Back to the Day Job…

What with the World Cup being so all-encompassing, it hasn’t been the easiest to find the time to follow the less glamorous domestic leagues.  But now that the New Zealand adventure is over for once and for all, it’s a case of ‘back to the day job’ for the northern hemisphere players.  In the meantime, the team domestiques have got the show on the road in the big boys’ absence.  Here’s a quick refresher on what’s been going on.

RaboDirect Pro 12

What’s happened so far? Well, it’s got a new name for a start, so those wishing to demean it will have to stop calling it the Cider Cup and find a new nickname.  Six rounds of games have been played.

Looking good: Ospreys are the pick of the bunch, with a surprising six from six record.  Having jettisoned a number of underperforming, highly paid galacticos (sayanora, Jerry Collins!), the team is being rebuilt around home grown players.  Justin Tipuric and Dan Biggar have been to the fore.  Leinster and Munster are ticking over nicely with four wins apiece, although both have lost once at home.  Treviso are comfortably halfway up the log, with two wins on the road, including a notable victory at Ravenhill.

Looking grim: Ulster have lost three in a row, and can’t get their talented young backs enough ball.  Aironi find themselves in a familiar position, propping up the table.

Making a name for themselves: Peter O’Mahony has captained the Munster team while Paulie’s been down under, and has already been compared to, erm, Richie McCaw by a typically feverish Hugh Farrelly, though whether he was wearing his matching ‘I Heart Munster’ cufflinks, tie and socks at the time of going to press remains unclear.  Nonetheless, O’Mahony could be starting some big games this year, and is one to keep an eye on.  Ian Madigan’s running game and eye for the tryline have impressed at Leinster.

Coming up: the tournament’s tri-annual showpiece, where Leinster and Munster collide, is on October 4.

Aviva Premiership

What’s happened so far? Six rounds of games have been played, with an unknown, but high, number of defenders having been run into by ball-carrying Samoans – Oooooohhhh!

Looking good: Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins have won all six games and look to have taken the step up from last season that so many expected.  Relatively unaffected by the World Cup, they had the princely Nick Evans all to themselves, and have made hay while the grounds are still hard.

Looking grim: What on earth are Leicester doing second from bottom?  In truth they’re missing a lot of key players, and will improve once the likes of Castro, Cole, Flood, Murphy and the Samoan harbour-jumper
are back in the side.

Making a name for themselves: Any of the young whippersnappers in the Quins team. Their terrific captain Chris Robshaw continues to make a name for himself, and show the English selectors what they missed out on.

Coming up: Andy Powell and Tony Buckley will be debuting for Sale shortly.  They’re third currently, can it continue?

Top 14

What’s happened so far? They’ve been busy, playing eight rounds of games so far.

Looking good: Clermont Auvergne and Castres are top of the bus at the moment.  Clermont routed Perpignan 39-3 at the weekend, with Nathan Hines getting his first try for his new employers.   Toulouse and Toulon have also had positive starts to the season.

Looking grim: It wasn’t Perpignan’s first thrashing: they were whipped 38-0 by Toulon the previous weekend.  More concerning still is Biarritz’ position right at the bottom.  Dull at the best of times, they have been positively embarrassing without Yachvili, Traille and Harinordoquy to get them out of trouble.

Making a name for themselves: Luke McAllister has been winning rave reviews having settled quickly into life in Toulouse. Le Rouge et Noirs have recruited well, and will be challenging, as ever, for silverware on all fronts this year.

Coming up: Toulouse v Stade Francais, one of the most glamorous match-ups in Europe, is the pick of the bunch this weekend.


What If … Wales had beaten South Africa?

So … that was the World Cup that was. New Zealand, the best team in the tournament, won it, but lost the final. A monumental choke didn’t cost them because of an absolutely shameful performance from Joubert. Example: on 76 minutes, the following happened:
  • Jerome Kaino leaps over a ruck and grabs the ball. Cue French demands for a penalty
  • Joubert: Leave it!
  • Kaino throws the ball back on the French side
  • Joubert: Ball is out!
  • NZ compete and ultimately force a knock on
Appalling. We have no desire to harp on about refereeing, but its really not acceptable. Anyway, we aren’t here to talk about Craig Joubert, we are here to talk about New Zealand.
So, they are a brilliant side, but they aren’t that good when forced to manage with Andy Ellis and Beaver at half-back – not that surprising – how would Ireland fare with Isaac Boss and Niall O’Connor pulling the reins?
Here at Whiff of Cordite, we think there was only one other side apart from France capable of beating the Blacks – the mighty Springboks. The rest of the Northern Hemisphere sides would have supinely surrendered, and we saw how easily the Wallabies were swatted aside in the semi-final.
With South Africa, you can be assured of 80 minutes of high intensity and physicality. You can also be certain that, like France, they genuinely believe they can beat New Zealand, and will plan accordingly.
“What If?” scenario 1 is an obvious one, that South Africa managed to turn territory into points against Australia, and go through to a semi-final, but we thinking the more interesting one is below, as later was better to play New Zealand.
This scenario goes back over 6 weeks, to September 11, when a late Francois Hougaard try helped the Boks squeeze out Wales 17-16. We’re not sure if we can get it down to one moment – P Divvy deciding to keep faith with the underperforming Bryan Habana maybe – but lets say Wales managed to close out the game – how would the tournament have panned out?
On the Kiwi side of the draw, we don’t see much impact – even if Wales managed to beat Australia (which they didn’t last Friday), they would not have beaten New Zealand. In the top half, South Africa would have been pitted against Ireland. There is a reasonable chance Ireland would not have been as sloppy as they were against Wales if faced by dark green jerseys, but the performance was way below what was required to beat the Boks – SA victory.
Next round, its France. And it isn’t France of the final, its France of the semi-final – who, to be brutally fair, were desperate. Save Heinrich Broussow being rightly red carded for a tip tackle on Vincent Clerc in the 17th minute by the half-French and arrogant (copyright Barnesy) Alain Rolland, the Boks would have done it.
Now it’s the final – and the New Zealand nerves are starting to jangle. Your average South African rugby man does not have an inferiority complex regarding anyone, never mind the black shirt, and the ferocity and clarity of purpose shown by France would most likely have been replicated.
On the other hand, France have dimensions that South Africa don’t – you don’t need to worry about Morne Steyn breaking the line and looking to offload the way Francois Trinh-Duc did – but the manner of the New Zealand collective panic gives South Africa a chance.
And, finally, the trump card. Picture the scene – 76 minutes have gone, New Zealand are a point up but South Africa have possession, it’s a ruck about 35 metres from the NZ posts. Jermone Kaino leaps over the ruck and grabs the ball. Instead of “Leave It”, you hear “Penalty Green”. Craig Joubert, watching in the stand, leaps up and cheers – Alain Rolland has just awarded his fellow countrymen a penalty 35 metres out, with 4 minutes to go, and the most reliable goal-kicker in the world has the ball in his hands……

24 Years of Hurt Over… Just.

You could almost hear an entire nation sigh in relief.  Just as Ireland with the Grand Slam in 2009, New Zealand choked utterly, but still had enough in them to get the monkey off their back.  They completely lost their way in attack, became clueless, rudderless and allowed themselves to be dragged down to the level of the rest of the world, but defended magnificently, their heroic captain Richie McCaw to the fore.

Huge credit goes to France, and in particular their two masters of back row play, Thierry Dusatoir and Imaonl Harinordoquy.  Dusatoir entered the pantheon of rugby greats yesterday, if he wasn’t there already, while Harinordoquy showed himself to be the world’s greatest lineout forward, and he’s not even a second row.  They were the only team in the tournament capable of matching the Kiwis both for physicality and skill.  South Africa bring a physical challege, the Aussies have the skillset, but only France, on their day, can provide both.  Their magnificence was one in the eye for the likes of Stuart Barnes, who wrote a lot of nonsense about them last week.

The game itself followed a familiar pattern. Rugby is a relatively simple game – and the adage that forwards win matches and backs decide by how much is a useful starting point. How do forwards win matches? By manfacturing pressure, by dictating the terms of the set pieces and the breakdown, all of which forces thier opponents into mistakes. These mistakes under pressure, in the normal course of events, are penalized by the referee, and the team on top uses these penalties to get increase territorial superiority, and ultimately score a try, or 3 points from the kicking tee. As the team on top gets further ahead, the side under the cosh must take more risks and attempt to score from less advantageous field position, giving the team on top some gaps to play at.

However, for all France’s dominance on Sunday, the cycle above was broken by the referee not rewarding their superiority. Craig Joubert did not make any outrageous home town decisions, but the pattern was clear right throughout the 80 minutes, and it was to the detriment of France. We don’t want to harp on about refereeing (although our muse Gerry is now basically a referee-moaning vehicle), but it decided the game and the destination of the trophy. Rugby needs at least the appearance of probity, and the selection of a referee for a final based on an assessment process which seems to favour one side above another is clearly sub-optimal. Just ask Spreaders how his career went after the opening game of RWC07 – why would Craig Joubert disadvantage his own career by pinging NZ off the park? The process is the problem.

But New Zealand deserve a huge amount of praise for their efforts.  As we noted previously, they had to beat, not only their opponent but the weight of history too.  And they had to do it not just without Dan Carter, but with the sixth best New Zealand outhalf (Donald was fourth choice, and Evans and McAllister are obviously superior).  For Ireland to find themelves in such a position, it would mean Niall O’Connor seeing out the match.  We were left with the extraordinary sight of a man coming on with so little confidence invested in him, that his team almost refused to give him the ball.  And yet it fell to this very fellow to knock over the crucial penalty. You have to hand it to Beaver, and he had the grace to laugh on the podium when the camera was on him. They say you’re only as good as you’re weakest link and in this case he was able to knock over a simple, but pressurised penalty from in front of the posts.  Sometimes, in sport, that’s good enough.

Whiff of Cordite Team of RWC11

Here in Cordite Towers, we are getting our retaliation in first, and presenting our Dream Team of the RWC. Obviously, in some positions, there is potential for us to have our angelic faces covered in egg, but we are willing to risk that. Next week, we will be revealing our Nightmare Team of the Tournament, consisting of players who covered themselves in embarrassment and shame during the competition.

The 4 best teams in the tournament; New Zealand, France, Wales and South Africa dominate the selection as expected, with only 1 player from outside this group – the immense Gorgodzilla.

1. Jean-Baptiste Poux (France) – Destructive in the scrum and an effective operator in the loose – unlikely to be going on barnstorming (Ooooooh) Tonga’uiha esque runs, but his power has given France a real platform.
Honourable mention: Guthro Steenkamp (South Africa), Cian Healy (Ireland). Steenkamp is a big man, and was the pick of the rest. Healy had a very good group stage, but learned a lesson against Adam Jones

2. William Servat (France) – An excellent open-field runner whose darts are accurate and secure and who can scrummage- Servat has every attribute a modern hooker requires, and he has shown them all in this tournament.
Honourable mention: Mario Ledesma (Argentina), Rory Best (Ireland). Best is playing the best rugby of his career right now and Ledesma oozes desire and class

3. Owen Franks (New Zealand) – The NZ scrum has been solid against 2 of the strongest units around, and dominant against Australia. Ben’s understated yet crucial contribution to the cause may be yet to reach its zenich, if NZ decide to Munster it on Sunday.
Honourable mention: Adam Jones (Wales), Nicolas Mas (France), Jannie du Plessis (South Africa). A lot of tight heads were embarrassing, like Ben Alexander and Dan Cole, but these 3 were solid and gave their teams a real platform

4. Danie Roussow (South Africa) – Gave away the decisive penalty against the Wallabies, but had a storming tournament aside from that – seemed to get over the gainline every carry and was rock solid in the set piece.
Honourable mention: Luke Charteris (Wales), Patricio Albacete (Argentina). Albacete dominated the lineout in all his sides big games, and Charteris showed all lanky light locks that the future can be bright

5. Lionel Nallet (France) – France have had the best lineout in the tournament (particularly defensively) and Nallet has been at the heart of that. His aggression in the loose has been notable as well.
Honourable mention: Brad Thorn (New Zealand). Dominant presence in the NZ engine room, brings real power and agressive rucking to the table

6. Schalk Burger (South Africa) – The Boks tame inability to get on the scoreboard was nothing to do with Shalk, whose physical ruck work and tackling were of the highest order. With Roussow, the standout forward in the best unit.
Honourable mention: Jerome Kaino (New Zealand) Sean O’Brien (Ireland). Kaino is now a team leader, and potentially Ruchie’s successor and O’Brien carried on his HEC form into the tournament

7. Ruchie McCaw (New Zealand) – Jokes about his invisibility to Joubert aside, Ruchie has shown real skill and leadership, and tore David Pocock a new one in the semi-final. The best openside in the tournament, and the world.
Honourable mention: David Pocock (Australia). Aus would have been on the easier side of the draw had he been playing against Ireland, and how differently it might have turned out. Utterly omnipotent against the Boks

8. Mamuka Gorgodze (Georgia) – The only player from outside the semi-finalists to make this team, and its easy to see why. Despite being the only threatening ball carrier in a heavy and immobile team, he made huge yardage every game, which was complemented by an obscene amount of tackles. A revelation.
Honourable mention: Imanol Harinordoquoy (France). Top line-out operator and wrecking ball off the back of the scrum with very soft hands. A class above Louis Picamoles, who was responsible for 2 of the NZ tries in the group stages

9. Mike Phillips (Wales): One of several Welshmen to shrug of a couple of seasons’ indifferent form and find his best again.  Passing remains no better than B-, but his strength and ability to break are key to the Welsh game.  Came up with game-changing try against Ireland and should-have-been-game-changing try against France.

Honourable mention: Kahn Fotuali’i (Samoa): The man brought to Ospreys to replace Philips.  Fast, clever and a good passer, he directed the Samoan attack superbly, especially against the Boks.

10. Rhys Priestland (Wales): Strangely, not a vintage competition for 10s, with Carter injured, France going so far as playing without a natural fly-half, and several others out of form.  But Priestland was the find of the tournament, graduating from Magners League class to test level seemingly overnight.  Has the look of a young ROG, right down to the apple cheeks.
Honourable mention: Aaron Cruden (New Zealand): From skateboarding with his mates to directing the world’s best team’s attack.  Things looked better for the Kiwis once Colin ‘Spooked’ Slade exited stage left.

11. Vincent Clerc (France): Even in the group stages he was good for France.  Master poacher whose sniffer’s instincts for where the ball is going to go enable him to get on the end of countless try-scoring passes.  Outstanding individual try against England, too.
Honourble mention: Richard Kahui (New Zealand): Relatively unheralded by Kiwi back-three standards, but Kahui has played his way into the first team.  Underrated performer.

12. Ma’a Nonu (New Zealand): Superb form has kept cult hero Sunny Bull out of the first team.  Ma’a Nonu’s line breaks from the inside centre channel have given New Zealand a key launchpad for their attacking game.  Once a straight-line bosher, now Ma’a has the all round game to beat all-comers.
Honourable mention: Sunny Bull Wulliams (New Zealand): Restricted largely to cameos off the bench, but the offloads are breathtaking.  The world’s best reserve.

13. Jamie Roberts (Wales): Okay, so it’s a fudge to put him at 13, but he’s been so good we had to get him in.  Played so well it’s strange to think that he looked so laborious for the last two seasons: how can he not get over the gainline?  The key has been the depth and speed with which he has come on to the ball.
Honourable mention: Manu Tuilagi (England), Jacque Fourie (South Africa): Harbour-jumping aside, Tuilagi was a rare bright spot for England, and lead the partial fightback against France.

14. Cory Jane (New Zealand): Could play full-back he’s so good under the high ball.  Tall, but with a fairly rangy physique, Jane is also surprisingly strong.  More easily forgiven than, say, Mike Tindall for boozy indiscresions because he’s so damn good.
Honourable mention: James O’Connor (Australia) and George North (Wales): O’Connor looked threatening every time he got the ball, which was not half often enough.  George North is big, but no flat-track bully – he has an array of skills to his game.

15. Israel Dagg (New Zealand): Player of the tournament?  Probably.  Graham Henry showed his ability to make the big calls in playing him ahead of a Kiwi legend on his way out.  He has been handsomely rewarded by Dagg’s brillliance.  Supreme runner with incredible balance and hands.  A star is born.
Honourable mention: Kurtley Beale (Australia): Sorely missed by the Aussies in their semi-final.  With Cooper in melt-down mode, Beale was the one who brough the genius to the Aussie attack, albeit too sparingly.

Shut it Gatty!

Warren Gatland’s whingeing is in danger of squandering the goodwill the Welsh team have won this world cup for their fearless, positive and exciting rugger.  Emotional post-match interviews are one thing, but Gatland’s press conference yesterday was another altogether.  Enough already!
Firstly, he accepted that Rolland was entitled to give a red card, but said he shouldn’t have because of the occasion.  Ah, of course, so the rules are to applied only at a time of Gatty’s choosing – fair enough.  Then things got bizarre.  Gatty admitted that he’d thought about cheating, by getting one of his props to feign injury to go to uncontested scrums, while getting his back row back to its full compliment.  But being the high-minded sportsman he is, he coudn’t do it because it wasn’t morally right.  And because of his great moral courage by choosing not to denigrate the final with what would have been the most cynical of cheating, Warburton shouldn’t have been sent off.  Struggling to follow the logic?  You’re not the only one. 
Whiff of Cordite was reminded of the classic Chris Rock sketch about people who want praise for ‘doing shit they just supposed to do’: ‘I ain’t never been to jail!’  ‘What you want, a cookie?’


The pity of it is that Sam Warburton and the Welsh players were so magnanimous in defeat.  They have been let down by management’s carping.  It’s worth comparing Gatty’s whingeing this week with his words after Wales’ win over Ireland in this year’s 6 Nations, in which the decisive try was scored from a decision which was indisputably incorrect:
“It wasn’t the same ball so that’s a little bit of luck that’s gone our way.  Sometimes you deserve a bit of luck and we haven’t had some luck at times. We’ll take one of those decisions that go our way.”
As greater minds than ours have said: Build a bridge, get over it.

Ignore the blather: Rolland was right

Saturday was a very unsatisfactory day for the Rugby World Cup. A useless French team got through to a final they scarcely deserve, and a far superior Welsh team went out.  Much has been written about the sending off of their superb captain, Sam Warburton for a spear tackle in the 17th minute.  And much of it has been worthy of Kevin the Teenager: ‘It’s soooo unfaaaaaaaaaaaaair!!!!’.

Stepehen Jones said there was no malice in the tackle, and Warburton’s dropping of Clerc was an act of pulling out of the tackle.  Barnesy (in a shameful piece of journalism, it must be said) accused Rolland of an ‘arrogant misuse of power’, described him as half-French and pointed to conspiracy theories to secure the All Blacks the Cup.  Shaun Edwards called for a change to the rules, where a player can be placed on report, as in League (indeed, Edwards said the tackle was fine for a Leaguer), and intimated that Warburton shouldn’t have been sent off becaue he’s a jolly good fellow.

The fact is that Warburton’s tackle satisfied the IRB definition of a spear/tip tackle, and referees have been instructed to penalise a spear tackle with a red card.  The arguments against the sending off just don’t hold water:

1. There was no malice in the tackle and Warburton didn’t drive Clerc into the ground – irrelevant.  The IRB rule cites driving or dropping the player as a spear tackle

2. Warburton is not a dirty player – irrelevant again.  This invites double standards; that dirty Argentinians and Samoans are to be reffed one way and upstanding Anglo-Saxon heroes another. Disciplinary records are for judging panels to deal with, not referees.

3. The sending off ruined a semi-final – true, but not the referee’s fault.  The law is there to protect player safety, which has to be more important than entertainment for those on the couch.  It seems some have lost sight of why the ruling and sanction are recommended in the first place.  The reason the tackle is outlawed is because it is so dangerous.  It was Warburton, not Rolland who ruined the match, harsh though that may sound

4. A yellow and citing would have been fair – citings only occur for incidents which merit a red card.  So if you believe a citing would be fair, then you have to accept a red card is deserved

5. Rolland should have consulted a touch judge – this is effectively asking for him to bottle the decision.  He had a crystal clear view of the incident and acted decisively and correctly. Ironically, some of the same people castigated the touch judge in the Second Lions Test in 2009 for saying that Burger’s ocular exploration of Luke Fitzgerald was worthy of “at least a yellow card” instead of red

6. Other spear tackles in the tournament have been met with a yellow card – true, but those are the erroneous decisions, not this one.  Take issue with the referees in those games if you want.

7. Rolland is half-French –  a cheap shot from the likes of Stuart Barnes, who should know better. Plus he’s 0% French, he’s Irish – his father is French

8. Vincent Clerc was unhurt – true, but not the point – do we really want to grade an offence based on the severity of the injury caused?

Some commentators have even gone so far as to say the red card should be removed altogether with punishments doled out after matches rather than during.  This is nonsense – the team sinned against has to benefit from the opposing side’s misdeeds.  You really do get the imression the outcry is because a ‘good guy’ got sent off, and if it was a dirty Frenchman who had commited the offence, the volume of shrieking would be a lot lower.

And for those insisting that the sending off cost Wales the game: if the Welsh side could kick properly they would have won comfortably, sending off or otherwise. Also note that post red card, Rolland gave zero scrum penalties to France despite Jean-Baptiste Poux repeatedly tearing Paul James a new one.

And we haven’t even talked about the worst refereeing decision in the game – the penalty that Leigh Halfpenny narrowly missed – this call may have cost Rolland the final, but the red card certainly didn’t, since it was utterly correct.

Seconds Out… Palla v Egg Round Two: Bloody New Zealand v Strylia

So, after round one, Egg is in front, by a nose.  But even he, despite his gloating, admitted he ws lucky and Wales should really have won.  Onto tomorrow’s game, which had better be a whole lot better, and we expect it probably will be.

Egg Chaser says: Australia will beat New Zealand

Egg Chaser must admit, he is much less confident about this one than he was about France, but letsgo with it.
This Australia team have beaten New Zealand in Australia and Hong Kong, the only place missing is in the land of the Long (All) Black Faces. And they will surely not have a better chance to do so, given NZ are missing Carter and are carrying not fully fit versions of Ruchie and Kieran Read.
And make no mistake, NZ without Carter are very human – in spite of having the best pair (or trio!) of centres in the tournament, they laboured against Argentina, and didn’t score a try until the 63rd minute – and this is the same Argentina side that Scotland nearly beat!
The Wallabies have defended stoutly in the tournament to date, conceding only 3 pointers to Italy, Ireland and the Boks, although, as noted in our France preview, NZ can actually score tries (we think).
If Pocock and Ruchie negate one another, the Aussies have the flamin’ back line to wreak havoc. While Quade Cooper has been, ahem, average in the RWC to date, he’s the man NZ fear, and he can be magical. I think the tyro back 3 might nick a couple of tries, and NZ may just fall short again.
Although, since its in Eden Park, that’s probably not true. Australia by 3.

Palla Ovale says: more Eden Park woe for Aussies

All evidence in front of me points towards a New Zealand victory.  Much has been made of the Aussies’ Tri-Nations-winning performance over the Kiwis, and the mental fortitude they will get frmo it, but that was back in Strylia; not in Eden Park, where they almost never win.  It will take something approaching a miracle performance for Australia to get a win in Eden Park in a world-cup semi-final.

The only miracle so far is that the Aussies have made it this far.  If WoC ever becomes a millionaire, the first thing we’ll do is hire a bunch of forensic scientists to work out how on earth they beat South Africa.  If their set piece, ball retention and out-half are even 20% as bad as they were in the quarter-final, there is no chance whatsoever of New Zealand failing to get over the try-line and punish them.  If Autralia’s set piece is poor again, the margin of victory could be as much as 20 points.  Quade Cooper’s form is atrocious – it does look like the pressure of being Public Enemy No.1 has got to him.

That said, Australia will hardly be as bad again.  The sight of the black shirts should bring out something better in them, but it will hardly be enough.  The Kiwis injury troubles are being overstated – Israel Dagg and Richard Kahui are back in tandem – they’re only really missing one player, albeit a crucial one.  But while we’re on that topic, Aaron Cruden looked happier to be there against Argentina, and should provide more presence than the ghostly Slade.

New Zealand by more than a score.

Semi Final Match Up: Palla vs. Egg… and Wales vs. France

Here at Cordite Towers, Palla and Egg set out to discuss the weekend’s rugger like we always do, stretched out manfully in the nearest sauna, only a birch between us.  Normally, our shared passion for fast-paced, attack-minded, skilful, intelligent rugby means we see eye to eye, but on the subject of this week’s two semi-finals, we were in total opposition.  Palla is foreseeing a Wales v Kiwis final, while Egg is looking at France v Oz.  Neither could convince the other of their argument.  So, without further ado, Palla and Egg present their argument as to why they think Wales and France, respectively, will win.  Tomorrow, we’ll see who came out on top, and present our arguments for the second semi-final.

Palla Ovale says: Wales all the way

Wales were lightly dismissed in some quarters before the quarter-final as a bunch of inexperienced tyros who wouldn’t cut in the do-or-die cauldron of knockout rugby.  So much for that.  Now that Ireland have been despatched comfortably, this side has the confidence, and the ability, to go to the final.  France will hold no fear of them. 

A quick glance around their team shows them to be outstanding in almost every facet.  They’ve a hard-scrummaging front row that will stand up to the French.  Their back-row is arguably the best balanced unit in the tournament, and Warburton is vying with Pocock as the Cup’s most influential player.  Their centres have been only second to the New Zealand pair, and they have an abundance of pace and scoring threat out wide. 

More importantly, though, they are the best coached side in the Cup, and France arguably the worst.  Witness Wazza’s masterclass in nullifying Ireland’s threats.  I fully expect him to come up with something similar to derail the French, where at outhalf they look particularly vulnerable.  Doubtless, Roberts will be looking to smash through all 76kgs of Morgan Parra all day long, and given the Little General’s inexperience at half-back, expect the Welsh rush defence to do to him what they did to O’Gara when he has the ball – isolate him and cut off his options.

Finally, what of France?  The team appear to have taken control, but can they do what France so rarely manage – back up a big performance with another?  Palla doubts it.  Welsh tyros for the final.

Egg Chaser says: France have it

To get to this juncture, Wales have played three games at full intensity. They have won two well and lost one unluckily – very impressive. Different story now though – France know how to score tries, unlike the Bokke, Samoa and Gaffney’s Ireland.
Wales have yet to play a team who can put together multiple phase attacking, with the ability to run varying lines, break tackles and the gainline consistently and offload in the tackle.
In the case of France, they didn’t really bother until the quarter-final, concentrating instead on arguing among themselves. You do get the impression they prepared to face Ireland, but won’t be too worried about Wales either, having won the last three games between the sides, most recently 28-9 in the Six Nations, when the teams weren’t markedly different from this Saturday.
France are unlikely to play as well as they did in the first half against England, but should still be peaking around now – Wales are in bonus territory and, having gone to the well three times, may not have anything left for those crucial Championship minutes. Note also, France are habitual RWC semi-finalists – familiarity with rarefied stages can be a useful weapon, note how the same sides keep appearing in HEC finals – and unless Wales wear white, France are unlikely to freeze.
In spite of their laughable preparation, the French to win pulling away.

Dwarf throwing, Retirements, Eye-Gouges and Fudged Drop Goals: We rate your World Cup

We’ve pored over Ireland’s exit in some detail.  Here’s a run through the other nations who’ll have fancied their chances to do well.

Scotland: Failed to Qualify from Group
Poor wee Scotland.  Pipped by both England and Argentina by last-gasp tries.  Against Argentina they managed to work a drop goal opportunity to win it, but hurried the kick.  Against England they probably would have won had they not needed to win by more than seven and seek a try themselves when in front on the scoreboard.  They manned up impressively in both games, but the reason they failed to qualify is available in just one statistic: no tries in their final three group games.  They have plenty of grunt in the pack and can keep teams like England on the back foot for long periods, but they just can’t buy a try.  Their backs moving the ball look slower and less accurate than most AIL teams.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Sleepy. Time to wake up and learn to catch and pass the ball properly.

Argentina: Quarter Final exit to New Zealand
Worthy recipients of the medal for bravery and courage in the face of unlikely odds.  A shadow of the force of 2007, but their great warriors Ledesma, Albacete and Contepomi refused to go quietly, even if they couldn’t conjure up the same quality as four years ago, with Juan Matin Hernandez a notable absentee.  Should have beaten England and squeezed through against Scotland at the death, and can take real pride in their showing against New Zealand.  They came up with the try of the tournament, with Conters showing a touch of his fading genius, and held the Kiwis tryless for three quarters of the game.  Not bad considering Lobbe was injured and Nigel Owens was shafting them at every opportunity.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Happy. Can go home knowing the left nothing behind them.

Italy:  Failed to Qualify from Group
Italy have become an obstinate side at the Flaminio, but the task for the next coach will be getting them to perform on the road.  Showed up well against Russia with slick hands and fast-paced attack, but in their final win-or-bust pool game, their surrender to Ireland was meek and indisciplined.  They talked a good game, with Castro declaring himself ‘ready for war’, but when the moment came they were blown away by Ireland’s greater arsenal.  Somehow, somewhere, a 10 has to be found who can organise their backs and dictate the play.  Until then, they’ll continue to struggle.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Grumpy.  Need to keep composure when things go awry.

South Africa: Quarter-final exit to Australia 
Rather unlucky to lose to Australia, but they couldn’t cross the whitewash and paid the price. They brought physicality and certainty to the tournament, and in Francois Steyn, had perhaps the player of the group stages. The problem was, without him, they really showed their limitations. Short of the ability to kick penalties from the halfway line, and without his creativity at 12, they ended up spending 75 minutes camped in the Aussie 22 and losing 11-9. Schalk Burger was immense all tournament, and they played better against Oz than Wales or Samoa, but when you can’t score you can’t win.
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Bosh-ful – kicking, no creativity, physicality – they are England with discipline basically

England: Quarter-final exit to France 
Where do we start? The scarcely-deserved victories over Scotland and Argentina?  The late and nasty tackles?  The lack of ambition? The stupidity of some of the penalties they gave away? The chambermaid incident? A huge pity that Johnno bottled it and let the running game of last November fade into nothingness, for there are some quality players in this side. It may sound harsh, but they brought nothing to the tournament. It appears Johnno has taken them as far as he can, perhaps its time for a new beginning?
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Sleazy Sneezy – go home unlamented
Samoa: Failed to qualify from group
After beating the Wallabies during the summer/winter, Samoa went into the tournament very much on the Welsh and Saffa radar, and any chance of being taken lightly was gone. And they duly weren’t, with both sides playing very sensibly against the Islanders and winning. Samoa themselves rarely took the handbrake off and paid the price. Having said that, they didn’t exactly get the rub of the refereeing green, and generally played well – for example, they might have won Group B (the group of dearth). And although Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu might have a point about IRB bias, he didn’t exactly make it very well, did he?
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Dopey – had the talent to go further, but go home frustrated

Post-Mortem: Ireland’s World Cup

Whiff of Cordite has never felt such a sense of disappointment, heartache and anticlimax as on saturday morning.  All the momentum, all the great work in the pools – all gone.  Ireland are on the plane home.  WoC predicted a quarter final exit for Ireland, but we certainly didn’t see it panning out the way it did.  Ireland finish up in or around par, but it was both much better than that, and yet, so, so disappointing.

First, the good: Ireland made a greater impact at the tournament than ever before.  They topped their group for the first time ever.  They beat one of the Tri Nations in, if not quite their own patch, their own continent.  And they were the darlings of the host nation for their magnificent and numerous support. 

Credit is due to the management for preparing and selecting the team so well.  They may have lost their four warm-up games, but in many ways it was the best thing for them.  They refused to panic, and were ready for battle by the time the Australia game rolled up.  They also had an emotional well into which to dip, and duly did so.

But if the management deserve credit for navigating the pool stages then they deserve some flak for the quarter final shambles.  Ireland were tactically inept and possibly complacent.  Keith Earls spoke beforehand of ‘dreaming of a World Cup final’.  What was he thinking?  The sight of the man picked to kick Ireland’s goals turning down two kickable penalties early on was mystifying.  Did Ireland think the early try against them was just an abberation they could cancel out at will?  Ireland, for all their much vaunted Cup Rugby Experience, either panicked or paid too little respect to their opponent.

Kidney had a fine championship, but he must regret not starting the game with the halves who started the Australia game.  No-one could have expected ROG to play so poorly, but Sexton’s running threat would have asked more questions of Wales’ fast-up defence.  Gareth Thomas revealed in a pre-match interview that Wales would have been thrilled O’Gara had been selected.   Why give an inexperienced side such a fillip?  Sure enough, they targeted him, ran through him, and cut him off from his backline.

Also, Ireland’s lack of a Plan B came back to bite them.  WoC has banged on to the point of tedium about the importance of the modern openside, but Kidney seems to have a blind spot to it.  Several media pundits have spent the weekend crying out for Ireland to start developing 7’s, but nobody has pointed out that we had one sitting in the stands.  Nobody here is going to argue that Jennings is as good as Warburton, or that he would necessarily have neutralised his threat, but the introduction of a dedicated fetcher would surely have made some sort of difference when it was apparent that Ireland were being slaughtered at the ruck.  Instead, Ireland brought on a 6 and a 4 to replace an 8 and a 6.

In the event, Ireland’s supposed ‘experience’ was massively overplayed (guilty as charged m’Lud) – Ireland last played a knockout game in 2003, when they were thrashed by France.  Heineken Cup medal counts were produced as evidence, but as we discussed on BP Rugby, the Heineken Cup is a very different tournament.  Games are spread out, allowing teams to drop intensity between rounds and rise to the boil.  After winning it in 2009, Michael Cheika spoke of having learned how to master this art, of ‘almost manufacturing dips’ in the Magners League to ensure the team peaks emotionally for the right games.  The World Cup knockouts allow no such wriggle room – it’s full on intensity one week after the next.  Ireland just can’t get enough consistency to sustain a challenge in a tournament like this.  This weekend it was clear that it doesn’t matter how you qualify from your pool as long as you get out of it.  Only Argentina were condemned to defeat for coming second in their pool.  Look at France – they got through their group with the bare minimum of effort, but have plenty in the tank for the task ahead of them.  Ultimately, Ireland’s win over Australia, magnificent and thrilling though it was, wasn’t that important.  It’s the knockout games that really count – and Ireland have never won one in seven World Cups.

The ultimate feeling is one of sadness, particularly for the great players, BOD, POC, ROG and D’arcy among them, who will not get another chance to reach a World Cup semi-final, or even further.  You suspect the younger players, though they will be back, will never get a better one either.  But we’ll always have Eden Park.