At the World Cup four years ago Tim Horan stepped out of his sickbed on the morning of the Twickenham semi-final and ran South Africa ragged. It helped win the great Wallaby centre the vote as player of the tournament. Yesterday Stirling Mortlock, whose entry into this World Cup was delayed by a bout of gastroentiritis, was in every way central to Australia's effort. It was just what the doctor ordered.
Mortlock was lucky to win a place in the squad for the champions' title defence. The 26-year-old had not played a single Test in 2003, having had a shoulder reconstructed at the conclusion of the Super 12 last May. And the dicky stomach that ruled him out of the Wallabies' opening match, a nervy affair against Argentina, allowed Matt Burke to occupy the outside-centre position. Horan, now employed as a television commentator, observed at that stage: "To replace Burke, Stirling needs to play some amazing games." As they say Down Under: no worries.
As a replacement, Mortlock scored a try in each of the routs of Romania and Namibia. Then he was left out of the 22 who beat Ireland 17-16 in the final pool match, but the jitters of the wobbling Wallabies ushered him back in for the quarter-final. Against the Scots in Brisbane he claimed the game-breaking try from Phil Waugh's controversial turnover: an extravagant swallow dive over the goal-line provided an added release of all the pent-up tension.
It paved the way for this extraordinary display of guts and guile from the man his team-mates at the ACT Brumbies call "Snork". New Zealand's injured first-choice No 13, Tana Umaga, was a forlorn spectator in white shirt and black-and-white tie. Mortlock was pure gold. Employing the familiar Wallaby virtue of running at space, but also with the power to keep going in the clutches of New Zealand tacklers, he repeatedly broke the gainline. At the 2000 Olympics, Cathy Freeman ran like the wind round Stadium Australia - as it was known before a telecoms company got their mitts on it - and a zephyr of joy wafted round the outback and back. Mortlock is more of a high hurdler, all straight lines and high knee lift, but the effect on the Australian sporting psyche was much the same.
The value of Mortlock's interception to maintain his try-a-match record cannot be overstated. In simultaneously snuffing out a New Zealand attack it added up to a possible 14-point swing in the Wallabies' favour and put the All Blacks on the back foot early in the piece. It takes bravery to step out of the line - a split-second judgement call that can leave the perpetrator looking foolish if it fails. Mortlock dared to win, and won. At his old school, the King's, a stone's throw away in Parramatta, they must have been throwing their caps in the air. Fortiter and fideliter, says the school motto - boldly and faithfully. How appropriate.
Mortlock passed a similar test of resolve in 2001, when he also missed every international through injury, having arrived as a Wallaby the previous year with a rush of goal-kicking records. His early appearances were on the wing or at full-back. Now he formed the leading edge of a kind of diamond formation in the back line designed to drive the All Blacks into retreat, the other three points occupied by the rugby league recruits Lote Tuqiri, Mat Rogers and Wendell Sailor. It was singular in nature, owing little to the passing moves of traditional threequarter play or, indeed, the subtlety of Horan. And it was what Eddie Jones, the coach, had called for.
"We had a solid gameplan and put it into practice," Mortlock said. "We had a crack at them and made some inroads. I really enjoyed it out there. Lote and Wendell enjoyed it as well. It was good fun." Glen Ella's gap-toothed grin, as the backs coach hugged Jones at the end, indicated he thought it was "good fun" as well.
Inside Mortlock, Steve Larkham and Elton Flatley did their bit as organisers. Where once Jonah Lomu marauded, New Zealand relied on Doug Howlett to make forays up the middle. He was swatted back like a Don Bradman drive through extra cover.
"Good on ya, Stirlo," the interviewer said to Mortlock, and Australia nodded its collective head. King's was established in the 19th century when a clerical protégé of the Duke of Wellington was dispatched to New South Wales to introduce a "superior description" of education into the colony. We should never have underestimated the ability of its latter-day rugby players to repay the compliment.
'We were playing the best team in the world'
That was a massive effort by everyone. We had to do that as we were playing the best team in the world this year.
George Gregan, Australia captain
It's heartbreaking. Thank you for supporting us, we're really sorry.
Reuben Thorne, New Zealand captain
We didn't choke at all. That's just a buzz-word that goes around. We got beaten by the better team. Our execution was poor and we did not deserve victory.
John Mitchell, New Zealand coach
The guys implemented the gameplan very well, they made adjustments, they made decisions and credit to the players.
Eddie Jones, Australia coach
This season's scoreboard is still 2-1. We were good enough tonight, but New Zealand set the standards for world rugby. They play with width, rhythm and tempo.
Semi-finals are about pressure. We handled that well. But we can't get carried away.
We identified that they might be weak up the middle. We made fewer errors than in previous weeks and we just want to keep improving.
Stephen Larkham, Australia fly-half
They didn't allow us to play our game, they pushed us to make a lot of faults and they took their chances.
That's his best World Cup performance and I think he'll play better next week.
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