Archives for October 2011

Oct. 24, 2011 – 24 Years Later All Blacks Regain World Champ Title

New Zealand captured the Rugby World Cup by squeaking past France 8-7. The All Blacks were the best team in the tournament, but the French side was incredibly good on the evening. The All Blacks came into the match overwhelming favorites. A $1 bet  on an AB victory would return $1.08. The French earned their underdog status. They were the first team ever  to get to the Final of a World Cup after losing 2 matches in the pool stages. On Sept. 24th they lost to New Zealand 37-17 and Tonga upset them 19-14 on October 1st. In their Semi-final they luckily snuck past a 14 man Welsh side by a score of 9-8, but in true unpredictable French fashion they were arguably the best team in the Final. They had 55% of the possession and 55% of the territory. The French played running rugby and did not kick away possession. Ultimately it was possibly karma and home field advantage which carried the day for the All Blacks. At the end of the evening the All Blacks had been the best team in the tournament and the French didn’t really deserve to be in the Final in the first place.

South African referee Craig Joubert in a pre-match interview intimated that he was going to come down hard early. All Black Kieran Read was 5 meters off side at the kick-off with no consequence.  Joubert’s laissez faire reffing continued. The French felt some attempt at ref control when they were called for off-side at a ruck in the 5th minute. The French player was not affecting the play and jumped back on side, but it was too late. Fortunately Weepu missed the kick. The All Blacks did something similar later in the match but were not called.   As Richie McCaw said at a press conference earlier in the tournament, the All Blacks would try to get away with what they could. In the Final they seemed able to get away with more that the French. The final penalty count was 10 against France and 7 against New Zealand.  New Zealand successfully kicked one of theirs and that was ultimately where the one point difference lay.

The excitement of the match was intense and the roar of the crowd chanting, “All Blacks” rattled your chest.  With 10 minutes left France moved the ball well into All Black territory with 17 consecutive phases. They weren’t just running pick and go around the ruck either. They were passing the ball wide and bringing fullback Medard in the line. The New Zealand defense held and with 4 minutes to go they won possession and ran out the clock. The All Blacks were the 2011 World Cup Champions and continued their unbeaten streak in Eden Park that dates back to 1996. For being a nation that opened their hearts and homes to host the tournament and the team that consistently played the best  rugby it was the right end for this World Cup.

Oct. 22, 2011 – Repeat of ’87 Bronze Final Ends in Aussie Victory

 

Australia broke their 25 year losing streak at Eden Park on Friday evening by beating Wales  21-18 in the Bronze Final of the Rugby World Cup. Australia was the better team on the evening. Wales had difficulty handling the ball and  Welsh kickers (Hook & Halfpenny) couldn’t find the sweet spot on the ball to collect a relatively easy 8 points from 2 penalties and a try conversion.  Every match Wales lost in the tournament (South Africa 17-16, France 9-8, and Australia 21-18) was there to be won if penalty kicking had been accurate.

This match was a repeat of the Bronze Final at the first World Cup in 1987. Wales won that match 22-21. Sunday’s final will be a repeat of the 1987 Final in which New Zealand beat France 29-9.

Today was the first really warm day since we have been in New Zealand. There were lots of Welsh colors around downtown Auckland.  My favorite sensory experiences from the day are:

Sound: A Maori song and dance group was performing on the street outside the FanZone. When they finished a song three guys in the crowd launched into a spontaneous haka. Each member of the dance group had a different facial expression. Some laughed and others seemed angry.

Smell: Grilling sausages along the streets of downtown Auckland as school and civic groups tried to make a little money off the World Cup visitors.

Sight: An oriental girl was painted all black and had a black rugby ball. She was busking for tips and would do a very strange robot rugby dance when someone dropped a coin in her tin can.

Taste: Rogan Josh curry in the media centre as media folks buzzed around George Gregan getting their picture taken with him.

Feel: A wave of melancholy rolled over me as the Australian national anthems started and I realized this would be my penultimate World Cup match. It is almost over. All that is left is for the All Blacks to do what everyone pretty much expected them to do from before the opening ceremony – win the Final and lift the Webb Ellis Trophy.

Oct. 19, 2011 – Final in Danger of Falling off Anti-Climactic Abyss

It’s a rainy Tuesday night in Auckland and by this time next week the 2011 Rugby World Cup will be well over except for  Kiwi celebrations and the parade for the All Blacks that are being quietly planned. IRB World Cup merchandise is already  half price at the supermarket just up the hill from Eden Park, and it seems that there is a real anti-climax to the rest of the matches. Most Kiwis are feeling the big match was the semi-final against Australia. In the words of the Kiwi duty manager who poured our tasting this morning at the Villa Maria Vineyard the French are seen,  ‘More as a pebble in the road than a bump’ on the All Blacks way to claiming the Web Ellis Trophy.

At the Welsh press conference today players spoke of taking a couple of days to move beyond the emotions of the semi-final loss to France and get their minds right. In the words of Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny he has, “Drawn a line under it.”  They spoke of having turned the corner and moving on to now face Australia, but their faces showed  lingering thoughts  of what could have and probably should have been. When Welsh Coach Gatland was asked if this was a game they did not want to play, Gatland replied that would be the case for both sides as both sides had hoped to be in the final. In a written statement to the press handed out before the conference he was quoted as saying. “We need to ensure that the history books reflect what we know we are capable of – and it is only by beating the Wallabies on Friday night that we feel this will be achieved.” When I asked Welsh prop Huw Bennett if he felt a strong Welsh showing against the Wallabies with several tries would put a shadow over the probable All Black win in the final on Sunday and raise questions about who could have or possibly should be raising the trophy. he replied that they were separate matches and that even though the All Blacks only put in one try against the Wallabies there was no way to compare the teams based on the different matches. The All Blacks are in the Final against the French and whomever  wins is the world champion for the next four years. Although the probable injustice of the red card lingers on the edge of their conscious minds, the Welsh squad have moved on. Third in the world will be a good showing for the young squad that faced some hard luck.

When Coach Gatland was questioned if there was anything he wished he had done differently in the France match, he opened up with some wishful thinking by saying, “A lot has been said about the yellow card (pause) red card (laughter from press and smile on Gatland’s face) well, a 62 minute yellow card.” He then spoke honestly of  an option he considered in the coaching box. With Adam Jones off with an injured calf and Sam Warburton off with the red card, the coaching staff considered having a prop go down with an injury. With no other qualified front row on the 22 man squad, the ref would have had to go to uncontested scrums.  The idea was discarded as being immoral and not in the spirit of the game. With a last shrug to the issue he added his thought that the red card wasn’t in the spirit of the game.

Now the week stretches ahead with daily press conference questions about how important are the games, how are players handling the stress, and will the French find an inspired performance to lift this World Cup from falling into an anti-climactic abyss.

Oct. 17, 2011 – Big Surprise!? All Blacks through to the Final

Unless you are a totally delusional Australian, New Zealand’s 20-6 victory over the Wallabies in the Rugby World Cup semi-final on Sunday, Oct. 16th, will come as the expected result. For most people it will be the result that has been  expected since the All Blacks dismantled Tonga 41-7 in the opening match of the tournament  on Sept. 9th and Australia spluttered  into the runner-up spot in Pool C when they lost to Ireland  15-6 on Sept. 17th.  Although the All Blacks were only able to cross the try line once when full back Israel Dagg made a Sonny Bill-like offload to Ma’a Nonu less than 6 minutes into the match, they were recognized by everyone (including Aussie coach Deans and captain Horwill) as being the better team. Deans added that he thought it ‘was as good an All Blacks performance as I have come up against.’ The All Blacks ended with a slight statistical advantage in possession (51%) and a commanding 62% territorial advantage.  The backs ran with conviction and tackled with authority. Unfortunately tries didn’t come easily.

The All Blacks now move to the Final against France on Sunday, Oct. 23rd. French coach Lievremont seems to be firing his side up once more by the bizarre tactic of humiliating them publicly. He told media yesterday that he had called them together after they went out against his orders on Saturday to celebrate their win over the Welsh and called them (among other things) “spoilt brats.” The technique seemed to work after the Tongan match, so the All Blacks better not be too self-assured about the Final’s outcome. It is hard to imagine that the French will put together one of their magical 1999-like moments to win this match, but stranger things have happened and who knows maybe Wayne Barnes will be reffing and they can get away with a few forward passes. The Frenchmen who were sitting in front of me during the New Zealand vs Australia semi-final were smiling confidently after the match. They saw considerable opportunity in the All Blacks measly haul of one try, 19 missed tackles, 9 handling errors, and only 2 clean line breaks. If they avoid Australia’s repeated mistake of kicking away possession to the All Blacks very talented wings and full back, maybe they will make a game of it.

Like 2007 the Final will be between the winner and runner-up in the same pool.  For the sake of this tournament hopefully the French will make a better show of it than the English did against South Africa.  If the French roll over and Wales shines against Australia in the Bronze Final this World Cup will be all about Rolland’s red card. Maybe that is why the New Zealand Herald is peppered with articles by Kiwi pundits (Chris Rattue and Wynne Gray) explaining why the red card call was the obviously correct call while failing to properly quote the law themselves (in Gray’s case).  In a Kiwi worried mind that the glory of lifting the trophy once again after 24 years now rests on somehow justifying a refs hasty and possibly wrong decision. The law itself does not require a red card for a dangerous tackle, but a 2009 directive from the IRB to all unions gave the following relevant instructions to referees on a tackle similar to the Sam Warburton tackle:

“The lifted player is dropped to the ground from a height with no regard to the player’s safety (red card offense).

The Warburton tackle creates at least two questions related to a slightly ambiguous law and its directive. First –– What is meant by “from a height”? We have probably all seen clear examples of a clear ‘red card’  tackle where someone is lifted into the air turned over and dropped “from a height”. This tackle was not one of those.  Photos show Vincent was brought close to the ground before he was released. Three –  Did Sam show no regard for Vincent’s safety? Slow motion replays indicate he stops his own momentum to the ground and releases Vincent.  Was this because he was worried about receiving a penalty or concern for Vincent? We’ll probably never know. Sam probably doesn’t know which reasoning was going through his head at that instance, but those who know him know he is not a cruel player. The arguments on all sides of this red card decision make it obvious that this was not an obvious call. Only those who think it was are obviously wrong. And Rolland was wrong for making it so hastily. Welsh coach Gatland is right that it ruined the semi-final and if the scenario of an All Black trouncing of the French in the Final and a Welsh trouncing of the Wallabies in the Bronze Final plays out at  the of this week, then one refs hasty call will have forever tainted the All Blacks championship and in some ways the whole tournament.

Oct. 15, 2011 – The Saddest Rugby Match Ever – France 9 Wales 8

It was the saddest rugby match I ever watched. Sad because at the 18th minute only one ultimate conclusion would raise the contest from one of eternal controversy to one of historical triumph. Wales playing a man down for over 62 minutes of the match scored a try at the 58th minute to make the score France 9 – Wales 8. Stephen Jones’s conversion attempt grazed outside the left post and Wales spent the last 22 minutes trying to find the go ahead points. When  Irish ref Alain Rolland’s whistle blew as Wales last multi-phase effort to raise the needed points ended in an inevitable knock-on way past 80 minutes, the verdict was sealed as eternal controversy. Wales arguably deserved place in their first World Cup final would be debated forever as being denied because of a red card in the 17th minute of the match.

Welsh captain Sam Warburton was sent off with a red card for a dangerous tackle on French winger Vincent Clerc. When the tackle occurred and the whistle blew, I wrote on the back of the match team sheet where I take notes “penalty”.  I looked at the scoreboard clock for the time of occurrence (17:50). When I looked back at the pitch Warburton was walking off. I wrote down yellow card and as I finished the word card, the Kiwi journalist next to me in shocked disbelief muttered, “Red Card!” In that decision made in the flickering of an instance Rolland turned the story of the rugby played in this semi-final match to a story of the ref’s red card. The replays of Warburton’s tackle show no malicious intent. He did not drive Clerc head first into the pitch. A penalty, yellow card, and warning seemed more than appropriate. How does a ref make such a game altering decision in a nano-second? Wales carried on and dominated possession in  the match with many  opportunities to win. No matter how many times it is mentioned how valiantly they played to lose by one point (playing a man down for three fourths of the match), the hapless drop  kicks by Hook and Jones, the missed conversion by Jones, and missed penalty kicks by Hook and Halfpenny will haunt them for years to come. Many Welsh fans,  as gracious as they can be, will inwardly carry a belief in the World Cup final that should have been if not for the harsh and unfair call of a misguided, anxious, confused, or possibly corrupt ref. From the Welsh opening foray to within the French 5 meter line in the first minute which ended in a knock-on and French scrum, the Welsh seemed destined to be plagued by some almost supernatural bad luck that would dangle the spot in the final just beyond their reach.

Kiwi commentator Phil Gifford claims, “There was no argument about Warburton being sent off. His tackle on Vincent Clerc was clumsy, not malicious, but still extremely dangerous. So while the red card was justified, ….” One can only wonder how supportive of the ref he would be if a clumsy but dangerous  tackle tonight by Kaino or McCaw results in the All Blacks playing a man or two down for most of the match with the offenders banned from their next match. Other Kiwi sports journalists like Marc Hinton saw the call for what it was “a shame”. ‘The nature of the of Warburton’s tackle on Clerc  called for more lenient treatment, if only for the sake of the contest.’ And so the match has slipped into eternal controversy with the story about Rolland’s call and not about the best team winning or the best team not being able to find the knock-out blow or game winning points on the day. Pre-tournament quotes from referee manager Paddy O’Brien about the refs ensuring the story of the matches are not about the ref have become almost laughable as the Springbok’s tirade against Lawrence’s reffing of their match with the Wallabies, Samoans criticize Owens reffing of their match with the Springboks, Barnes is criticized again for failing to call obvious forward passes, and now Rolland seemingly with conscious intent makes himself the main story of a World Cup semi-final.

French coach Lievremont felt the red card was deserved but was disappointed that the semi-final match became unbalanced so quickly. He went on to say his team did not play well adding that “sometimes when you have a team with one more player it doesn’t always play that well.” Strange that he would almost blame the Welsh for only having 14 players on the pitch for the poor performance of France. There is nothing in the rules that would have prohibited him from taking a player off to help his team play better. But the poor play of France will quickly fade from interest because the story is not about the rugby, it is about the red card.

Oct. 10, 2011 – Favorites to Clash in Semi-Final

Before the World Cup began many (including bookies) thought Australia would be facing New Zealand in the final.  Thanks to the Irish and a Springbok penalty in the 70th minute of their match with the Wallabies, the two pre-tournament favorites will now meet in a semi-final on Sunday, Oct. 16th. The match is being billed as the “match of the tournie” and the “real final”, but if the Aussies play like they have been, it  should be a Kiwi cakewalk.

The Aussies got through to the semi-final by beating the Springboks 11-9 in the quarterfinal in Wellington on Sunday, Oct. 9th.  It was a beautiful warm sunny day and the Fanzones of Wellington were packed with yellow and green jerseys and Kiwi school kids who have an early two week school vacation because of the two final weeks of the World Cup.  The match had been billed as “Experience meets Youth” or “Age versus Enthusiasm”.  The first 8 minutes lived up to the hype of two great southern hemisphere sides playing great rugby. At  11 minutes the Aussies scored the only try of the game when Aussie captain James Horwill plowed over from 5 meters out after a line-out caused by an excellent 50+ meter kick to touch by Quade Cooper (playing fly-half for the Wallabies). The rest of the match seemed to be one of the Springboks playing multi-phase ball and slowly trudging down the fall until a handling error or a Pocock poaching turned the ball over and Cooper  would quickly give up possession with a kick which nowhere near matched the accuracy of the kick which led to Horwill’s try.  At half Australia led 8-3, but by 10 minutes into the second half a penalty and a Morne Steyn drop goal had the Springboks in the lead 9-8. The pattern of Cooper kicking away possession and the Springboks bashing away in multi-phase play against great Aussie tackling continued until a line-out  well within Aussie kicker O’Connor’s range.  The Springbok’s most capped player Victor Matfield  fouled the Aussie jumper  and the rest is – well, history. The rest of the match was more Springbok battering themselves against the Aussie tackling machine. The possession stats at the end of the match were astounding. The South Africans had ball possession almost 70% of the match. If it weren’t for the importance of the match, how close the score was, and that there were two southern hemisphere sides playing, many pundits would be writing of how this was another example of boring northern hemisphere rugby.

The Kiwis have made their expected arrival at the semi-final match with Australia through a grueling battle with the Argentines. The  final score of 33-10 does no justice to how close this match truly was. The Argentines played with amazing heart and were down 15-10 five minutes into the second half. Again I have to go back on my not talking about the reffing promise. A blatant shoulder block on Argentine fly-half Contemponi as he was chasing a kick, which could have led to another Argentine try, was ignored by both the ref (Nigel Owens) and assistant ref. The Kiwis were ultimately the better side, but the match has taken its toll. Another Kiwi fly-half (Colin Slade) is out of the tournament. They seem to be going through half backs quicker than a rotund Springbok fan goes through grilled sausages and Steinlager. Fortunately they seem to have an adequate supply and probably won’t really need a good one until they meet either France or Wales in the final.

Australia and New Zealand  have met twice before in the World Cup and Australia won both times . In ’91 they won 16-6 and in ’03 the margin was 22-10. Trepidation  must be growing in Kiwi hearts. Their national hero Dan Carter has fallen with a groin injury.  His back-up Colin Slade is out. Team captain Richie McCaw is teetering on supposed fragile- as- glass feet, and if they get through the Aussies who tipped them out of the tournament twice, they might be facing the French who bumped them out in ’99 and ’07. Thank goodness the kids are at home to take their minds off of the rugby.

Oct. 9, 2011 – Wales vs France Semi-Final Destiny

Saturday, Oct. 15, Wales and France will meet in the first 2011 Rugby World Cup Semi-Final. If Wales wins, they will earn their first ever trip to a World Cup final. France has been the runner-up twice before –  in ‘87 and’ 99. Although both teams have been in all 7 World Cups, this will be the first time they have ever met in a World Cup match. They play each other annually in the 6 Nations. This year France won at home 28-9.

In their quarterfinal Wales dumped Ireland out of the competition by a score of 22-10. This was the Irish side that beat Australia 15-6 on Sept. 17th. The Welsh tenacious defense and Irish handling errors and inability to quickly find the open space outside  was the big difference. Shane Williams went over for a try with only a little over 2 minutes of the match gone. Williams is Wales’s all-time try scorer and this made his 56th career test try, but only his second try against Ireland in the nine times he has faced them. Ireland leveled the score at 10 all four minutes into the second half, but the Welsh put in two more unanswered tries by the 64th minute and  as rain began to pour down and cold southerly winds began to whip  the Wellington Stadium Irish hopes of getting to their first ever World Cup semi-final were dashed by the hard tackling Welsh.  The Irish supporters’ hopes floated along until the end of the match, though. Loud chants of “Ireland” (quickly matched by “Wales”) reverberated around the stadium until the final whistle and the Irish definitely won the singing of the national anthem contest which is not an easy thing to do against the Welsh.

In the France vs England quarterfinal predictions that the French would put together their once a tournament great World Cup performance came true. Although England was only a converted try away from tying the match when the final whistle blew (19-12), they never really seemed in it. What had been labeled by media as the extremely  boring but effective English playing style turned into the embarrassing appearance of a team that really couldn’t compete with a good open rugby playing team.

We watched the France v England match in a packed bar on the Wellington harbor waterfront. The Welsh , Irish, and Kiwi punters in the bar were unanimously behind Les Bleus. My English wife spotted one other person clad in a jersey with a red rose, and we attempted to spur the English on from afar with a chorus of “Sing Low”, but all for naught. The English will now go home to try to figure out what went wrong. Hopefully someone will come up with the idea that they should try practicing and playing open running and passing rugby. Where is Jeremy Guscott?

We left our Welsh friends to party on and wandered through the Fanzone where the green of the Irish and red of the Welsh danced together in something resembling a gigantic Christmas block party. Now that the English are gone it will be interesting to see who the neutrals will choose to support when the Welsh Red Dragons search for their first ever trip to a World Cup final against the French Les Bleus.

Oct. 7, 2011 – Could this Be the Last “Ding Dong” World Cup?

The alarm rattled the chilly darkness of the campervan at 5:45. I struggled out from under the duvet. Ten minutes later I was dressed and trudging through the gradually brightening day to catch the bus from the vineyard village of Martinborough to Featherston where the train would carry me to Wellington for press conferences with South African, Irish, and Australian players and coaches on the eve of the quarterfinals.

At 9 a.m. the South African forwards coach gave the expected answers to the expected questions. The “enormity of the match is something we are all aware of.” The Aussies will not be underestimated. They are “not Tri-Nation champs for nothing.” We’re taking the knock-out round matches one at a time, but being the first nation to win back-to-back World Cup and capture the title 3 times is a motivational tool that will not be overlooked.

The Irish press conference was more lighthearted. The defense coach (Les Kiss, I believe) in his first response to a question about what could we expect in the match threw out that it would be a “Ding Dong Battle.” The “Ding Dong Battle” phrase popped into almost every answer that followed.  Jamie Heaslip cast aside any hopes that this would be a match fueled by intense rivalries. He spoke of how they had played each other many times both in 6 Nation matches and club matches. Many of the players played together. In fact they had joined up with some of the Welsh players earlier in the week to tour around  Wellington. Jamie concluded by saying, ‘It will be a ding-dong battle, but we’ll have a drink together afterwards.’ He also gave shout-out to the American physio team that was with them keeping them fit and recovering quickly.

The Wallaby press conference had journalist packed into a curtained off hallway in the hotel where the team was staying. There were 3 sessions. The first session was with head coach Robbie Deans, an assistant coach, and the President of the Australian Rugby Union. The other 2 session were with 4 players.  In the first session Coach Deans assured journalists that the “real” Wallabies would be showing up on Sunday because of the “context” of the match. Their recent success over the Springboks in the Tri-Nations is now ancient history and not relevant to Sunday’s match. After questions about the impact flankers Pocock and Brussow would have on the match and the usual answers about these players being key to the team’s success by providing clean quick ball and avoiding penalties, the journalists quizzed the ARU President about the future of the World Cup. One very direct question was, “Will Australia ever pull-out of the World Cup – yes or no?” With a chuckle he replied with a quote he attributed to a South African, “We’ll double cross that bridge when we get there.”  When asked if he could estimate the amount of money the ARU would lose because of the World Cup, he replied he had an exact amount – $16 million and the SANZAR total was $38 million. Discussions over timing, distribution of revenue to the major unions, rules for commercial endorsements, and needed changes to the governance and administration of the IRB will start when this World Cup is over. As the sun warmed the crowded hallway at the Rydges Hotel a giant shadow loomed over the future of the World Cup.

Oct. 7, 2011 – Real Rugby News about to Begin

With only two days before the beginning of the quarterfinals there is plenty of media efforts to create stories where possibly none really exist. Dan Carter’s groin and its effect on the All Blacks has had a good going over from all angles. More bad behavior by English players has been dragged out. The actual “bad” behavior happened way back on Sept. 9th. I guess some journalist was saving  this tidbit for the week between  the pool matches and quarterfinals. USA team members were accused of being more messy and free spending than the Russians. They were also accused of being more generous with handing out World Cup souvenirs. The Samoan centre Sapolu continues to make the front page of sports sections as his tweeting insults of the IRB and Welsh ref Nigel Owens drags him through IRB disciplinary hearings. Fines for wearing unapproved mouthguards are ridiculed as they ended up giving the mouthguard manufacturer much more publicity than they would have gotten if the seemingly unintentional offense was ignored. France’s lameduck coach Lievremont and his supposed alienation from his team is repeatedly discussed with listings of the weird statements he made to the media which is reported to have inflamed the situation.

Here are several stories I’ve been hanging on to for this occasion.

#1 As we have been driving along listening to talk radio, daily we hear a public service announcement aimed at specific visitors to not drink and fry. That is not a typo. The New Zealand government must have a considerable problem with Springbok and English fans (those are the two nationalities that have been named in the ads) burning down their camper vans after they put down a few pints and then  tried to fry up some chips. We’ve been in several campsites with South Africans and so far no one has burned down their camper van, so the ads must be working.

#2 At the France vs Tonga match a French spectator sitting close to me lit up a cigarette. A Kiwi spectator a good 5 meters away was immediately all over the guy to put it out. The French smoker was a little belligerent pointing out there were no signs saying he couldn’t smoke. After the Kiwi threatened to call security and one last drag the French guy put it out.  I am not supporting smoking in the stadium even though I can understand how an addicted French smoker would have been under considerable stress in the Tonga match. The thing that really bugs me are the people with flags. Especially people who are right next to you and must wave the flag with the hand that is on your side. Why can’t they wave the flag with the hand that is on the side where their friend is sitting? The answer is obvious, though. Their friend would take the flag away and shove it someplace which would ensure the end of that friendship.

#3 I know I promised  in an earlier story in which I ranted a bit about the refereeing that I wasn’t going to say anything else about the refs, but it is now in a low news period between matches, so I’m forced to go back on that promise like any good journalist would. Following the Argentina vs Scotland match (refereed by an Englishman) and Samoa vs South Africa (refereed by a Welshman) I questioned a few people about why did they have a ref from a nation which had a definite interest in the result of the match. I argued it was easy enough to assign refs to pools which did not include their home nation. Several Kiwis jumped all over me for not understanding that these top refs were impartial. Recently though I was listening to Peter Thorburn (former coach for New Zealand, Bristol, and USA )talking about the quality of reffing and the refs who had been picked for the quarterfinal matches. He was going through some of the refs who possibly wouldn’t be calling the final match because their home nation might be involved. If these refs are supposedly impartial why would that matter? I understand that it eliminates the possible perception of impropriety, but I still argue that it is easy enough to eliminate this possible perception from the pool stage matches by assigning refs to pools that do not include their home nation.

#4 Since I have already broken my promise about not writing about the refs, I might as well go ahead with another matter that is bugging me. The calling of penalities at rucks, malls, and scrums seems almost random. Some refs call players for not releasing the ball where others call the tackling team for not allowing the tackled player to play the ball. Peter Thorburn, while generally praising the refereeing, challenged that  he could find a penalty at every breakdown. I’m not sure what the solution is without becoming much more like rugby league, and maybe that is not such a bad thing.

Rugby related news here is the ascendancy of Wales to being a favorite to make the finals against New Zealand.  Welsh supporters are extremely funny in their initial response of. “Let’s not even mention the possibility,” and then their gushing forth with a player by player comparison ending with the announcement, “We have a shot at it.” Australia’s young and now  fully healthy backline that beat the Springboks twice in the recent Tri-Nations is back and ready for Sunday’s quarterfinal.  South African captain Smit is quoted as saying something like, ‘If we win it will be because of our experience. If we lose it will be because of our age.’

Here are my picks for the quarterfinal winners:

Wales over Ireland, New Zealand over Argentina, England over France, and the experienced Springboks over the young Aussies. The real rugby news is about to begin.

Oct. 2, 2011 – The “Real”World Cup Begins

On Friday morning  (Sept. 30) the New Zealand newspapers were reporting the ‘Real World Cup” was about to begin. Several teams faced do or die matches (Samoa v South Africa , Tonga v France, Ireland v Italy) and all  came up short. The quarterfinal matches are all as I predicted in my Sept. 19th article.

I was at the stadium in Wellington on Saturday (Oct. 1) when Tonga pulled off the upset of the tournament. The Tonga side played the most incredible match and defeated France 19-14. The stadium was electric with Tongalese flags and enthusiasm. On the last play of the match with time run out France had a penalty on the 5 meter line. Instead of taking a penalty kick which would give them 3 points and guarantee them the 19-12 finish they would need to get the bonus point for losing by 7 or less  that would make them second in their pool, France elected a scrum.  From the scrum they moved the ball wide to the winger Vincent Clerc who  scored the try. It was as if they said after 80 minutes of match play, “Tonga you deny us this try and you deserve  the quarterfinal place.” Tonga could not stop the French try and France goes on to face England in the October 8th quarterfinal in Auckland. Tonga’s supporters seemed oblivious to the quasi-irony of winning the match but being put out of the tournament  as they celebrated the historic victory well past the turning out of the lights in Wellington stadium. On Sunday as we tuned into sport radio Tongalese were calling the New Zealand station from Tonga to talk about how they were still celebrating the victory.

(Since writing and posting the above part of this article I have seen that France already had a one point lead over Tonga, so the only way Tonga could have advanced was to score 4 tries and beat France by more than 7 points. )

Samoa lost to South Africa 13-5 on Friday (Sept. 30) and the Samoan tweeting  center “Tweeted” his discontent with the ref and the IRB. Samoa will suffer not only the sadness of being treated badly by their schedule and some harsh calls from the ref, but now will face the wrath of the IRB which does not like to have its ‘wisdom’  publicly challenged.

Ireland royally thrashed Italy (36-6) to leave no doubt about their being the number one team in pool C. The injured Wallabies easily passed Russia but allowed a disturbing 22 points and 3 tries to the Russkies. Before the Australians the most points the Russians had scored were  17 against the Italians. The Russians should have played off against the Namibians and Romanians for the worst team in the tournament.

In the final weekend of pool play (Oct. 2) the All Blacks spluttered to a 79-15 win over Canada. The World Cup ending injury to Dan Carter during practice has raised fears in All Black fans that once again this side does not have all the pieces to make the dream come true. Coach Henry’s fiddling with team positions, injuries, and an incredible number of handling errors in the Canada match have fans sadly doubting they will carry the day on Oct. 23rd. Some irony here is that Wales (coached by Henry in the 1999 World Cup)  is coming on strong with a great 66-0 win over Fiji in their match today (Sunday, Oct. 2) and look to be the in form team to come through the northern hemisphere side of the quarter-semi final knockout matches  to meet the All Blacks in the final.

But the “real” World Cup starts on Oct. 8th. The probable quarterfinal matches have not changed since Ireland beat Australia on Sept. 17th.

Oct. 8: England vs France and Wales vs Ireland

Oct. 9: South Africa vs Australia and New Zealand vs Argentina

French support for Tongan rugby