LONDON, 17 Sept - We continue our series reliving the Rugby World Cup finals through the eyes of the main protagonists with a look back at 1999. Eight years on from defeating England to win the 1991 championship, Australia found themselves up against northern opponents once again in the form of France, who had made it through to the showpiece after a stunning comeback in their semi-final against New Zealand. 

Australia 35-12 France, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, 6 November 1999

The anticipation 

“We knew a lot less about the French than we knew about the All Blacks. We, like everyone else, had anticipated that New Zealand would win that game. And at half-time, it looked like they were going to run away with it, but then some magic happened.” - John Eales, Australia.

“Knowing that we didn’t have to play them (New Zealand) was an ecstatic moment for us. You know we were jumping around; we were high-fiving; we were laughing, and then the realisation came to us that we hadn’t done any homework on the French! The analyst had to stay up all night to cut the tape and prepare stuff for us to watch the next day!” – Stephen Larkham, Australia.

“No one had planned to see France through to the final; we had defied all the odds. We celebrated that win as if we had already won the final and therefore, when it came to playing that night in Cardiff, we had drained ourselves emotionally and hadn’t prepared to the lengths Australia had.” – Oliver Magne, France.

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The final saw Australia’s defence (they had conceded only one try all tournament) up against France’s attack, and there was only ever going to be one winner…

The match

“It’s funny but even though the scoreline (35-12) looked one-sided at the end it never felt one-sided out there on the field. You never take it for granted that you’re going to come out on top.” - John Eales, Australia.

“It was a real power struggle throughout most of that game: lots of niggle on and off the ball and a really physical game for everyone.” – Stephen Larkham, Australia.

With four Matt Burke penalties to two from Christophe Lamaison making for a grim first-half spectacle, everyone inside the stadium was in need of a lift, literally so, in the players’ case.

"At half-time, both parties (of coaching teams), the French and us, were waiting to go down (to the changing rooms). In the quarter-finals we were able to take a lift; we had a lift each. This time there was no one there and only one lift came. We all had to get in the lift together and it was pretty hard to ignore each other!” - Rod Macqueen, Australia.

After a fractious start to the second half, Australia finally took command in the final quarter.

“We finally wore them down and scored some good tries in the end.” – Stephen Larkham, Australia.

“In the last three or four minutes of that final, we knew that that game was ours. It was a very different feeling - running around, still doing your work but being able to enjoy the last moments of a World Cup final.” - John Eales, Australia.

For the second time at a Rugby World Cup, the final had proved a game too far for France and it was John Eales, not Raphael Ibanez, who received the Webb Ellis Cup from Her Majesty the Queen in Cardiff that day.

"... when you’re engaged in a match with such intensity, at such a high level, it’s like arm wrestling. We lost that arm wrestle; we lost it mentally and physically"

France captain Raphael Ibanez

The final whistle

“Looking back it’s clear that the title was undoubtedly deserved by Australia. I think that when you’re engaged in a match with such intensity, at such a high level, it’s like arm-wrestling. We lost that arm-wrestle; we lost it mentally and physically. It was an overwhelming occasion and, yes, we used up a lot of our energy. We didn’t have enough strength or stamina to beat Australia on that day.” – Raphael Ibanez, France.

“The great experience for me was to see the looks on the faces for 95 per cent of that team who hadn’t won a World Cup before. Obviously myself, Dan Crowley, Jason Little and John Eales, had held the World Cup before, but to actually see the looks on the faces of those guys who hadn’t, you knew the sacrifice and how much had gone into the last three years, and how important it was to them.” – Tim Horan, Australia.

“There was Her Majesty the Queen presenting us with our trophy and our winner’s medals. For a kid growing up in Australia, out in the back yard kicking the ball over the washing line and pretending you’re a Wallaby, to actually be out there receiving the trophy, it’s a big dream. It’s a very special moment and it’s a hard one to really put into words. It’s as much relief as it is elation. It’s a sense of brotherhood with these people that you’ve been with this journey on, it’s this sense of sacrifice and knowing that it’s special for all of you in your own particular way but also in a collective way.” – John Eales, Australia.

RNS sw