Posted by: Gerry | October 8, 2007

What A Weekend!

Rugby World Cup 2007 has become probably the most dramatic in the competition’s history, especially after the twists and turns of the weekend. It’s now wide open, and any of the four remaining teams could go all the way.

Saturday alone will probably go down in RWC history as the greatest day ever (or indeed worst day ever, if you are a New Zealander.) Before the tournament started, you would have gotten very short odds on the Webb Ellis going back across the equator, most likely into the warm embrace of New Zealand, where a pedestal bearing its name has been standing empty since 1991. England were written off. Argentina weren’t even supposed to get out of their group. The received wisdom was that the semi-final line-up was going to be New Zealand v. Australia and France v. South Africa.

But ’twas not to be. England put up their best display in four years against top class opposition to repeat the outcome of the 2003 final. Australia is a sports-obsessed nation, and they hate losing. But there is one thing they hate more than that, and that is losing to England. Rugby, cricket, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t get any worse than losing to the Poms.

France made it 2-0 to the Six Nations on Saturday night, and you have to give them credit for their win. The stats alone are unbelievable. They made something like 170 tackles to New Zealand’s 40-odd. They had 28% possession and spent well over half of the match in their own half. But they defended like guard dogs and hit New Zealand on the break, (though there was a credible claim of a forward pass for France’s second try.) There was an incredible passage of play late in the second half where the All Blacks just kept rumbling forward, finally coming unstuck after 26 phases. In the end it counted for nothing as the French held out.

New Zealand immediately went from being “the land of the long white cloud” to “the land of the long black cloud of depression”. The inquest has begun as have the recriminations. The rugby-obsessed public are scratching their heads as to why the best-prepared group of players ever to leave the country for a World Cup should exit at such an early stage (hmmm… that sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?) Everything from the squad rotation policy to the fact that Carl Hayman shaved off his beard have been offered as explanations.

Sunday saw South Africa take on Fiji in what was seen as the easiest of the four quarter finals. It was far from easy for the Springboks, as Fiji gave a very good account of themselves, including scoring two tries while they had a man in the sin-bin. The final score of 37-20 did not reflect the nature of the game.

And then, it was the turn of Argentina and Scotland. I missed most of this match, as it coincided with the return of Mrs Gerry and Mrs Munstermad from their weekend jollies in Brum. A well-disciplined Pumas team won deservedly by all accounts.

So that sets up the semis next weekend. Both matches are completely unpredictable, so the competition is there for the taking.

Eddie and the lads must have watched the weekend’s proceedings and thought ruefully, “It could have been us.”

Posted by: theswissjob | October 8, 2007

Up and down

It seems that this world cup is not going according to plan for me or most of the southern hemisphere teams. While I sat in a mountain hut, 1200 metres up the side of a Swiss Alpine valley and waited for the fog to lift, I contemplated the weekend fixtures and rued the fact that the Southern hemisphere had the semi finals as well as the final all sewn up. Taking into consideration the form shown in the pool games I could see no way past for France or England , the plucky Fijians or the Scots. I finished the last of the hot chocolate, the weather cleared from the mountain and I headed out for a jaunt.

Being without a TV on Rugby World Cup Quarter Finals weekend was a serious oversight on my behalf but the chance to go into the mountains for a weekend before the snow arrived had to be taken. I set the recorder on Friday morning safe in the knowledge that the quarter finals would play out as everyone predicted. Much like my overblown confidence ahead of the Ireland v. Georgia game I somehow fooled myself into believing the form teams would march unerringly on towards the Webb Ellis.

En route to the glacier I tried to block out the burning lungs and tired legs and figure out where it had gone wrong for northern hemisphere rugby versus our southern opponents. Talk of the Six Nations becoming soft and predictable was discarded straight away. Italy’s progression over the last few years has been testament to the keenly contested nature of the tournament, the chance for teams to improve with regular competition against well drilled opposition and the chance to measure yourself against the “big boys” of northern hemisphere rugby. Having six teams in the tournament makes it a very competitive few weeks of rugby against contrasting styles and forms (albeit, all northern hemisphere teams).

I stopped along the path to crack open the sandwiches and take stock of the scenic surroundings as well as the fact that population statistics, rugby playing statistics and rugby teaching could also not be held to blame. Australia has a whole (if slightly empty) continent to pick it’s team from and it’s even been known to pilfer the odd player from the pacific islands. South Africa and Argentina also have large land masses and populations to cherry pick the best. The exception down south I suppose has to be the All Blacks and this is where the theory breaks down. They have a population similar to Ireland but the status of and fervour for rugby are streets ahead. Similarly, France and England have huge pools of players to choose from and so this can’t be considered.

The final option and one bandied about by our own Eddie O’Sullivan is the timing of the seasons in the two halves of the globe. The northern hemisphere sides go into the world cup after their summer/autumn breaks whereas the southern nations are half way through their season.  This puts the northern hemipshere at a disadvantage because the teams aren’t “battle hardened” after the summer break (this may be true but could be easily rectified by sending your first choice team to Argentina for the autumn series instead of keeping them on the couch!). Of course the opposite could be argued that the teams are fresh and in top physical order going into the tournament. This is a difficult problem to rectify as to find a time in the year when both hemispheres are equally prepared is nigh on impossible. Likewise this can’t be used as an excuse as the timing of the tournament was known for four years.

So, after the walk and no closer to understanding why the north lags behind the south I come home to find that France and England (and Scotland weren’t far away) have gone through to the semis!

Please disregard the previous four paragraphs of nonsensical dithering!

Posted by: Gerry | October 6, 2007

All Choking Aside

Just after the final whistle, I got a text from Willie Joe – “Why can’t Kerry choke like that?”

Posted by: Gerry | October 6, 2007

Dogged French Send All Blacks Home!

Oh, Christ! France are tonight partying like it’s 1999 all over again. Somehow, even though New Zealand had something like 70% possession and France had to put in something like 170 tackles, the French came up trumps.

So much for my predictive skills. At this rate we are looking at a Scotland-Fiji semi on the other side of the draw!

Seriously though, I am absolutely gutted for the New Zealanders. They spent the last four years doing everything they possibly could to win the World Cup. For an age they have been the top-ranked country in the world, and needed this World Cup title to cement their position in the pantheon of greats. Now their only win in the tournament has receded further back into the mists of time, and the tag of chokers sticks faster to them.

The fact that they strolled through the pool stages virtually unopposed probably did them no good. France were in a dog fight from the get-go, and particularly after losing that first match to Argentina, had to be on top of their game from then on. That made a difference tonight, but it has to be said that New Zealand were desperately unlucky to lose their first choice scrum-half and both their out-halves to injury.

So, it’s wide open from now on. I will not reveal who I support from now on , as my support is obviously a curse!

Posted by: Gerry | October 6, 2007

Dogged England Send Wallabies Home

A fantastic, dogged performance by England has made sure that the semi-finals will not be an all-Southern Hemisphere affair. They bounced back with great style for their first match against top-drawer opposition following their drubbing at the hands of the Springboks.

Like many others, I didn’t give England a prayer going into this, but as the game wore on I was on the edge of my seat roaring for them.

Hopefully the France-New Zealand match tonight will be as thrilling an affair.

(My blogging is curtailed a bit this weekend, as both Munstermad and myself have been deserted by our womenfolk, leaving us literally holding the babies. It’s hard to write 300 words full of wit and insightful analysis, when you have a fourteen-month-old wrecking all round you!)

Posted by: theswissjob | October 4, 2007

Le damp squib

So I’ve dragged myself out of three days of self imposed rugby mourning and I’m back in the real world. The aftermath to Ireland’s expected departure from the world cup wasn’t pretty and the trip back from Paris was a subdued affair.

Speaking of subdued affairs it seems in Paris the whole world cup has hardly been acknowledged. I arrived in Paris expecting bunting, posters, rugby themed everything but instead was greeted by an indifferent Paris (although we did go to a fancy bakers who were making rugby ball shaped breads!). Initially I thought to myself, the scale and budget of France is amazing that it can host a tournament of this size and function without “blinking an eyelid”!

I then realised that it wasn’t so much the sublime organistaional skills of Le Francais that pulled off this logistical nightmare, it was the fact that not much was planned or was going on in the city. They had a big rugby ball hanging from the Eiffel tower, some banners running down the Champs Elysee and that was about it as far as I could tell. On Saturday we made it to the rugby village located by the Trocadero in the shadow of the Eiffel tower. I had read that this was the hub of activity for the world cup. The blurb promised rugby exhibits, workshops and the like. It looked good on the walk up, artwork representing each country, big posters of the key players (POC and ROG were there looking menacing, I wonder if they’ve been taken down since?) and a good crowd of people milling about.

The village itself actually turned out to be a large marquee which smelt of portaloos and consisted of bars selling Heineken with a small desk for official mechandise in the corner. There were TV screens everywhere showing the Australia v. Canada game. That was it. I may have missed something or arrived at the wrong time but personally I found it very disappointing. I hate being negative about the whole thing because I actually had a great time, I just think they could have put a little more effort into it. I suppose things will pick up closer to the finals and the city will come alive for the final itself.

But for those of us who don’t make it out of the group phase, a little bunting wouldn’t have gone amiss!

Posted by: Gerry | October 3, 2007

Is This Why Argentina Remains Out In The Cold?

Over at Slugger O’Toole, what should have been a normal thread about Ireland’s demise in the RWC, has been dragged way off track by a coterie of über-unionists, who think that there should be a separate Northern Ireland international rugby team. They seem to be a little confused, and are of the opinion that this side could simultaneously play in an expanded Seven Nations and also contest the Magners League and the Heineken Cup. Or something. I admit that I lost the run of their thinking early on.

In an attempt to dispel this nonsense, Slugger’s regular rugby correspondent Michael Robinson, raised a viewpoint about Argentina, and why they haven’t heretofore been admitted to either of the major annual international competitions. (Comment No.6 on the 5th page of comments.)

N Ireland in a “7 nations” is laughable. None of the other 6 nations would want NI as it brings nothing to the competition.

Why do you think Argentina isn’t in the 3 nations or 6 nations? It isn’t because the team isn’t good enough. It is because they haven’t brought any money to the table and the other countries aren’t prepared to see a reduction of their revenue from the tournaments without a corresponding plan from Argentina showing how they will contribute money. The amateur and commercially inept Argentinian rugby union haven’t been able to do this.

I’d like to hear some more opinions on that, particularly from our Argentinian readership.

Posted by: Gerry | October 3, 2007

Woody Writes

Keith Wood wrote an interesting piece in the Daily Telegraph yesterday in which he attempts to get to the root cause of Ireland’s poor performance in the World Cup. He describes his experience in a similar situation – when Ireland were knocked out by Argentina in 1999.

Some interesting thoughts in there. He seems to fault the players for not trying enough to control their own destiny in the competition.

The whys for Ireland’s poor performance are harder to put a finger on and harder to fix. A phrase I was fond of during my time as captain was the need for each player to be “selfish in a team context”. The responsibility for a player’s performance is his own, no one else’s. If he plays to the best of his ability within a team structure, then he has done his job. Too many of the team seemed to be looking around for somebody else to inspire them, to lead them to greater things.

If you need inspiration from a coach or other players to do your job well, then you have no business being at a World Cup. Even if the coach had got it all wrong and the fitness was off the mark, that doesn’t remove a player from his ultimate responsibility to himself.

He goes on to point out that the long-term interests of the national team is sometimes sacrificed for the short-term interests of the provincial teams.

We are often lauded for the great structure we have, built on a thousand years of provincial history. And yet we undermine it with an influx of superannuated antipodeans and nearly men. Some have been fantastic [Jim Williams and Shaun Payne for Munster] but more have not.

We basically have three provincial teams (Leinster, Munster and Ulster – Connacht is more or less a nursery), which means we have three players in each of the technical areas (hooker, props, No 8, scrum-half and outside-half) to choose from. And yet one of those players is Felipe Contepomi, of Leinster and Argentina, one of our tormenters last weekend.

No one doubts that he is great for Leinster, but he is a disaster for Ireland. Paddy Wallace has played very little rugby at No 10 so, if Ronan O’Gara is struggling, we don’t have another option. Not really a healthy state of play.

We need to have a bigger view if we want the provinces to be our bedrock. We cannot afford to have players who play in key positions but do not qualify for Ireland.

I appreciate the irony as I played my entire career for an English club and the argument holds true for English rugby. But we need to think Ireland first, not province first. The process ahead is painful but not as painful as watching Ireland troop off last weekend.

I think he has a good point here, particularly in light of the fact that the provinces are wholly controlled by the IRFU, who pay the players’ wages.

[Hat-tip: An Spailpín Fánach]

Posted by: Gerry | October 1, 2007

IRB Rankings After Pool Stages

Now that the first shake-up is over, the IRB rankings have been released.

The top five all stay in the same order – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina and France. England take sixth place from Ireland, pushing our boys down to seventh. Scotland are up two places to eighth, and Fiji are in the top ten at ninth place. The team Fiji sent home at the weekend, Wales, drop two places to tenth. Italy do likewise, falling from ninth to eleventh.

Further down the rankings, those mighty Namibians who caused us so much difficulty in our opening match, dropped one place to 25th.

Full rankings here.

Posted by: theswissjob | October 1, 2007

Heavy Heart

Words don’t describe the disappointment from the weekend. I came away from the game full of vitriol for O’Sullivan and Co., but reading the various reports and articles today I realise that I’m not as angry. I think having been there and seen the effort the team put into it, it’s tough not to sympathise and offer up excuses. It didn’t work out for us this time, let’s leave it behind, make a few changes and focus on next years fixtures. What else is there left to do?

And it had started off so well! We arrived in Paris late on Thursday night and spent Friday doing the touristy things and watched the England v. Tonga game in the hotel. Saturday was more of the same and watched the Wales v. Fiji through the window of a bar from their terrace across the Seine from Notre Dame. The Fiji win gave me hope that the impossible was possible and things boded well for our game. Sunday, the tension mounted.

We went for the first pint around lunch time, then had the second while watching the first half of France v. Georgia in a pub off the Champs Elysee. Wary of the time we left before half time and made our way, along with most of Ireland to the metro. We got on the first train to arrive to the roars of “heave” and “touch, pause, engage”! This train was not for the faint hearted, the claustrophobic or the Argentinians!

The atmosphere for the ten or so stations was fantastic. We belted out a few verses of “The Fields of Athenry”, “Ireland’s call”, “Only four tries for us Argentina” and someone even gave “Chattanooga Choo Choo” a go but was quickly shouted down! We emerged into a sea of green composed of leprauchauns, giant inflatable hammers and novelty wigs and hats. The French were even out in support wearing green and brandishing baguettes with “Come on Ireland” printed on the side. How could anything go wrong?

We took our seats, high up the stands behind what was the try line Ireland were defending in the first half. A quick scan of the stadium revealed a majority of Irish supporters and the team got a hearty welcome onto the pitch for the warm up. We belted out Ireland’s call when the time arrived, like our lives depended on it and five minutes into the game I’d convinced myself we were going to do it. What followed, as you probably all saw was nothing close to what this Irish team, on paper, is capable of.

The tries from O’Driscoll and Murphy gave us brief causes for a bit of roaring and shouting but overall our energy was taken up with shouting at the ref, the inability of our lads to take the ball into contact, the indecision of our backline and the stoic foolish tactic of kicking up field but not chasing down. Eighty minutes later, with a result we expected but didn’t welcome we ran the gauntlet of the Paris underground once more back to the safety of the hotel and 400 grammes of perfectly cooked medium steak. The highlight of the day really.

ps. When I regain the will and motivation I’ll post pictures from the match. But that could take some time.

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