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.