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.