World Cup Quarter Finals 2: Squeaky-bum time

Okay, so we;re nought from two after this morning’s matches, but that’s not going to stop us having another go at it for tomorrow’s gmaes.

The top half of the draw is giving us a sneak preview of next years Quilmes/Castle/Fosters/Steinlager Quad-Nations (or whatever its going to be called) – although South Africa won’t usually play Australia in weather this bad, and Argentina won’t have as short a journey next time.

South Africa-Australia:

The clash of the kind-of titans – two teams that should stand to benefit from Dan Carter’s injury, but that have enough weaknesses to make you think twice about actually backing them. South Africa topped Pool D with a 100% record, but didn’t really convince against either Wales or Samoa, scraping wins with experience and self-belief as much as anything. Australia flashed against Italy, but then got beaten up by Ireland, and cruised past the minnows.

The Boks were quite content to let Wales and Samoa have the ball and contest the tackle furiously in their own 22 and defend aggressively and physically. In the last ten minutes of both games, they looked strong and confident. But we aren’t quite sure that will work against the best backline in the tournament (by far, now that Carter is injured). Australia will look to David Pocock to snaffle some ball, and try to bring Beale and O’Connor into the line to work their magic.

When Berrick Barnes was being pencilled into the Wallaby team, we were feeling good about predicting them to edge it, but its Pat McCabe, so we aren’t as sure. We think the Boks are going to miss Frans Steyn, especially for his long-range goal threat, and if Schalk Burger isn’t the most visible forward on the field, Australia should have enough to score 2 tries and scrape home. Wallabies by two. Maybe.

New Zealand-Argentina:

Panic stations – its here! The Rugby World Cup knock-out stages. Sans Dan Carter – disaster. Consequently, there are 3 things New Zealand want from this game:

  • Colin Slade needs to start looking world-class, very quickly. There is huge pressure on the young lad, and this is going to be the easiest game of the remainder of the competition – anything sub-par and it could be Weepu at 10 for the semi
  • Ruchie and Kieran Read to get 60 high intensity minutes and avoid aggravating their injuries – without these two, NZ aren’t going to win
  • No more casualties, especially to the centres – Ma’a Nonu has been one of the players of the tournament up to now, and Smuddy and SBW have shown real class

Now, they obviously need a win too. That’s pretty much guaranteed, but don’t expect a blow-out – New Zealand aren’t familiar with the knock-out format, and they will be content to feel their way back post-Carter and professionally put away the Pumas. Paradoxically, fireworks and a stroll will make them more nervous than an up-the-jumper mudfest. Argentina will savour the stage, but without Fernandez Lobbe and Hernandez, and with their gnarled front-rowers beginning to look their age, it is a step too far. NZ by 20.

PS. we’re one step closer to a France v New Zealand final, with New Zealand missing Ruchie and Dan Carter.  We’re expecting the host nation to implode with anxiety if such an eventuality comes to pass.

World Cup Quarter Finals Part One: Knock Out Six Nations

The alarm clocks are set.  The breakfast has been purchased (well, it’ll be bought this evening) and anticipation levels couldn’t be higher.  With the draw split entirely by hemisphere, Saturday sees the start of the first Knock-Out Six Nations.

Race to the top: Ireland v Wales

Who saw this coming?  Wales and Ireland arrive in the quarter finals as two of the form teams in the tournament.  Both appear to have come from nowhere.  Ireland were awful in the warm-up games and against USA, but their turnaround has shown how quickly things can change.  One extraordinary result and performance against Australia has turned their problems to vapour.  Confidence is now oozing through the side, as evidenced by the crushing of Italy.  Suddenly they’re everyone’s favourite team and a path to the final has opened up before them. 

Wales had been poor for a long time before this tournament, and it wasn’t long ago we thought they mightn’t get out of their pool, but Gatty’s brave selections have unearthed an exciting side.  In truth, they should have won their pool, but fell just short against South Africa, before overcoming a potent Samoa side and hammering Fiji.  Wazza deserves credit for breaking with the past and jettisoning many of the Class of 2008.  James Hook and Ryan Jones finds themselves benched, while Stephen Jones and Lee Byrne are out of the 22.  Wales now have something they have lacked for some time – a dynamic, ball-carrying Number 8.  Elsewhere, the return of so many players who have either been injured or rubbish for the last two years (the props, Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips) has reinvigorated the side.

The game is being billed as Youth vs. Experience, a match-up between Wales’ fearless young tyros and Ireland’s gnarled veterans.  As such, Ireland are marginal favourites, as history has shown that in World Cup situations, the gnarled veterans tend to come out on top.  Much has rightly been made of the Irish players’ medal count against that of the Welsh.  This is new territory for the hugely impressive likes of Sam Warburton (23yrs old and captain), Toby Felatau (20) and George North (19) – can they keep their heads under pressure in the way that Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara assuredly will do so for Ireland?  It might just make the difference. 

We can’t see much between the scums and lineouts (so long as Best holds up) and while Ireland have the more potent carriers in their pack, Wales have the specialist groundhog.  Wales have terrifying pace (and skill) in their back three, and two monsters in midfield – Ireland don’t dazzle in the same way in attack, but have been supreme defensively.  Protecting the 10 channel (we imagine Roberts has been sleeping with a picture of ROG above his bed all week) will be paramount.

We’re keeping with the feelgood factor on this, and predicting Ireland will go through to their first ever semi-final.  Their greater knockout savvy, honed through the provinces in the Heineken Cup, should just shade it for them.

Race to the bottom: England v France

Ugh.  If Wales v Ireland is shaping up to be a potential classic, the follow-up looks increasingly like a game to sour the milk in your cornflakes.  Frankly, neither side deserves to make a semi-final.  France’s implosion has been almost comically similar to that of their kickyball team last year.  Just what is Lievremont doing?  WoC initially enjoyed their cheeky selection against New Zealand, but persisting with a scrummie at out-half against Tonga, and losing, and then doing so again for the quarter final just smacks of lunacy.  The bizarre press conferences and attacks on his own players have been unseemly, even prompting our muse Thornley to suggest that that he should have been removed from his post after the Tonga debacle and a new emergency coach installed.  Remarkable stuff, but not without merit.

England are little better.  True, they would never capitulate like the French in the Tonga game, but they have been abysmal.  They were deeply fortunate againt both Argentina and Scotland to emerge from the Group of Dearth with four wins.  Woefully indiscpilined and inept in attack, Jonno deserves much of the blame for reneging on the team he had built before the tournament.  Remember them?  The one that tried to play at pace and run with the football; the one that won the Six Nations and thrashed Australia.  But Jonno has decided that the World Cup is no place for such frippery and has reverted to ‘Cup rugby’.  For Cup Rugby, see Bollock and Boot Rugby.  It merely dragged England down to the levels of Argentina and Scotland.

If France can get their heads right, this England team is there for the taking, but such an eventuality seems unlikely.  Expect England to grind it out, and put Lievremont out of his misery.

Palla Ovale’s Tour Diary: Episode 3

Dunedin and Home James

The student town of Dunedin, home to the world’s steepest residential street was made to look like St Paddy’s Day in Dublin on Sunday.  There was barely a blue shirt in sight amid a sea of green in its central Octagon.  The Kiwi love for the Irish continues unabated, and there were plenty of Nou Zillund accents to be heard from emerald-clad rugby fans (though our neighbours for the game were tow natives decked out in blue).  The party atmosphere continued post-match, beginning with the Irish crowd completely drowning out BOD’s post-match interview.  You quite simply couldn’t hear a word.
It was another accomplished performance by an increasingly rounded looking Ireland team.  Suddenly, all the component parts are working nicely.  Problems are solving themselves, like D’arcy’s upswing in form, while Jonny Sexton’s cameo included a touchline conversion that he badly needed.  Meanwhile, Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris are marauding their way through the tournament.  O’Brien has been voted in one poll in New Zealand as the player of the pool stages.  Ferris could not have timed his recovery any better.

There was a touch of sadness mixed with delight for the Ovales, as this was the end of the road for their tour.  It was on to Christchurch airport on tuesday, before making the long flight home.  So, it’ll be a 6am start for us on saturday.  A trip of a lifetime for sure – Simon ‘Posh Boy’ Hick put it best when he tweeted ‘So this is what it’s like to be at a World Cup when your team are brilliant.’  We can only hope the Irish team don’t have to hurry home any time soon.

World Cup Heroes No.1: Mamuka Gorgodze

Georgia will be heading home after the first round, but will do so having achieved much.  They comfortably beat a reasonable Romania side, ran Scotland close and deserved a far better scoreline (and more recovery time beforehand) against England.  They owe much to the man they call Gorgodzilla, their superb flanker, serial MOTM award-getter and arguably the outstanding loose forward of the group stages.  Mamuka Gorgodze has been wearing the No.7 shirt on his back, but to watch him, you suspect he’s a man on whom the subtleties of openside vs. blindside play are entirely lost.  Whatever number he’s wearing, Gorgodzilla sees it as his mission to get his mitts on the ball as much as possible, smash any rucks when he isn’t the ball-carrier and cut down as many opponents as he can manage in 80 minutes.  He’s no headless chicken though – he’s a good footballer with nice hands and an ability to put others around him into space.  He also has an eye for the try-line and so it was no surprise to see him cross the whitewash for the pivotal try against Romania.

So, to our first, sadly soon departing, Whiff of Cordite World Cup Hero, we salute Gorgodze – he’s 118kg of pure Georgian mongrel and he’d walk into most top tier nations’ teams.  Top 14 forwards will sleep less easy once he heads back to Montpellier.