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Sunday, November 7, 1999 Published at 16:34 GMT

Rugby World Cup: Must try harder

Australia: The most complete team in the tournament

The Rugby World Cup closes with yet another triumph for the southern hemisphere, disappointment for the home nations and criticism of the organisation, promotion and television coverage of the event.

For many, France's 43-31 inspirational shock demolition of the All Blacks remains the defining moment - despite Australia's unprecedented second win - of a competition that lacked meaningful encounters until the knockout stages

Black weekend

Significantly and for the first time, none of the home nations made it through to the last four in a year when high hopes had been held out for an end to southern hemisphere domination.

An outstanding 1999 Five Nations competition gave an exaggerated impression of northern strength. But the writing was on the wall that not much had changed in the top order of global rugby when England suffered a 30-16 Group B defeat to the All Blacks.

[ image: France: Blistering against the All Blacks]
France: Blistering against the All Blacks
Erratic Wales' 38-31 embarrassment at the hands of Samoa only underlined the fact that there was still some way to go before the Webb Ellis trophy would be making the journey across the equator.

Ireland crashed out in the second of the tournament's hat-trick of upsets, succumbing 28-24 to a spirited and adventurous Argentina in the quarter-final playoffs. Four days later, Wales, England and Scotland joined them, sent packing by the Tri-Nations powers on a black weekend for British rugby.

The departure of the home nations heightened concerns that interest in an under-promoted competition could peter out altogether.

A walk through the streets of London, Edinburgh and Dublin during October would have betrayed few hints that a World Cup was in progress. Heavy criticism was levelled at the tournament's promoters for failing to raise public awareness of an event that had quite clearly failed to "sell itself".

Only hosts Wales were the exception. Shops and bars were festooned with promotional posters and rugby merchandise, most media outlets were awash with rugby features and the magnificent Millennium Stadium in Cardiff was sold out for every match.

'Coverage was a let down'

The unusual structure of the tournament did little to help fill the stands, with most games crammed into weekends while others were scheduled for mid-afternoon on week days.

[ image: Millennium Stadium: Packed for every match]
Millennium Stadium: Packed for every match
Television coverage also came in for a hammering, with organisers Rugby World Cup accusing ITV of demonstrating a "lack of commitment" by frequently showing highlights of the day's play after midnight and refusing to televise the third-place playoff between New Zealand and South Africa.

Chairman Leo Williams told the Daily Telegraph that he had "a long list of complaints" and questioned ITV's technical competency.

"Their coverage has been a let down. We haven't received the support required by a broadcaster," he said.

But all fears of rampant disinterest disappeared amid the sound and fury of two awe-inspiring semi-finals. Despite ending try-less, Australia's epic 27-21 battle with holders South Africa was a gripping and gritty contest.

It was fully expected to overshadow the All Blacks' much-predicted pasting of France the next day.

How wrong. The French reaction to months of infighting, indifferent performances and vitriol in the press was blistering. From 24-10 down, they ralllied to score an unheard of 33 unanwered points against the New Zealanders, and in the process created a rugby legend.

Speculative pot-shots

It was a performance of such intensity that was never likely the exhausted French side would be able to repeat it in Cardiff. A largely lacklustre final saw Australia run out deserved winners, 35-12, with two late tries adding gloss to a match that had - like so many others - already been decided by the boot.

[ image: Wales vs Samoa: One of the few surprises]
Wales vs Samoa: One of the few surprises
The 1999 World Cup will also be remembered for its rehabilitation of the drop goal. Springbok fly-half Jannie de Beer started the craze for speculative pot-shots with a world record breaking five drop goals against England.

The tactic also saw the Wallabies through to the final with Stephen Larkham's extra-time match-winning effort against, ironically, South Africa. It also helped Christophe Lamaison cut back France's 14-point deficit against the New Zealanders with two successful attempts in the space of three minutes.

Finally, the decision to expand the competition from 16 to 20 teams looked premature. In over half of the competition's group matches, 30 points or more separated the teams.

Two games - England vs Tonga and New Zealand vs Italy - ended in scores of 101 points for the victors.

The proud players of Uruguay, the USA, Spain and Namibia are unlikely to regret the chance to pit themselves against the best in the world, no matter how massive the margin of defeat.

But it has been amply demonstrated by this competition that drubbings are not something spectators will pay to see - and getting the general public to watch the game is the greatest challenge facing future Rugby World Cups.

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