Rugby World Cup: True fans rouse Twickenham out of its snooze

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IN THE end, the losers' behaviour said it all. "There was no lack of discipline on our part," Nick Mallett, the Springbok coach, said firmly on Saturday night. "We were forced into making mistakes." Twenty-four hours later, John Hart occupied the same seat. "We have no excuses," the All Black mastermind concluded. "We were outplayed."

It may, of course, be in the interests of the vanquished to pay tribute to the victors' puissance. But how often does it happen, at least with the plain-spoken sincerity that we heard from both defeated parties at Twickenham last weekend? Neither Mallett nor Hart was a happy man, both uncomfortably aware that they faced severe criticism in the days to come. But even in the emptiness of defeat they seemed capable of recognising that they and their players had participated in events that defined the beauty and the value of sport, and that this made them luckier men than those of us who merely sat and watched.

Mind you, sitting and watching wasn't a bad alternative. Saturday's semi- final between Australia and South Africa was such a tense and absorbing affair that it was like watching a pair of grandmasters tussling over a chess board. The nerves were stretched when Jannie De Beer kicked the Springboks level seven minutes into injury time, just as we were asking ourselves whether Derek Bevan had put his watch back 24 hours early. They twanged as De Beer and Matt Burke exchanged penalties in the first half of extra time, and then found a marvellous release with the vast drop goal that Stephen Larkham kicked to give the Wallabies a decisive advantage.

English hearts, so wickedly tortured by De Beer's drop goals in the Stade de France a week earlier, could not help but quicken at the sight of the same weapon being turned against the reigning world champions. The deceptively gawky Larkham, as original a rugby player, in his way, as Jonah Lomu, had taken the risk of kicking a rain-slicked ball out of the hand, and had profited magnificently from his adventure.

The following afternoon provided a spectacle that displayed the other side of rugby's coin. Where the first semi-final had offered rugby played at an astonishingly high intellectual and physical level, the second showed what can happen when pride and guts and self-belief are allowed to take their place alongside tactical planning and technical skill.

And how we enjoyed it, at least those of us who had not come from Wellington or Auckland, Canterbury or Otago. As Christophe Dominici, Richard Dourthe and Philippe Bernat-Salles scampered over the line for the three second- half tries during that extraordinary passage when France racked up 33 points without reply, many of the neutrals in the press box were leaping to their feet with the sheer joy of it. And when it was all over, when the French players were taking their tour d'honneur, we of the cynical and hypercritical media gave them a standing ovation. That, I can assure you, does not happen every day.

Nothing against the All Blacks, of course. In fact the pleasure in France's victory could be taken only because of the quality of the opposition they needed to overcome. New Zealand were the odds-on favourites to win the tournament, and rightly so. They are a magnificent rugby team, coached and conditioned to near perfection, with a sprinkling of individuals who can claim to be the world's finest in their positions. The poignancy of sport is that a team like that must lose in order for their opponents to attain such heights of euphoric self-expression.

What also needs to be said is that, for all the tournament's well-chronicled shortcomings, Twickenham provided a marvellous setting for the semi-finals. Or rather the supporters of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and France turned Twickenham into a marvellous setting.

If there were ever a need for a demonstration of the theory that it is the fans who make the occasion, rather than vice versa, here it was, twice over. England's departure ensured the departure of the dreaded Russell Watson, the silencing of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and the removal of the corporate fat cats who tuck into their three-course lunches in the hospitality tents before staggering out to turn the match into an accompaniment to a post-prandial snooze. It took the Boks, the Wallabies, the Blacks and the Froggies to prove that Twickenham can be something other than an annexe to the gentlemen's clubs of Pall Mall.

The noise made by these visiting fans was of a completely different order. Urgent and passionate, it crashed around the towering sides of the great concrete U and brought the place to life in a way that never even happened in the heyday of Will Carling and Jeremy Guscott. The political dealing that brought these matches to a London suburb may have stunk to high heaven, but it resulted in a couple of afternoons of celestial rugby.

The RFU would do well to give that some thought. What kind of an atmosphere does it want at England's Six Nations matches? The successes of this tournament, as well as the shortcomings, have raised a few fundamental questions about the nature of rugby's appeal, and about the degree to which it resembles or differs from top-level football, the popular phenomenon that every other sport is driven to imitate.

If the success of an event such as this depends on its success in appealing to people beyond its normal constituency, which is the view foisted on us by the broadcasters and the chaps from the marketing department, then the French players have done the tournament the biggest possible favour. As the eyes turn to Cardiff and the Millennium Stadium for Saturday's final, only one question need be asked: can they do it again?

Those who fear the prospect of a reversion to their self-destructive mode should remember that Sunday's victory was the product of resolution as well as of passion, its foundations laid in the first 15 minutes of the match, before the points started to go up on the board. That was when France earned the right to occupy the same field as the favourites, and there is no reason to suppose that they will approach Saturday's task in any other frame of mind. In that case, whatever the outcome, this Rugby World Cup really will have lived up to its billing as the last great sporting event of the century.