The £8.7m question following the England Rugby World Cup reviews
There were two big pieces of news about England rugby this week, and while they could not be more different in their content, as a pair they sum up perfectly just how dysfuntional the RFU is in creating a successful national team - its primary reason for existing.
The first was a Twickenham PR jamboree, fed like honeyed nutella to all the media that would listen, regarding their record £8.7m profit for the last year. Great news, on the face of it.
This was followed by the second: the leaking of the umpteen reviews into the failure of the England team at the Rugby World Cup, and the hinterland of embarrassing headlines that accompanied it.
In other words, they made shed loads of money then used it to fund a World Cup campaign so dreadful on and off the field that we all wish we could somehow un-see it. Their latest move, compounding this lack of ability to focus attention and resources on what's important, is to pay for an independent firm to conduct and investigation into how the reviews were leaked. Priorities, eh?
There has been lots of comment about what the reviews say, with the press focusing most on what the players said as part of the players' union review. But, all of the reviews come to one simple conclusion; England at the Rugby World Cup were a shower both on the field and off it, and anyone who saw the rudderless excuse for a rugby team that turned out in NZ cannot be surprised. But, the crushing inevitability of the findings does not excuse what an utter disgrace this whole episode is.
The Guardian's Robert Kitson, in his apologist blog on the subject has this to say:
"If England supporters found it difficult to stomach the pile of World Cup horror stories on their breakfast tables, imagine how certain players and coaches felt"
Why should any fan care what the coaches and players feel? It's guaranteed that they won't be feeling as bereft as the pockets of those that paid a small fortune to follow the team to the other side of the world, only to witness the rugby equivalent of ship listing slowly while the captain was pissed and the rest of the officers were playing golf on the deck.
The England RWC trip was a malaise wrapped in a hangover. Does the RFU have the ability, structures and personnel to prevent this ever happening again, or the desire to put them right? That's the £8.7m question the furious and skint fans are asking.
SHIT/GOOD Ratings: The Martin Johnson era
Martin Johnson has resigned, undoubtedly the right decision. That he was appointed in the first place was undoubtedly the wrong decision, but that wasn't his fault; it was Rob Andrew's. Andrew, as usual, is somehow bulletproof in the midst of the crossfire of resignations, sackings and interminable reviews that passes for a governance structure at the RFU presently; surviving like a bland, personality-devoid scorpion. The Peter Mandelson of rugby.
Leaving this gripe aside, how did Jonno do in the final analysis? On this blog there is only one way to analyse anything, so let's crack on. These are the major issues as we see them, but you can and will add your own in the comments.
Coaching setup - He made a decision to stick with the Wells/Ford/Smith coaching team, primarily on the basis that he wanted some continuity and also that he was happy to work with them, ignoring how much they had failed as a unit up to that point. He then subsequently refused to make any personnel changes in the key coaching positions despite little improving to a satisfactory level. Of the three, only Ford could justifiably argue that he's done a decent job, defence being the one area where England have performed well.
Key positions - Johnson has had three years to develop talent in what has become the key position in international rugby, the openside flanker. While few would argue that there is an individual with the talent of a McCaw or a Warburton putting their hand up in the Aviva Prem, there are certainly players like Andy Saull and Chris Robshaw who are far more suited to the modern role than Johnson's chosen options of Moody, who was mostly broken; Haskell, who if he is even an international rugby player it's not as a seven; and Worsley, who has a more limited skillset than mime artist without arms.
Added to this is the shambles that is the England midfield, plus the continued over-reliance on St Jonny of Wilkinson.
Forwards - Newsflash: England do not have a powerful set of forwards, in that they don't have a pack that can dominate top tier nations. This is due to a number of factors: personnel, the nature of the modern game, and opposition being far too wily to be sucked into a c1989 mauling test match. Neither Johnson nor John Wells got to grips with this in terms of tactics or selection, and moreover, to repeat a point from earlier, Johnson did not have either the balls or the insight to sack his forwards coach to get it sorted.
Youth - Johnson did bring in some young players who look set to stay in the setup for some time. Lawes, Tuilagi, Ashton, Foden and Youngs will be staples in the England side for a good few years. The fact so many of them lost their way in the latter stages of his reign, juxtaposed against their sparkling form since returning to their clubs so soon after the World Cup raises issues about how they were handled and coached, but credit for the selections.
Wins - England beat Australia on tour, albeit narrowly (and they were beaten a week earlier in Perth), They also beat them at Twickenham in what all would admit was a promising performance, particularly in the forwards. That this promise was not extended is perhaps the biggest disappointment. They are also, lest we forget the current Six Nations champions, although the humbling defeat in Dublin at the end of that campaign set the tone for the rest of the year and the World Cup.
At the end of three and a half years in charge, it's difficult to see how England have really moved on. There are some new selections, sure, but in the fundamental areas of poor supply of ball, unimaginative gameplans, and a crippling lack of creativity and dynamism in midfield, has anything really improved?
Give us your thoughts.
P.S. Sorry for the lack of updates, suffered and bit of a post World Cup loss of mojo.
Rugby Video: Zinzan Brooke admits that the New Zealand should not have won the Rugby World Cup
“For more insights and analysis from the Heineken Ambassadors into Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand, please visit www.thisisthegame.com.”
Rugby World Cup 2011: top quotes
New/Old Cliche: “I hate saying the old cliches. I like to make my own ones up. You’ve just got to take each game as it comes.” Cory Jane, bright lad.
Moustache: "He shaved it a little bit yesterday so he resembles a bit like Freddy Mercury now" Dave Ellis has a pop at Marc Lievremont's face furniture.
Wrongs: "I'm not getting into that conversation now. It's not the right place or the right people or the right time" Martin Johnson is not for talking about his future in such circumstances. He prefers to do it with the chaos of the RFU management structure instead.
Sound advice: "I just want to tell the players to be careful. They don't want to spend 10 grand on a mouthguard." Manu Tuilagi tells players to beware the not-at-all over the top IRB brand police.
Cliché rewording: "The All Blacks know we are unpredictable, both in a good and a bad way actually. We can either fail or pull it off – and that is what they fear." Julien Bonnaire finds a new and novel way of saying 'you never know which France is gonna turn up'
Not moving forward: “I am still getting over this one, mate.” Shaun Edwards is not keen to answer any questions abour the next Rugby World Cup, 2015
Unlikely hero: “He was whitebaiting when I talked to him today. He’s been running up and down the side of a river. One of the criteria of selection was two pound of whitebait. So there’s always some benefits.” Graham Henry makes a joke about the call-up of Stephen Donald. No-one laughs.
Rugby World Cup: SHIT Team of the Tournament
We've had a look at the GOOD. now let's have a look uoder the toilet lid at the other lot.
15. James Hook - Wasn't particularly great at full-back and was an enormous disappointment at 10 when Priestland was injured. The Perpignan money-men will be casting each other nervous sideway glances after this tournament.
14. Mark Cueto - Dropped, came back in, dropped again. Looked rubbish throughout.
13. Mike Tindall - Looked exactly what he is: a lump of wood in shorts who has long outstayed his welcome at the highest level. Add to this his off the field nonsense and you have the perfect storm of SHIT.
12. Graeme Morrison - Genuinely have no idea how he gets to play international rugby. Probably something to do with Scotland only having approx four professionals who play in his position
11. Bryan Habana - Once raced a Cheetah. SA would have been better putting the Cheetah in a green shirt.
10. Jonny Wilkinson - St Jonny of Surrey has always defied his skillset with his near automatic selection for the national team, and this was mostly due to the one skill that has defined his career: kicking. When that deserted him he looked like what he now is; a static, creativity vaccuum with a tan in a white shirt. Quade Cooper is lucky not to be in, never has so much hyperbole been so utterly devoid of substance.
9. The Scrum Half Formerly Known As Fourie du Preez - Has fallen so far since his best in the world days that you have to wonder whether he's been taken by the body snatchers.
1. Matt Stevens - In his defense he was playing on the wrong side of the scrum. Not in his defence is that is no excuse for scrummaging like Gok Wan with a bout of dysentery.
2. Leonardo Ghiraldini - Wasn't exactly playing well before he then tried to blind someone. A 15-week ban picked up for gouging in Rugby World Cup is some going.
3. Geoff Cross - The Scotland prop was humiliated by Romania and it didn't get much better after that.
4. Courtney Lawes - When he wasn't trying to kill people who had gone into touch he was instead showing nothing of the promise we have seen so far. Young enough to come back and do better, hopefully.
5. Danie Roussouw - On top of having a not great tournament, he then had a minging game vs Australia in the quarters, giving away the penalty that allowed O'Connor to slot the Wallabies back in front.
6. Rocky Elsom - SHIT is often a relative term, and when you've reached his heights being so utterly bullied by the Kiwis in the semi was quite a come down.
7. Lewis Moody - No surprise he has retired as even when rarely fit his performances were so far below par then he should have missed the cut. Noticeable how every other team in the quarters had a seven that was top class. Next worst after him was Sean O'Brien, which tells us just how pivotal the position was and how lacking England were.
8. Finau Maka - Big tournament in 07, one of the few Tongans was with a big reputation but was a big disappointment. Have to think this is not unconnected to his not having an afro anymore.
Rugby World Cup Final: Most Deserving Team 9 – 8 XV Angry Men
By Boris, our resident Frenchman
Merde! Merde, merde, merde, merde, merde. So the ”worst team to ever make it to a RWC final” gave us one of the best finals ever played. Maybe the best. Who knew? I’m shattered, and frankly I feel very, very Welsh today (mental note to self: ask wife for a vintage Wales jersey at sports-depoque.com for Xmas). Close, but no cigar for France. To the AB’s: congratulations and well done. The most deserving team in the history of the game got the cup back after 24 agonizing years. I’m happy for the Kiwis, I truly am, although my heart won’t stop bleeding for some time, seeing how close France were to become champions.
It took me all of 20 seconds to know that something special was brewing. The time to see half the French crying during the anthems. Immediate reaction: we’ve just morphed into Argentina, and being the emotional latin animals that we are, I just knew that this kind of emotion brings out the best in French teams. Then, there was the way they fronted the Haka. Well, that was quite a moment wasn’t it? Dusautoir’s face when they were all holding hands forming a V told everything. And then the way they marched on to find themselves in the NZ half of the pitch, that was a statement of intent. I’m sure the old farts at the IRB will slap a penalty on France for doing this, but stuff them. France showed respect when accepting the challenge, and then laid down a challenge of their own. Fair enough. France is not always the best of rugby nations, but you can count on them to come up with something dramatic for big occasions.
After that, no wonder that the game itself was so ferocious. The intensity was very high in the AB’s-Wallabies, semi, but this was up one notch again. And, surprise, surprise, France played. And played well to boot. Against any other team, they would probably have scored more tries, but the Kiwi defense was outstanding. Likewise the French defense when the AB’s had their own sequences in attack. As the first half was building, I kept saying to myself: we’re in this game. The AB’s were not too flash, and Weepu was morphing into James Hook. Just enough to sow some seeds of doubts in the normally formidable machine wearing black. And then France made a bad, bad mistake defending on a lineout close to their line. They opted to contest the throw in two blocks, leaving a huge gap for Woodcock to score. Now, this is the kind of stuff you can do when defending 30 metres out, but surely not 5 meters out of your line, where all players should have lined up to defend against a maul. This cost us, very, very dear, and gave NZ some breathing space at half time.
By then, both starting fly-halves were gone. Parra copped a knee to his face by McCaw. Said McCaw being the best player of the last decade, I always wonder if things ever happen by accident with him. After all, this was our most consistent kicker lying on the floor. But I watched some replays, and it really looks like he his focusing at cleaning out Dusautoir and going for the ball. So, in my book, this was an accident. Poor Cruden then proceeded to do his knee and Donald was in. I live 10,000 km from Auckland, but I swear I could hear the collective gasp of the entire New Zealand population when he got on the field. This guy has been vilified by Kiwi supporters and journos alike for the past 2 years. Last year, a journo wrote he shouldn’t even get close to seeing a black jersey, nevermind wearing one. The same hack probably hails him as a hero today.
Back after half time, the intensity did not drop. Some good pressure from the Kiwis saw them rewarded by a penalty, and it was 8-0 afterDonald knocked it over. But credit to France, they refused to die, and after some good attacking work, they finally got rewarded through the player who deserved it most, Captain Thierry. Converted, that brough France back to 1 point. The faces in the AB’s coaching team were pale beyond white. They pushed this big, red button with “Panic” written on it, and proceeded to empty their bench. At this stage, I reckon they were seriously shitting themselves, way more than they’d care to admit post game.
France kept on applying pressure, but the Men in Black did not crack, except when they gave away a penalty with 15 minutes to go. Much to my amazement, Trinh Duc lined up to kick it. WTF?!? The guy is not even the regular kicker in his club, has never kicked for France before, and he’s the one kicking this? When Yachvili is still on the pitch? This defied belief, so I just knew something bad was going to happen, and soon enough the ball was flying right of the posts. By then, I started to have a horrible feeling in my gut: Joubert did not look like penalizing the AB’s even for blatant offeces, so missing that rare penalty was bad, and so it proved. The Blacks managed to hang on to their lead despite some good effort from France, a bit like France did to Wales last week. I guess what goes around comes around, and you cannot always count on luck to get you out of jail.
Pick of each teams: Woodcock, Thorn and the back row for the Blacks. Backline was solid if unspectacular for them, Weepu was shocking with the boot. Special mention to McCaw for his leadership, and an ability to be offside all the time and not get penalized. For France, Dusautoir was immense. Don’t think I’ve witnessed an individual performance sticking out of a WC final like his. I thought he outplayed McCaw, and this doesn’t happen often. Bonnaire, Nallet, Harinirdoquy not far behind. In the backs, Yachvili was good but why oh why didn’t he kick the penalty at 65 minutes? Much to my surprise, Rougerie had a good game at 13, he was rock solid. And Trinh Duc showed us the benefits of having a specialist flyhalf. He had a great game apart from that kick.
Now, a few words on the referee. As a matter of fact, I thought Joubert refereed the French really well. It’s just a shame he did not referee New Zealand at all. Can’t understand the first penalty at scrum against France when Franks was clearly boring in and down. Then, it was a free ride for McCaw at ruck time. I understand the guy is more talented than most at getting away with murder, but some stuff was really blatant. Then there were the crooked throws in the lineout that went unnoticed, which is hardly the hardest part of the game to referee. And a few high tackles or shoulder charges that should have been penalized as well. If anyone wants to show an aspiring player what it means to have the home advantage with a ref, this game would serve as a good example.
Having said that, even if some decisions were dubious and really harsh against France, I do not feel it was daylight robbery. Not like in 1995 when Bevan stole the semi-final from France so that Clint Eastwood could make a movie. It’s disappointing that a ref has so much influence on the outcome of a final, but it’s part of the game, like the wind or the rain. No point bleating against Joubert, who is a very good ref under normal circumstances. With or without him, France had their chances and could not take them. I have to take a bite off the shit sandwich I served Wales with last week: we missed a kickable penalty, a relatively easy drop goal, and made a big defensive mistake on our line. It’s not the kind of things you can get away with at this level of competition, against the best team in the world.
Talking about shit sandwiches, I hope the TV pundits and journalists will have a rather large serving, for yet again writing off a side before the game was played. It’s hard to believe these people actually get paid for coming up with that crap. Special mention to Stephen Jones and Peter Bills, the Laurel & Hardy of world rugby. Minus the humor.
Some parting words: as much as I love NZ and thought they were terrific hosts, I am disappointed they somewhat lacked class after their victory. They could have acknowledged France for pulling themselves together and giving them a run for their money. I’m disappointed that McCaw refused to swap jerseys with Bonnaire for the second time in two games. I understand he would want to keep the one for his 100th cap, but discarding the same guy twice in a month is not in the spirit of the sport. Likewise, I don’t think I’ve heard any Kiwi thanking Jo Maso for allowing them to play in black despite winning the toss for the jerseys. There is positively no chance that, in a final played between the two teams in France, they would have allowed us to play in blue in similar circumstances.
It was a fitting end to a marvelous competition. If you’d asked me before the tournament what I’d wish in my craziest dreams, I would have said a NZ-France final, with a narrow Kiwi victory and a magnificent Frace side. I got just that. I’m inconsolable that France did not win, as this type of occasion does not present itself very often, but in my heart of heart, I know the turds wearing blazers at the FFR do not deserve a world cup victory. Neither does the second division coach who has been in charge for 4 years. At least not ahead of a Kiwi federation that makes most of the right calls, and the best coaching unit in world rugby. At least the players have restored their reputation and can fly back home with their head held high. If you’d told me as much on the day after we lost to Tonga, I would have laughed and adviced to take your pills.
Now, I have to get back to life without the world cup. It sucks. But it has an upside: Lievremont is no longer in charge. This almost, almost makes my day. Well, not really, but let’s pretend anyway.
Rugby World Cup: GOOD Team of the Tournament
Ma'a Nonu: Can pass a bit now, which helps
Which players have performed well enough to make the only team that counts? Let's have a squint at it!
15. Israel Dagg - A full back of rare class with a name to match. Puts me in mind of Glen Osborne, minus the dodgy spiky fringe. Dagg will hope the similarity doesn't stretch to a loss in a World Cup final to an underdog side.
14. Cory Jane - Not only can he somehow turn two girl's names into a bloke's one, he is all pace, power and intelligence. A bit like Mark Cueto, only with pace, power and intelligence.
13. Jamie Roberts - Back to his 2009 Lions form. Every defence shat themselves when he ran at them, except for Australia in the Pointless Playoff, when no doubt his mind had drifted back to learning about infarctions, oedaemas and the like.
12. Ma'a Nonu - Two-ish years ago he had nice eyeliner but couldn't pass, he is now the perfect modern powerful twelve. Has beaten off the Sonny Bill Williams threat by simply doing the job better than anyone in the world, up to and including this tournament.
11. James O’Connor - George North is unlucky to miss out, but O'Connor was better with his support running and general adroitness in all winger's duties. The fact this position was between a 19 and 21-year-old is indicative of their obscene levels of talent. A bit like Mark Cueto, only with obscene levels of talent
10. Rhys Priestland - It's inevitable that if Carter had stayed fit he would be here as he is the Pele, Zidane and Cruyff of rugby. In his absence no-one was as consistently excellent as Priestland. Knew exactly when to pass and to whom, and his kicking out of hand was excellent also. Only criticism is place-kicking, but given his second game at 10 was against SA in a World Cup, we can probably put that down as a "development area". And he wasn't the only one who struggled in that regard.
9. Mike Phillips - Who knew that all he needed to get his form back over the summer was a ruck and arrest outside McDonald's in Queen Street, Cardiff? Whether it was that or not that gave him back his mojo the game is better for it. Showed craft and nippyness to go with his usual bustling physicality behind the ruck, illustrated by that gem of a touchdown vs Ireland.
1. Tony Woodcock - The 'best loosie' world war between himself and Gethin Jenkins continues. Woodcock won this battle.
2. William Servat - Despite being 54 years old he continues to excel in all the basics of scrum and throwing, as well as having a decent amount of pace when carrying and strength in defence.
3. Martin Castrogiovanni - Adam Jones transforms the Wales scrum when he plays, such is his class, which demonstrates what a good tight-head can do. This fella is and was still better, even in a disappointing campaign for Italy he still destroyed everything in his path.
4. Brad Thorn - As an aside to this tournement, this man's career has been exceptional in both the scope of its achievements in both codes of rugby and its endurance into his 37th year. Of all the All Blacks out there in the final, he's the one we most look forward to hoisting that trophy above his giant, insulation-taped head.
5. Luke Charteris - Prior to this tournament, most informed observers believed the long Dragon was nothing more than a giant pair of chopsticks in a scrumcap, and anyone who witnessed him in the last two years saw that, while he could catch a lineout, in the loose he resembled a drunken horse doing a cartwheel. The last six weeks have seen him morph into a lock of the highest calibre - long may it continue.
6. Jerome Kaino - Like a lump of concrete chiselled into a big, handsome man and then thrown at the opposition by The Incredible Hulk. Repeatedly until they drop the ball, cry, give up, or a combination of the three.
7. David Pocock - This is the tournament of the seven, and of all of them Pocock was the most destructive. His demolition job on the Springbok breakdown in the QF was a thing of questionably legal beaty, but that is what sevens do. Warburton was amazing given his age and experience and would be here if it wasn't for that one error of judgement that opened the door for Rolland's jobsworthness. As if to prove the point, Pocock then completely owned the ruck in the Pointless Playoff.
8. Imanol Harinordoquy - You want your Number 8 to be big, hard, clever and mobile in attack and defence. The Basque has been all of these things. Faletau was these things as well, but he can't catch one-handed in the lineout when fifteen feet off the ground. Hence Harinordoquy wins.
Loads of you will disagree, so let's have it in the comments...
Rugby World Cup Final Preview: France vs New Zealand
So it all comes down to this. After six weeks and a great deal of matches we're left with a giant, black clothed monolith of punishment and guile, playing at home, versus some blokes who hate their coach, lost against Tonga, and only just scraped past a 14-man opposition in the semi because Wales couldn't find a single bloke who had any kind of sentient link between his eyes and his foot.
We're all praying for one of those French miracles that occasionally happen against the All Blacks. But, as anyone who has tried it knows, praying is a bit like masturbating: it makes you feel good for a bit but does nothing to bring the scenario that is the focus of your actions any closer to fruition in reality.
Some are clinging to the fact that France were competitive against the Kiwis for twenty minutes in the group game, althought this theory is flawed slightly by the mauling NZ gave them EVERY TIME they got the ball. Beyond that there is very little point in analysing this match as in every area France should get prison shamed.
I'm sorry to be so negative, but I expect this final to be the dampest squib since Jonny Wilkinson wiped his brow on a copy of a Haynes manual for a Toyota Corolla.
B&M Prediction: All Blacks by 20
Spotter's Badge: Ma'a Nonu runs one of his angles and breaks into so much open space that he claims it as an extension of his iwi's land.
New Zealand: Israel Dagg; Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Richard Kahui, Aaron Cruden, Piri Weepu, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Owen Franks, Brad Thorn, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (capt), Kieran Read
Replacements: Andrew Hore, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Adam Thomson, Andy Ellis, Stephen Donald, Sonny Bill Williams
France: Maxime Medard; Vincent Clerc, Aurelien Rougerie, Maxime Mermoz, Alexis Palisson; Morgan Parra, Dimitri Yachvili; Jean-Baptiste Poux, William Servat, Nicolas Mas, Pascal Pape, Lionel Nallet, Thierry Dusautoir (capt), Julien Bonnaire, Imanol Harinordoquy
Replacements: Dimitri Szarzewski, Fabien Barcella, Julien Pierre, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Jean-Marc Doussain, Francois Trinh-Duc, Damien Traille
Rugby video: The legends talk about the Rugby World Cup finals.
Scott Quinnell pulls no punches about France here.
For more insights and analysis from the Heineken Ambassadors into Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand, please visit www.thisisthegame.com.
England France 9 – Wales 8: our Frenchman's trip to it (and back)
By Boris, our resident French person
Back from Auckland, jetlagged, 10 hours red eye flight in economy, and trying to recover from a particularly heavy week-end (as expected). Feel more enclined to hang myself than writing this column, but I promised a guys who lives 12,000 km from me and whom I’ve never met that I’d cover the France games, so here I go again.
Just a few words for those who have not been as lucky as I was to make the trip there: you can’t realize how big this event is in NZ until you’ve been there. Life as normal has been suspended: non stop coverage and analysis on TV, all the ads / billboards contain rugby or the AB’s, every other car has got a “Go All Blacks” flag attached to it. This place lives and breathes rugby, to the extreme. And people are unbelievably nice. Huge credit to the people of New Zealand for their quality as hosts. And, downtown Auckland not being that huge, you keep on bumping into legends. Fitzpatrick on my way in the hotel, Ibanez on my way out, had a chat down a corridor with Mehrtens, conversation at a bar with Gavin Hastings. Incredible. Incidentally, I was staying at the same hotel where the IRB had housed the referees. Steve Walsh was the first person I saw getting into the lobby, and from what my mates told me, it’s unlikely we will ever see Kaplan reffing at a high level again: he got pretty much fired by the IRB in the café of the hotel while my mates were having lunch. Why they’d do this in such a public place and what they had against him is anybody’s guess. There you go. B&M exclusive scoop.
You could feel the excitement and anticipation building in the days before the semis. So there I was in the beautifully renovated Eden Park on Saturday night, for what promised to be a cracking game of rugby. And what did we get? A scoreline that made you think it was Galway – Limerick in 1973. It was not a pretty game. As a matter of fact, it’s as ugly a game as I’ve ever witnessed. And a lot has got to do with the way the French approached it. Either they were paralyzed by the occasion, or it was a deliberate tactic to take zero chance with the ball in hand, but regardless, it was dull and boring and I hated it. And then it got them into the final in a game that Wales should have won 100 times over. But they didn’t, and I’ll get back to this soon. The way France played reminded me of England at their dullest. Parra morphed into Rob Andrew circa 1993, Wolverine Medard did an extraordinary impersonation of Jonathan Webb. The centers saw very little ball, and the rare times they did, they didn’t carry it and opted to kick. Shit night to be a winger if you were French. That was for the garbage part. Now, there were some positives, despite what the torrent of bullshit and French bashing of the past 3 days would have you believe. The lineout was, like against England, outstanding. I think they stole 5 of Wales’ throws. The defense was superb, 126 tackles with a completion rate of 90%, which is incredible given how poorly France defended in the pool games. And then, the discipline: in the last play of the game, they defended 27 phases without conceding a penalty or allowing an easy drop kick position. Parra had a couple of clean line breaks, but the centers were so surprised he’d run the ball that they did not bother to come and support him. Otherwise, I thought Nallet, Bonnaire and Dusautoir were outstanding.
Wales? Everybody’s darling team ran seriously out of luck, and since that was not enough, forced more misery upon themselves by having a dreadful night with the boot. Things got pear shaped when Teletubby Jones left after 10 minutes, which depowered their scrum. Then Warburton got sent off for THAT tackle. But credit to them, they continued attacking and play the game every purist likes to see. Full marks for the spirit and the effort. That they were steamrolling the French team with 1 man down owes as much to their enterprise that it does to France’s terrible tactics to give them the ball back all all night. Faletau was immense, as was Roberts. Unless there is some seriously incredible performance from the finalists in their positions, they make my team of the tournament at 8 and 12 respectively. Philipps would not be far at 9, he created some magic again with his clever reading of the blindside for his try. The bad? For all the quality of their team, the tight five came decidedly second best in most areas. Jones absence cost them, but I find a disctinctive lack of mongrel from their pack in the close exchanges. Generally, Warburton and Lydiate make up for it, much like Pocock / Elsom do for Australia, but then Warburton did not play 75% of the game. And, as mentioned earlier, their lineout was woeful. Almost as much as their place kicking. They scored one goal out of five attempts. 1 out of bloody 5. This is a 20% strike rate, which has got to be unheard of in a RWC semi-final. Now, you can say what you want about playing attractive rugby and bitch about Warburton’s red card all day, but when a team can’t secure their lineouts and miss 80% of their kicks to goal, they can hardly be contenders for a World Cup title. So yes, the sending off didn’t help, but Wales really did it to themselves, very much like in the game they should have won against the Boks. It’s poor form from Gatland to blame all on the referee. He should make sure they have a reliable kicker to convert their opportunities, and until they do, they’ll continue to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
As for THAT tackle, the IRB has made it clear for some time now that the refs should have a zero tolerance policy and when a player gets dropped form a height head first, it should be red. Just because other refs did not enforce this does not mean Rolland was incorrect. And if all the incriminated players got subsequently banned anywhere from 3 to 5 weeks, surely that means that the players should not be able to finish the game in the first place. The fact that Warburton is an exemplary player, that there was no malicious intent, that he did not drive Clec into the ground or that it’s a semi-final is irrelevant. At first, seeing it live, I thought the decision was harsh, but then the replay was shown on the screen, and it could have been a lot worse for Clerc. 10 degrees more, and he landed on his neck with potentially catastrophic consequences. Rolland did not hesitate for a second, and he was close to the action. Besides, you cannot accuse Rolland to be inconsistent: go to youtube and type “Fritz tackle Varndell”, see what happens. Rolland gave Fritz a red for a similar tackle in the HC game Toulouse - Wasps, and there too his reaction was immediate and he did not consult with the line judges. Do I regret that it happened to the outstanding player that Warburton is, and made it harder for Wales? You bet. Dura lex, sed lex.
So there you have it: France is in the final and everybody hates them for it. Can’t blame them on the evidence of what they’ve shown so far, even if I am taken aback by the violence of some comments and columns. Rugby has definitely fallen in the same bottomless pit of stupidity as soccer. What next? Obviously, his team having won and being in the final, Lievremont felt compelled to blast them the next day for having a few beers. Two weeks ago, he blasted them for NOT having a few weeks after a game. Unbelievable level of language he employed again, calling them “spoiled brats who have been breaking his balls for 4 years” (litterally). I think his master plan is to unite them in their hatred against him. Worked so far in the knockout phases, but it will take a heck of a lot more to constitute a real threat to the AB’s. On the evidence of last week-end, if the teams play at their level, even with the pressure of a final, there’s 20 points between both teams. But a game is not won or lost before it’s been played. The Kiwis, of all people, should know that, especially against France. Realistically, they have zero chance against such a classy outfit. But realistically, they also had zero chance to be in the final in the first place. Who knows what these guys have up their sleeve. A disruptive lineout, a strong defence, a bit of fire in the rucks to slow down AB’s balls, a couple of opportunistic moves from the backs in counter-attack, a few lucky bounces… At least, I hope it is a good game of rugby. The game can ill afford another boring final, like in 2007. Of course, I’ll want France to win, but in my heart of heart, I can’t stand the tought of NZ losing. It will be a mixed bag for me next week-end no matter what.
PS 1: the highlight of my week-end must have been the post game reception in the corporate pavillion of Eden Park. Philippe Saint Andre was commenting about France’s victory on stage. At the end of his analysis, the journalist interviewing him asked the audience if there were question for PSA. Hearing the call of my country (and helped by the 10 beers I’d had before) , I stepped forward, grabbed the microphone handed to me, and asked: “Philippe, when you’re the national coach, are you going to stop the bullshit in the selection process?” There was a blank for 5 seconds, then he laughed and replied he did not understand English. Then he lectured me (in English of course) saying that a true supporter will support the team no matter what. Yeah right… At least I’ve tried.
PS 2: thank God I was wearing an AB jersey on Sunday night. My mates, 3 Aussies in Wallabies jerseys, got at least 20 “Four more years boys, four more years” in the 5 minutes it took us to walk from the pub where we watched the game to the next one. Classic.