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Sunday October 07 2007

I couldn’t bear to watch the Australia England rugby game yesterday.  I cravenly sneaked peaks at the score in among having a bath, reading, surfing the you know what, and all the while cursing The Universe for taunting me by making it close, after which The Universe would inevitably award victory to Australia.  And then after England won, I got invited out to dinner and couldn’t settle down to watch the France All Blacks game in Cardiff either, although that too is on my TV hard disc to be wallowed in at leisure.  When I got to my hosts, I did watch some of the France/NZ game while dinner was getting ready, up to where it was 13-13, at which point I still thought New Zealand would win.  But half an hour later, Madame Hostess stuck her head round the door after a trip to see to the baby of the house or some such domestic thing, and announced that France had won it 20-18.  And so it proved.  Would you, as we say in London, Adam and Eve it?

Private Eye, in the pre-Guido (!) days when I used to read Private Eye, used to do and maybe still does do a story along the lines of the following: Two weeks ago, we described England rugby coach Brian Ashton as a doddering old has-been whose grasp of rugby team selection, tactics and strategy is hopelessly arthritic and disastrously vacillating and who is totally out of his depth when attempting to handle the media, and who should be sacked with immediate effect.  We now realise that he is a veritable Duke of Wellington of Rugby, a Churchill of the oval ball, blah blah, etc. etc.  If they aren’t saying this now, they should.

However, now that I have seem some TV highlights, I couldn’t help noticing that one of the passes given and taken during the scoring of the match-winning French try was blatantly forward.  This was, to put it mildly, not the first such pass in this tournament, and it won’t be the last.  Even the TV commentators, notoriously diplomatic about such things, noticed it.  Now it’s one thing for a ref to miss a forward pass that at least goes forwards less quickly than the guys doing the passing, i.e. it looks like it’s going backwards if you are tracking the players, with your eye or with a camera.  But this pass was forward even by that relaxed standard.  Guided only with the technology I have at my disposal, namely one TV camera and one TV set, a off-pitch ref could have spotted it instantly, indeed surely did so.  But because of that forward pass it’s goodbye All Blacks.  Not good. 

As soon as they can, they need to embed electro-widgets in all the game balls, and track them from a satellite or a gas balloon or something, and tell the referee about all forward passes.  Perhaps they’ll do what they now do about cricket bowlers chucking, which is that if the camera now clocks you chucking only a bit, then that’s okay.  Maybe forward by ten degrees will be deemed acceptably non-forward.  But I say, make the rule zero degrees forward.  If that makes rugby into a different game, then so be it.

But, what an earthquake of a day.

I thought the Traille pass to Michalak was forward the moment I saw it, but in one of the replays, it looked as if Michalak’s to Jauzion was dodgy too. Surely linesmen can see?

The standard of refereeing has been shocking, from the first game. However, the yellow card today for “accidentally” blocking Jauzion was entirely deserved (the No12 moved across Jauzion and rised his arms into the player, hardly “trying to get out of the way” or “just standing my ground") and the Kiwis got away with diving over the ball to an absurd degree. They were also very creative in blocking tackles when attacking. I felt the Kiwis were not that good in defence.

They don’t take it as well as they dish it out. They missed a quarter of only 40 odd tackes they had to make. France took 90% of the 170+ they had to make. So the number of missed tackles was about the same for the two sides, which meant France scored as many tries.

Is it possible that New Zealand can’t handle close games? This is not a one-off problem for the All Blacks. I honestly felt that 10-0 down after nearly half an hour was no problem (13-0 hurt). Carter limping off and Chabal on were the turnpoints for me.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 07 October 2007

I can see there’s no point my trying to compete in terms of analysis here: I was hoping you’d have written about yesterday’s spectacular games, and so it’s proven. I haven’t had the nerve to check the France result until now.

(Can’t imagine why you’d want to waste your intelligence on the likes of Guido, mind you. Not quite your class, I’m afraid).

Posted by James Hamilton on 07 October 2007

Antoine

The All Blacks.  The Graham Hicks of rugby.  Or maybe the Mark Ramprakashes.  Brilliant at the less than top level.  Can’t handle the summit.  What a thought.  It must be hard when you are the guardians of the state religion.  And every time they fail to win one of these things, it gets more and more embarrassing and pressurised.  God help the poor bastards who play for the All Blacks next time around.

What I heard was that last time around, it was reckoned they got tired in the later games.  So, this time they rested people all over the place.  And now they’re saying that this caused them not to have a team of guys who knew each other.  You can’t win.  (If you’re an All Black.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 07 October 2007

At the end of the game I distinctly saw some Australians crying.

I didn’t know they could do this.

Were they really Australians?

Posted by Patrick Crozier on 07 October 2007

Patrick,

YESSSSS!!!

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 07 October 2007

Graham Henry looks like getting sacked with the best record as New Zealand coach since the 1960s.

I haven’t seen the All Blacks play much, but whereas the French replacements upped the play, I didn’t feel that, apart from their No 20, that theirs made an impact.

Chabal’s first entry into a breakdown involved ripping the ball out of an opponent’s hand and heaving against two or three of them, successfully. I saw nothing like that on the AB side after half time.

Could the ABs have done as well with a player like Betsen off after 5 mins? Could anyone?

France have depth and discipline, which is why we can win this world cup. But Argentina are looking very good and will not fear anyone now. It would be strange for the final to be a return of the opener.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 07 October 2007

Patrick: You so fail to understand Australians. We have a lot of the Irish in us.

On the actual rugby, I totally thought the All Blacks blew it in the last five to ten minutes. New Zealand were attacking for most of that period, were inside the France 22, and at times were right in front. What you do in that situation is have a go at the drop goal to get in front on the scoreboard. The ABs instead had an attitude of “We are the All Blacks, dammit. We don’t win games with drop goals like gay sides like England do. We will score the try”. And of course they didn’t. (They did have a shot with seconds to go that missed, but the position was nowhere near is good as several others that they had had within a few minutes before that). I can only concur with the people above who have said that New Zealand have no idea what to do in a close game. Manifestly so.

Australia earlier were in a similar situation and they at least understood what to do, but they blew it in the execution., taking two shots from positions that were too far out when their backline would have surely got them closer if they played it for a bit.

In defence of England, they both understand what to do in such a situation, and in Wilkinson they have the best player in the business in execution in such circumstances. This has won them one world cup already. Who knows, it might win them another.

That New Zealand have now been favourite or close to it for five World Cups in a row (and have been the best side in the world for perhaps two thirds of the last 20 years) and have won none of them is getting extraordinay. They have continued producing the best rugby players in the world, and yet New Zealand rugby is approaching being a joke. The pressure will be even worse on home soil in four years time. (Of course, the last time the tournament was played in NZ was in 1987, and the All Blacks did actually win that one).

(Fiji have just thrown everything at South Africa and given them a huge fright, but the South Africans won in the end. It has been quite a weekend, and there is still one game to go).

Posted by MIchael Jennings on 07 October 2007

Both Scotland and Argentina have done very well. Scotland in particular must have been a potential failure to get to the quarter finals as Wales did.

Argentina’s record suggests a very tough team with a better record against France than almost anyone.

If Patterson keeps up his extraordinary record scoring all his kicks Scotland have a chance. I think Argentina’s game is better overall, but that clearly hasn’t been enough in other quarter finals.

Australia’s scrum is relatively weak, England’s has finally started to click.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 07 October 2007

By the way, in the Fiji SA game (which I did watch right through!) there was another hideous ignored forward pass, which was only one great tackle away from resulting in a Fiji try that would, I think, have given them the lead.

The rule now seems to be that if you are engaged in a great and potentially try scoring move, it’s somehow not cricket, so to speak, for the ref to blow his whistle for a forward pass, no matter how many yards the ball went forwards before the try scorer got his hands on it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 07 October 2007

In the pub in Battersea where I was watching the game, the crowd were cheering Fiji loudly, but when that try was disallowed, there were lots of mutterings of “Well, it was a forward pass anyway”, and this was also clearly mentioned when the pass actually happened. The crowd wanted Fiji to win, but wanted them to do it fairly. THat’s pretty typical, I think.

And it is why this rugby World Cup is such a great event.  The cricket World Cup has had one or two good stagings, but decends into farce too often. The level of bad sportsmanship at the last soccer World Cup was so great that I was amazed that anyone cared who won it at the end. But we are having another wonderful rugby event. My team lost yesterday, but I am still exhilirated at the weekend’s games. The French have managed to host a great tournament, just as Australia did four years ago. (In both cases, the success of the home team has certainly been enjoyed by the home crowd, but it is not what caused the success). A certain amount of bad blood seems to get reported in the Australian and English tabloids, but it doesn’t greatly seem to reflect reality to me. The RWC just seams to be a great sporting event.

Go Argentina, by the way.

Posted by MIchael Jennings on 07 October 2007

Michael, you were saying the other day that whenever you find yourself saying “Is it just me or ...?”, it isn’t.

So, is it just me, or was the Scotland Argies game very dull and second rate?

Or was it no more dull than the England Australia game, and you just had to care about the result?

But, I did care.  I wanted Scotland to win.  Yet, I could not get excited about them trying to, which they did.  At the end Scotland were within a converted try of pulling it off.

I think the problem was that nobody on either side got any space or had any pace, or not that I could see.  The dominant fact about the game was that the Argies clobbered everything creative that the Scots attempted, and this was boring to watch.

I know lots of people think the Argies are capable of giving the South Africans a real game, but I reckon that SA, having had a severe fright against Fiji, will rip the Argies to pieces.

I think that was one of the NZ problems.  They went straight from games they could win big in second gear, to a game they had to play in top gear, and the jump was just too much for them.  If that’s true, then France have a lot to thank Scotland for.  Had Scotland given the All Blacks any sort of fright, the All Blacks might then have been ready for the French.  Instead Scotland fielded their reserves, and the All Blacks strolled that one too.  Then, suddenly: Le Crunch.

England and France, meanwhile, had both been severely tested.  Each, once, failed.  England got thrashed by SA, but then built their confidence back by winning two tough games, against Samoa and Tonga.  France, more narrowly beaten by the Argies, had to be at their best for their Ireland game, and were.  Going up a notch to play Australia and the All Blacks was not an impossibly huge stretch for either.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 08 October 2007

I think I might describe the game as “mannered”, rather than dull. There was definitely a contrast with the earlier game between Fiji and South Africa (in which the Fijians knew it was the biggest game of their lives and one of their rare opportunities to play top class opposition, and they were playing like their lives depended on it). I think Argentina had their minds to some extent on the game next week (and maybe even the possibility of the one the week after that) and their aim was to get a lead, keep it, and go through to the next round. When they were 13 points ahead, I am sure they felt they had done this, and they may have relaxed. (As often happens in such circumstances, they then found themselves desperately fighting to save the game in the final minutes. To their credit they had enough fight in them to do so). I don’t think their mind was 100% on the job. I think it will be next week.

South Africa come from a difficult cultural position. The South Africans population wants sporting victories as much as the Australian population does, and since South Africa’s return to international sport 15 years ago the sporting teams have generally not delivered. This leads to all kinds of weird bitterness and recrimination and pressure. The Australian cricket team has managed to play this against the South African cricket team to the extent of reducing it to a group of mental basket cases. The South African rugby team is not the cricket team (just as the Australian rugby team is not, alas, the cricket team) but I think South African rugby teams remain a little brittle as a consequence. So, put them under pressure and they may crack. If Argentina can play next week as if is the biggest game of their lives, well, they are ultimately a much stronger side than Fiji.

France are looking very good, I think. They started slow and are peaking at the right time. Plus their last two games are in Paris. (Home or away didn’t seem to be a big deal though. Their loss to Argentina meant that their quarter final ended up being in Cardiff rather than in Paris as the organisers no doubt intended, and they still managed to beat the All Blacks). England are now playing a game of there being nothing to lose, having not gone from a situation where the tournament was looking like a catastrophe to one where they have exceeded expectations and the other teams in the tournament are all teams that they can beat on their day if things go right. I think South Africa are brittle, as I said (and they are a side that is usually better at home than away). I still think Argentina winning the tournament would be a terrific thing for world rugby, and this is much more likely than it was at the start of the tournament. It might be they peaked too early though. We will see. I hope the last two weeks of the tournament live up to the first month.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 08 October 2007

I think the Argentines were tired, which is something we have not often seen in any of the matches. The pool games were remarkable for the small number of knock ons and the generally small number of kickable penalties conceded, which suggests skills levels, fitness and discipline were generally higher than at previous world cups and not just for the top teams either.

In the quarter finals, the number of knock ons has dramatically risen I’m sure. Maybe it isn’t possible to maintain the intensity, or nerves were a factor.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 08 October 2007
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