Archives for September 2011

Sept. 28, 2011 – The Minnows Begin to Swim Home

Bucket Head Kiwi Romanian Fans

Bucket Head Romanian Fans

I’m just back from Romania’s final bow at the 2011 World Cup. They lost to Georgia 25-9. There was one try and the rest of the points were penalty kicks. In the first half there were no clean line breaks and  the teams made 69 tackles and missed 3. There were maybe a coupl of line breaks in the second half as Romania began to wear down, and Georgia’s large hard charging straight ahead running began to have effect leading to the one try.  It was not great rugby nor particularly exciting once Georgia began to pull ahead.In the second half I recorded play stoppage for a scrum or penalty every 2 minutes.

Romania received their farewell medals and had a half hearted final walk around the pitch. The Palmerston North Stadium has a wide track around the pitch and a cement barrier that further separated the stands from the players. It didn’t have the warmth of stadiums that allow for hand shaking and autograph signing as the team leaves, and not all the Romanian players even started the farewell walk. You could tell they were very disappointed at the loss. The captain blamed part of the team’s problem on the short (4 day) rest after their loss to England 67-3.

Yesterday (Sept. 27)  the USA Eagles and Japan had their final matches of the tournament and will be flying home before the weekend. Japan once again tied Canada. In the 2007 World Cup the  Japan vs Canada match was the only game to end in a draw and it looks highly likely that the two sides will once again have that to claim as part of their 2011 World Cup fame. Canada has a win against Tonga and has a chance to finish third in Pool A and automatically qualify for the 2015 World Cup in England.

I know saying a team played valiantly in a losing performance is like a high schooler saying something was “awesome”, but the USA was awesome and played valiantly in their 27-10 loss to Italy. The strategy of putting out a weaker side to face Australia paid off in terms of leaving the tournament with a great performance even if we didn’t get the win. Every bad thing I have ever written about Paul Emerick I take back. He was possessed and effective as was McDonald, Ngwenya, and Clever (as usual). McDonald gained the most World Cup caps (11)  of any Eagle with this match, surpassing the 10 World Cup caps of Alec Parker. The decision to replace Andrew Suniula (#12) and Petri (#9) could have come sooner. Petri too often kicked away good possession when the  Eagles were developing  forward momentum . Suniula was ineffective in defense and slow in offense. I watched the match in a Rosie O’Grady’s pub in Palmerston North as a poker tournament went on around the big screen tv. The crowd was soon into the match and solidly behind the USA. A couple of semi-inebriated Kiwis at the table where I was sitting started the match with some derogatory comments about the USA’s rugby shorts which they said resembled a French maid’s lingerie. After a couple of good tackles, solid defense, strong counter attacks, and harsh and unclear  treatment by the ref, they were in the Eagle camp and all thoughts of French lingerie were forgotten  –  at least until the end of the match. Clever and Emerick repeatedly won praise from the Kiwi viewers.

A couple of gripes about the reffing and then that is it. I will not write another thing about the refs. I have never reffed anything beyond a high school scrimmage, so I know I am not qualified. It is a tough job and I am glad there are those who want to do it and there are many who are very good. With all that preamble out the way here comes my gripes:

1) Scrums – The USA was destroyed by the Italian scrum. Fair enough, but a yellow card when Johnson picked up a ball on the side of a scrum which looked from one angle like it was out and then pulled back in was very harsh.  Also we keep getting these long scrimmages of 10 minutes or more with one reset after another. The props are complaining that the jerseys are so tight now that they can’t grab on anything to bind. If props aren’t presenting anything to bind on, shouldn’t the scrums be uncontested instead of randomly awarding penalties to the player the ref thinks he sees drop first? Rugby league has evolved to the uncontested scrum.  Maybe union needs to follow. I heard  one pundit on the radio say the game is for the players not the fans and that scrums are what the players like. The reports I’m hearing from the front row is that the scrums are not working and the fans are feeling cheated when over an eighth of a match is spent in resetting the same scrum. I disagree that the game is just for the players, but either way the scrums are not working.

2) Scotland lost by 1 point to Argentina. The extremely controversial English ref Wayne Barnes called the game. Paddy O’Brien(manager of the World Cup referees for the IRB) says, “My job is to be independent and make sure the referees are not the story.” I ask if what Paddy says is true how does a controversial ref  get a critical match in the same pool as his home nation?  If Scotland won and went on to beat England, that would force England into the quarterfinal with New Zealand. Doesn’t anyone involved with the referees see there is potential conflict?

3) My final gripe has to do with Argentinean journalist not standing for the national anthems. If you read my piece from the USA v Australia match you know what I’m talking about. Tonight when the Romanian anthem started there was a journalist next to me seated and working away on his various technology gadgets. I took out my I-Pod and snapped his picture. He looked up at me and grinned and then I think a little light came on. He put his gadgets down and stood up. I later  asked him where he was from and he said, “Argentina.” Somebody in Argentina tell your journalists to stand for the national anthems.

Friday Russia will end their first World Cup winless. The Eagles having thwarted their dream  of coming away with a victory at their first tournament. Canada, Fiji, Georgia, Tonga, and most likely Samoa, Scotland,  and Italy will conclude their 2011 World Cup this coming weekend.  With no real upsets (Ireland beating Austalia both being  top tier 1 teams) the questions of how to narrow the gap between the top teams and the next level swirl around the wakes of the departing teams. Unfortunately the answers are complicated and the will to enact laws that prohibit poaching or blocking  Pacific Islanders from playing with their nation of birth is non-existent in the IRB. In a year  the qualifying for thenext World Cup  will begin and the questions will be lost amid money tossed at qualifying events until they arise again in September in 2015.

Sept. 27, 2011 – Cardiff Comes to New Plymouth

A beautiful morning greeted us on Sept. 26th , and Carolyn and I took the opportunity to play a round of golf. The scenery was spectacular and the course huge. One hole was 450 meters long and most were about 300 meters. The course  rolled over hills. From the tee you only had a vague idea where the green should be. The giant snow capped volcano, Taranaki or Egmont (if you are an old time non-Maori semi-racist Kiwi), poked out of the clouds occasionally, With no cart nor trundler (wheeled bag carrier) we were done after 12 fantastic holes. Cost was only NZ$20 + NZ$10 for club rental.

After golf we caught the bus down to the Fanzone to meet a Kiwi couple (Jim and Bernice) we had met in Wellington before the opening ceremony on Sept. 9th. They had offered to let us park our campervan in their driveway, but we eventually  found a powered sight. On the way into New Plymouth we went by their house and left  a note and bottle of wine. Jim & Bernice had tracked us down in our campsite and left us a note that they would like to meet up for drinks. We connected at the Fanzone and then went to a pub owned by a friend of Jim & Bernice and had a nice afternoon making great friends. The pub was a sea of Welsh red and it was hard to find any sign of Namibia support.

New Plymouth did a great job of putting on shuttle buses from downtown to the match. We hopped one with a jolly bus driver who honked and waved at all the Welsh supporters heading up the hill to Taranaki Stadium. A couple blocks away from the stadium was the Tukapa Rugby Club. Founded in 1892 it had a room with pictures of teams going back to 1892 and photos of the 13 club members who had played for the All Blacks. I left Carolyn to enjoy the pre-game festivities with our Welsh friends  and went to indulge myself in the press freebies – lasagna and match program. As I left the media center to take my seat, Mt. Taranaki was glowing red in the light of the setting sun as the Welsh team completed their warm-up on the pitch. It seemed to be an ominous red dragon warning for the Namibians. Wales romped to 81-7 win. Stephen Jones seemed to be back and in good form, and Wales looked strong moving into their final match with Fiji and then a probable  showdown with traditional 6 Nations rival Ireland in a quarterfinal. The Welsh stirred to sing a few songs during the match. When the crowd joined in singing the Welsh national anthem, it was spectacular. The sound system played the occasional clip of a Tom Jones tune and the evening was all Wales  until Namibia took their exit lap from the tournament. The handful of Namibian fans and a large number of Welsh fans clapped them for  30 minutes and asked for autographs and pictures as the World Cup anthem “World in Union” warmed the chilling Taranaki evening and Namibia said farewell to their 2011 Rugby World Cup dream.

Post match celebrations  continued back at the Takapo clubhouse. The local club and the Welsh exchanged a few tunes. Beers were very reasonable (a pint for NZ$5). The cab ride home took us past the hotel where the Welsh side was staying and we were tempted to stop in and see if the Welsh lads were celebrating, but  a long wonderful day and sore muscles from lugging golf clubs won out.

Sept. 25, 2011 – Even a Blind Mute Person Can Call the Quaterfinals Now

On the evening of Sept. 22nd I met up with long time buddy Dave Farrar. Dave and I were two of the early members of New Orleans Rugby Football Club back in 1973. In the 38 years we’ve known each other we have had some exceptional evenings out and at some point I should tell those stories, but this article is about the 2011 World Cup. Dave and I started with a few glasses of New Zealand merlot in the Te Papa Museum in Wellington which was having “USA Day”. As a special event they had some Kiwi teenagers doing gymnastic formations as a salute to American cheerleaders. We moved to a bar on the edge of the Wellington Fanzone for the first half of South Africa vs Namibia. Over a couple more glasses of NZ merlot/cabernet blend we chatted with a Quebeckian (person from Quebec – I think they actually call themselves something like Quebecquois, but I don’t think I can spell that) and his father. As we watched Namibia get annihilated, we discussed a very common theme of World Cups ‘how the minnows can narrow the gap with the tier 1 teams’. Although there are many people with simplistic views like getting a nation’s top athletes into a professional team in Europe or the southern hemisphere, the reality is more along the lines of years of moving the sport down into the elementary schools and getting kids enthusiastic and playing the game at the age of 5 or 6 like they do in New Zealand. The guy from Quebec said he played rugby maybe twice in school and both times it was introduced by British teachers. No French Canadian teacher ever even mentioned the sport to him. Somewhere between leaving an Irish bar, where we watched the second half of Namibia’s 87-0 humbling at the fists of the reigning world champ Springboks and encountering a “sex worker” I lost my glasses and voice. As it was explained to me by a Kiwi, sex is legal in New Zealand. This youngish lady came strolling up behind us as we headed back to where Dave was staying in the bar and restaurant area called Cuba Street and introduced herself as a “sex worker”. She let us know her union rates for services. We thanked her for the menu and headed on for more merlot. The next day voiceless and semi-blind I picked up my press ticket to USA v Australia. If you are reading this you already know that the Eagles took a good thumping by the Wallabies, 67-5. Some people seem to think the USA put up a good effort. Several of the usual starters were not even in the 22 picked to be eligible to play. Maybe coaches and USA rugby leaders are saying this was a good effort for the USA B team and possibly it was. I had a great seat in the covered press section away from the cold and damp that is prevalent in this part of New Zealand in the early spring. Next to me were Dave and Chris from the website. We were the USA supporters in our area of the press table. I haven’t read their stuff yet, but from the little discussion we had about USA play and what I overheard them muttering and saying among themselves there wasn’t a lot of good stuff going on. The half time match summary listed the USA as making 30 tackles and missing 10. That is missing 1 in 4 tackles. It only got worse in the second half. There were several times in the second half when forwards would lie down with the ball before going into contact. Yes, this made it easier to maintain possession, but what good is possession if you are just falling down and moving backwards .Hopefully the strategy of resting some key players during this match so we can be more competitive against Italy on Tuesday, Sept. 27th, will pay off. If so, it was a great Eagle effort. Before I move on I have one other observation about the game. On my left were the Deadspin guys and on my right were some Argentinian (I guess because they were speaking Spanish) journalists and journalist groupies. These guys didn’t stand up for the anthems!! If they weren’t from Argentina, I apologize, but if they were, Argentineans you need to teach your journalists and other citizens better manners. Even if it is not your anthem you stand-up. Last night we stopped at a fantastic spot on the “Surf Highway” in a place called Otokapane (or something like that) . After parking the camper van we strolled into town for some great pub food and England’s 67-3 dismantling of Romania. The people in the pub were fantastic. Everyone came up and said hello to the 2 strangers in town. They were genuinely happy to have World Cup visitors in their local. They were all supporting Romania against England because they said they always supported the underdog. When I whispered the question would they be supporting the underdog French against the All Blacks, they looked at me like I was bonkers. They all advised me to drink more to get over my laryngitis; although, no one offered to buy me a drink. They thought it was funny when I croaked out that drinking too much was how I lost my voice in the first place. We watched the rumored 2nd string French team go down to the All Blacks 37-17 from the comfort of the tv room at the travel park with an old Welsh school teacher and a Swiss medical student. Today we returned to New Plymouth ahead of tomorrow’s Wales vs. Namibia match. We met up with our friends Huw & Celia. I played with Huw in Ecuador in 1979-82. We strolled the coast walkway from our Top 10 travel park to the New Plymouth Fanzone. Huw informed us New Plymouth was alleged to have been selected as the United Nations best small town in the world largely based on the coastal walkway. It was a pleasant stroll. The Fanzone was packed as was the famous local Irish bar, Peggy Gordon’s. We found a deserted Italian restaurant across the street and settled down to pizza, beer, and Samoa’s victory over Fiji. We then walked down to the Devon Hotel for Ireland vs Russia. Ireland’s 62-12 win was entertaining, but the Welsh team was staying in the hotel. Every couple of minutes one of the players would come walking through the bar and sign autographs and pose for pictures with fans. (Shane Williams is really short!) Hanging out on a sofa in the bar were former Welsh greats and current Welsh coaches Neil Jenkins and Rob Howley. With so many Welsh rugby stars hanging around we were a bit like teenage girl groupies at a Beatles’ concert. We came back to the travel park to catch Argentina’s one point victory over Scotland (13-12). Scotland kicked away possession and their 6 point lead and now have the almost impossible challenge of beating England on Oct. 1st to stay in the tournament. By my calculations they have to beat England by more than 7 points (to deny England a bonus point) or they will still be out of the tournament. Currently in Pool B the tournament points are as follows for the top 3 teams: England = 14, Scotland = 10, Argentina = 10. Argentina’s last game is against Georgia and the Pumas will most definitely win and probably score 4 tries. That will give them 15 points. If Scotland beats England but doesn’t score 4 tries they will get 4 points for the win and have 14 points. If they tie England’s points, the winner of the match in which the two tied teams played moves ahead. This would mean England would be out of the tournament, unless England loses to Scotland by 7 points or less and then they would get a bonus point and be tied with Argentina. Interesting to punder the possibilities but the probability is that England wil beat Scotland and the Scots are on their way home before the quarterfinals. Argentina will head to Auckland to face the All Blacks in an Oct. 9 quarterfinal and England and France will meet on Oct. 8th in the other quarterfinal in Auckland, Wellington quarterfinals will see South Africa against Australia on October 9th and Wales vs Ireland on October 8th unless Italy upsets Ireland in pool play on October 2nd.

Sept. 22, 2011 – World Cup Excitement Chilling

Kiwi couple support the Eagles.

The last couple of days have brought a chill to World Cup excitement as last weekend’s red hot enthusiasm over the Irish upset of Australia has cooled a bit and underdogs perform as expected – valiantly losing. Samoa applied some heat to Wales in losing by a score of 17-10, but that was pretty much as expected. Some lingering warmth from the match spread through the IRB and media because of a Samoan player’s (centre Fuimaono-Sapolu) heated Tweeting about the IRB’s  unfair treatment of tier 2 nations by having them play with short turnaround times. Samoa played Wales on Sunday (9/18) four days after their 49-12 win over Namibia. One radio announcer called the Samoan Tweeter’s rant  stupid and the Samoan coaching staff stupider for not resting key players during the easy win over Namibia (49-12). Also on Sunday England had a late surge to defeat Georgia 41-10. Canada fell to France (46-19)  after a very competitive first half on the same Sunday. Tuesday Italy became a try scoring machine thrashing Russia 53-17. Wednesday saw Tonga pushing the Japanese Brave Blossoms around to end up winning 31 to 18.

Other warmish news from the sidelines this week were:

1. The All Blacks coaching staff trotted winger Zac Guildford out in front of the media for a bit of shaming because he got drunk in the team hotel following their loss to the Wallabies in the Tri-Nations decider a month ago. One must scratch their head over that one and assume there is something else going on behind the curtain. A 23 year old rugby player getting snockered after losing a rugby match would not usually cause a full out press conference to say the fellow has a drinking problem we are dealing with.

2. The French pick what many consider to be a B side to face the All Blacks on Saturday and the continuum of opinions on the impact of this on the All Blacks, ethics of the game, …

3. The legal troubles and amusing behaviors (filming the media that was filming him) of the security guard who released the security camera footage of Mike Tindall’s fun night out.

4. Welsh (Hook & Lydiate) and fresh  Australian (Pocock, O’Connor) injuries.

I won’t post this until tomorrow, and then won’t post again until I have plugged the campervan in at the Top 10 Travel Park in New Plymouth ahead of Wales v Namibia on Monday (9/26), so I am going to go ahead and give you the results of the next couple of matches. Tonight (Thursday 9/22)  Namibia will be the punching bag for the Springboks as they  tweak  the team they hope will take them through to the finals. Bryan Habana is one try away from the being the all time Springbok try scorer. That try will come tonight along with at least 2 more. Tomorrow a USA  Eagles B-side will suffer the injured wrath of the Wallabies. The USA could be in danger of falling into the record books as one of the top 10  all time team point records. In 10th place right now is Scotland over Ivory Coast in the 1995 World Cup 89-0. They might be saved if the Springboks score more than 89 points against Namibia, but in 9th place right now is Australia over Romania in the 2003 World Cup 90-8.

Last night as I was washing-up after our lamb chop and mint pea dinner in the travel park kitchen,  I listened to a group of Wallaby fans as they sipped Jamesons (I suppose trying to suck in a little luck of the Irish) and spoke about why top notch Australian rugby players aren’t coming through. The culprits were stupid selectors and rugby league. That very weird Australian rules football game the Aussies play didn’t take any of the blame. After washing up we walked into the village of Martinborough to watch Japan v Tonga. The pub at the Martinborough hotel was crowded so we crossed the street to a yuppieish bar-restaurant Cool Change where they had French champagne on offer for $5 a flute,  Bruce Springsteen on the music system, and a sedate dinner crowd mostly waiting for their table.  By second half the bar area had gotten a little rowdier. A Canadian had some kind of Kiwi whistle which he was trying to get Kiwis to show him how to blow. A Kiwi in rugby shorts and a deer hunter t-shirt (temperarture was in the low 40s) gave in a resounding blast and coached a few squeaks  from the whistle at the lips of the Canuck. This morning we woke to the sound of helicopters hovering over the vineyards that surround the travel park. Somehow this seems to be the area’s most economical way to keep the vines from freezing.

The rugby should heat up again on Sunday as Scotland and Argentina face off in their win-or-you’re-out match. Samoa will try to get past Fiji with at least four tries for a bonus point and healthy players for their match on Sept. 30th against the Springboks.  France will be trying to look like they’re trying to beat the All Blacks while trying to get a good measure of the tournament favorites with a view to once again spoil the All Blacks World Cup party in the Finals on Oct. 23rd.

Time to pack-up and head into Wellington. I’m meeting two old NORFC and Tulane rugby buddies (Dave “Vicious” Farrar and Bob Edmundson). There are some stories to tell, New Zealand wines to sample, and rugby to watch.

Sept. 20, 2011 – Finding the Mojo

Sept. 20th – Finding the Mojo

Week 2 of the pool stages is fading into Rugby World Cup history. When I think back to the ancient history of 2 weeks ago when I was arriving in Auckland and reading pundits thoughts on why certain teams would win this greatest of all rugby tournaments, the constantly repeated criterion was how a team would hold together. After 2 weeks who has the mojo going? The All Blacks certainly seem unphased by fan and media complaints that Henry won’t settle on one team. Their early success and the general success of the tournament is building some powerful homefield advantage mojo. The Irish seem to have pulled a bag of golden mojo out the pot at the end of the rainbow a leprechaun hid away after they beat England in the 6 Nations climax. The Welsh have a solid coal miner  type of mojo that is strong yet as fragile as an injury to tiny Shane Williams.

The Aussies pre-tournament Tri-Nations winning mojo has gone green. Star winger Ioane Digby is out until the quarterfinals at the earliest when the Aussies will probably have the priviledge of facing the Springboks to get to All Blacks in the semi-finals. No team has ever beaten 2  Tri-Nation sides to win the tournament much less just to get to the final. The Springboks mojo got tossed in a tornado. The relatively aged (experienced? – didn’t seem that way against Wales) side has yet to face a red hot extremely angry Samoan side who feel cheated by the IRB’s short rest schedule for tier 2 teams and a passion to show this is a truly great  Samoan team – the first Samoan team to ever beat Australia. (They did this 2 monthes before the World Cup began.)  As the Springboks look confidently to the knock-out stage, Samoa looks to crash right through this naïve confidence and put the Springboks on a plane back to South Africa before the quarterfinals start. The English are experienced at getting to the final. The Tindall sideshow could be the thing they need to pull themselves together and rally around a friend and captain who is under attack. For all the ‘2 yards in a cloud of heaving forward sweat’ boredom they bring to the game, they know what it takes to win. Can the French bring their A game to their probable quarterfinal match with England? It will never happen if it is a wet and cold night in Auckland.

Argentina and Scotland will match mojos on Sunday the 25th in Wellington. The winner gets the joy of a quarterfinal match-up with New Zealand. (And yes, I am saying if Scotland beats Argentina they will lose to England on the following weekend.) Just the thought of facing the All Blacks in Auckland in the quarterfinals of the  World Cup they are hosting would be enough to unsettle my mojo, but that is what great mojo is all about – finding that right challenge that brings the right spirit to the right team to conquer the unconquerable.

Sept. 19, 2011 – Ireland Upset Sets-Up North vs South Showdown

Second Weekend of Pool Play Sets Northern Hemisphere vs Southern Hemisphere Final Showdown

With Ireland’s tremendous upset of Australia (15-6) on Sept. 17th the stage is pretty clearly set for a final that will match one of the Southern Hemisphere’s big three vs a Northern Hemisphere side. If teams hold form, the quarter finals should be Australia vs South Africa, New Zealand vs Argentina with the winner of those matches going to one semifinal and going to the other semifinal will be the winners of the Ireland vs Wales and England vs France quarterfinals. There certainly exist some matches that could spoil the above scenario.

In Pool D Samoa could beat the Springboks by more than 7 points. Wales & Samoa could pick up bonus points for 4 tries in their matches against Fiji and Namibi. If those things happen, the South Africans can pack their bags and for the first time since they were allowed in the World Cup in 1995 they will exit in the pool stages. This would make loads of people happy. Several Kiwis have told me that the first team they support is the All Blacks and then any team playing the Springboks. Several people I’ve spoken to have said the Springbok fans are the rudest to show up at this tournament. Our own experiences would support this. In pubs they stand in front of the televisions talking loudly with a certain air of disdain for anyone who would want to watch a match that didn’t involve the Springboks. Night before last in a crowded campsite full of South Africans many with children at 12:30 in the morning a drunk Springbok fan and his mate started shouting “F****N Stop” at each other for the better part of half an hour. This was after they had beat Fiji 49-3. I think I mentioned in the post about the Wales vs South Africa match how quick many of the Springbok fans are to “Boo”, something that upsets my sentiments as a former school teacher trying to teach children to treat others as you wish to be treated and good sportsmanship. Special note – I have met loads of wonderful South Africans. Unfortunately the small thuggish element tarnishes the whole pot.

In Pool C Ireland could crash and burn against Italy in the very last match of the pool stages on October 2nd. This seems truly unlikely as the they have a good bit of rest between now and then with only a run out against the Russians on Sept. 25th to test what will probably be a 2nd team Irish side.

In Pool B next Sunday’s (Sept. 25th) Argentina vs Scotland match could upset my all Southern Hemisphere quarterfinals prediction. If Scotland can put their game of the tournament together to beat Argentina. Whoever wins that match though will face the All Blacks in a quarterfinal and will go no further.

It is hard to imagine anything that will upset the train that is rolling through the New Zealand country side that has the All Blacks winning Pool A. Of course the French have derailed that train twice before.  At last night’s press conference following France’s 46-19 win over Canada French coach Marc Lievremont was asked if he would consider intentionally losing to New Zealand to get a probably easier route to the final. Lievremont being cagey and funny after his problems last week with criticizing some players to the press before he spoke directly to the players, joked that the All Blacks might be considering the same thing and that a ‘playing to lose’ strategy would need to be a team consensus decision. Now that would be a game to watch. The All Blacks and Les Bleus both trying to let the other one win.

France struggled with Canada until the 60th minute when their fully professional squad with a first rate national team organization wore down the valiant Canadians. At the 60th minute the score was France 25 and Canada 19. Canada had a lineout on the French 5 meter line. The lineout turned into a French scrum. The French crowd began a rousing chorus of the Marseillaise and 3 converted French tries in the next 20 minutes left the bone weary and battered Canadians on the losing end of the 46-19 score. Both sides walked around the stadium clapping and shaking hands with their fans and receiving the crowd’s applause and gratitude for a great match.

Sept. 17, 2011 – The Serious Sometimes Insensitive Business of World Cup Journalism

An hour before the kick-off of the USA vs Russia match I was perfectly situated on the midfield line a few rows below the VIP booths where the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia was mingling with the New Zealand PM and Miss Russia. I had passed through the media centre where, by a quick count, 25 journalists beavered away on their computers or munched on the vegetarian (cauliflower and gruyere) or meatball pasta options  while large muted tvs broadcast the images of their colleagues silently analyzing the upcoming match. The hostess spotted me as a probable new comer to the pundit scrum and took my empty plate before chatting about how she had recently moved back from Portugal but had been a hostess at the Taranaki Stadium for years before her life in the warmth and sunshine of Portugal. I followed her advice of mixing a package of Nescafe and half a package of Milo for a reasonable mocha.

After scanning the slowly filling stadium, the warm-up activities of both sides,` and the empty rows of press seats, I left my rain coat on the back of my seat and went in search of atmosphere and  there was plenty to be had at the stadium concessions. I got a fairly reasonably priced Heineken (NZ$ 7.50 = US$6.75) and watched the fantastic swirl of costumes, wigs, painted faces, and team colors that moved about with the occasional USA chant followed by the singsong reply of RUSSIA. The mood was so warm and pleasant that it sounded more like a mating call than the challenge of supporters of teams that were about to battle over the one World Cup match that they could reasonably expect to win. I took a few pictures of faces and costumes and practiced my Russian with a lady dressed as a Russia princess. She told me (I think, my Russian being very rusty) that she had been unaware until a few months ago that Russia had a rugby team much less that they would be in the World Cup. She was a Russian language instructor at a university in Palmerston North (about 150 miles from New Plymouth where the match was taking place). There were a few more Russian princesses and a good number of Russian soldiers in the crowd and at least 2 Captain Americas.

When I returned to my seat my journalist neighbors were in their places. On one side was Alex Goff (Goff on Rugby) and on the other side a couple of guys from the sport website (or so they told me). The young “deadspin” guys were on a limited budget. They had been staying in the locker room of a local rugby club and were hitch-hiking up to Hamilton the next day to New Zealand versus Japan (FYI New Zealand won 83-7). On both sides of me fingers were flying over their keyboards while I pulled out my mini-sketch pad and pencil and placed them down on the team rosters media operations provided. As I am writing this I realize why I should have been word processing at the match, but this tale needed a little time to simmer.

I’ve posted a brief report on the match and if you want a detailed account go to “Goff on Rugby” at Rugby Magazine. I don’t have internet at the site where our camper van is currently parked, but  Google “Goff on Rugby”. Soon after the match the media folks hustled us down to the press conference room where we heard fairly standard statements from the Russian captain and coach as translated for us by the very cute interpreter. I thought the Russian captain (Korshunov – their hooker) looked very gutted by the loss, but then I recalled that he looked very similar at the press conference the day before. He did at one point mention how the loss was particularly tough because of the Cold War rivalry – or something like that. I had thought the Cold War rivalry thing was just media fabrication and I doubt if Vlad (Russian captain’s first name) had much recall of the Cold War which ended 20 years ago with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The coach, Nikolay Nerush, closed the conference by speaking of his pride in his team and how they were a try away from a draw right up to the end of the match. I was moved by his support of his team and the image of the effort his team had put forth and applauded as they left the conference table. Several of my journalistic colleagues gave me askew glances and one of the deadspin guys nudged me and said we don’t applaud at these conferences. Eddie O’Sullivan and Todd Clever came and did very much the same with no cute interpreter needed. The Russians spoke of line-out problems. The USA spoke of line-out success. Both coaches spoke of pride intheir  team’s effort. Journalists asked polite questions with occasional forays into possibly controversial areas like a question to Todd about what had transpired between him and Byrne in their altercation, and the media  savvy coaches and captains side-stepped the lunges with adept replies like, ‘I don’t recall’.

We were then ushered into a room referred to as  mixed media area or something like that. It was a hall with a zigzag rope running down the middle. I assumed some players would be brought out for media folks to single out for individual questions. I stood there about 5 minutes trying to think of a question or 2 for a player, but couldn’t come up with anything beyond asking Taku Ngwenya why he dropped the ball so much and was he frustrated with not getting ball quicker with more space, but as I stood there I tried to put myself in the players’ spot. If I had just played the match I thought I would just want to get on the bus and go have a beer or two. I wouldn’t want to answer mostly mundane, some bizarre, but overwhelmingly annoying questions from a bunch of strangers. I zipped up my jacket and rain coat against the cold and frequent Taranaki drizzle and headed to the media shuttle, getting reprimanded by security on the way for not having my identification showing.

Post match festivities were in full swing in downtown New Plymouth. The town seemed to have gotten it right. A huge tent was stretched across a street beside the town’s famous Irish bar (Peggy Gordon’s). There was a solid rock band blasting out covers with a  bar running down one side of the tent and a couple of food stands on the other. Police were very visible, and usually they seemed engaged in a friendly discussion with some intoxicated person about the match or the state of the world. At about midnight I ended up in the bar at the GCR hotel chatting with a Kiwi tv commentator “Scotty”, sipping a JD on the rocks (NZ$10) and waiting for the taxi line to go down. One of Scotty’s colleagues (Scotty informed me he had been the captain of Tonga in the 95 World Cup) started a conversation with a lovely lady in the bar. Being a bit of a natural eavesdropper I picked up a few words like “husband, Todd, Japan, years left on contract” and being the clever reporter that I purport to be I deduced that this was Mrs. Clever.  As the taxi line wasn’t shrinking too quickly I ordered another JD practiced my Russian eavesdropping on the young Russian couple next to me, and waited to see if Todd would show up. (The only thing I could pick up on the Russian couple was that she kept telling him something he should do.) My wait was soon rewarded when Todd showed up, held his new baby, kissed his wife, chatted with his friends. As he passed by where I was sitting I said, “Great win and great game, as usual.” He gave me that warm Clever smile said a sincere thanks and headed off with his family. Thank goodness I hadn’t thought of any questions that would have kept him longer at the stadium.

Sept. 16, 2011 – Hapless Dominance

As anyone reading this probably knows the USA won their match against Russia 13-6. In the battle of the Super Minnows the Eagles domintated possession in the first half but a constant stream of kicking away possession, knock-ons, and entering rucks incorrectly left the team with little in the way of points to show for their skill at quickly recycling multi-phase ball and towering control of line-outs.

USA gave up 3 points right away partly the result of kicking away clean possession from the kick-off. Although the Eagles were quick to rucks, they seemed a good bit more lethargic in supporting breaks and covering kicks. A second half penalty kick by Chris Wyles came off a post and as probably most U.S. club side rugby players know some players should have had the job to follow those kicks. The Eagles had a good push going off of lineouts that they were winning easily, but when they had a line-out at the 5 meter line they chose to throw long and after a few phases of ball  one of the usual mistakes materialized and opportunity lost. The Eagles also continue to suffer from a problem common to many sides inability to run to space and offload in a timely manner. In this tournament only the All Blacks have shown some real talent at this last rugby skill so far. The Eagles controlled the major part of the match, but as the Russian coach proudly announced at the post match press conference, the Bears were in the match with a good chance oft a draw right down to the final whistle.

We’re packing up now and have to be out of this campsite in 30 minutes. Yesterday was my first press pass to a match complete with media room buffet, perfect midfield seat, and post-match press conferences with team coaches and captains. I’m working on an article on my experience. If anyone has read these from the beginning you know I am looking at this as a personal journey into journalism, but as the campsite manager is tapping on his watch the story of my hapless journey into the world of real sports journalism will have to wait.

Cold War or Warming Tier 2 Rivalry?

               When asked on the eve of the USA – Russia World Cup match if they had a better name for the rivalry than what the media’  labels  the “Cold War Match” Eagle forwards’ coach and team analyst Dave Hodges had a quick look at team captain Todd Clever and said he should take the question as he was older.  The Cold War ended in 1991 with the  final dissolution of the Soviet Union because of the collapse of its communist economic system and failure to maintain military control over  its satellite countries. Dave was playing rugby for Occidental College then. The team the USA faces today is not the Soviet Union. It is Russia, a  country with a capitalist economic system and a democratically elected government.  It was once controlled by  the Soviet Union just like two other participants in this World Cup, Georgia and Romania. Dave  labeled the match-up as a developing one between another tier 2 nation just like our rivalry with Canada.

                Although this match is  just another tier 2 rivalry against a team the USA has never (as far as I could find) lost to since a national team was formed in the Soviet Union in 1936, it has big implications for both sides. Russia is playing in their first World Cup and are hoping to come away from this tournament with a win and the USA is their best chance. They refused an invitation to the inaugural 1987 World Cup for alleged political reasons.  For almost a year now the Russian coaching staff has made it very clear that they are targeting this match, and USA coaches and players are well aware of this. This match also represents the Eagles’ best shot at leaving this tournament with a win. Something they have only been able to do twice (both wins against Japan) in the 5 previous World Cups they have attended. With a win Russia will edge in front of the USA to 18th in IRB world rankings. It is highly unlikely either team will get out of the pool stages of the tournament or win another match in this World Cup, but there are sizeable bragging rights and good feelings involved in leaving Taranaki Stadium the evening of Sept. 15th with a win.

                The Russian side is much larger physically than the Russian squad that played in the 2010 Churchill Cup. Russian Coach Kingsley-Jones (former Welsh flanker) said this was largely his doing. He stated at a press conference on Sept. 14th that players (forwards) below 110-115 kg. were not really  competitive and he felt a need to ‘beef up’ the team. The narrow loss to the USA in the 2011 Churchill Cup was considered a non-indicator of what will happen in the match on Sept. 15th. Coach Kingsley-Jones said various factors including little prep time for the Russians and USA not playing a full strength squad made it not representative of what the Sept. 15th World Cup match-up will be like. The impending wind and rain that is forecast for the Taranaki area has both teams planning wet, muddy, blustery weather strategies.

                Kingsley-Jones felt Russia has rapidly closed the gap with USA’s rugby program. There is definite indications that Russia is taking rugby a lot more seriously than the USA. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Zhukov (Putin’s right hand man) will be in attendance at the USA-Russia match as will Miss Russia. A World Cup media organizer stated that Mr. Zhukov’s attendance is also part of the launching of promotion for the 2013 Rugby 7s World Cup to be held in Moscow. Rugby is now part of the Russian school curriculum, and as 7’s is a sport in the 2016 Olympics it has gained considerable Russian government support.

                Although players and coaches are playing down the political side of this rapidly developing tier 2 rivalry, there is no doubt that it will be cold in New Plymouth on Thursday night and there will be a ‘war’.  And if Russian efforts to develop the sport continue and USA public and governmental apathy continue, this could be the USA’s last good chance at a win for quite awhile.

                Where is Joe Biden?

Sept. 13, 2011 – Week One Off Pitch Drama

World Cups take on a life far beyond just the matches. Stories and rumors swirl about like westerly winds swooping into New Plymouth city centre off the Tasman Sea. Below is some of the off pitch drama that is getting attention in New Zealand following the weekend’s matches.

1) The inability of Auckland’s transport system to handle the crowds that came to see the opening ceremony and New Zealand vs Tonga match. People were encouraged to come and be part of the occasion and to take public transport. As the crowd began to swell officials realized the system was not prepared and began telling people to go home. Many people with tickets were left stranded and are now trying to get reimbursed.

2) Japan became everyone’s favorite team after the Brave Blossums’ valiant effort against France. Already before they have announced the team that will face the All Blacks, they have been forgiven for picking a weak team, so they can save key players for a winnable match.

3) A New Zealand politician in a VIP box at the Australia vs Italy match has been labeled the Minister for Bad Manners as he booed the Aussies and in other ways disgraced his country with his bad behavior.

4) The English new all black jerseys created a stir months before the World Cup began, but as the numbers on the back began to fall off during their match with Argentina, they became a source of ridicule almost equal to England’s poor performance.

5) Many of the Irish team in apparent lack of concern about their upcoming match with the USA had a good night out at the bars in New Plymouth the evening before their match.

6) Wayne Barnes (probably the most hated ref in New Zealand because of his failure to catch a forward pass in the 2007 World Cup which led to a French try and the ousting of the All Blacks from that tournament) justified the low regard with which he is held by not calling for video review of James Hook’s possibly good penalty kick in the Wales vs South Africa match.

These stories and rumors have fed conversations here for the past two days. Tomorrow a new round of matches kick-off and with them another storm of side show tales and rumors. The fun just keep on coming.

Sept. 12, 2011 – The Weekend the Underdogs Growled

The World Cup is well under way and permeates every part of life in New Zealand. This weekend almost brought, on several occasions, what the tournament is looking for – an upset. Romania was leading Scotland with 20 minutes to play. Japan challenged France for a good part of their match. Argentina completely destroyed English arrogant confidence and their new all black kit. Italy didn’t let Australia glide easily through their match, the USA bashed Ireland around a bit, and Wales – ahead with just minutes left in the match, held a history making 2nd victory over the Springboks in the history of Wales in their hard tackling fists. But when the final whistle blew none of the underdogs could find the jugular.

We watched the first 2 matches in crowded pubs in Wellington with a predominance of Springbok fans lubricating their enthusiasm. As we left “The Inn” just outside Wellington stadium for the Wales v SA match the drizzle was beginning to dwindle. The tension at times in the match was that rare quantity in a rugby match where everyone feels they are part of history. Those horrible moments where Priestland’s drop goal and Hook’s penalty drifted slightly wide of the posts caused audible sighs from the Welsh and sighs of relief from the Springboks. An exciting weekend in world cup rugby, even if the elusive underdog victory is yet to come.

We;re unplugging the camper van and heading west to New Plymouth for what isbeing billed as “The Cold War” match between USA and Russia. Hopefully underdog Russia will not be the first underdog to claim a scalp.

Sept. 10, 2011 – Mornng Dawns with All Black Smiles

The Rugby World Cup was launched last night with a stunning opening ceremony and an impressive All Black win (41-10) over a physical but tedious Tongan side who seemed very afraid to move the ball outside and a bit stupid about kicking away possession. Sonny Bill Williams at #12 for the All Blacks was magical with his famous or infamous (depending on which camp you want to view them from) offloads. Graham Henry’s selections of relatively inexperienced fullback Israel Dagg  (7 caps) and winger Richard Kahui (12 caps)  were vindicated, and Kahui probably earned himself a starting spot for the rest of the tournie.

Carolyn and I drove 5 hours yesterday from Turangi to get to Wellington in time to watch the opening ceremony on the big screen at the Fanzone on the waterfront. On the drive down we listened to talk radio which was of course full of world cup news and tidbits. The hosts joked about a plate of the Tongan delicacy fried corn beef that someone had brought in for them to try. (The local corn beef is more like our Spam.) All-Black captain of the 1987 World Cup winning side David Kirk was interviewed about many things from how he still remembers lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy to the state of the professional game today. He supported the professional game and pretty much all that came with it. The interviewer pushed him to say that professionalism was forcing the spontaneity out of the game. His reply was the professional player is now free to focus on the game without the daily concerns of making a living and many life management issues that non-professional sports people have to deal with. The opening ceremony and match was carried on 5 New Zealand tv stations and 4 of them were going to put advertisements between the hakas and the kick-off. For U.S. sports fan we have long embraced commercials as part of watching sports on tv and a good time to get a cold one. Kirk was comfortable with the growing commercialism in rugby union as it pays the bills that allows the players to focus on the game.

After parking and plugging in the camper van we took the bus to downtown Wellington and got a seat at an outside table at a pub with a view of the big screen in the Fanzone. I had a pint of cider and Carolyn a New Zealand sauvignon blanc (NZ$8 each) and were well placed to wait the 3 hours until the opening ceremony. The temperature was in the 40s and a strong wind was blowing, An inredible ukulele band started performing on the stage. They covered an amazing range of songs from Led Zeppelin (Sunshine of Your Love) to Kenny Rogers (Ruby Don’t Take your Love to Town). A couple from New Plymouth sat down at our table and after chatting awhile they offered us a camping spot in their driveway for USA v Russia match and any other time we were in New Plymouth. By 6:30 we were freezing and hungry and not interested in the NZ$19 fish and chips the pub had on offer. We left in search of food and a bit or warmth and found ourselves by the bus stop back to our campground. Thirty minutes later we were on the couch in front of the fire in the campsite’s tv room watching the opening ceremony, hakas, advertisements, and match with local kiwis, welsh, irish, and French rugby fans.

Sept. 9, 2011 – Let’s Get This Party Started

Sept. 9th – The World’s Greatest Rugby Party Kicks Off Today

You can practically touch the anticipation of the opening ceremony and New Zealand All Blacks match with Tonga in the chilly New Zealand air. Yesterday’s NZ Herald reported that 50,000 people are expected to head to the Fanzone designed for 12,000 in Auckland to watch the opening ceremony while 60,000 ticket holders pile into Eden Park. Several hundred thousand more will head to pubs or Fanzones set up in other NZ cities to watch the opening and a match that has a fairly foregone conclusion. All Blacks beat Tonga win by 20 is my prediction. Can you imagine that many people interested in a rugby match in the USA? And New Zealand has a population of about 5 million.

Yesterday’s major New Zealand newspaper the New Zealand Herald related practically every story to the World Cup and of course the sports section was solid rugby. Here is a sampling of the stories: 1. Cover photo of final rehearsal with headline, “Let’s get this party started!”, 2. Putin has decided to not come to Russia vs. USA match but is sending his second in command and Miss Russia. (Where is Joe Biden and Miss America?),  3. Half page of pictures of famous wives and girlfriends of players, 4.  Story on a haka flashmob that is roaming Auckland and spontaneously performing the haka. 5. Australian and New Zealand prime ministers take a break from the Pacific Islands Forum to swap jerseys and kid each other about who will win, (Both seemed relatively confident they will meet in the final.) and a couple articles about not drinking too much and how to handle a hangover. In the sports section the stories ranged from the All Blacks surprise selection of Dagg, Kahul, and Toeva as their full and wingers  to start against Tonga to a general level of discomfort that Paddy O’Brien (head of referees) seems to have left it to the last minute to ‘have a serious talk with his charges this week to ensure they are all on the same page.”

I’m in Wellington now and about to head to the Fanzone here. Let’s get this party started!!

Sept. 6, 2011 – Party Is On, No Choking Please

Somewhere between leaving LAX on Sept. 3rd and arriving in Auckland 17 hours later on Sept. 5th, September 4th disappeared from my life and the Kiwis welcomed me to what many think will be the 6 week greatest party of their lives hopefully culminating with the All Blacks lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy on October 23rd. Along the streets of Auckland IRB World Cup banners stream from every street light.. Immigration and customs (as long as you weren’t bringing anything that even vaguely resembled plant or animal matter) were delighted to see us as soon as we said we are here for the World Cup.

My wife, Carolyn, and I arrived on the cusp of the incoming hordes. The good feeling and warm welcome was palpable. Tonga had arrived at Auckland a few hours before and traffic around the airport stopped for 3 hours as Tongan supporters welcomed their heroes. All was smiles and bliss until the question of if the All Blacks would choke again arose. We shared our hotel shuttle from the airport with a French couple. When I asked if France would once again prove to be the All Blacks’ nemesis, the shuttle driver’s eyes cut me a look that would have opened the door and pushed me out if they could.

During my layover in Sydney I skimmed some of the Southern Hemisphere’s World Cup special edition magazines. The consensus seemed to be there are 4 teams in with a chance: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and England. A few articles held to the theme that it would not be the talent or size or speed or endurance or game strategy that would elevate one of these sides above the others on Oct. 23rd, but the nebulous quality of team spirit which would be the decider. The Aussies have put together a young team of players coming on form and playing very well together. The English have a mixture of very experienced players and young players with great potential. The All Blacks have a side that have dominated on the world rugby stage for several years now. The Springbok selection is largely from their 2007 World Cup winning side. They were young at the time, so not ancient (meaning over 30 in rugby years) for this World Cup. If it is the camaraderie and support they get from each other as the time, matches, and media grind away at them over the next 6 weeks, which selected 30 will prove the collective x-factor attitude to rise above the rest?

Interestingly the Springboks won the  2007 World Cup without ever facing either Australia or New Zealand. The only other team to win a World Cup without having to face a Tri-Nation adversary  were the All Blacks in 1987. This year’s draw makes it almost impossible for this to happen if things go as most pundits and bookies imagine.  But the All Blacks have choked twice against France in previous World Cups. This year they could potentially have to face France twice, once in the pool stage and then possibly in the finals. If France wins the pool stage match against the All Blacks, New Zealand could make it through the knock-out rounds to the final without playing Australia or South Africa if Australia loses their quarterfinal knock-out match to their probable foe Wales. We’re not mentioning the word choke here, though. Nobody wants to ruin the party – do they?