New champions prove strong enough to overcome refereeing quirks

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The Independent Online

When the English team comes back to earth, and they deserve to stay up in the clouds for as long as they like, they might shudder at the thought of how close they came to being whistled out of the World Cup.

I'm sure the South African referee Andre Watson meant them no harm, and generally he had a good game, but his interpretation of front row scrummaging laws could have proved fatal to England's hopes.

As it was, the ref's decision to penalise the prop Trevor Woodman for not engaging properly allowed Elton Flatley to gain the three points that took the final into extra-time.

I am noexpert on what goes on in the front row but it was clear that Watson had different ideas to England as to what constitutes illegal binding.

The number of times England were pinged for front-row offences was odd considering that from the outset theirs was far superior and stronger to the Australians. There was certainly no reason for them to offend in order to dominate.

It is very worrying that the referee was adamant that they were at fault and he seemed to be missing the whole point and getting his decisions wrong. And the more they complained the harder he came down on them.

It's sad to think that England could have lost because of his inability to appreciate the technicalities of the scrum.

Watson is certainly not alone among southern hemisphere referees in having a different interpretation of scrum work. The main problem is that in the TriNations and the Super 12s the scrum is regarded as little more than a means of restarting the game.

In Europe it is a far more crucial and integral part of our game. More of an art, you might say, and getting the ascendancy in that department is central to a team's success.

Earlier in the tournament we also saw how some referees were more tolerant of crossing than others. I hope and trust that one of the results of England winning the World Cup for the northern hemisphere is that the power-base of rugby will be more global and that the referees will be encouraged to achieve more parity of interpretation.

As it happened, nothing was going to stop England. Lawrence Dallaglio said that at no time did he think they were going to lose and I had exactly the same feeling. Man for man they were physically stronger and better than the Aussies but they just couldn't shake them off.

If England have had a recurring fault in their campaign it is that they have neglected to let loose their entire armoury of strengths. They've also been accused of choking but that is nonsense. Under pressure, they've simply closed up and taken refuge in their basic strengths.

When you have strengths as deeply entrenched in your game plan as England, there's nothing wrong with that. But it meant that we didn't see them in full flow.

Clive Woodward, their coach, has been saying that there's more to come from this team and I believe him. There's so much pent-up power in their back division yet to be unleashed.

I was expecting players such as Ben Cohen to run amok but it didn't happen. This wasn't confined to England because it didn't turn out to be a tournament for dazzling back play. The weather may have had much to do with that.

But I am sure that becoming world champions will take the pressure off them and that they'll become more expansive and adventurous. We might have seen it on Saturday had Ben Kay grabbed that pass to score midway through the first half. A bigger lead then and England would have gone full tilt for victory. But they went back into their shell and Australia didn't need a second invitation.

The Aussies have taken their defeat very well, narrow as it was. I think they realised they were up against a better team. They would have beaten any other team on the day. The conditions were against them, they were being battered up front but still they stayed in contention until the very end of extra-time.

It all sets up a far more competitive future for sides from the two hemispheres. I'm already looking forward to the Six Nations. Nobody in that England pack looked retirement material and I'm certain they'll want to stay together to squeeze the last drop of success out of their new place on top of the world.

Their rivals will be queuing up to topple them and the standard of the championship is bound to rise. They'll take some beating but that's been the story for the past few years. Now there's a new incentive for everyone and our rugby is going to be much richer for it.

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