi, it is entirely possible that Lamaison will bring another of his rich tactical mixtures to bear on the the proceedings. Benazzi, Fabien Pelous and Olivier Brouzet fairly murdered the All Blacks at the line-out last week, Franck Tournaire out-scrummaged the tournament favourites with something to spare and Olivier Magne announced himself as the new Josh Kronfeld by comprehensively out-playing Kronfeld himself. The side that Skrela and Villepreux built is based on the firmest of forward foundations.

Which is where John Eales and company enter the argument, of course, for the Wallaby pack will be nowhere near as conciliatory as the New Zealand version. Eales is the most athletic line-out forward in the game, bar none, and in David Giffin and Matt Cockbain, the Australians possess two more stone-cold ball-winners. Their scrummagers are dependable rather than exceptional, but they are well versed in the kidology of the set- piece, where the art of bluff counts for more than anything except the art of counter-bluff. Had Christian Califano not been banned for butting a Fijian three weeks ago, the French would have had a clear edge in the bump and grind. As it is, there is little to choose between the combatants.

If the Wallabies start as favourites, it is for two very good reasons. First, World Cup tournaments are won by impregnable defences rather than blistering attacks, and the Australians have conceded one try - just one - in their five outings to date. Secondly, big finals are less about grace under pressure than clarity of thought at the unforgiving moments. Eales, Steve Larkham, Tim Horan, Matthew Burke? These are among the clearest, cleverest thinkers in the game, and they should just shade it. But then again...

AUSTRALIA v FRANCE

at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

M Burke New South Wales 15 X Garbajosa Toulouse

B Tune Queensland 14 P Bernat-Salles Biarritz

D Herbert Queensland 13 R Dourthe Dax

T Horan Queensland 12 E Ntamack Toulouse

J Roff ACT 11 C Dominici Stade Francais

S Larkham ACT 10 C Lamaison Brive

G Gregan ACT 9 F Galthie Colomiers

R Harry New South Wales 1 C Soulette Toulouse

M Foley Queensland 2 R Ibanez Perpignan, capt

A Blades New South Wales 3 F Tournaire Toulouse

D Giffin ACT 4 A Benazzi Agen

J Eales Queensland, capt 5 F Pelous Tolouse

M Cockbain Queensland 6 M Lievremont Stade Francais

D Wilson Queensland 7 O Magne Montferrand

T Kefu Queensland 8 C Juillet Stade Francais

Referee: A Watson (South Africa). Kick-off: 3.0 (ITV, Eurosport)

Replacements: 16 J Little (New South Wales), 17 N Grey (New South Wales), 18 C Whitaker (New South Wales), 19 M Connors (Queensland) 20 O Finegan (ACT), 21 D Crowley (Queensland) 22 J Paul (ACT).

Replacements: 16 U Mola (Castres), 17 S Glas (Bourgoin), 18 S Castaignede (Mont-de-Marsan), 19 A Costes (Montferrand), 20 O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux), 21 P De Villiers (Stade Francais), 22 M Dal Maso (Colimers).

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