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Why a win for South Africa will be a win for those who love the game

Spiro Zavos16/10/07

The Wallabies' dismal performance in going out of the tournament to England in the quarter-finals has elements of a Bermuda Triangle mystery about it. How on earth did it happen?

The Wallabies' scrum had improved, supposedly, to the extent that a scrum was taken against Wales instead of a tap kick. Yet, like the All Blacks' scrum against France, the Wallabies scrum disappeared under a heap of opposition bodies. And then there was the lack of a reaction, except for the occasional swing of the arm from second-rower Daniel Vickerman, to England's counter-rucking.

Yet in this year's Tri-Nations all the sides were counter-rucking madly. Watching a plodding England side with no back-line attack hold France and then take the lead with 10 minutes to go raised the inevitable question - how did the Wallabies contrive to lose to such a pedestrian team?

Unlike the New Zealanders, Australian supporters can't even begin to blame the referee. After all, Stirling Mortlock was given a shot at goal, admittedly from a long way out, to win the match almost on full-time. France against the All Blacks, on the other hand, played a perfect second half in that they gave away no penalties, even though they were under intense pressure most of the time.

Against England, France were penalised four times in the second half, the same number of times as England. The plainly wrong refereeing decisions went France's way against NZ, and England's way in the semi-final. The most obvious howler by the referee was an alleged high tackle that was merely a slap that really missed. Jonny Wilkinson kicked the penalty to give England a two-point lead with 10 minutes left.

England play the rugby equivalent of the Warren Ryan-devised rugby league game of the 1980s, when you conceded very few points, tried nothing in attack so that no errors or turnovers happened, and then drop-kicked a goal to win 1-0, or 3-0 if you could get a penalty shot over as well.

This is a hard game to defeat, if, as the Wallabies did against England, you try to play the same game. No Wallabies side is going to have a kicker as skilful as Wilkinson. The Wallabies had to keep the ball in hand and run the big England pack around.

This is what the Springboks, in the main, did against Argentina. They seized on the Pumas' mistakes and used their superior pace out wide to create chances for Bryan Habana to finish off. Australia's Habana is Drew Mitchell. He was left on the bench until the game was virtually lost.

The RWC format makes it an easy and hard tournament to win. Hard because the last three matches are knock-out affairs. Get a game wrong, as the Wallabies and the All Blacks did, and you're out of the tournament. But easy because a team may miss out on having to play the best team or teams in the tournament. There is no way, for instance, that England are the best or second best team in the tournament. But that is tournament play.

South Africa had won a hard (on paper) group match against an England side that did not have Wilkinson in it. Then they had a quarter-final against Fiji, which they almost contrived to lose. Then a semi-final against Argentina, which was won comfortably. This journey to World Cup glory has been much easier than a Tri-Nations tournament.

No team that has lost a group match has gone on to win the tournament. So England, the winners in 2003 with a very good side, will have to create history to win the final on Saturday with an average side. No team, either, has won successive finals.

I'm hoping that history isn't made. Reason? To shut up the obnoxious British journalist Stephen Jones and his Basil Fawlty-type rantings about how the Wallabies are con artists and how the slow-plod and endless kicking of the British club game is superior to the athleticism, excitement and pace of the Super 14 style. C'mon the Boks!



SPIRO ZAVOS - Sydney Morning Herald | Tuesday, 16 October 2007 | Comment on this article

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