Heartbreak Hotel

“It felt like open heart surgery out there, without the anaesthetic”

That was Seamus McEnaney after Monaghan’s heart-breaking All-Ireland football quarter-final loss to Kerry in 2007 – the Ulstermen had victory in sight but could just not get ot the finish line, and they were beaten.

That’s kind of how we feel right now – intensely proud but completely empty. And if we feel gut-wrenched, how must the players feel? Sean O’Brien – dominated the best player of the professional era and the best player currently playing rugby. DJ Church – snarled with coiled spring fury, obliterated opponents. Devin Toner – Devin Toner! – a collosus alongside another collosus, Paul O’Connell – intensity personified.  Jamie Heaslip made 21 tackles (videprinter moment) – twenty-one tackles! Bob seethed with energy and intensity from the anthems to the end – his pumping-up of his teammates going off the field at halftime made us sit up, this was new.

The Irish pack dominated their illustrious opponents, and blew open the game with a 19-point opening salvo (in 19 minutes – Egg remarked to his brother-in-law we were still on pace for 60-0) which saw metres gained in every phase, accuracy in execution, discipline and unrelenting physicality. Barnesy said before the game that Ireland needed to risk getting hammered to win – they threw everything into the breakdown and spent aggressive energy like it was going out of fashion – the alternative was letting BNZ play, and they weren’t letting it happen.

When BNZ edged back into the game, Locky came off the bench to inject even more manic intensity. The entire performance made us so proud to be Irish rugby fans, so glad to be part of it, but so torn up that we couldn’t take that final step to make history. Johnny Sexton missing a routine penalty, Jack McGrath earning Owens’ ire for what would have been the third last ruck of an epic close-out. BNZ got all their out of jail free cards at once.

To make this loss worth it, Ireland need to make it a stepping stone – we simply can’t wait until frustration and emotion builds up enough before we play like this. By all objective measures, this series has been not really any different to any of the previous November vintages – one win, and performance oscillating even more than ever (eight days before BNZ we got pushed around by the Wobblies in an insipid collapse, don’t forget) – but wejust can’t bring yourself to do any more than hold our head in our hands and feel like crying at the rank unfairness of the last acts of yesterday.  There has been some squad development and half an eye on the 2015 World Cup.  Jack McGrath made three appearances, two reserve tightheads got game time, Devin Toner’s credentials are established, Luke Marshall played a first class match and Dave Kearney and Robbie Henshaw got a taste of the action.  Three out-halves and three scrum halves got match-time, even if Madigan and Boss were restricted to brief cameos.

And yet, let us be cold about it – in possession on 79:30 on your opponents 10m line – you simply DO NOT lose. Come Monday morning and Joe Schmidt’s final video session of the year, you can guarantee that he won’t care how close they went. This is a results business, and no matter how proud we are of the team, and how epic the occasion was, we still lost. We still need to build that ruthlessness which BNZ showed from 79:35 onwards – let’s remember the hurt, and unleash it on Gatland and his bunch of f*cking Lions (you probably didn’t hear, but a Welsh-dominated Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions team won the Sky Sports Hype Challenge in June), St Boshingtons and the other three for a Grand Slam.

Maybe the team, when they look back, will view this as a springboard – this performance has set a bar, and that’s what they will be judged by. Let’s hope this goup’s goal is to play like that every week, and if they do – they will win nearly all the time.

P.S. the Palindrome finally stepped up to the mark. So the new stadium can heave just like the old model used to, we know that now.  Again, it feels like the setting of a bar. 

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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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

Palla Ovale’s Tour Diary

Episode 1 – Auckland: Sweet As, Bro’

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

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

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

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

Idle Speculation

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

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

South Africa:

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

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

New Zealand:

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

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

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

World Cup Preview: New Zealand

Group A Opposition: France, Tonga, Japan, Canada

Pedigree: Won first time out at home in 87, but didn’t win in 95, 03 and 07 despite being the best team in the tournament. Not good enough. Repeated buckling under pressure has meant its squeaky-bum time already in NZ – the latest worry is that the Crusaders only got all the way to the final of the Super XV despite playing no home games, but didn’t win. Panic stations!

Players to watch: Were do we start? The best scrum in rugby, the most exciting young lock in the world (Sam Whitelock), a frenetic back row including a man who is allowed to enter rucks from anywhere (all joking aside, McCaw plays the referee better than any other captain around), the best outhalf in history, three outstanding centres, and strike backs so good Dougie Howlett wouldn’t get near the team. We’ll be leaning back and appreciating the brilliance of Dan Carter, the insouciant genius of SBW, and young Israel Dagg – a potential superstar.

Good Tournament: They must win every match, preferably with lots of tries. No pressure then.

Bad Tournament: With the way they have been playing, not winning the tournament would constitute an absolute disaster.

Prospects: Since 1995, they have specialized in peaking between tournaments. After 2007, they took a deep breath, sent apparent heir-apparent Robbie Deans to the then hapless Wallabies and persevered with Smiler Henry. Luckily, he has raised them to even greater heights, helped by a production line of simply fantastic players. Post-2009 rule changes have played right into their hands, and with a team full of brilliant support runners and intelligent footballers, they have only been beaten once since June 2009, and that was a perfect storm of Aussie brilliance and Stephen Donald (since banished for his crimes) ineptitude.

Writing pre-Tri-Nations, there is ample opportunity for us to look foolish, but we can’t see them losing another match this year. The pressure is becoming unbearable, but the last 4 years has been all about building a team so good that, even if they choke, they will win anyway. The focus, intensity and hunger of this team are top notch, and the age profile looks ideal.

We foresee 4 wins in the group stages by 40+ points (including over a French B team wearing an ill-conceived NZ-goading shirt), a quarter-final stroll over Argentina or Scotland, a swatting aside of the Boks or Ireland in the semis then finally getting a game in the final, but still overcoming the Wallabies by 15 points or so. The fact they are still close to even money is a reflection of the choke premium, but at home, they aren’t going to come close to losing a match. Richie doesn’t even need to commit breakdown murder for them to stroll home. But he will anyway.

Verdict: Champions at last.

Whither the Wallabies

If South Africa can be characterized as the Bulls (strong setpiece, brutal physicality, hoof the ball into orbit) and NZ as the Crusaders (brilliant in pretty much every facet of the game), then Australia are undoubtedly the Queensland Reds (brittle upfront, majestic backs).

After 10 weeks, the Reds stood proudly on top of the Super XV with a 8-1 record. However, there was a huge caveat – they had played no Kiwi teams. In the last 7 games of the season, the Reds had 4 games against NZ teams – the Hurricanes, Blues, Crusaders & Chiefs. The Blues and Crusaders are among the favourites for the overall title, but the other 2 are also-rans.

Last week (Week 11), they lost 28-26 to the Hurricanes after a horrible first half, and a botched end-game. They are still odds-on to win the Aussie conference, but arguably more important is banking some results and performances against NZ outfits.

This could be a very important portent of things to come, for both the Reds and the Wallabies, and the Reds progress is worth keeping an eye on.