Rugby World Cup: Larkham courage overcomes the Boks

Desire and instinct conquer pain to produce a memorable semi-final confrontation with an extraordinary twist in its tail; Australia 27 Penalties Burke (8) Drop goal Larkham Half-time: 12 - 6 South Africa 21 Penalties De Beer (6) Drop goal De Beer Attendance: 72,000
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The Independent Online
INTERNATIONAL RUGBY is a complicated game, so ridiculously convoluted at times that you need a double first in applied mathematics to work out what the hell is going on. But very occasionally, perhaps once every millennium or so, it sheds its technical airs and scientific graces and becomes so elemental that a Stone Age primitive would nod his head in recognition.

Twickenham witnessed such an occasion on Saturday when the Wallabies, the most adroit outfit in the competition, ended the Springboks' reign as world champions with a performance based less on techno-proficiency than on courage, desire and, at the climactic moment, on pure, unadulterated instinct.

Courage? Desire? These are rugby cliches, too often exhumed without a second thought to explain or excuse mean-spirited, brick-headed exercises in 15-man sterility. But if it was not courage that Tim Horan, the great Australian centre, displayed at the weekend, what on earth was it that raised him from his sick bed and into some sporting dream-land reserved for the chosen few? If John Eales, undemonstrative to the point of coyness, was not overflowing with desire as the forward conflict reached its apogee, how do we explain the 100 minutes of brilliance he summoned from a body racked with pain?

And then there was Stephen Larkham, half-crippled by an injury to his right knee but as brave as the day is long. As an outside-half, the 25- year-old Brumby from Canberra can do pretty much everything: he can step and glide, he can unleash 50-metre touch-finders, he can chip and gather, he can work his fellow backs into the wide open acres, he sees more angles than a trigonometrist and he can run a game from start to finish.

However, it was not until 93 minutes and 18 seconds of Saturday's semi- final had elapsed that he gave the first indication that he might also be able to drop the odd goal. If he never drops another one, that single strike will secure his place in the Wallaby pantheon.

"It was an ugly one, I guess, but a drop from `Bernie' was never going to be a thing of beauty," grinned Rod Macqueen, the Australian coach, as he mulled over Larkham's 48-metre "goal from nowhere". Macqueen's Bokke counterpart, Nick Mallett, was staggered by the unexpectedness of the thing. "I'm not sure he was even thinking about a drop when he kicked the ball, but he caught it perfectly and it flew," said the South African, who could hardly have been more gracious in defeat. Whatever the truth of the matter, Larkham pulled a giant rabbit from his tiny, made-to-measure scrum hat. It was no illusion, either. The Wallabies are in the World Cup final for real.

And so they deserve to be, for they played a good 80 per cent of the rugby on Saturday; indeed, there was a blissful irony to the fact that the Boks, whose scoring strategies were, one, the drop goal and, two, the dummy drop goal, lost in the way they did. Both Eales, visibly hampered by his groin condition but spectacularly effective nonetheless, and the irresistibly competitive George Gregan were denied what may have been perfectly legal tries - Derek Bevan, the Welsh referee, gave marginal calls against both - and it will forever remain a mystery how Horan, so weakened by a gastric condition that the Australian medics told him that he was unlikely to make it to half-time, failed to finish one of a series of rampages through the Bokke barricades.

But it takes a full cast of 30 to create rugby drama on this epic scale, and the South Africans, severely limited though they undoubtedly were, brought everything they had to the theatre. How they fought. Joost van der Westhuizen's individual contest with Gregan was the whole of rugby in miniature: honest, intense and unforgiving, two craftsmen operating at the peak of their powers. There were selfless contributions up front, too, most notably from Os du Randt and Rassie Erasmus. Mallett, shrewd tactician that he is, may regret withdrawing Du Randt from the fray just short of the hour, for his replacement, Ollie le Roux, was immediately turned over by the Wallabies with the goal-line within reach. The "Ox", more attuned to the physicality of the contest, would probably have secured the five points on offer.

Jannie de Beer, heavily worked over by the Wallaby loose forwards as early as the third minute, did not scale Olympus for the second successive week, but still managed to convert perhaps the most demanding pressure penalty in World Cup history to take the game into extra time. "I didn't see it," said Macqueen, "because I was busy writing some notes for my team talk at full time." Like everyone else in the stadium, the Wallaby coach had a sense of inevitability about the wickedly difficult right- sided kick confronting the man equipped with the Boot of God.

When De Beer slotted his fifth penalty to give his countrymen the lead for the first time in almost 90 minutes of rugby, the impression of Bokke destiny at work was almost tangible. "I really thought it might be our turn to get on top, that the 20 minutes of extra time would be ours," said Mallett.

But Eales, clearly a more inspiring talker on the pitch than he is off it, pulled his weary charges into a huddle and spoke coolly and calmly about composure and communication and common purpose.

Within three minutes, Matthew Burke had levelled it again at 21-21. The road was clear for Larkham's killer blow and Burke's coup de grace. At the final whistle, there was another Wallaby huddle. "It's not over yet," said Eales as his players linked arms around him. "There is a final to play, a World Cup to be won." Do these Australians never, ever let up?

AUSTRALIA: M Burke (New South Wales); B Tune (Queensland), D Herbert (Queensland), T Horan (Queensland), J Roff (ACT); S Larkham (ACT), G Gregan (ACT); R Harry (New South Wales), M Foley (Queensland), A Blades (New South Wales), D Giffin (ACT), J Eales (Queensland, capt), M Cockbain (Queensland), D Wilson (Queensland), T Kefu (Queensland). Replacements: O Finegan (ACT) for Cockbain, 58; J Little (New South Wales) for Tune, 65; N Grey (New South Wales) for Horan, 74; M Connors (Queensland) for Giffin, 92.

SOUTH AFRICA: P Montgomery (W Province); D Kayser (E Province), R Fleck (W Province), P Muller (Natal), P Rossouw (W Province); J De Beer (Blue Bulls), J Van der Westhuizen (Blue Bulls, capt); O Du Randt (Free State), N Drotske (Free State), C Visagie (W Province), K Otto (Blue Bulls), M Andrews (Natal), J Erasmus (Golden Lions), A Venter (Free State), R Skinstad (W Province). Replacements: O Le Roux (Natal) for Du Randt, 59; A Van den Berg (Griqualand West) for Andrews, 59; A Vos (Golden Lions) for Skinstad, 71; S Terblanche (Natal) for Kayser, 72; H Honiball (Bristol) for Muller, 80.

Referee: D Bevan (Wales).