And ITV, anxious to make the most of their moment before Rupert Murdoch buys up everything that moves and involves a ball, had sent out their big guns to cover it. Trevor McDonald was given an audience with Nelson Mandela, who explained this competition would mark the swan-song of the lilywhites (a bit behind the times, Nelson: the lilywhites disappeared during the last World Cup when the England team trotted out with shirts polluted by strange extraneous stripes). There was Gordon Brown (not the Shadow Chancellor), dispatched to undertake a dispassionate analysis of the Ivory Coast team - who were about to play Scotland - while wearing a kilt. And in the Cape Town studio, Mark Austin had been taken away from reporting death and destruction on the South African front line and popped behind a desk to anchor things. Unfortunate, then, for the man at the front, that Austin looked about as comfortable under the blaze of studio lights as Michael Lynagh did on the Australians' dead-ball line with 36 stone of enraged Afrikaner bearing down on him.
You could sympathise with his terrified countenance, however. This was the tournament which, we had fondly assumed, was to deliver the first win by an England team in a proper international competition for nearly 30 years. To be the television organisation, better still to be the anchor man, delivering that news would be something. Instead, immediately the action began, it became clear to Austin - as it became to all of us - that he would not be basking in reflected glory this time next month. If what was going on in the opening game at Newlands was in any way representative, England would be on their way back to their day jobs after the quarter- finals. Out on the pitch were sights to terrify the most whole-hearted England optimist: hookers running like Linford Christie, backs handling the ball so confidently you assumed they were wearing velcro gloves, flankers executing tackles you could feel at 2,500 miles distance. And that was just the Australians.
"You can see the professionalism of the Australians immediately at the start of this tournament," said Steve Smith, ITV's principal match analyst who, to make everyone back home feel at home, sounds indistinguishable from Kevin Keegan. Raising rugby's P-word in his first intervention may have raised the hackles back at the headquarters of the Rugby Football Union (Flatulence House) but it was a pertinent point. Both teams were playing a different game to the one we believed we had mastered: it was a professional game. And the South Africans were playing it even more professionally than the world champions.
John Taylor, ITV's main commentator, has a habit of referring to Australia's most renowned international chummily as Campo. At least when he is going forward. When the same player is required to defend - if that is the correct term for forlorn belly flops in the vague direction of opposing wingers - Taylor calls him David Campese, in a school-masterly, ticking-off way. There was much more of the David Campese on Thursday. Not that Taylor appeared to mind. In fact, there seemed to be a general sense in the ITV coverage of pleasure that South Africa, once the pariahs of world sport, were winning. This was in part a natural inclination towards a country so transparently enjoying its new multi-culturalism (the sight of thick- necked Springbok forwards, hand on heart, word perfect as they sang the new South African national anthem was strangely moving). But it was also a result of the undeniable pleasure in seeing Australians not just beaten, but hammered. This was a theme taken up by Will Carling, interviewed immediately after the game and wearing an expression much as Frank Bruno would when he learnt that his next opponent was Mike Tyson and not, as he thought, Juan Road-Sweepera.
"Campese had a nightmare," Mark Austin suggested.
"It was probably not one of his better games," said Carling, tongue stapled to cheek. "I know if it had happened to me he'd have felt for me."
Indeed, despite what he had just witnessed, Carling remained relentlessly upbeat. Which is more than can be said for his home-nation colleagues. In a sort of modernised version of the old radio programme Three-Way Family Favourites, Austin linked together all the home captains and asked them which team they now thought would win the Cup. Mike Hall, of Wales, had no hesitation: "I'll stick with Australia." Terry Kingston, of Ireland, went with New Zealand. And Gavin Hastings, suggested, with a smile, that if it couldn't be Scotland, he fancied Australia. Only Carling, dead-panning triumphantly, maintained an optimistic air: "England," he said. And you thought, if he fancied a television career after he has retired from the game, that he would make a cracking host of "Fantasy Rugby".Reuse content