By Rich Jones
When Owen Finegan crossed the whitewash in the final moment of the 1999 Rugby World Cup Final, it was quite literally a dream come true.
The powerful flanker secured Australia’s 35-12 win over France at the Millennium Stadium as they lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy for the second time in their history.
It was the defining moment of a glittering career for Finegan, who won 56 caps for the Wallabies between 1996 and 2003.
And he has recalled how he predicted his try scoring effort in the Final before the tournament even began!
“It was literally a dream come true,” he revealed. “I had a barbecue at my parents’ place as a farewell in Sydney before we flew over for the tournament.
“We looked at the schedule and knew it was likely to be a quarter-final in Cardiff, then back to Twickenham for the semi-final before the final in Cardiff if we got there.
“I told them all that I’d had a dream I was going to score in the World Cup Final, so I guess it was meant to be.
“I put through Ben Tune for his try with about five or 10 minutes to go and thought maybe that was what I’d been dreaming about, but then a couple of minutes later I got one of my own which was amazing.”
A well-worked line-out move was brilliantly finished by Finegan as he linked up with scrum-half George Gregan and powered through the French defence with a fine solo effort.
It was a magical moment to cap off an unforgettable day for the Wallabies, and Finegan says it came straight from the training ground.
But he says they almost called off their plan after bringing a new hooker onto the field just moments before the line-out was taken.
“It was something we picked up during the week and worked on during training. France, with Olivier Magne at the back of the line-out, were aggressive and trying to close the space of the half-back and cut off the supply to the back line.
“George Gregan called it, but we almost called the play off. It was a difficult throw to the back of the line-out, and Jeremy Paul had only just come onto the field.
“We thought about whether to give him an easier throw, but we threw him in at the deep end and John Eales caught the line-out at the back.
“He knocked it down to Gregan who put me in, and it was an unbelievable feeling to go in under the posts.”
After disposing of England at Twickenham at the semi-final stage, most were anticipating a showdown with arch rivals New Zealand in the Final.
But the All Blacks were stunned by France in a game which Finegan says had the Australian side on their feet at their Cardiff Bay hotel.
He recalled: “We played the semi-final at Twickenham, then travelled to Cardiff on the Sunday and were staying down in Cardiff Bay.
“We were a little bit out of down, but I remember being in the pool there watching the All Blacks play France.
“We were like grown men acting like children to be honest, because we were quite excited watching how the French came back.
“I think because Australia have had such an ongoing rivalry with New Zealand, I think there was always going to be a bit more of an air of confidence going into a game against France compared to the All Blacks.
“The early part of that week was just all about getting a better understanding of the French players and what they were going to do to challenge us.”
Once down in Cardiff, the Australian side made sure to soak in the atmosphere both before the game and in their post-victory celebrations.
Finegan, who was joined in the Welsh capital by many family and friends, believes they could not have won the famous trophy in a better city.
“The game was amazing and the atmosphere in Cardiff on a test match day is amazing,” he said.
“During the week there was a real buzz around the town. We took the opportunity to get about between training sessions, and having a full week to be part of that was a great experience.
“We got to game day, and I think I came on with 25 or 30 minutes gone when the score was 9-6. The game was tight for 50 or 60 minutes until we pulled away a bit towards the end.
“There were brilliant celebrations, obviously. It was a great opportunity to catch up with friends, supporters and family who were at the ground. I think I had something like 40 tickets for that test match.
“Obviously with my parents being Irish, my Mom is one of 14 brothers or sisters so I had a lot of my Aunties and Uncles there and some friends as well from Australia.
“I caught up with them initially then the rest of the team, and we just celebrated it with everyone because everybody wanted to be a part of it.
“Where better to have it than down at Cardiff? It was a wonderful spot to be after a test match and a great way to celebrate winning the World Cup.”
Since moving back to Australia following the conclusion of his rugby career, Finegan has become CEO of The Kids’ Cancer Project Australia.
It’s an admirable path taken by the former World Cup winner, and he admits it’s a pleasure to be able to support children suffering from the terrible disease.
He added: “I moved back to Sydney about two years ago, so I’ve been working for this charity ever since to try and help with Children’s Cancer Research.
“They were founded over 20 years ago and have invested over $36million over the years, and we now invest about $3million each year.
“At the moment we’ve got 28 research projects and 14 institutions across Australia, so it’s about trying to find better treatments and improve survival rates of childhood cancer.
“Kids don’t have a very loud voice, so it’s nice to be able to be a representative of theirs and try to fight their corner.”