The Rugby World Cup: Australia's new world order

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The Independent Online
A MONTH ago I would have required just two words to sum up the World Cup - New Zealand. Then Australia, somewhat inconveniently, blasted them in the Bledisloe Cup and with that went the certainty that there was only one team in it.

A little more reading, a fresh batch of news bulletins and with Joost van der Westhuizen not only fit and fighting again after injury, but installed as captain, perhaps the Spingboks were not completely out of the running. Then came the news that Tonga had, for the first time in their history, been encamped together and were looking mean and distinctly hungry, and suddenly there were compelling reasons why perhaps 16 of the countries competing in the World Cup had at least a chance of winning it.

If the suspicion remains that it will require a cataclysmic event to upset the established order, there is more than enough evidence to support the view that the outcome of this fourth World Cup is the most difficult to predict. But New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, the previous winners, remain the favourites to win this time and probably in that order.

The All Blacks were, until their gleaming attack was so rudely dismantled in the Bledisloe Cup, in the process of assembling a side who appeared impervious to the vagaries of form, fitness and the British winter. South Africa are unquestionably a better side than their recent record suggests, but the damage to their confidence and to the balance of the team, shorn of their deposed captain Gary Teichmann, is hard to assess.

Having backed New Zealand for the past two years and all through their dismal spell of defeat last year, I now intend to abandon them, probably rashly and almost certainly expensively, in favour of the Australians who have, in collective power and individual skill in the key positions, the blend best suited to a tournament of this nature. Whether they have the consistency to reproduce their recent tour de force against the All Blacks at least twice more in the next five weeks is another matter.

As always the referees will be crucial to the success of the tournament. It is vital that they provide both a united front in their interpretation of the laws and also consistency in their application. The areas most likely to be contentious are the tackle and the line-out where, despite the near-certainty of success for the side throwing the ball in, obstruction remains a way of life. And it is spreading to pollute other parts of the game. The blocking of players who have kicked ahead is on the increase and is certain to be a commonly-used tactic. The tone will have to be set early and the referees bear a massive responsibility to ensure that the image of the game and the players is not tarnished.

What is certain is that the 1999 World Cup, like its predecessors, will not be won by the flashiest runners but by the side with the tightest and best-marshalled defence, and if Australia appear at this stage to be well- nigh impregnable, then England are not far behind. What England have yet to prove, however, is whether their players can operate in the claustrophobically confined corridors which are the only ones open to them at this level, and at the speed and accuracy required. It is all very well for England to play flowing, fluent rugby in a series of meaningless warm-up matches but if they are to be taken seriously as potential winners they will have to perform to more exacting standards.

No side have been more thoroughly prepared and if England do win through, the list of credits, from the Marines to Eileen Drewery, will cover the committee-room walls. In the end, though, it will be up to the players and whether or not they have the will and the skill to succeed. Does Jonny Wilkinson, if he is Clive Woodward's final choice at fly-half, have the maturity, the control and the composure to carry it off? England's second game against the All Blacks will in all probability dictate their fate. Defeat would surely finish them given that they would, in all likelihood, then have to beat the three strongest nations in the world.

In the seething atmosphere of Twickenham on 9 October England will be required to get everything right. It is about this time that doubt and uncertainty begin to flood the mind. Can they hit their targets at the line-out, is their scrummaging solid enough and do they have the physical might in the back row to blast holes around the fringes of the set piece? Just how secure are their back three to the relentlessly accurate probing of the likes of Andrew Mehrtens?

Woodward will be dwelling on the positive. On their day, England's pack are a match for anyone; so is the defence. Lawrence Dallaglio could emerge as the player of the tournament and if Jeremy Guscott can convince himself that the old pace is there, the midfield has exciting potential. Wilkinson or Paul Grayson can, at the very least, be relied on to kick their goals, though no side are better equipped in this than Wales.

Neil Jenkins, even in such elevated company, is in a class apart, and with Rob Howley also provides as potent a half-back pairing as any in the tournament. The prospect of being splintered by Scott Gibbs is not one to relish, while the transformation in the Welsh pack from pushovers to pushers-over has been nothing short of miraculous and offers some justification for the overheating expectations of the Welsh nation.

If Wales have the host advantage of a relatively undemanding group, which may not be the best preparation for the anticipated quarter-final meeting with Australia, the draw has not been entirely unfavourable to Ireland. On the assumption that the Irish lose to Australia, which is not unreasonable and that France win Pool C which, on their present form, is rash in the extreme, Ireland could find themselves playing France in the quarter-final and so facing the very real prospect of a place in the last four. The Irish build-up has been calamitous but, as they would see it, not yet serious.

France, on the other hand, are in a sorry mess. The rift between the players and their coaches, Jean- Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux, has been ruinous and despite the distinguished careers of both it is hard to feel sympathy for coaches who pair Emile Ntamack and Thomas Castaignede in the centre against the All Blacks. Added to the supreme folly of their selection policy the French do not appear to have moved with the times. Gerald Davies, the erstwhile Wales and Lions three-quarter, recently offered the view that the modern game, so much more predictable in its patterns, has lost the instinctive spontaneity on which the French thrived and that this may, in part, account for their decline. Whatever the reason, one of the world's

great rugby powers has been reduced to the ranks of the no-hopers. And yet...

The Scots have a tendency to play to their seeding on such occasions and even in heavy defeat by the All Blacks in two of the last three World Cups, they have displayed spirit and ambition. There is the glimmer of hope that they might catch the Springboks cold in the opening match today week and no one, least of all the players, will take seriously their fitful form in the warm-up matches. The Canadians, Samoans and Argentinians will provide worthy opposition and it will be fascinating to see how far the Fijians, the recent winners over Italy, and Japan, the Pacific Rim champions, have advanced in the world rankings.

It is from the ranks of the unfancied countries that so many gems have been unearthed in past tournaments. Diego Dominguez from Italy, the Samoans Pat Lam and Frank Bunce, and the Zimbabwean prop Adrian Garvey, who famously scored two tries against Scotland at Murrayfield.

There are so many vivid images to recall - John Kirwan's bewitching run through the Italians in 1987, the unbearable tension of the quarter-final between Ireland and Australia at Lansdowne Road in 1991 and the indescribable emotion which engulfed all those privileged to have been present at the final at Ellis Park four years ago. The World Cup has propelled rugby union on to the big stage. With luck and with good refereeing it will hold its global audience enthralled during the next five weeks.