It may seem a misnomer but Saturday’s Rugby Union World Cup quarter-final between England and Australia in the southern French port of Marseille is very much the global derby match.
Rugby’s peculiar geography, with its leading nations dotted around the northern and southern hemispheres, was ever conducive to long-range rivalry but, for most of the game’s history, the contests occurred no more than once or twice a decade. Only since rugby union accepted professionalism in 1995 have such matches, driven by ease of travel and the need to maximise income, become frequent enough to generate the tension, depth of emotion and shared memories of the true derby match.
Today’s meeting will be the 17th since these teams last met in a World Cup quarter-final at Cape Town in June 1995. It makes the Wallabies England’s most frequent opponents – in the same time they have played South Africa 16 times, France 15 and Wales 13.
Still more strikingly, it will be their fifth meeting at a World Cup, the longest and most significant series between leading nations in the tournament, including two finals. The first two meetings were Australian victories – by far England’s best performance in a miserable 1987 campaign, followed by much their worst in the 1991 tournament when they lost the courage of their convictions after reaching the final. The last two have been settled in England’s favour by late drop goals – Rob Andrew’s in 1995 and Jonny Wilkinson’s in the final four years ago.
Yet today, Australia, the only country to win the tournament twice, start as favourites following a trouble-free journey through the pool stages.
Nathan Sharpe, their lock forward, says: “We had one very intense match against Wales in Cardiff and were otherwise able to relax. We shouldn’t be suffering from tired legs.”
Wales, despite the advantage of playing the match on their own ground, were disposed of with something to spare. And deprived of veteran playmaker and outside-half Stephen Larkham, the Australians have seen rookie replacement Berrick Barnes, who is only 21, become the tournament’s shooting star.
Barnes is as relaxed in front of the massed ranks of the press as he is on the field. He openly admires opposite number Wilkinson. “I watched him when I was in high school and read all his books.” He also admits to being slightly less than two-footed when dropping for goal. “The left’s still a bit of a hack.”
Barnes also demonstrated a ready wit when asked whether the kangaroo mascot he was being made to carry as the youngest member of the squad might not hamper him on the pitch: “No,” he replied; “I’ve got a baby-carrier for it.”
England, by contrast, lumbered glumly through their pool. They were slaughtered by South Africa and endured considerable discomfort against both Samoa and Tonga. If the coaching staff know their best team, it is a well-concealed secret.
Australia, however, are taking nothing for granted. “Not at all mate,” was the response of wing Lote Tuqiri, their try-scorer in the 2003 final, when asked if they expected to take revenge with something to spare. “England against Australia is always nice and tough, and by no means are we expecting to run away with it.”
Neither team has exactly prospered since 2003. England have never challenged for the Six Nations title, winning one match out of eight against dominant powers Ireland and France.
Australia, meanwhile, won only six games out of 18 against New Zealand and South Africa in the Tri-Nations. And in 2005 they suffered a 26-16 mauling from England at Twickenham stadium in London when it appeared that the Wallabies had forgotten entirely the science of scrummaging. This was part of a run of eight defeats in nine Tests that eventually cost coach Eddie Jones his job.
What England, and everyone else, have to envy is Australia’s remarkable ability to peak for World Cups.
They had a poor run into the 2003 tournament, with only three wins out of eight in the two Tri-Nations campaigns immediately before it, going down 50-21 to New Zealand in the summer of 2003. Yet they went all the way to the final, defeating the All Blacks in the last four.
Defence specialist John Muggleton has been the common factor in their last three World Cup campaigns. He says: “We’re much better at tournaments than we are at one-off Tests. We’re good at building up through a tournament. The pool stage is where you tick the boxes and make sure you are where you want to be when you reach the play-offs and we’re ready to face whatever is thrown at us.”
World Cup tournaments, Muggleton argues, take the home-and-away element out of international rugby: “Only one team has that advantage – Wales didn’t really, because their usual crowd was priced out [at Cardiff]. And we’ve always been good at settling into somewhere and treating it as home. When we were in Montpellier, we talked about ‘our hotel’ and ‘our ground’. Our players are adaptable, they’re picking up some French and there’s no homesickness.
He adds: “When you’re on tour you’re in and out very quickly or going from country to country, and you can’t build up that sort of feeling for a place.”
It also helps if those players are adaptable on the pitch. Muggleton explains: “We’ve developed much more of an interchange between 10 and 12. Berrick can play either, Gits [Matt Giteau] can play nine, 10 or 12.
“That makes it much easier to put two backs and five forwards on the bench, giving you extra options late in the game – or you can play [scrum-half] George Gregan for an hour then switch Gits to nine and set the opposition an entirely new set of problems as they’re tiring. We’ve got forwards who can play more than one position as well.”
Muggleton, who was a rugby league international, appreciates the advantage that Australia gain from the two codes competing in the same areas rather than – as in England – being to a great degree defined regionally. “While they [Australian players] won’t necessarily have played first-grade, if they’ve played league at 14 or 16 they’ll have benefited from the aerobic qualities of league, the ball skills and the ability to find and use space you get from it.”
Perhaps more important is that union has ceased to be socially exclusive. Players such as Barnes – a miner’s son who says that league was his favourite game as a child – and Giteau would once naturally have gravitated to the 13-a-side game.
Now they are playing union and helping make Australia once again serious contenders to go all the way in a World Cup.
● In Saturday’s other quarter-final, New Zealand play France in Cardiff, while on Sunday South Africa face Fiji in Marseille and Argentina meet Scotland in Paris.