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Thursday, November 4, 1999 Published at 20:14 GMT

Too close to call as hemispheres collide

Australia: "They can even change their game plan during a match"

The outcome of Saturday's World Cup final between France and Australia is as unpredictable as this Cardiff grand finale between the two hemispheres was unpredicted.

Consistency and quality would suggest that the Wallabies are the side to back - but the French have already shown to devastating effect the contempt they have for the form book.

Unprecedented comeback

The display of born-again running rugby that demolished overwhelming tournament favourites New Zealand 43-31 in last Sunday's semi-final came, appropriately enough, right out of the blue.

[ image: Jean-Claude Skrela: Tactical acumen]
Jean-Claude Skrela: Tactical acumen
Very little in France's dour group matches against Canada, Namibia and Fiji suggested they would trouble southern hemisphere supremacy. Even the odd spark of brilliance in their 47-20 quarter-final romp against Argentina failed to intimate what they were about to do to the All Blacks.

"Their performance in the second half of the match was the best football played in the tournament so far," said Australia coach Rod Macqueen, referring to the unprecedented French comeback from 24-10 down to score 33 unanswered points against New Zealand.

There are concerns that the men in blue may well have peaked already. But that is to underestimate the tactical acumen of a side that owed its victory over the All Blacks as much to video analysis as on-the-pitch heroics.

But the Wallabies are unlikely to make the same mistakes as their antipodean neighbours when the two sides meet at the Millennium Stadium.

Veteran French lock Adbel Benazzi summed up the difference: "New Zealand are a team with great players while Australia are a great team."

Last-gasp defence

Fly-half Christophe Lamaison expanded: "They are capable of adapting their game to their opponents and they can even change their game plan during a match."

[ image: Stephen Larkham: Key player]
Stephen Larkham: Key player
Australia's gritty, bruising encounter with South Africa in the other semi-final last Saturday demonstrated their surfeit of skills in both attack and last-gasp defence.

Just as France failed to fire in their group matches, the men from down under meandered past the round-robin with Ireland, Romania and the USA in second gear.

They looked better in a workmanlike quarter-final win over the scrappy, yet courageous Welsh and their clash with the Springboks suggested that this was a side improving with every match.

What will count against them is the physical exertion of playing 20 minutes of extra time to secure their 27-21 semi-final win. There are still special concerns surrounding fly-half Stephen Larkham, who is battling to recover from a knee injury sustained in the Springbok clash.

'Try to have fun'

Nonetheless, the omens for the final are good. Both France and Australia have a preference for running the ball, which holds out the strong hope of an entertaining, free-flowing grand finale to counter the try-free trench warfare between New Zealand and South Africa in 1995.

[ image: France: Potent strike force]
France: Potent strike force
The Wallabies choose the expansive game, because the demands of domestic sport mean that rugby union has to be attractive or it will lose its audience to rugby league and Australian rules football. The French do it because it is in their blood.

The smart money is on Australia to win their second World Cup. Larkham is crucial to their designs and if he is allowed to give free rein to the Wallabies' embarrassment of potential match winners, the game is likely to go with the odds.

But France have demonstrated that their forwards are the equal of anyone and in their back three of Xavier Garbajosa, Philippe Bernat-Salles and Richard Dourthe they have a strike force that can tear through the tightest defences.

As veteran lock Abdel Benazzi put it: "We will have to give our all in the battle up front but we must not forget to enjoy ourselves. We must not feel too much pressure and we must try to have fun."

A laudable ambition for what is guaranteed to be a fascinating confrontation.

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