James Lawton: The skill and spirit of the Pumas are already the glory of the tournament

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The Independent Online

Eddie O'Sullivan, long regarded as one of the niftiest verbal tap dancers in all of sport, suggests his Irish team are out of the rugby World Cup because they merely packed the wrong set of performances, as a careless traveller might have bunged some cheap cologne into his toilet bag rather than a drop of Bulgari.

The trouble is that what happened to Ireland and Wales, and seems certain to befall England and Scotland, would smell so sour by any other product name.

The northern hemisphere, for whom France are the last flickering hope of redemption when they travel forlornly away from their Paris citadel to Cardiff and into the likely grinding maw of the All Blacks, is paying the price of a selection problem but the concern has to be not with what it included in its armoury but what it left out. It omitted the heart and the sinew and the sheer competitive values which have made Argentina the glory of this sixth World Cup.

The men from the pampas filled their saddle bags with such goodies. They rode into the Stade de France and ripped away the pretensions of the French and on Sunday at the Parc des Princes they exposed the Irish, a team of such beguiling promise for so long, for what they had become: underachievers who had gone bad where they were supposed to grow strong, a team of posers who, when it came to delivering, had nothing to offer but a surly disbelief at the extent of their failure.

Brian O'Driscoll, who not so long ago was one of the great beacons of rugby as a spectacle and a test of natural talent, was reduced to some feeble sparring with the truth, disputing something that the vibrant, fighting team of Agustin Pichot had made increasingly evident as the decisive match worked towards its climax. It was that it terms of commitment, and an understanding of what could be achieved if every man played his part, there was only one team with the right physical and mental equipment.

O'Sullivan, who quite inexplicably has avoided the instant sacking of his Welsh counterpart, Gareth Jenkins, was of no mind to consider the bankruptcy of his team's performance.

Hadn't he just signed a new four-year-deal? So of course a line would be drawn under a sporting disaster, and a crowning platitude would be uttered. "We are very disappointed," he declared, "we knew we had to bring our A game here and we didn't." Indeed, they did not. All they brought was the latest example of what happens when too many plaudits are unearned, when reputations run beyond achievement.

The killer hint came at Croke Park in winter, when the French were allowed to deliver a monumental sucker punch. That cost Ireland the chance to come to France with the aura of winners; it also spoke of a soft centre, an ultimately unsteady hand on a destiny which seemed to be supported by so much outstanding individual talent.

O'Sullivan's survival offends one of the basic rules of upper echelon sport. When the air gets rarified, when the stakes are highest, the true colours of a coach and his team are laid bare. The rest is hope and speculation.

For the Argentines this World Cup was the chance to prove that if their place on the big stage was denied for all but one of every four years, if they could reasonably regard themselves as the neglected orphans of a game which pretended to embrace the world, it did not have to injure their self-belief or their passion to play to rugby to the very edge of their ability. The result was teamwork of the highest, most inspiring order and an individual performance from fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez which mocked the overall efforts of more celebrated rivals like Ronan O'Gara and Frédi Michalak.

Does this World Cup retain the potential for greatness in the face of the terrible North-South divide?

Not as an example of rounded growth across the globe, certainly not, but as an opportunity for teams like New Zealand and, most strikingly so far, South Africa, to prove that the highest standards can be reinstated, for the South Sea Islanders to remind us again of the ferocious beauty of their love for the game, and the wonderful ambition of Argentina, no doubt.

What the Argentines, starved of big-time television and sponsorship, have proved so impressively is that professionalism will always bring as much risk as sure-fire progress. England, with their huge player population and resources and a world title, have lost their iron and their will. Ireland have squandered an exceptional upsurge of talent. The Welsh, so exciting four years ago in the last World Cup and their subsequent march to the Six Nations Grand Slam, have regressed.

Argentina have stayed closer to the ground and to their competitive roots. They will almost certainly not win this World Cup, they may even find out against mediocre Scotland that they exhausted too much of the best of themselves in beating France and Ireland, but they have already won one honour that will never dim.

They came to play as they never played before. They arrived perfectly prepared for the fight of their lives.

It was not so much a case of bringing their A game but their only game. Ireland, among others, can only analyse their performance with the deepest of shame.

Grant position undermines LMA

It is not likely to lighten his lugubrious expression too much, but it seems certain now that before his absurd and offensive reign at Stamford Bridge is over, Avram Grant will have performed one useful service to English football.

He will have acted as a lightning rod of derision for the continued efforts of the League Managers Association to establish the Pro Licence as some kind of authentic guide to the suitability of a big-time football manager.

While the LMA bangs on about Grant's lack of what it believes to be a vital credential, the fact that his appointment is a direct result of cronyism, that he has been allowed to sidle into the shoes of an infinitely more talented occupant, is apparently considered unworthy of a whispered complaint. As Chelsea dwindle before their eyes, do the fans breathlessly await their new manager's appearance with a piece of paper clutched in his hand? It is time for the LMA to join the real world from which Chelsea have become so bizarrely detached.

Camus monument is well overdue

Many football grounds now proudly display a statue commemorating the lives of great servants to the game. Wembley has one for the peerless Bobby Moore. Bill Shankly stands within shouting distance of the Kop at Anfield. On the Goodison Park approaches the relentless goalscorer Dixie Dean is remembered in brass.

But when will the contribution of the Nobel Prize-winner Albert Camus be recognised? Hardly a week passes without the need to invoke his stirring defence of football's intellectual and character-shaping properties. This, for example, comes from the distinguished literary critic John Carey in his review of the new biography of Rudolf Nureyev. "Describing ballet in words," he wrote, "comes down, essentially, to long, precise accounts of where people put their arms and legs, and this has severe limitations as reading matter. Further, ballet is mindless compared to other arts – as mindless as, say, football."

Camus, on the other hand, asserted that he learnt most about life, its challenges and joys and despair, while performing his duties as goalkeeper for the University of Algiers. I say someone should find a chisel without delay.

Ecclestone's champagne caveat

Break open the champagne. Surely Bernie Ecclestone, the éminence grise of Formula One, had such an urge when he considered a public relations triumph of stunning proportions as he pored over the accounts of Lewis Hamilton's victory in the Japanese rain.

Yes, of course, the boy did good. He showed the mark of a potentially great champion when he moved within touching distance of the title while reminding almost everyone that great drivers like Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna were never better able to prove their talent than in the wet.

Best of all for Ecclestone was that, in all the critical acclaim, no one seemed to get round to a reminder that this drivers' championship will always carry a giant asterisk – one that now looks certain to say that the winner was driving for a team who had been fined £50m for one of the most bare-faced examples of cheating in the history of sport. It is reasonable to believe that Ecclestone does not subscribe to Abe Lincoln's theory that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.

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