James Lawton: Australia's hard men revel in psychological warfare

Sweet Chariot brigade need to absorb important lessons from a nation which makes a unique investment of its spirit and personality in sport
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The Independent Online

Even though you feel you've surrendered a small chunk of eternity, flying down here is always the same exhilarating business. This must be particularly so if you care anything for sport.

Arrive, as I just did, at the dawn of an event like one of the world's great horse races, the Melbourne Cup, and you are forcibly reminded all over again that no nation invests more of its spirit and personality into sport - and gets out quite so much - as Australia.

A recent banner headline in one of the major prints here said so much about the psychology of sport. It came after Jonny Wilkinson's underwhelming performance against the South Africans. The paper printed a big picture of England's best player and scrawled: "Is that all you've got?"

Naturally, the Sweet Chariot guys were outraged. Some dismissed it as the crudest psychological warfare, but maybe you had to have missed a crucial aspect of the Aussie mentality to say that. Consider the Australian position right now as the World Cup they are hosting increasingly seems beyond them. They know they are not as strong as the tournament favourites, New Zealand and England, or as potentially inspired as the crackling French, but they count on something deep in their nature. It is the enduring value of what they see in putting it up to the other bloke, as they did to Wilkinson. Really, they ask, is this what you think is going to beat us down? Get serious, you Poms. England tried to do that in the 1991 World Cup final, but the result was sheer schizophrenia. Having pounded their way through the tournament with immense forward power, England ran the ball, desperately and with very little practice, against the unbreakable Australian line. David Campese has scarcely stopped laughing ever since.

In this style of supreme defiance Nigel Benn, the boxer, became an honorary Aussie a few years ago when he was being heavily beaten by his fiercest rival Chris Eubank. Benn dropped his hands, offered his chin, and mouthed the words: "Come on, you wanker."

Not that the Australians have to operate so much from the back foot. They believe that their destiny is to win, and they not only live for it, they plan for it. Twenty-odd years ago I was taken around the national sports centre in Canberra. It was shortly after some financial scandal had broken around the unique establishment of beautifully manicured fields, shining halls and Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Of course, I pursued the subject and the official lost his patience soon enough. "Hey, mate, these things happen, but it's not something that's going to interfere with the future of this place. It's something all Aussies want - and are willing to pay for. We like to give our kids a chance at world level. We like to win, mate."

The line has reverberated many times. When Picketts Lock became a national scandal. When Wembley stadium, once a matter of pride, became the longest-running joke in English sport. When David Mellor was appointed head of the Football Task Force and given tuppence to do the job. When our sports minister failed to answer some basic questions about the major games we play. In Australia he wouldn't have lasted out the day. Sport isn't mistaken for real life here. It's just something worth doing bloody well.

A couple of summers ago, I sat for an hour or so on a balcony at Headingley with Steve Waugh, a definitive Australian sportsman. He was fighting to be fit for the final Test at The Oval, despite an injury that was giving him excruciating pain. Why not take it easy for a while, eke out the last years of a great career without putting too much strain on the body? He looked at me in some bewilderment. He was the captain of Australia and it didn't matter that the Poms, yet again, had been cut to pieces and the series long settled. The moment you stopped fighting, and needing to be the best, it was over.

On the way to Heathrow last Sunday morning, listening to a euphoric commentary on England's slaying of Uruguay, you had to wonder if Waugh's way would ever again be the England way. On Sunday morning there was talk of an angry lion after the embarrassment of Samoa, who were duly taken apart by South Africa.

Maybe England will pick up the powerful stride which brought them to this tournament. Maybe Wilkinson will jettison his cares and show the Aussies precisely what he has. But there's no point in denying England do have a weight of history, and psychology, against them. Of the four previous World Cups, two in the southern hemisphere, two in the north, Australia have won two, New Zealand and South Africa one each.

It is unlikely that Australia will claim a mind-boggling third triumph this time, but not many would have the cold nerve to say it here. On any field you simply cannot discount them. If their talent dips, the turn of their mind doesn't. Abrasive at times, infuriatingly arrogant at others, their will to win is unique, something that you were reminded of when they were required to scuffle to victory over the fighting Irish in the tournament's most competitive match. They got there in the end and you had to know it was the likeliest outcome.

Now, here on the Gold Coast, Australian hope is redoubled. It envelops you like the warmth when you get off the plane. It reminds you that more important than the quality of your play is the state of your mind. Australia's, of course, remains as hard as a lump of Cairns Rock.