Macqueen hails Australia's 1999 vintage
AUCKLAND, 25 Aug. - When Australia ran out to contest the World Cup final in 1999, six words were imprinted on the players’ minds: Our destiny is in our hands.
In the run-up to that tournament, held in the UK, Ireland and France, the Australian press had implored the national team to “bring back Bill", as they dubbed the Webb Ellis Cup. While that slogan was of more concern to headline writers than the players themselves, recounts then coach Rod Macqueen, they were determined not to return empty-handed and to that end installed a banner bearing those six words in the changing room before games.
“That was our mission and we wanted to make sure we were ready, we had been preparing for two years and the World Cup was our destiny,” says Macqueen, now at the helm of Super Rugby side Melbourne Rebels.
For all the stereotypes of fiery eyed aggression and tub-thumping pre-match speeches, modern rugby usually rewards sides who prepare meticulously and have players who keep a cool head in a crisis. Those qualities were evident in the Twickenham semi-final against South Africa when the match went into extra time. Stephen Larkham broke the deadlock with a drop-goal and Matt Burke added a penalty to win 27-21.
Macqueen says of that side: “We had a lot of leaders – people like Tim Horan, John Eales, George Gregan and Stephen Larkham. Tim Horan, in particular, was always reliable in big games. Matt Cockbain was another. People think of the final and remember Owen Finegan scoring a great try but Matt Cockbain was the player picked to run on and you knew he would guarantee lineout ball.”
Australia are second favourites behind host nation New Zealand to win what would be a record third World Cup, but preparations have been shaky at times, with defeats by Samoa and New Zealand preceding the appointment of a new captain, James Horwill, when the squad was revealed last week. Macqueen cautions against reading too much into a couple of results.
“Every game leading into the World Cup was a measurement for us, not just one game. World Cups are all about peaking at the right time,” he says.
The problem for the 1999 vintage was lacking a serious challenge early on, winning all their pool games by at least 20 points. “There’s always that worry [of not being properly tested] and one thing we tried to do was disregard the score and judge ourselves on our standards,” said Macqueen.
Once Australia had qualified for the 1999 final, the consensus was their opponents would be their old rivals from across the Tasman. However, when New Zealand were surprisingly eliminated by France, the coach had to do some hasty homework on the opposition for the final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
“It was certainly a surprise for us [when France won] because we anticipated we would be meeting NZ,” says Macqueen. “It was actually difficult for us because we didn’t know much about them and we were a team that prided ourselves on preparation.”
The Wallabies went on to beat Les Tricolores 35-12, making captain John Eales, who played in the 1991 final victory over England, one of only four players – with Horan, Jason Little and South Africa’s Os du Randt – to appear in two World Cup-winning teams.
For Macqueen, it was the highlight of a distinguished coaching career that included the Tri Nations title and a series victory over the British and Irish Lions.
“The World Cup has got to be the pinnacle,” says Macqueen. “It’s about being the best team at the time, making sure the players peak, which brings a tight camaraderie.”
Macqueen highlights half-backs Will Genia and Quade Cooper as crucial to Australia’s chances this time; regardless, he sees the Webb Ellis Cup staying in the southern hemisphere.
“The form of the northern hemisphere sides is erratic,” says Macqueen. “There’s not one side that’s stood out. At the moment, looking at form, it’s the southern hemisphere.
“Dan Carter is going to play a big role for the All Blacks. This year they are a thinking side and appear to have a Plan B and a Plan C – a dangerous versatility in their game. South Africa have some old heads and young players with that X factor.”
Macqueen will take a keen interest when Australia play Pool C rivals Russia, for whom Melbourne Rebels second row Adam Byrnes will figure, qualifying by virtue of his grandparents, while clubmate Nick Phipps is in the Australian squad.
As for Australia’s conquerors in July, Samoa, who join big guns South Africa, Wales, Fiji and Namibia in Pool D, he says: “Samoa are a good side. They won’t win a World Cup but they’ll scare a lot of people.”
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