The Grand Slam, The Birdie Putt and the Wooden Spoon

The Grand Slam

‘Tis a biggie alright.  Wales are the Six Nations’ all-or-nothing men.  World Cup disaster in 2007?  Wales, I’ll stick you down for a large helping.  Blazing a trail in 2008 with an outstanding slam?  Yes, indeedy.  How about mid-table mediocrity for the next three years, Wazza?  Ah sure, go on. Following their World Cup success with a Grand Slam would count as an all too rare bit of consistency, and there’s a feeling that this Welsh side is built for a less fleeting spell of greatness.

They certainly have a robustness that 2008’s high-class but flaky geniuses didn’t.  If they don’t quite have the silken touch of the likes of Williamses Martyn and Shane or James Hook and Gavin Henson in form they have never looked remotely like repeating, they certainly have power.  They haven’t looked as good as they did in the opening week in Dublin over the last couple of games, but they should have enough bosh to get the job done.  Oooooooooooooooohhh Wales – who’d have thunk it?

France can be all or nothing themselves, but usually all within the one match.  PSA has had a miserable tournament, winning few friends with his Anglo-centric rugby philosophy and fewer still with some poor results.  His team look jaded and uninspired, but the squad has been given a shake-up.  It’s highly unlikely they’ll win, but a bit of fresh enthusiasm – hopefully from the likes of Ouedraogo and the exciting teenage Clermont full-back Jean Marcel Buttin – might just rouse them from their slumbers.

Verdict: Wales to secure the slam.

The Birdie Putt

Two teams looking to finish ahead of par with a win.  Both teams started terribly, but have improved as the show has gone on.  The winner will finish second in the log, and can feel pretty good about the tournament, but for the loser it’s a fair-to-middling season if you’re England and a middling-to-poor one if you’re Ireland.

Hopes are for a decent game between the two sides finishing well.  England’s gameplan isn’t that different to the side which flunked out of the World Cup.  Their carriers still run hard and straight, and Owen’s primary ploy looks to be the inside pass.  It’s readable enough stuff, but they have a handful of threats: Ben Morgan (a player we’ve liked for some time) is a fine carrier, Manu Tuilagi will fancy a cut at Ireland’s midfield and Tom Croft, while he isn’t the best 6 in the world by a long shot, can do damage in wide channels.  Not all that surprisingly, England have found their confident voice again – it doesn’t take much for these guys to believe their own hype.

If Ireland can hit the rucks and use a similar defensive line to that which we saw in Paris, they should have the class in the backline to win.  Expect to see Stephen Ferris smash anything that moves in the middle of the field, while Heaslip and O’Brien will be employed closer to the ruck.  And forget the overrated Rhys Priestland: Sexton v Farrell is the shootout for 10 of the series.

Vedict: Ireland to finsh first in the match and second in the tournie.

The Wooden Spoon

Lordy, this could make for grim viewing.

Verdict: Scotland to squeeze out a win.  Expect a cagey don’t-lose-it-whatever-you-do approach from both sides.

Five things we learned from this week’s Six Nations

Another week, another set of bogus predictions from the Whiff of Cordite boys.  I only hope all our loyal readers have been going to the bookies to lay exactly what we’ve been forecasting.  Wales to cut loose, Ireland to win a tight game and France to beat England.  Erm…

Ireland’s attack: now with 40% more penetration

Before the tournament, the one thing we asked – begged! – for was to see Ireland’s attack improve.  Credit to Deccie and Kiss; they have delivered.  Ireland look a threat with ball in hand now, and the flat, lateral play that characterised Ireland over the last couple of seasons has been largely dispatched – 13 tries in four games, and no fewer than two in any match, tells its own story.  It said a lot that even after a nervy, ponderous start, Ireland were willing to go to the corner with an early penalty, and take the game to the Scots.  It’s been a collective effort, but two players who deserve particular credit are Rob Kearney and Keith Earls.  Kearney’s counter-attacking has been a joy to watch, and Keith Earls has shown himself to be up to the job at 13.

Wales slam-in-waiting has echoes of Ireland in 2009

Wales have effectively won the Championship, barring a ridiculous set of results next week.  Their journey to the Grand Slam has been reminiscent of Ireland in 2009 – opening with an impressive flourish in the first match, before regressing a little with every game.  Ireland relied on an accurate kicking game, while Wales have fallen back on their power.  It’s almost as if they’ve bought into the press’ fawning over the size of their backline. No side that wins a Six Nations deserves to be sniffily treated, and less so one that wins a Grand Slam, as Wales surely will.  They are the best selected, best coached, and it would appear, fittest, team in the competition, but this is not a vintage championship.  Ireland, and indeed England, will not see them as especially superior, and are entitled to have some regrets.

Just how awesome is Richie Gray?

Very is the answer. Watching Scotland on Saturday was a little bit like watching Italy in recent times, when one player is just so much better than all his team-mates. Gray was physically and metaphorically head and shoulders above anyone else in a navy shirt, and indeed many in green. His try was a thing of beauty – Bob Kearney is getting some stick for buying Gray’s dummy, but Gray combined the dummy with a subtle change of angle and pace, and it was that, as much as anything, which did for Kearney. At times you felt he should step in at 10 to give Wee Greig a break – he most probably has the skills for it.

Gallic shrugs for all

It’s pretty clear France aren’t very engaged in this tournament. We thought they would stroll it, so mea culpas all round, but they just don’t seem too bothered. When they look like they might be embarrassing themselves, they step it up for a while (last quarter vs. Scotland, third quarter vs. Ireland, last 10 minutes vs. England), but generally aren’t too concerned. Why might this be? Well, PSA was roundly congratulated for his continuity, contrasting with Lievremont’s selections, but that has a flip side. Firstly, they were all physically and emotionally drained after the RWC. Secondly, the team’s key players are from Toulouse, Clermont and Biarritz – three teams with key months ahead, for differing reasons.

The rumour mill is already rife that Yachvili (and the FFR) would prefer to be with Biarritz to save them from relegation rather than devote time to Les Bleus. At the other end, Clermont are aiming for a unique double – and expect to see the Aurelien Rougerie we are used to and not the ponderous and disinterested passenger of the 6N when Les Jaunards pitch up in Lahndan in April. It’s not that the national jersey means nothing, it’s that these men can only give so much; and being a Basque, Catalan or Auvergnat is equally as important as being French.

And by the by, for a nation which professes to be in love with the drop goal, they’ve been utterly useless at them in this competition.

Lancaster’s investment in youth has paid off

England might have looked desperate at times, but they have done what they have needed to do, and, but for Mike Brown’s inability to fix a man, would be playing for the Championship this weekend. Lancaster tore up the tired old script and gave youth its head, and he has been rewarded. England are improving with every game, and it’s down to Owen Farrell (20), Manu Tuilagi (20), Ben Morgan (23), Alex Corbisiero (23), Chris Robshaw (23) and Brad Barritt (25). The youngsters are beginning to look comfortable in their surroundings, and England look in decent shape all of a sudden.

The test will of course come in adversity. Johnno tore up a pretty successful playbook after getting hockeyed by Ireland last year, and the result was a farcical RWC. England have their nemesis of recent times, a rejuvenated Ireland, up next, then a three test tour of South Africa at the end of a draining season. If their performances hold up, they don’t ship any heavy beatings, and they get two wins (or one if it comes in SA) from those four, England will have come through a very tough time to get to a pretty good place.

The Cup, the Plate and the Bowl

A non-vintage Six Nations campaign is heading for a straightforward blitz-tournmanent style finale.  In the last week, Wales and France will meet to decide the championship winners (The Cup).  England and Ireland will play for the Plate, or third place, and Italy and Scotland will tough it out for the Bowl (or to avoid the wooden spoon).

The Cup

Some of the mythology around the enormous Welsh backline was exposed this weekend.  Mike Phillips got overly involved in a fight with the English backrow, and Wales never looked like getting around England, so they just kept trying to go through them.  Getting into a boshfest with the Kings of Bosh is a risky game, and Wales were in a tight spot for much of the afternoon.  In the end they had just enough class to win out, with one of their smaller backs, reserve centre Scott Williams (weighing in at a puny 97kgs) coming up with a dash of brilliance to win it.  The Triple Crown is in the bag, and they are in a good position to deliver the slam, with France coming to Cardiff.

Here in Ireland we love nothing more than fawning over the French.  We’re spellbound by their pristine blue shirts, intimidated by their scrummaging power, awestruck by their handling skills, and swooning over Morgan Parra’s classic good looks.  But for all their Gallic genius, they rarely play all that well.  Truth is, they’re masters of just doing enough (unless they are playing New Zealand).  Not much has really changed under the new coach.  Sure, the selection is consistent, but the mentality is harder to shift.  France sleepwalked through the first 25 minutes here, and while their two tries were brilliant, there was no sustained greatness.  Trouble is, they are usually good for one outstanding performance a series.  One of Ireland, England or Wales will get it.

The Plate

England: played three, two tries, both chargedowns.  They’ve Strettle, Ashton and Foden in the back three, but they can’t service them with three midfielders with the distribution skills of combine harvesters.  Brad Barritt fought gamely again, and he’s not a bad player, but the lines of attack are too predictable.  For all that they probably scored a good try at the death, and after last week’s bottling exploits for his club, we’d all have loved to see the theatre of the last-kick wide conversion from Toby Flood to save a draw.  Two players who won’t enjoy looking at the tape this morning are Courtney Lawes, whose upright carrying style led directly to the Welsh try, and Mike Brown, who failed to fix his man with the non-try scoring pass to Strettle, and gave him an awful lot to do, when a stroll in was possible.

Declan Kidney is starting to get the hang of this newfangled ‘bench’ thing that other people keep banging on about it.  We’d heard of it ourselves, but weren’t quite sure what it was.  Turns out you can replace players during the game, sometimes even improving the side by bringing off a guy who’s tiring or not playing great and putting another player in his position.  Who knew?  All the talk this week will be that Ryan and Reddan should be starting in Paris (they won’t).  Both players are getting a raw deal.  Ryan is clearly the superior player at 4 to O’Callaghan, and is probably among Ireland’s best performers in the series so far, and it appears Reddan has never really earned the trust of the management.  He started their two best performances last year, and was influential in both, but found himself overlooked ever since.  Dropping a young player like Murray after two poor performances is not an easy call, but you feel that if Ireland are to have any – any! – chance of winning, Reddan needs to play.

The Bowl

Hard times for Scotland, who have improved out of sight this year, without getting the results to show for it.  Their handling and offloading was terrific yesterday.  Management are culpable for some outrageously bad team selections.  How was it that Hogg, Laidlaw and Blair had to wait until the third game in the series to take to the pitch together? Still, credit needs to go to them for making the changes. Scotland look like a team who might just win a few … if they can just win one.

It’s proving a difficult season for Italy, who haven’t really improved as much as people are letting on.  They were much more competitive last year, when they should have beaten Ireland and Wales, and toppled France.  The wooden spoon beckons methinks, as Scotland look to have too much for them – thouh they can be a different proposition in Rome.

It’s not been a classic series so far by any means, which had us wondering when there last was a classic Six Nations. Wales’ and Ireland’s grand slams in 2008 and 2009 were up against mediocre post-World Cup fields (France were off experimenting).  The best in recent times is probably 2007’s tournament, when strong France and Ireland sides went toe to toe, with France securing the Championship with the last play of the game against Scotland.  It’s been a while…

Six Nations: Match Previews

After all the drama surrounding team selections, squad announcements and even refereeing appointments, the small matter of the actual games of Six Nations rugby take place this weekend.  We’re looking forward to it.  Now for the bit where we put ourselves in the firing line and predict what will happen.

Scotland v England

We hummed and we hawed.  We saw the England squad and thought they couldn’t possibly win.  Then we saw the Scotland team, with Dan Parks at 10, and thought they couldn’t possibly win.  Then we cried for a bit thinking about the two hours of our lives we’d each be giving up to watch the blasted game.  Then, finally, we saw the England team and went back to thinking they wouldn’t win.

This one’s all about the New England – new captain, new players, new attitude, new interim coach, new playing style.  The trouble is none of it looks all that great.  Mouritz Botha, Geoff Parling and Phil Dowson are adequate Boshiership journeymen rather than exciting new talents, while England appear to be looking to the least creative of the good sides in the country for their midfield (10 – 13 all Sarries!). Chris Robshaw captains the team, and he’s a good player, but looks a bit knackered and will be out of position on the openside.

Verdict: We’re going for Scotland because we just can’t see how England will be able to deliver the gameplan they’re talking about.  Lancaster says they’re looking to play at a high tempo, but high tempo requires quick ball, and just who is going to serve that up? The Scottish back row will be licking their chops at the lightweight trio England have served up – Scotland to shade a dour affair.

France v Italy

France will be looking to hit the ground running and have every chance of doing so.  They seem to have the right team on the pitch, something they haven’t had for some time.  Louis Picamoles keeps out Harinordoquy in what looks a position of real strength (Fulgence Ouedraogo can’t even make the 22), while Trinh-Duc is welcomed back to the starting line-up, with Beauxis a handy reserve.  All eyes will be on Clermont’s razor-sharp Wesley Fofana, who looks like a potential star of the tournament.

It should all be too much for Italy.  The Italians were poor in the World Cup, and never looked like troubling Ireland or Australia.  They just don’t travel.  Their home games, now in the Stadio Olimpico, will be worth watching and they may try to keep some of their powder dry for England’s arrival there next week.

Verdict: this one is set up for France to rack up some points; we expect them to win by a couple of scores.

Ireland v Wales

Obviously, this is the most interesting game from our perspective. Even before the Welsh squad started dropping like flies, we fancied that this was a game Ireland were targetting – the noises from the squad echo those we heard prior to England in March and Australia in October. Now, with the Welsh down several front-liners, Ireland will be confident as well as motivated.

We foresee an urgent and effective Ireland performance with some tries thrown in. Wales will play a smart game and target our weaknesses (second row in the loose and Earls’ defence at 13) but it won’t be enough. Ireland really want this one, and nearly all the squad go in brimful of confidence after the HEC group stages – stark contrast to Wales.

Verdict: We don’t think Ireland will blow Wales away early like they did to England, but they will have enough. This could be quite high-scoring – the Welsh backs are more than useful – 30-20 or something. Ireland by more than a score

French need to learn Culture and Passion From Irish

Gerry Thornley’s been warming to his theme of IRFU-bashing lately – he’s been awoken from his autopilot by the new NIE laws and is using his weekly column as a platform from which to berate the [Insert number Here] Old Farts.  Which we approve.  And, of course, he’s only too delighted to see three Irish provinces in the HEC quarter finals.  After all, who isn’t?

But the final paragraph in today’s piece set off the alarm bells:

But, for all its wealth, foreign imports and benefactors, the Top 14 remains, a la the Premier League in England, something of a circus act which works against its national team. Nor do they have the same sense of culture and identity between fans and players who truly represent their regions.
What’s that Gerry?  The French club sides don’t have a sense of culture and identity between fans and players?  Really?  Tell that to the Clermont Auvergne fans whose ground is the most intimidating in Europe, and make their mark on every city to which they travel.  Or the Toulousains who pour into the streets donned in rouge-et-noir whenever they land silverware.  Anyone who was there two years ago for the Leinster-Clermont quarter final will regard it as the greatest atmosphere ever to grace the RDS.

There’s no need to go on, because we all know this.  We’ve all seen the French support, and we all know how much the fans value the Bouclier, and how attached they are to their club teams.  The idea that Perpignan could learn a thing or two from the Irish pishun is ludicrous.  Maybe we could teach them to cook, make wine and dress stylishly while we’re at it? 

We’re entitled to be pleased with the state of Irish rugby, but this sort of smugness has no place.  The Bouclier de Brennus has been contested since 1892, quickly took on the character of village against village, providing an outlet for the denizens of Albi, Dax, Carcassonne and Aix similar to that which soccer provides in the north of England. Domestic Fench rugby has a tribal ferocity to this day.

Perhaps Gerry should watch the video of Pere Harinordoquy taking to the pitch to fight some Bayonnais forwards in the recently contested Basque derby.  Speaking of which, the bi-annual match-up between Bayonne and Biarritz is considered the single most intense rivalry in European rugger. It’s a longstanding one too – while we can’t be entirely sure, we think it might even pre-date the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2006.

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.

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.

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.