Rugby is a game that confounds the pundits on a regular enough basis, but it’s probable that never in the history of the game have so many pundits been so badly wrong over a single weekend. Adrian O’Farrell puts the pundits under the microscope!
As I headed home on Friday evening tuning in to the lads on Newstalk, they were bemoaning the sheer predictability of the RWC Quarter-Final fixtures. England v Australia – a gimme. France v New Zealand – foregone conclusion. Fiji v South Africa – nothing to see here. Argentina v Scotland – a matter of ‘how much’.
And yet. While England’s form had been poor, the memory of seeing Sheridan and co. pulverise Australia’s scrum in November 2005 should have offered some caution. True, John Connolly had appeared to stiffen the Wallabies in this area, but without ever making them look like they saw the scrum as anything other than a device to restart the game without shipping too much pain.
Speaking of pundits on a bad run of form, you’d nearly feel sorry for Franno at this stage. Even at half-time in the England v Australia, he was typically dismissive of England’s hopes despite the fact that they were clearly right in the match at just 10-6 down and playing well. He even went so far as to say that even though England were on top in the scrum, it didn’t really amount to a whole hill of beans in the modern game. It was as though Sheridan could hear him.
England deserved everything they got in the end and I have to say I can’t think of another occasion when I cheered them on so lustily (my kids will welcome the end of this World Cup – it’s not very edifying to see your old man roaring at the telly).
It’s not quite like the GAA with its parish mentality (support your local hemisphere, anyone?), but it still did the heart good to see the remaining 6 Nations teams restore the reputation of the event.
While that has been heartening, the sheer amount of ball being kicked in this World Cup has been anything but. It’s not sour grapes because they beat us (at least I don’t think it is), but I can’t get excited by watching Argentina. The media has been falling over themselves in showering them with bouquets, but I just can’t share it. Yes, Hernandez is a quality footballer, and yes, they have tremendous spirit. But the combination of endless Garryowens married to interminable picking and driving leaves me cold.
Watching Argentina v Scotland was like watching varnish drying – there was only ever a thin veneer of skill mixed in with it. Scotland will forever be kicking themselves over this one. If they do, let’s just hope the Lamonts aren’t taking the catch. Much like France, they only started to play once they looked like they were kippered, but in their case it proved too late.
At the risk of going the way of Franno, I can’t see Argentina beating the Springboks in the semi-final. I think South Africa will match their forward physicality and will have enough behind to see them through. Nor do I see the South Africans being suckered into playing the game at the Pumas preferred tempo or making the same number of errors as Scotland, France and Ireland have made against them.
None of this should be taken to suggest that South Africa were any great shakes over the weekend themselves. As we watched Fiji score two unanswered tries while down to 14 players to draw level at 20-20 after an hour, it truly looked as though the rugby world had gone stark raving bonkers. However, South Africa, principally in the person of Butch James, showed enough nous to draw clear and get home with some comfort in the end.
And as for France? ‘Chacun bijou’ (as the more erudite/poncey of my old UCD team used to say – that’s bleedin’ students for you). I reckon Laporte dodged a bullet with this one. He clearly sent his team out to take a leaf out of the Argentina playbook with Beauxis and co. just belting the leather off the ball. Once their initial adrenaline had worn off it was patently not working. It was only when the French cast off this straitjacket and held on to the ball that they began to profit. Hopefully the lesson won’t have been lost on them. And once they did, aahh …
Matt Williams got it right in advance (let’s hear it for one pundit, at least) when he pointed out that all the great World Cup matches have involved France (v Australia in 1987, v New Zealand in 1999) and now we have another one to qualify for that distinction. Which wasn’t to say that he reckoned they had much chance – he didn’t.
Franno had once again nailed his colours to the mast. The omission of Aaron Mauger from the 22 was a critical error borne of hubris. Naturally, Luke McAllister went on to give a virtuoso performance, making two classic breaks, one of which resulted in a try for him.
The icing on the cake was that the ‘much-maligned-as-mentally-suspect’ Freddy Michalak came off the bench and within a minute played a key part in the decisive score. There’s nothing like a little personal redemption seeded into a plotline. At this point, you could see the terror on the faces of the All Blacks/Silvers as the unthinkable became the unavoidable.
The best chance they had to avoid it came with a couple of glorious opportunities to drop into the pocket and drop the match-winning goal. That they didn’t do so gave Franno his lifeline as he resolved that they would have done had Mauger been on the pitch. Which was nice. Everyone should have a little something to take out of a weekend like that one. Though I wouldn’t try that out on Graham Henry any time soon.
In fairness, while many seem to be rejoicing in the ABs’ demise, I have a fair amount of sympathy. I know that there has been a lot of ‘lazy running’ in this tournament, I don’t think it was 100% apparent that McAllister deliberately took Jauzion out – he didn’t alter his line of running, nor did he look to see where Jauzion was. In these circumstances, yellow was a touch harsh. Also, referee Barnes held his arm out for advantage in the dying moments and when McAllister attempted the drop goal (hmm, what was that about Franno’s point?), he never came back for the advantage.
Quite apart from that, in a tournament when so many teams have not tried to play rugby, it’s a pity that the one team that has done nothing but over the past four years should fall to a sucker punch.
Oh well. C’est la vie, apparently.