Palla Ovale’s Tour Diary: Episode 2

Rotorua & Queenstown
If Eden Park is New Zealand’s biggest rugby stadium, then Rotorua’s International Arena holds the honour of being the grassiest.  Palla Ovale thought his days of going to grounds with a grassy knoll were past him once he stopped going to Bray Wanderers home matches, but alas, he hadn’t reckoned on this ground.  In truth, it was a fitting arena, more akin to a provincial game than an international, and both sets of fans clearly enjoyed themselves.
One group who were less happy were the natives, who couldn’t get with the Irish and Russian desire to actually stand in the terrace area.  ‘Sit down guys, you’re in New Zealand now’ was the call.  Most initially obliged, but ended up standing for much of the game.  It’s in keeping with the nature of Kiwis, who are the friendliest, most obliging people you could meet, but turn serious when an oval ball looms into view.
Ireland romped home comfortable winners, and it was the sort of performance Ireland put in all too rarely.  Refusing to play to the opposition’s level, they kept up the tempo and got their best ball carriers running onto the ball.  Heaslip and O’Brien had a field day.  It was Russia’s last game and their lap of honour was warmly applauded by all in the ground.  They have shown flashes of some great rugby, and Northampton have got themselves a rough diamond in Vasily Artemiev.  Their impish scrum half and dynamic No.8 Gresev have also impressed.  However, they lack a Todd Clever or Mamuka Gorgodze, who can wreak havoc around the breakdown and slow down opposition ball, and have leaked tries as a result.  They’ll be better in four years’ time.
The Ovale clan have fled to Queenstown.  Skiing, flying to Milford Sound and a hair-raising canyon swing are all in the bag, and that first Ferg(us McFadden)burger will live in the memory.  The Kiwi goodwill towards Ireland continues, but in spite of beating Australia, Ireland find themselves in the familiar position of needing to win their last pool game against a big, obstinate pack of forwards.  It might be tougher than everyone seems to expect. 
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RWC: Anthemwatch

With Egg and Mini Egg having sat through multiple anthems (and enjoyed some of them), it got us thinking – if the match ended after the music stopped (and, mercifully, before the Haki (plural) begin), who would take home Bill?

Let’s preview:

Favourites:

France: The clear favourite. La Marseillaise is, without any doubt, the best national anthem in the world. Even for non-Frenchies, it makes the spine tingle, and is so republican, it would induce Mike Tindall to start sharpening the guillotine for Granny-in-law. And then induce the rest of les proles rosbifs to start sharpening it for Mike Tindall. Here is a SPECTACULAR rendition, one night in Cardiff in 2007.

Italy: Some anthems seem very much appropriate for their country. For example, Deutschlandleit seems rich, confident and suave, just like the denizens of Munich, Stuttgart and Berlin. In the same vein, Il Canto Degli Italiani seems jaunty, cool, but slightly unreliable (whats with the oom-pah bit?), and is an appropriate combination of boring Milan, dangerous Naples and sexy Rome. Altogether now: bom-bom-be-bom, bom-bom-be-bom, bom-BOM-be-bom, bom-bom-be-bom!!

USA: The best thing about the the Star Spangled Banner is that Americans positively encourage involvement and interpretation, as befits a nation which defines itself by its ability to assimilate. Can you imagine any other country allowing noted rock or rap stars the option of doing their “version” of the anthem at the country’s biggest sporting event every year? Unlikely. Yet the Yanks can’t wait for the anthem before the Superbowl. It’s optimistic, emotional and adaptable – and very hard to dislike.


Contenders:

Russia: Now, Egg Chaser is no flaming Commie, far from it. But there is something powerful about the old Soviet anthem, now adapted for Russia. It’s not without its controversy, as many Russians rightly remember the murder and explotation of their countrymen and women by psychopathic leaders, and refuse to sing along. For most, perhaps, its the perverse pride in remembering when Russia mattered. Anyway, check out the Paul Robeson version from the 1940s and at least appreciate the idealism. And here’s a flavour of what non-Russian former Soviets think of the anthem.


Wales: As befits a nation of choirboys choristers, Land of My Fathers is tuneful, musically sound and enjoyable. The impenetrable Welsh tongue makes this local anthem very much exotic. Maybe its stereotypical, but the Welsh players also seem like better singers than other nations. Or maybe its just the magic atmosphere in the Millennium. Either way, its a dark horse for the title.

South Africa: Like Ireland, the South African ditty is a prisoner of history and politics. The anthem shares the distinction (with the Italian one) of being in 2 keys, although the South African one is in 2 keys essentially because it is 2 songs merged together – Nkosi Sikelil iAfrica and Die Stem. The current anthem contains 5 languages and tries manfully to knit together a desperately fractured country. In spite of the grim music (particularly in the second half), a national anthem is about much more than that, and the sight of 15 proud South Africans singing every word in 1995 was simply incredible, and lifts this to contender status.

Going home early:

England: An absolute dirge. God Save the Queen has bored generations of Englishmen and antagonized generations of foreigners, which is perhaps part of its ongoing appeal at home. In true British fashion however, it has a great backstory. Firstly, no-one actually knows who wrote the song, and there is disagreement over what key it hould be played in. Secondly, it has been continually re-written, and current and former colonies continue to drop it (including England themselves for the Commonwealth games!). According to “protocol”, the Queen doesn’t sing it, we wonder does she just think its shite.

Ireland: Once again, the Irish manage to out-do the English on the rugby field by having not one, but two dirges. The much and rightly-maligned Ireland’s Call is virtually unsalvageable, but Amhran na bFhiann isn’t a whole lot better. Now, Egg Chaser is as patriotic as the next man and sings it with as much gusto as anyone else, that is a medium murmur, but it’s all pretty uninspiring, which is disappointing from a nation which has some cracking old tunes – some close to Egg’s heart are here and here, although Tommy Bowe’s version of one old favourite was fairly … errrrr … average. Despite all that though, this was amazing.

Scotland: Flower of Scotland is so dull that this is generally accepted to be the most rousing version ever performed. The most rousing! Ever!! It’s a pity, because the lyrics very much appeal to the Braveheart Scottish self-image, although it can seem a little incongruous when being sung by Alasdair, Hugo and Hamish the Tartan Tories in Murrayfield, Edinburgh, the most British city in the UK. Scotland deserves much much better.

The Agony of Choice

So, what should we make of the win over Russia? It was wholely pleasant really, very unlike most games we play when we are expected to win. We ran in a few tries, a couple of lads put their hands up for selection, Mushy scored a try in his last game for Ireland, and Deccie has been left with some selection headaches for the crucial Italy game on Sunday – what is there not to like?

Italy’s bonus point win this morning over the USA! USA! USA!, coupled with our desperate failure  to get one on 9/11 means we have no room for manoever – if we had our Yankee bonus point in the bag, we could have afforded to lose by <7 points and still top the pool and qualify – not any more – a win is needed.

Now, what team will Deccie send out to do the business. He has decisions to make at 4, 10, 11 and 12 – lets look at them:

  • Second Row: Donncha O’Callaghan was not bad by any means against Russia; you got your usual combination of secure line-outs and hard work around the park – but it must nag that both Leo Cullen and Donncha Ryan looked more effective, at tight play and ball-carrying respectively. Donncha has held off an on-form Micko in Munster for 2 years now, and hasn’t faced serious challenge at this level yet. Deccie is a cautious man by nature, but picking Cullen against a lumbering and heavyweight Italian second row partnership isn’t a huge risk – its a possibility though, not a probability
  • Out-half: Here’s the question. Rog was named man of the match against Russia while Sexto missed a laughably easy kick just when the spotlight was on him. Its going to be an arm-wrestle, the logic goes, pick the man who can hit a barn door when required. However, its more complicated than that. Firstly, Teacher Pet tells us Deccie doesn’t want to pick Rog. Secondly, Sexton would be the horse for the Wales course – why drop him now? Thirdly, when we nearly lost in Rome in February, Sexton started. We think Deccie will consider that a worst-case scenario and stick with Sexton as his first-choice 10. Rog will undoubtedly have a part to play, but it will be from the bench
  • Left Wing: Andrew Trimble was again our most threatening broken-field runner from the left-wing. Its hard to see what more he can do to get a shirt, but Earls is the man in possession and is improving by the match. Trimble, to be truthful, deserves the shirt, but Earls has it – Deccie is unlikely to drop a man he has invested so much time in 
  • Inside Centre: If Dorce was fit, this wouldn’t be a question. But he isn’t, and he hasn’t been for a while. Paddy Wallace performed well last week, carrying well and bringing players into play where possible, and is clearly the backup 12. When Sexton came on, he filled in at 12 seemlessly, as he did earlier in the tournament. However, that’s not a serious option if winning the tournament is an actual ambition. You could move Bowe, Earls, McFadden or Trimble into the centre, but since Deccie has never done this, you assume he’s not going to start in a game of this magnitude. We have a feeling PWal might hold on to the shirt, unless Dorce proves his fitness of course.

There is a fair degree of nervousness about this game, most of it based on the display in Rome in February. However, we are quite sanguine about it all. Italy have the best number 8 in the world, but our back row unit is better. Set-pieces should break even. Semenzato is a good 9, but they have no 10. Tomasso Benvenuti looks a serious player, but will he see the ball? Italy have been purring up to now, but we think Ireland have enough to hold them at arms length, and maybe even pull away late on.

Ireland v Russia: Preview

Tomorrow morning, as Palla greets the citizens of Rotorua with a doffed cap, Egg Chaser will be sleeping and letting the UPC auto-record thingy kick into gear. Then when he gets up and avoids Twitter, all will be revealed. Ireland will win with a bonus point, anything less is virtually unthinkable, but what should we look for?


Minnow Conditioning: The Russkies, amazingly, have a fully professional league. This should ensure their conditioning is a little better than, say, Romania and Namibia, who looked drained in their 3rd matches. The Bears are hardly likely to be like Duracell bunnies with 10 minutes to go, but they won’t collapse either. If Deccie empties the bench after 60 minutes (revolutionary, I admit), the game could peter out as opposed to exploding in a Bok-esque try-fest.


Solid as a … errr …. rock. Ireland’s defence has been excellent in this tournament to date, with only 1 try conceded, and that an 80th minute intercept. However, the 10-12-13 axis that made that happen (mostly) has been replaced with the fun-sized Rog-Pwal-Superstar combo. We do think that they will do ok – Rog and PWal aren’t salloon doors in reality and are reasonably familiar with one anothers games, and Earls (surely) can’t be as bad as he was against England – but its worth keeping a beady eye on, especially because of…..

Bath-barians rugby: The Russians came into this tournament touting themselves as a team who like to throw the ball around at every opportunity. They showed some sharper teeth in the last 50 minutes against Italy (after Yanyushkin came in at 9) and kept pace with the Azzuri in that time. Ireland aren’t exactly renowned for their patient approach, but throwing the ball around from the first whistle might actually pay dividends (for once) against a team who want to play it loose.

French Select Halfback at First-Five – It’s All Too Much

It’s dreadfully churlish to be critical of the wonderful New Zealand folk, who couldn’t be more welcoming, but the Ovale touring party feel the media have got themselves into rather a lather over the French team selection.  The hysteria has stemmed from the French selecting a ‘halfback’, Morgan Parra at, ahem, ‘first-five’.  The NZ Herald duly went into a tailspin.  It’s an outrage!  France are putting out a B Team!  They are throwing the game!  It’s disrespectful to the All Blacks!  And to the fans!  It’s a French farce!  The IRB must outlaw this!

It’s all completely overdone.  For a start, it is a dangerous stance to take – if the French team is so poor, go out and put 50 points on them and show them what you make of it.  For another, the selection is nowhere close to a B Team.  From 11-15 it’s France’s strongest selection, and while he is not a natural, Morgan Parra has been the most impressive performer in the 10 slot so far for France.  As for the second choice front-row, New Zealand would want to be careful indeed if they choose to identify Jean Baptiste Poux as a sub-par reserve player.

Some of the coverage this morning, having had 24 hours to mull it over, has been more reasonable.  Indeed, Colin Meades saluted the French cunning, noting they have the bench stacked with matchwinners, and that lulling the Kiwis into a false sense of security before ambushing them in the last 30 minutes might just be the best ploy.  It worked in 2007, when Michalak was sprung to deliver a game-turning cameo.  A repeat remains unlikely, but the French have played their hand craftily indeed.

Palla Ovale’s Tour Diary

Episode 1 – Auckland: Sweet As, Bro’

Yep, one team has been dominating the rugby conversation in Auckland and beyond this week, and for once it’s not the one in black.  Well, it is, but they’ve also talked a lot about Ireland.  Between defeating the Aussies, creating an atmosphere in Eden Park that they’re just not used to (rugby is considered too serious a matter for singing and chanting) and painting the streets green, the Irish have become the toast of the town.  There’s only one thing these rugby-mad people prefer to see thjan the Kiwis winning, and that’s the Aussies losing.  The Ovale clan have been besieged by uber-friendly folk dying to congratulate them on the win – it’s almost as if Palla himself was the one that shoved the Aussie scrum backwards time and again.

Even the Kiwi journos are impressed.  The Herald hailed the ‘Tullow Tank’ as a superstar in waiting.  Every Irish shirt in Auckland is sold out.  Suddenly Ireland are the new darlings in a countrry where they are used to getting a pasting and going home with their tail between their legs.

The Ovale touring party is revelling in it.  A trip to Waiheke finished with an impulsive purchase of a ridiculously priced bottle of wine to mark the occasion.  A stop in to the Matakana local pub led to the owners sitting down for over an hour to talk rugger and more.  Every shopkeeper, boat-driver or passer-by wants to stop and chat.  It’s a far cry from Paris in 2007, when you’d barely have known the world cup was taking place.

As for Ireland, well, Paul O’Connell summed it up.  It is great that Ireland can dredge up outstanding performances when painted into a corner, but consistency is required.  Ireland need to maintain a level when the occasion is more humdrum, and doesn’t enable them to draw on emotional reserves.  The Italy match, and probable meeting with Wales will be two such games – Ireland will be favourites, and will have to deal with a new kind of pressure: the entire nation of New Zealand will be behind them, while the media back home are as supportive as ever.  There’ll be no room for a siege mentality, and another emotional jersey presentation from Jirry Flannery is unlikely (unless it’s via Skype).  The boys will have to simply go out there and play rugby as best they can.  The job starts on Sunday when the midweek team will be expected to match Italy’s scoring feats against an ailing Russia side that must now be ready for the homeward journey.  A handsome bonus-point victory is needed to keep the positive momentum going.  Roll on Rotorua!

Idle Speculation

Ireland’s stunning win over Australia on Saturday has done more than make a nerdy rugby blog look silly, or a well-fed pundit look intelligent, it has thrown the tournament wide open. As it stands, it looks like all 3 Tri-Nations sides will be in one side of the draw, with the cream of the Northern Hemisphere in the other.

This situation gave rise to some frenzied water cooler speculation in Egg Chaser’s place of employment today – will South Africa or New Zealand throw games in order to engineer being on the (perceived) easier side of the draw? Now, Egg Chaser might be bitter and twisted, but he is no conspiracy theorist. However, he is a coolly logical fellow, and thus thinks if a situation mutually benefits 2 parties, then it has a pretty good chance of happening. So lets examine the issue, and assume everything else goes to form:

South Africa:

If they beat Samoa, they top the pool and will play Australia followed by the winners of New Zealand/France, just to get to the final. Tough. If they lose to Samoa, there is actually a potential for them to go out (as 3 teams will have 3 wins and 1 defeat) or even top the pool anyway (as they have a bonus point and lots of tries in the bag from the Fiji game). Samoa need to win anyway, no choice for them.

Verdict: No-brainer, the Boks must beat the Samoans – if they lose, they may still win the group, or possibly even crash out

New Zealand:

The winners of the NZ/France game essentially have a free pass to the semi-final – this is an obvious plus, but can lead to being undercooked (a particular concern for NZ given their history). And when they get there, its going to be either a South Africa side on a major roll, or an Australian team rejuvenated by a tough victory over the Meateaters – neither an enticing prospect. For the loser, its England followed by Wales or Ireland. Of the 2 scenarios, France will be desperate for the first one to avoid England, who they routinely fall to (especially in World Cups) – they don’t fear anyone as much. New Zealand, on the other hand, may not care as much – losing may actually give them a more straightforward journey to the final – they might rather take on SA or Oz in the after their opponents have had 2 huge tests, than after beating Scotland/Argentina by 40 points.

Verdict: if France beat New Zealand, the path to the final looks rosier for both

So, there you have it – the incentives are laid out. We aren’t expecting an Austria-Germany 1982 scenario here, just pointing out that France beating New Zealand benefits both sides in terms of getting to the final. I’m looking at the 6/1 available against France and pondering …….

Tipping Point?

Its hard to over-estimate how important this next game is for Ireland. Lets for a second ignore the immediate importance, that of potentially avoiding the Boks at the quarter-final stage of the RWC. There is a much bigger issue at stake – that of the future of the core of this team for the last decade.

Since Ireland abandoned 10-man rugby and came out throwing the ball around Croker against Scotland in the 2010 Six Nations, they have looked increasingly frail. That game itself, they were unlucky to lose, but the  punters noted a free-flowing strategy of passing laterally, coming off second best at the breakdown and an inability to execute the basics well, like passing to each other.

Since then, Ireland’s performance levels have gone only one way:

  • June 2010 tour: P4 L4 (including to the Barbarians in Limerick) – this wasn’t as bad as it appeared – an injury-blitzed Ireland performed very creditably on tour, which saw apparent breakout performances from Dan Tuohy, Mushy and Rhys Ruddock
  • November Internationals 2010: P4 W2 L2 – losses to South Africa and New Zealand were countered by a very scratchy win over Samoa and a solid one over Argentina (which Egg Chaser remembers for holding a 5 day old Mini Egg throughout) – the NZ performance was again respectable in defeat, but it was back to the same old soldiers – Mike Ross and Sean O’Brien had been playing well for Leinster but didn’t get a look-in and the graduate tourists from June were largely jettisoned
  • Six Nations 2011: P5 W3 L2 – fortunate to get out of Rome alive on the opening weekend, Ireland stumbled through the tournament. All seemed to be forgiven with an electric performance to fillet England in the Palindrome, but the rest was forgettable. Except for Gerry, who managed to blame the referees for every shortcoming
  • World Cup warm-ups: P4 L4 – we’ve been over this before. NB Andy Trimble was our best player in August
  • World Cup: P1 W1 – over the States, without a winning bonus point, where Eddie body-slamed Deccie tactically. Generally poor, although Fez, Rory Best and POC were decent

So, in total, 6 wins in 18 games, 4 of them scratchy and 1 very fortunate. However, there has been a consistent tone of optimism emanating from the camp for this entire time, with everything being justified by “wait until Auckland, you’ll see the real Ireland there”.

Well, Ireland are now in Auckland (as are Clan Ovale), and the nation now expects a performance, with some optimists expecting more than that. However, what happens if the form illustrated above is more like what we get? What if, as all sensible indicators say, we get thrashed by the Tri-Nations champions? What if this mythical “performance” doesn’t happen?

Ireland are going in to the most important game of Deccie’s reign with 5 players just back from injury, 2 locks who look like they would struggle to ruck Shane Williams out of the way, and 2 backs whose form is, to be charitable, desperate. They have no idea who their starting half backs are, and have a captain-in-waiting who scarcely deserves his place in the XV. Plus, the replacement forwards are not of Heineken Cup class, never mind World Cup (and rugby is a 22 man game now). Is this what all the work over 3 years of Deccie has been for?

 We are feeling pretty pessimistic here, but if the match goes to form, and Ireland get panned, this group of players will find it exceptionally difficult to lift themselves for the Italy match. We are getting the impression that, mentally, all the eggs are in the Wallaby basket.

And what will that leave us with? An aged (not ageing) team with confidence and mental well-being in pieces – if Italy don’t finish us off, the Boks (including a ravenous Fleshlumpeater) undoubtedly will.

Bosh! Bosh!! BOSH!!!

Remarkably, not changing tactics and changing personnel worked a treat for the Bokke and the Bloody Nice Chaps (except Delon Armitage). Actually, not so remarkable when you consider the best sides at club level have nailed that one a long time ago. Still, one lesson is that if boshing up the middle doesn’t work, just get other lads to try it instead. New Zealand and Australia certainly won’t mind that conclusion being reached.

Today, on Back Page Rugby, we looked at how Johnno and P Divvy made a difference from their goldfish bowls – plus we don’t think Johnno destroyed anything while he was there as an added bonus.

Read it here.

Frankie Says ‘Relax, We Have the Pishun’

The early mornings aren’t easy – before you ask, no, we didn’t get up at 4.30 to watch Fiji v Namibia – but the first weekend was so good it was a pleasure to leave the scratcher.  Here’s a few things we learned over the first set of World Cup games:

1. Ireland are in trouble.  They destroyed the US scrum, took apart their lineout and mauled them at will, but could only muster three tries against one of the weakest sides in the tournament.  The lack of gameplan, skill, intelligence and support for the carrier was galling.  It’s sad to see so many good players playing so poorly. There is no basis on which to believe Ireland can trouble Australia.  Indeed, there is every chance Ireland will once again fail to get out of the group.

2. Hooray for the little teams!  Every one of the underdogs beat the spread.  Remarkably, the gap between the second and top tiers looks to have closed.  Romania were leading Scotland with 10 minutes to go, Japan got to within four points of France midway through the second half, and USA hung in for a late intercept to reduce Ireland’s winning margin to 12.  A genuine shock is on the cards.  Look no further than Wednesday morning, when a Scotland side with 11 changes and no Richie Gray takes on a feral Georgian pack including Mamuka Gorgodzilla, a world class scrum and a bunch of other grizzled Top 14 henchmen.

3. RTE’s choice of pundits is diabolical.  Watching the analysis of the highlights of Sunday’s action on RTE was a dispiriting experience.  Shane Horgan is no doubt a great player and a nice guy who looks good on TV, but what was he going to say, that his Leinster teammates and good friends had played like drains?  He’s too close to the players to offer anything.  Next to him we had our beloved Frankie Sheahan, a man for whom the word optimistic doesn’t do justice.  He assured viewers that the underdog spirit will inspire huge pishun in the Irish team, and that alone would beat Australia. It was left to Conor O’Shea to add some sensible commentary; he noted that all the evidence available points to an easy Australia victory.  We’re sticking to Matty and Franno.

4. Heroes in defeat were numerous.  The man of the match award could have gone to a losing player in any number of games.  Few Scots will forget Romania’s teak-tough hooker Marius Tincu for some time, while USA’s all-action flanker Todd Clever repelled Irish runners all day.  Tonga’s reserve prop Taumalolo carried the fight to New Zealand, and Japan’s scrum half Fumiaka Tanaka gave real impetus to their commendable running game.  Nobody deserved to lose less than Wales’ Sam Warburton, however.  The Welsh openside is almost impossible to dislodge from rucks – he dominated Heinrich Brussouw, the man who has been dominating Richie McCaw. He looks a star in the making, and an early runner for the Lions captaincy in 2013. 

5. New Zealand v Australia final looks inevitable.  It’s already impossible to see beyond a final involving these two wonderful teams.  None of their rivals even come close.  France look like they could wreak havoc, but can’t stay awake for the full 80 minutes.  England were ponderous and allowed themselves to be drawn into a pitch battle.  Ireland were hopeless and South Africa were deeply fortunate to beat Wales.  The passing, support running and execution of the Antipodeans is unmatched.