Weekend the rugby world woke up

Tournament came alive when brilliant quarter-finals tilted global game on its axis
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The Independent Online

It had been an interesting if not sensational World Cup and then it kicked off on the quarter-final weekend in early October. England, the defending champions who appeared to be putting up the weakest defence in the history of the competition, shoved Australia through a mangle.

The Wallabies, twice winners of the Webb Ellis Cup and beaten finalists after Jonny Wilkinson's extra-time drop goal in Sydney in 2003, had four years to get their front-row act together, yet on a blazing afternoon in Marseilles it still kept collapsing.

England did not score a try, Australia did, but Wilkinson put the boot in, this time with four penalties. In the dying minutes, Stirling Mortlock, the Wallabies' captain, was just wide with a long-range penalty. Had he kicked it, his side would probably have won 13-12, and where would that have left Brian Ashton?

As it is, Lawrence Dallaglio compared England to a pub team, though not many XVs from The Coach and Horses or even The Rose and Crown have beaten Australia and France to reach a World Cup final. If the Red Rose renaissance was unexpected and beautifully timed, the rugby world took another seismic shift on its axis that evening when mighty New Zealand were tackled to a standstill by the Cup hosts, France, not at Stade de France but at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Two tries each, two penalties each, the difference in a 20-18 scoreline being a missed conversion. That and the fact that the French made in the ratio of four tackles to one.

Les Bleus have never won the Cup, but in trying they make damned sure they ruin it forthe All Blacks. In 1999, they had hypnotised them at Twickenham, and another spell was cast in Cardiff, against what was supposed to be the mosttalented and best-preparedsquad ever assembled.

In the space of a few hours, two of the southern-hemisphere heavyweights were on their knees. Back at Marseilles, the French connection alone was enough to ensure the old port ran out of beer, but Super Saturday wasn't the end of it. The competition came of age, the game looked world-class.

The following day with Marseilles still enjoying a heatwave it was South Africa versus Fiji. The Fijians had already transferred some of their fantastic seven-a-side skills to the broader canvas by knocking out Wales 38-34, a result that cost Gareth Jenkins his job.

At the Stade Vlodrome, Fiji found unexpected support from thousands of English people who were making a weekend of it they discarded their hair shirts in favour of grass skirts and Welsh fans who booked into Marseilles in the expectation of seeing their country in the quarters. It was one of the more memorable matches of this or any World Cup. South Africa got there in the end but not before the Fijians, playing with solar brilliance in a spell in the second half, threatened to run the Boks off their feet.

In the semis, France returned to Paris to face Les Rosbifs and could not reproduce the intensity or ferocity that unhinged the All Blacks. Josh Lewsey capitalised on early indecision to score the only try and, allied to Wilkinson's goalkicking and a magnificent defence, it was enough to end the French dream. The train drivers promptly went on strike.

South Africa, who had been too good for Argentina in the semi-finals, also had the edge over England in a final without tries, though it took the television match official what seemed like an age to rule that Mark Cueto's left boot had crossed the touchline before the left wing crossed the tryline. It will be frozen in time as a tough call.

Reasons to be cheerful

1. The Six Nations: it may not be as glamorous as the World Cup but Europe's blue riband still packs a heavyweight punch.

2. Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan can try to banish his World Cup nightmare; Italy have a new godfather in Springbok Nick Mallett.

3. In Red Rose land, there is strength in depth; Jonny Wilkinson will come under the severest pressure yet to retain his No 10 jersey.

4. Young pretenders to watch include Danny Cipriani, provided the English-West Indian can stay out of nightclubs and tabloids.

5. Wales welcome Warren Gatland, whose man-management skills will be put to the test by valley glamourpuss Gavin Henson, who must take the strain with the coach, instead of the train.

6. Midlands powerhouse Leicester are struggling in the Heineken Cup but neighbours Northampton are on course for promotion. Franklin's Gardens is a Premiership venue.

Tim Glover

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