Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Tyrone Howe: French are on the way to glory

They say that a week is a long time in politics, well the same could be said about this Rugby World Cup.

Unlike Gordon Brown, who has until 2009 to prove his worth, Australia and New Zealand will have to wait until 2011 to have a chance to erase what was, by far, the worst day in their joint World Cup rugby history.



ARU chief, John O'Neill's pre-match comments that, when it comes to sport, he "hates" England, were founded in the perception that England still maintains a "born-to-rule" mentality. Well, like a sequel to the rugby equivalent of Star Wars, those historical imperialists, the Pommies and the Frogs, rolled back the centuries in a classic tale of " The Empires Strike Back", showing just who makes the rules around here and sending their respective opponents back to their former colonial outposts.



You can just imagine it, Jonny Wilkinson as the modern-day Luke Skywalker, Freddie Michalak as a Jedi Knight, Brian Ashton as Yoda, Sebastian Chabal as Chewbacca - and Ireland collectively as Princess Lea.



The fallout and bragging rights will go on for years, well at least four anyway. Two examples come to mind. My best mate, who hails from Cheshire, has lived and worked in Sydney for over ten years. In his office, he sits between a Kiwi and an Aussie and I have never heard anyone as keen to get back to work on a Monday morning! No such thing as Sunday night blues for him this weekend, he has been "Pommie-bashed" for months now but will make the most of this rare opportunity to give it back with interest to his colleagues. I also received a text message from a South African, with whom David Humphreys and I played Varsity rugby.

"Police today found the body of a dead man wearing an All Blacks shirt, suspenders and stockings, bright red lipstick and mascara. Police safely removed the shirt to spare his family any further embarrassment." That's the clean version, but the point is this - when it comes to their TriNations partners, South Africans don't do sympathy.



To be honest, I was more surprised that England beat Australia rather than France turning over the All Blacks.

I simply didn't think that England had the firepower to put enough points on the board to win. It wasn't pretty, but it was as gutsy and brave a performance as the England team has produced in the four years since their memorable last-minute victory in 2003.



France, on their day, was always going to be one of the few teams with the force upfront and craft, skill and enterprise in the backs to beat New Zealand. My pre-tournament favourites, they have qualified for the semi-finals the hard way, with a perfect blend of "Beauty and the Beast" . When asked how you beat the All Blacks, former scrumhalf Justin Marshall, now with the Ospreys, commented "you have to play, play, play" and, if they decide to turn up, that's exactly what makes the French so eminently watchable.



You cannot underestimate how badly this will go down in the Antipodes. In Australia, there will be inquests, but the team will probably just be labelled "losers" and the Australian public will simply switch its attention to the next most likely sporting triumph. New Zealand, however, could be renamed "Land of the Long Black Cloud", such will be the long-lasting depression on its people.

In a country where rugby results have been known to affect even the stock market, this is a nation in shock and mourning.

It is indeed a somewhat empty feeling that we enter the semi-final stages without New Zealand challenging for the title, but we were lucky enough to witness the best two teams in the competition battle for supremacy on Saturday afternoon - it was a World Cup Final in all but name. This leaves us with a situation where every team left in the competition feels that it has a realistic chance and the permutations are fascinating. The England players will fancy their chances much more against France than New Zealand - mentally there aren't the same obstacles. Alternatively, what an apt finale if the two teams that opened the tournament, France and Argentina, were to battle it out in the final match. However, the Boks might have something to say about that.



This has been the most dramatic of all Rugby World Cups but I believe that my original tip, France, is coming good. With true Gallic flair they turned it on with a huge display of courage.

They now return to the more familiar surroundings of Paris, where an expectant public will hope to inspire them to even greater things. A French win on French soil? Destiny, once again, has its hand on French shoulders, as they seek to emulate the Zidane-inspired "Class of '98" and prove that rugby can also be described as "the beautiful game".

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