The world at their feet, the world on their shoulders...

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The Independent Online

World Cup campaigns do far more than make statements about players; they can make or break them too. Tony Underwood was in his prime during the 1995 tournament, but after running into Jonah Lomu - or rather, being run into by Jonah Lomu - his international career went into free-fall. The same tournament signalled the end for Dewi Morris, Brian Moore and, to all intents and purposes, Rob Andrew. Four years later, Jeremy Guscott called it quits during the tournament. It was a sad, sorry way to go. For every broken man, there is a made man. The 1999 competition did wonders for French players Fabien Galthié and Christophe Dominici, Olivier Magne and Christophe Lamaison. The Six Nations' Championship follows hard on the heels of the World Cup and offers chances to both groups: the successes and the failures. Here, we look at the light and shade of international rugby - the ins and outs, the hots and nots.



The endgame was too much for the new poet-prince of French rugby. Soaked to the skin and swallowed whole for supper by an inspired set of English forwards in a semi-final the Tricolores effectively conceded the moment they drew back the curtains and saw the weather, Michalak - or rather, what was left of Michalak - suffered the indignity of early substitution after missing a fistful of important penalties and failing to match his opposite number, Jonny Wilkinson, in the tactical kicking department. But to damn the boy from the rough end of Toulouse on the evidence of one desperately difficult game would be certifiably crazy; as dangerous, if not more so, as dismissing Wilkinson for his shambolic contributions against Samoa and Wales. During the pool stage of the tournament, not to mention the quarter-final against Ireland in Melbourne, Michalak was sublime - a running, passing, thinking, genius of a rugby player with a ruthless streak running through his competitive soul. Now that Fabien Galthié has retired, many in France believe he should be repositioned at scrum-half. Others like the look of him at centre, or full-back. It scarcely matters. Bernard Laporte will build his back-line around Michalak, whatever the number on his back. If he stays fit, watch out world.


England would give their eyeteeth for a new Martin Johnson. Sadly for them, O'Connell happens to be Irish. It is impossible to ignore the parallels. Both men are genuine tight forwards - the kind of unflashy, single-minded enforcers admired by the great All Black Colin Meads, who was a loose forward incarcerated in a second-rower's body. Both are technically accomplished at the set-piece and understand the importance of physical intimidation in a sport that never pretended to include pacifism among its virtues. There is only one obvious difference: O'Connell is still a going concern in international rugby. Together with Donncha O'Callaghan, his fellow Munsterman, O'Connell is the future of the Irish pack. If the front row is far from world class and the back row useful but inconsistent, the boilerhouse is now superbly equipped - and as Johnson and Ben Kay demonstrated during the World Cup, two locks of serious quality can take a team an awfully long way. It takes some believing that O'Connell has been playing Test rugby for less than two years, but he is only 24 and has another couple of World Cups left in him. Two Lions tours, as well. Assuming he develops his game as Johnson did, he can expect to don the red shirt in New Zealand next summer. The mighty Meads will love him.


Graham Henry, unapologetically sizeist in his approach to rugby, considered Williams too small by half, so it was an absolute scream to see the little twinkle-toes from the Neath-Swansea Ospreys giving the All Blacks a hurry-up during that electrifying World Cup pool match in Sydney in November. And it would be even more hysterical if he subjected the same opponents to the same trickery when the Lions go visiting next summer, especially now that Henry has realised his long-cherished ambition of coaching the New Zealand Test team. Another New Zealander, Steve Hansen, has rehabilitated Williams at international level, and done everyone a favour as a result. Rugby needs players like him if it is not to become a sport for those who fall into one of two categories: the massive or the stupid. Like Arwel Thomas before him, Williams has a touch of gold-dust about him; the great entertainers of the Welsh back-line tradition - Gerald Davies and Phil Bennett, Barry John and Jonathan Davies - recognise something of themselves in him. Selection will never be plain sailing for the 26-year-old, for there will always be a brute with straight-line pace to burn who offers more muscle in defence. But Williams can do different things, and if rugby loses its sense of the different, everything else will be lost too.

Webb Ellis blunders three with so much to prove


So what happened? Bergamasco was a world-class flanker - the real deal, a 24-carat diamond - when the Azzurri were scarcely good enough to whip the ice-cream for the old Five Nations aristocracy. Everyone said so. People spoke of him as Europe's answer to Michael Jones, as the man to take Italy into 21st century as a fully-fledged, fully competitive international side worthy of a place among the élite. And then John Kirwan turned up. A fine wing himself, the new coach saw things in Bergamasco that reminded him of his own destructive running in the wide areas of the field and convinced him that the celebrated back-rower's future lay outside the pack. Bergamasco was not sold on the idea - indeed, he pulled out of the pre-World Cup trip to New Zealand in protest. And although he participated in the tournament itself, he did not start the games that mattered. Italy are well blessed in the loose-forward department: Andrea de Rossi is a formidable blind-side specialist, Aaron Persico a piratical force in Bergamasco's old breakaway position, Sergio Parisse a startling talent at No 8. If there is no way back for the most potent of Italy's players in the professional era - if we have indeed seen the best of the Mighty Mauro - it will be a sorry state of affairs. The next few weeks will reveal all.


Scott Murray is not the best of travellers to Australia. During the 2001 Lions tour, he was among the most obvious under-performers, barely firing a meaningful shot and falling well short of the Test team for the three-match series against the Wallabies. Last autumn, he went missing once again. Murray started the first World Cup pool match in Townsville, when the Scots failed to deal effectively with the sharp-witted Japanese, and the third game in Sydney, when he and his countrymen leaked five tries and a half-century of points to the French. That was enough for the coaches, who turned to Nathan Hines and Stuart Grimes for the remainder of the tournament. Hines, born in Australia but kilted up to the eyeballs now he has had a taste of the international high life, is every bit as athletic as Murray and a whole lot more aggressive. No openings there, then. The fallen one will have to go after Grimes, a couple of years older and not equipped with the unusually potent line-out skills that earned Murray a stellar reputation during his years in the English Premiership. A second Lions tour already looks beyond him but a decent run in the Six Nations would go some way towards restoring some self-esteem. First, though, he needs to get himself picked.


In the 1999 World Cup, the "new Lawrence Dallaglio" started two matches and played 120 minutes of rugby. During the 2003 tournament in Australia, he again started two games and played 135 minutes of rugby. Fifteen minutes of improvement in four years - pretty damned good for a marathon runner, but precious little to write home about in rugby terms. Worsley has problems at both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, Dallaglio shows absolutely no sign of giving his clubmate an even break by retiring; on the other, super-flash newcomers like Gloucester's James Forrester and Chris Jones of Sale are closing in on places in the England squad. Come the summer trip to New Zealand and Australia, it would be no surprise to see one or both of Forrester and Jones boarding the plane at Heathrow. Dallaglio's standing as a loose forward of impeccable pedigree was always going to cramp Worsley's style, but the younger man has blown his share of opportunities. He played poorly at No 8 in Paris two years ago - his fragility at the back of the scrum opened the door for Lewis Moody of Leicester, who is now ahead of him in the pecking order - and then failed to impress at blind-side in the autumn, when Richard Hill's injury allowed him an opportunity during the World Cup. This is Last Chance Saloon territory, and the bar is running dry.