Rugby World Cup: Weight of expectation on Wallabies' shoulders

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IT IS fortunate that John Eales and his fellow Wallabies have broad shoulders, for on them rest the aspirations of 19 million Australians who want nothing more than for them to bring home another World Cup trophy to display on the nation's bulging mantlepiece.

Cricket, rugby league and netball are already up there, but the place occupied by rugby union has been empty since 1995, when South Africa stole the William Webb Ellis trophy. Now the Australians want it back, and only 15 unpredictable Gallic men stand in their way.

So no matter that the match begins at the unsociable hour of 2am Eastern Standard Time (5am in Perth). And never mind that another event is happening this weekend, the big question is not whether Australia is about to become a republic, but whether Eales, Steve Larkham, Tim Horan et al can work their magic at the Millennium Stadium in the middle of the night.

Pubs here have applied for late licences and are dusting off their big screens to cater for people who want to watch the game outside the comfort of their own homes. The sound of a million rings being torn off cans at 1.55am will probably wake fans who decided to set the video and catch up in the morning.

Only a small minority of rugby league diehards are spoiling the party. For while league has a much bigger following in Australia and there is bitter rivalry between the codes, such petty squabbles are set aside in pursuit of the national mania for sporting success. As one Sydneysider put it: "Australians will watch Australia play just about anything."

The league team sent a message of support to the Wallabies yesterday, adding to the thousands of e-mails that have been bouncing across the ether between Australia and Cardiff in the past few days. So did the Australian cricket captain, Steve Waugh, which no doubt reminded the players of the weight of expectation heaped upon them to match the cricketers' victory over Pakistan in the World Cup final five months ago.

Derek Nelson, a Rugby Australia spokesman, who drew the short straw and has sat out the tournament out in Sydney, said yesterday: "It's a big game for them. Several of the men were in the 1995 World Cup squad. They know what disappointment feels like and they don't want to go there again."

For fans like Michael Donnelly, a Sydney construction manager, the occasion is only slightly less awesome for the fact that Australia are not meeting archrivals the All Blacks in the final. He regards the French as small fry next to the southern hemisphere teams, despite their spectacular defeat of New Zealand last Sunday in the semi-final.

"If we were playing the Kiwis, you'd know it was going to be close," said Donnelly. "You'd be sure of an exciting match. But the French are so inconsistent. It's thrown a bit of a spanner in the works, having the Froggies in the game."

Australia's inexorable progress to the final, swatting aside Romania, Ireland, the USA, Wales and South Africa, is yet another reminder of the miraculous way in which a sparsely populated nation with a small pool of players - 34,000 in the case of rugby union, compared to half a million in Britain - manages to triumph against the odds.

Union is played only in Queensland and New South Wales, and even there it takes second place to league. In Sydney last night, the pubs were full of rugby league fans watching Australia beat New Zealand in the Tri-Nations final in Auckland. In other states, such as Victoria, where Aussie Rules is dominant, union is the third football code.

Liz Herbert, a spokeswoman for the New South Wales RFU, has an explanation for Australia's extraordinary sporting success: "It's like coming from a country village and beating the city team. We may be a country with a small population, but we want to prove that we're as good as the rest of the world."

Eales told the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday that "the planets are aligned" for victory against France. If grown men are to be prevented from weeping in the streets of Australia, the gods must smile on the Wallabies today.



Pool games

3 Oct (Belfast): Australia 57 Romania 9. Tries Kefu 3, Roff 2, Horan, Little, Paul, Burke; Conversions Burke 5, Eales.

10 Oct (Lansdowne Road): Ireland 3 Australia 23. Tries Tune, Horan; Penalties Burke 2, Eales; Conversions Burke 2.

14 Oct (Limerick): Australia 55 USA 19. Tries Staniforth 2, Larkham, Foley, Burke, Strauss, Latham, Whitaker; Penalty: Burke; Conversions Burke 5, Roff.


23 Oct (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff): Wales 9 Australia 24. Tries Gregan 2, Tune; Penalty: Burke; Conversions Burke 3.


30 Oct (Twickenham): Australia 27 South Africa 21. Drop goal: Larkham; Penalties Burke 8.

Total points: 186 (average 37.2 per game). Tries scored: 22 (average 4.4).


Pool games

2 Oct (Beziers): France 33 Canada 20. Tries Ntamack, Glas, T Castaignede, Magne; Penalties Dourthe 3; Conversions Dourthe 2.

8 Oct (Bordeaux): France 47 Namibia 13. Tries Mola 3, Mignoni, Bernat- Salles, Ntamack; Penalties Dourthe 3; Conversions Dourthe 3, Lamaison.

16 Oct (Toulouse): France 28 Fiji 19. Tries Juillet, Dominici, penalty try; Penalties Dourthe 2, Lamaison; Conversions Dourthe 2.


24 Oct (Lansdowne Road): France 47 Argentina 26. Tries Garbajosa 2, Bernat- Salles 2, Ntamack; Penalties Lamaison 4; Conversions Lamaison 5.


31 Oct (Twickenham): France 43 New Zealand 31. Tries Lamaison, Dominici, Dourthe, Bernat-Salles; Drop goals: Lamaison 2; Penalties Lamaison 3; Conversions Lamaison 4.

Total points: 198 (average 39.6). Tries scored: 22 (average 4.4).


The countries have met on 28 occasions, recording 13 wins each, with two draws, during a series stretching back 71 years.

Australia's record win was 24-3 in Paris six years ago, while France boast a best of 34-6 at Parc des Princes in 1976.

Australia have won the last four Tests against France, recording successive victories in Paris (twice), Sydney and Brisbane.

Both countries are making their second World Cup final appearance. France lost in 1987 to New Zealand, while Australia beat England four years later.

Two members of the Australian starting XV - John Eales and Tim Horan - played in the 1991 World Cup-winning team.

Australia boast the best defensive record during this World Cup, having allowed just one try in five matches. France have conceded nine.