They thought it was all over: The year of the photo-finish: To the final in dignity

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The Independent Online
FOR ALMOST two hours, they pounded at each other, like Sumo wrestlers locked in a mighty embrace. These were old foes, the gold and green and the green and gold, and their equality, with a place in the final of the Rugby World Cup at stake, was tacitly understood. There was never anything in it, was never going to be from first boot to last. And if connoisseurs of running rugby were disappointed, the Twickenham crowd were drawn irresistibly into an apocalyptic afternoon.

As the match lurched inevitably into extra-time, we waited for the moment of instinctive genius which would lift one team above the other. If any one held sway then, it was surely the South Africans, for whom Jannie de Beer kicked a wickedly difficult penalty from the touchline on the stroke of full-time. As the South African stand-off went through his routine, Rod Macqueen, the impassive Australian coach, was already working out what he would say to his team in the dressing-room. "There was no way we were happy that the kick went over," Macqueen recalls. "But it was all part and parcel of the game and we were prepared for it. Those five minutes were the culmination of two years work in trying to make the team think as one."

John Eales, Australia's inspirational captain, spoke first as tradition demanded, then Tim Horan, the vice-captain, then Macqueen. "By rights, the South Africans had the psychological high ground, but we felt relaxed because we thought we had the situation under control. We stressed the importance of keeping their composure. They had 20 minutes to score, they didn't need to score in the first two minutes."

Not in Macqueen's wildest imagination, though, would he have anticipated the source of the victory and, as it turned out, of Australia's second World Cup triumph. Stephen Larkham has the build of an overgrown schoolboy, seems to play with a childish innocence and yet, in a team full of superb athletes, he is the most naturally gifted games-player of all. "If you play baseball in training, Stephen will be the best baseball player," says Macqueen. "Same with cricket or golf. People thought we had moved him to stand-off because we wanted Matt Burke at full-back, but actually he was the right guy in the right position because he has what I call vision in traffic."

Tim Lane, the assistant coach, had suggested that, given a chance, Larkham should try the drop goal. With seven minutes left, Larkham found himself with space just inside the South African half to the right of the posts. The ground was heavy and the ball saturated, but Larkham knew exactly what he wanted to do and with a lazy swing of his telescopic right leg thumped the drop goal into the dark skies to put Australia back into the lead at 24-21. Though Burke added his eighth penalty to make sure, the balance of power, so delicately poised all match, had swung Down Under once and for all.