Before taking charge of the Springboks, Kitch Christie made a bold prediction: “Six months is long enough for a coach to win the World Cup.”
Back then, in late autumn 1994 with his country hosting the tournament the following May, experts the globe over castigated South Africa for giving the new man an impossible mission with next to no time to achieve it.
A humble graduate of a school far removed from Jose Mourinho’s bombastic academy, Christie never doubted from that first match in Scotland that he had been given enough time. Neither did he ever doubt the players at his disposal, nor his ability to bring the best out of them.
Right on cue six months later, Christie’s Springboks opened the most historic of all World Cups by outflanking the holders, Australia. Five weeks later, against all the odds, they beat the hitherto unbeatable All Blacks in the first extra-time final.
Their head honcho had too much class to say: ‘I told you so.’ He just smiled and let it be. Christie never knew what it was like to lose a Test, winning 14 out of 14 until cancer forced him to resign in 1996, two years before he succumbed to the illness at the age of 58.
It took Clive Woodward six years to win the World Cup and he would probably have been sacked after two had there been a credible alternative. Graham Henry spent eight years and Bernard Laporte had that long running France without ever setting foot in a final.
Michael Cheika is making short work of the same hazardous business. Since inheriting a largely losing bunch of Wallabies last autumn, the former Leinster coach has transformed them into the team most likely to dethrone the wobbling All Blacks.
In putting England out of their misery, Australia raised their game to a level untouched by anyone else hitherto. Wales, given an armchair ride into the last eight as a result, will be hard pushed to live with them at Twickenham next Saturday.
England gave Stuart Lancaster four years to get them to a home final and they failed to get out of their pool. For that, he will be lambasted and lampooned because hell hath no fury like an English nation scorned, as Graham Taylor, Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello, Andy Robinson and Martin Johnson can testify.
With little doubt that Lancaster will fall on his sword in keeping with his thoroughly decent persona, the turf accountants wasted no time yesterday opening a book on his successor. One listed a field of 22 runners, including a Limerick man — Conor O’Shea, director of rugby at Harlequins.
The rest of the world is never slow to rejoice at England’s misfortune, most notably, or notoriously, the Welsh and Scottish. Ireland will not be calling for a day of mourning but those who remember a favour from a winter long gone will have a smidgin of sympathy.
Older generations and the younger ones who know their stuff will recall how first Scotland, then Wales refused to turn up for Five Nations’ matches at Lansdowne Road in 1972. The Troubles were at their worst and both countries stayed away for security reasons.
So much, then, for all the baloney spouted about the Celtic Brotherhood. When push came to shove, neither came despite assurances from high-powered IRFU delegations sent to Edinburgh and Cardiff. The Welsh compromise, to play the match at the Arms Park, may have been made with the best of intentions but it fuelled resentment among Irish supporters who saw it as a shameless attempt to exploit the emergency.
Things hadn’t changed 12 months later when England were due in Dublin for the start of the 1973 Five Nations. They had more to fear, more reason than the Welsh and the Scots for refusing to travel.
England stood up to be counted and the ovation accorded them at Lansdowne Road lasted fully five minutes. As the Bristol hooker John Pullin, a gnarled Gloucestershire farmer not given to sentiment, said famously in his post-match captain’s speech: ‘We may not be much good but at least we turn up’’.
There is another reason, in the best of all Irish worlds, for lamenting England’s disappearance. It banishes any hope of a semi-final against the hosts and the delicious prospect of the old enemy ushering the Six Nations’ champions into the final.
Their team may have gone but Englishmen are queuing up to sweep the board at one of the World Cup’s most ferociously competitive alternative trophies — the John McEnroe You-Cannot-Be-Serious award. Judge the contenders for yourself:
“Australia will disintegrate. Contrary to popular belief, they are not the brightest team…” Clive Woodward. What, pray, does that make England?
“Not one Australian would get into the England team right now.” Sometime England Test fly-half Danny Cipriani. Maybe he meant it the other way round.
“The Aussie pack is the one that is cheating.” Brian Moore, growling English pitbull. How wrong can you be?
“I have a lot of respect for this guy (Romain Poite). He likes the scrum. We’ve had some really good days at the office with him in charge.” England forwards’ coach Graham Rowntree. Australia win five scrum penalties — unheard of.
“Australia have potentially got a reason to quit. They can go to Wales and get a result. They can afford to lose a game.” England scrum-half Ben Youngs. Wishful thinking.
Everybody knew all along that France in Cardiff next Sunday would determine Ireland’s quarter-final fate. Winning will mean giving the All Blacks a wide berth and running into Argentina instead but this morning that doesn’t look as big a reward as it did a fortnight ago.
While the Pumas won thousands more new friends with their all-court game, the fumbling All Blacks were fretting over their shocker against Georgia in Cardiff where they dropped the ball 19 times. Dan Carter, of all people, may have put his starting place in jeopardy.
The global superstars of soccer are following rugby like never before and one of the biggest of all time turned up at Leicester City’s stadium yesterday for a show of solidarity for Los Pumas.
Diego Maradona, who knows how it feels to win a World Cup for Argentina, whooped and hollered in appreciation of his country’s exhilarating win over Tonga. At the end, like a tubby little boy let loose in a sweet shop, he danced for joy in the dressing room surrounded by his beaming new amigos.
Tackle of the week:
Peter O’Mahony to prevent a galloping Josh Furno giving Italy the lead in London yesterday — the mightiest effort by an Irish rugby player at an Olympic Stadium since Victor Costello was putting the shot at Barcelona in 1992.
Team of the week:
Ayumu Goromaru (Japan); Santiago Cordero (Argentina), Vereniki Goneva (Fiji), Matt Giteau (Australia), DTH van der Merwe (Canada); Bernard Foley (Australia), Will Genia (Australia);
Karlen Asieshvili (Georgia), Bismarck Du Plessis (South Africa), Levan Chilachava (Georgia); Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales), Leone Nakawara (Fiji); Scott Fardy (Australia), Michael Hooper (Australia), David Pocock (Australia).
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