By most of those who watched it, I imagine, the Rugby Union World Cup will be seen, now that the dust has settled, as a success, for all the aspects and episodes that there were to object to and quarrel over. But I doubt whether the same could be said of the discursive part of the ITV presentation of events. The party atmosphere which is sometimes thought by producers to be the thing on such occasions was given its head, and national sentiment ruled. The New Zealander David Kirk was first-rate: but the Scotsman too often talked through his kilt, and the Englishman proclaimed that he was absolutely sure that England would beat Australia in the final. At times it was like one of those ethnic jokes that people like to tell. There will never be a day when the national interest is invisible, or is reckoned to be invalid, in sport, but it is sad that it should have been obtruded to this degree, that the tournament should have been presented, by officials and by producers, as a Whitehall ceremony that was also a fairly jolly little world war. Much of this, admittedly, is, as they say, traditional, and I expect we shall have to go on looking at the players lined up like latex puppets to shake the toff’s hand and stare unflinchingly through the anthems. But perhaps New Zealand might one day be persuaded to drop that dubiously ethnic Maori war-chant: for a museum piece, it has a surprising capacity to sour the already fired-up, and it isn’t as if the All Blacks are as black as all that.
The peaks of the World Cup were, to my mind, the Ireland-Australia game and the semi-final between Australia and New Zealand. The courage and zeal of the Irish took them to within a point of their opponents: it was more than possible to wonder why their stand-off half, a superlative place-kicker, had been kept out of the national side for a decade. The semi-final was illuminated by an early slanting run from the co-author of a notable book on his experiences as a player, brought out on the eve of the tournament.[*] Tall, fast, inventive, much admired and much deplored, the Australian David Campese shaped to pass but didn’t and went on and over on his own. This was a ferocious encounter: it was also an honest one, and more or less foul-free. The All Blacks played very well in the unfamiliar role of catchers-up – having been discounted in advance by some British experts, their scrumhalf proved himself, throughout the tournament, flowingly effective and resourceful – and were more appealing in defeat that they ever were over the years of their unchallenged supremacy. They have tended to be very cold and grim. I can’t recall a single smile appearing on their winning faces during that time, and it seemed in keeping when Grant Fox, of the bankable kicks, was reported as saying, before the semi-final, that Campese’s ‘confidence’ would suffer when a few All Black sprigs – or studs – went ‘down his back’. The Australians of recent years have been a great contrast, an attractive, adult, smiling company, though Campese’s accounts of the Australian game supply a number of corrections to the picture.
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[*] On a Wing and a Prayer by David Campese, with Peter Bills. Macdonald, 175 pp., £14.95, 26 September, 0 356 17958 3.