Rugby – Down to the Wire

The first couple of weeks of the Rugby World Cup are a bit dull for the casual fan, especially from the nations with better teams. Basically the group stage is all about letting teams like the USA, Japan and Russia get games against top flight opposition, and giving the likes of Scotland, Italy and Argentina a chance to prove that they are not so poor as people might think. There’s generally space for one of them at the top table, and Argentina bagged it again.

There is also the question of automatic qualification for next time. Tonga, Scotland, Italy and Samoa picked up those slots.

For everyone left in the tournament, however, things have got serious. Here’s how the quarter-finals line up:

Wales v Ireland
England v France
South Africa v Australia
New Zealand v Argentina

The final game is the easy one to call. New Zealand are the hosts and favorites; Argentina are gutsy but not in the same league. But there’s one big wild card. The All Blacks have lost their talismanic fly half, Dan Carter, to injury. Fly half is the rugby equivalent of a quarterback, so think of how the Colts have imploded without Peyton Manning. His backups are less than stellar. Colin Slade was given an outing in an earlier game and looked terrified. I like Aaron Cruden a bit better, but he’s inexperienced. The question that everyone in the UK is asking is, “what the heck is Nick Evans doing still in England?” If New Zealand fail to win this tournament it will probably be because of Carter’s injury and their rule of not picking anyone who doesn’t play his club rugby for a home-based side.

Defending champions, South Africa, have had a very poor year by their usual high standards. They got some almighty drubbings in the Tri-Nations, but that was mainly because their head coach, Peter de Villiers, was keeping his best players under wraps for the World Cup. Australia won the Tri-Nations, but have been disappointing at the tournament. They also have a lot of good players out with injury. Fond as I am of the Wallabies, I’m pretty sure that the Bokke will grind their way into the semi-finals.

The England-France game is a battle of two disaster zones. England’s play thus far has been very poor, and their head coach, Martin Johnson, seems to have been spending more time defending his players for their drunken antics off-field, and in disciplinary hearings for serious foul play and breaches of the kit sponsorship rules, than he has getting them to improve their form. England have conceded more penalties than any other team. France, meanwhile, have been terrible, culminating in an embarrassing loss to Tonga. The papers are full of stories of how Marc Lievremont has lost the confidence of his players and has no idea who to pick. The good news for French supporters, however, is that their team is famously mercurial. They can pull a brilliant performance out at any time. England teams, in contrast, tend to take a long time to turn around.

The game to watch is undoubtedly Ireland v Wales. The Irish are in fine form, coming off a famous win over Australia. In O’Driscoll and O’Gara they have masses of experience, and in O’Brien and Heaslip two of the best loose forwards in the tournament. Wales are equally on a charge. They missed beating the Bokke by just 1 point, and have scored the second highest number of points after the All Blacks. They have a young team that looks to be fitter than anyone and brimming with confidence. This one should be a cracker. See you on Twitter, Irish pals.

Religious Holidays

The Rugby World Cup kicks off in New Zealand tomorrow (well, today their time). You can expect me to be spending a lot of time on front of the TV getting very depressed as Wales embarrass themselves against Samoa and Fiji. Still, as long as the English don’t win, we don’t care.

Those of you in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand will already know your teams’ schedules and where to find coverage. I’m not sure what you’ll get in the US and Canada, but you can see the match schedule here. ITV are showing the matches online so TunnelBear may allow you to watch them. For Kevin’s benefit, the USA matches (in California time, assuming no clock changes) are as follows:

  • Ireland: Sat. 10th, 11:00pm
  • Russia: Thurs. 15th, 12:30am
  • Australia: Fri. 23rd, 1:30am
  • Italy: Mon. 26th, 11:30pm

Sadly the Russians appear to be rather good. I expect the Eagles to finish bottom of their pool. Wales should at least manage to beat Namibia. It looks like the Wallabies have an easy draw all the way to the semi-finals, which gives them plenty of time to play themselves into form.

Me: In Hebrew

Today I have ding production on Salon Futura #6 and watching rugby. The former you’ll see on Monday, I hope. The latter, well laughing at the Scottish rugby team isn’t really fair. But I did want to pop in briefly to say how pleased I am that some kind people in Israel have translated one of my articles from Salon Futura #5 into Hebrew. You can find it here. Thanks Ehud!

Lions by a Whisker

Well, that was a lot closer than it had any right to be. The Wellington Lions lived up to the reputation of their namesakes in the first half — they spent most of the time laying around yawning. As a result, Northland had a healthy 15 point lead at the half. Thankfully the home side decided to pay attention towards the end of the game and, one has to say, came roaring back.

After a spectacular try for which the Lions ran almost the length of the field, we got back to a one-point ball game. Northland then got a penalty to stretch their lead back to 4. There followed a long period where the Lions were camped on the Northland try line, and eventually they got over for a score, giving them a 3 point lead with just under 3 minutes to play. Northland attacked, and won a penalty well inside the Wellington half, but their kicker missed and Wellington managed to close out the game winners, despite having been ahead for only a few minutes.

I guess I did say I thought it would be a close game.

In other news, my two panels today went well, and the con appears to be buzzing. There are over 200 people here, which for a New Zealand Natcon is enormous.

Rugby Expedition at #AuContraire

One of the things I have never done on my visits to New Zealand is attend a rugby match. It so happens that the Wellington Lions are playing a home game on the Saturday of Au Contraire. Kick off is at 5:30, and I’m on a panel from 4:00 – 5:00, but Wellington isn’t that big a city so getting to the game sounds feasible. It does mean missing Sean Williams’ GoH speech, but I think if I buy him enough chocolate he’ll still speak to me.

FYI, the Lions are the local Wellington side, not the Super Rugby franchise Hurricanes. The squad does boast a number of Hurricanes players, but the top stars such as Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Piri Weepu are all on duty with the All Blacks and unlikely to play. On the other hand, Rodney So’oialo and Hosea Gear didn’t make the All Blacks squad, and in Julian Savea the Lions have one of the most exciting young players in world rugby. The Lions’s opponents, Northland, are having a good season and are scoring very heavily, so it should be a cracking game.

Because this is a Lions game and not the Hurricanes tickets for the Cake Tin stadium are easy to get and reasonably priced at between NZ$20 and NZ$35.

Anyone up for an expedition?

Two Narrow Wins

Italy and Scotland fought out a close match in Rome. It wasn’t great rugby, but the two sides were fairly evenly matched. Italy came out ahead by 16-12, primarily because they were able to score a try while Scotland, despite threatening a lot, didn’t manage to do so.

England were a lot better against Ireland than they were in Italy, but still failed to sparkle, or win. The match statistics tell a fascinating story. England dominated possession, especially in the second half when they had twice as much ball as the Irish. Ireland made 99 tackles during the game, and missed only one. England only made 30 tackles, but missed seven. The Irish wings scored three tries – two for Tommy Bowe and one for Keith Earls. England scored only one try, and that by a prop forward from close range. So yes, Ireland sat back and defended for most of the the game, but they did so very well, and when they did get a chance they were ruthless. And that’s why they ended up winners by 20-16.

Another One Thrown Away

France came to Cardiff this evening with a game plan. For the first forty minutes they looked like a cultured Premiership soccer club playing the away leg of a Champion’s League tie. “We know,” they said, “that you are under pressure to win. Our defense is solid, come at us.” So Wales did, and the defense was solid. The longer it held, the more likely it was that Wales would become desperate and try something ambitious, and make a mistake. Mistakes could then be punished, and points scored. Simples, as Aleksandr the meercat would say.

So it was that France went in at half time with a comfortable 20-0 lead. That came from two interception tries, and two penalties given away well inside the Welsh half. In other words, Wales had given France all of those points. France had “won” them simply by being patient and resolute in defense, and mercilessly efficient when pouncing on errors.

The second half was very different. During the break Warren Gatland had clearly reminded the Welsh side that you have to earn the right to go wide. It is just like American football – you can’t throw the ball if you have no running game, because the defense can pack their deep coverage. In the second half Wales ramped up the running game, taking the ball forward close to the ruck and sucking French defenders in. They camped in the French half. France started to make mistakes. Penalties were given, points came.

And then, the moment of opportunity. With the French defense pulled out of shape again, Wales flung the ball wide left. Shane Williams used all of his former scrum half skills to put Halfpenny in the clear on the wing. Stephen Jones slotted the difficult conversion. The lead was down to 7 points, and France had lost their scrum half and goal kicker, Morgan Parra, to the sin bin. If Wales could just capitalize on the man advantage the game was there for the taking.

Instead they blew it. Ten minutes passed, and the only points scored were a penalty to France. The Welsh tactics were better in the second half, but their game was just as error-strewn. Lee Byrne missed two simple kicks to touch that would have given Wales superb attacking lineout position. Excellent attacking opportunities were squandered. Silly penalties were given away.

Shane Williams, on his 33rd birthday, did manage a try to pass Gareth Edwards’ record as Wales’s most prolific try scorer. And Stephen Jones passed Neil Jenkins’ record for total points in the championship. But it is not a day either player will want to remember. Just as against England, they could have won the game, and they threw it away with silly errors.

Red Roses Wilt in Rome

Well, that was a thoroughly uninspired performance by England. In the end they won 17-12, but the result was in doubt for much of the match, and had Lewis Moody been yellow-carded for taking McLean out in the air, which he very easily could have been, Italy might have won the game. (If I were a referee I’d yellow-card Moody for breathing on the grounds that’s he’s probably up to no good by doing so, but he’s been a great servant to England over the years by erring just on the side of legality most of the time, or at least not getting caught.)

Italy played a much more expansive and ambitious game than they had done in Dublin last weekend. They don’t really have the talent to break down England’s defense, but they did worry them, and they showed far more enterprise than their opponents who, for the most part, were happy to sit back and play ping pong, punting the ball back and fore down field.

How bad were England? Well, last weekend, against a much better Welsh side, they scored 17 points while Alyn Wyn Jones was sin binned. Today, the only points they scored during Alessandro Castrogiovanni’s absence were the three from the penalty awarded for his original infringement. Italy, on the other hand, scored three while a man down and could easily have got more. Jonny Wilkinson and Dylan Hartley had particularly bad games, but the whole England side were uninspired. They will have to do much better than that against Ireland in two weeks time.

Rugby Update

During the first half of the game against Wales Scottish winger, Thom Evans (brother of try scorer Max and cousin of BBC DJ Chris) was stretchered off after going head first into a tackle. The report during the game was that he had a leg injury, but the BBC now reports that he is in hospital with a “very serious” back injury. I’m sure all Welsh fans will join me in wishing Thom a speedy recovery.

Update: The latest news is that Thom has had surgery on his neck and is now able to move his arms and legs.

Grand Theft Rugby

I’m sure it is very convenient for the Welsh Rugby Union to have sponsorship from Cardiff’s local brewery. However, I am concerned that all this talk of “Brains” around the team may have attracted the wrong sort of attention; beings for whom the word “Brains” does not suggest intelligence, or even beer, but rather food. Why do I think that? Well it is clear from today’s performance that while the Welsh team all have “Brains” written across their chests, they have none whatsoever in their heads.

Last weekend a few moments of stupidity cost Wales the game against England. This weekend the disease has spread, and we were witness to 74 minutes of the worst rugby I have seen from a Welsh side in a long time. Passes were dropped, penalties were given away, tackles were missed, the error count was phenomenal. Despite dominating territory, Wales went in at the half 18-9 behind.

To be fair to Scotland, they played with a lot more determination and enthusiasm than their counterparts. Their defense was really well organized, they thoroughly outplayed Wales in the ruck, and when they got chances they took some of them. Their first try was a gift – John Barclay just shrugging off a 2-on-1 tackle from Cooper and Hook to break through for a score. But the second try was a perfectly executed grubber kick by Dan Parks that Max Evans was able to covert because, as Parks was well aware, Lee Byrne had been dragged out of position.

With six minutes to play, Wales were 10 points behind, and down and out. They had battered the Scottish line for much of the second half and come away with only one try – a beautifully worked move into the corner by Shane Williams and Lee Byrne that Stephen Jones failed to convert. However, two new factors were about to come into play. Firstly the Scots were exhausted from continual defense. The final stats show show that Scotland had made 136 tackles to Wales’s 73, and Wales completed 227 passes to Scotland’s 103. And secondly the referee was finally losing patience with Scotland slowing the game down. They had collapsed pretty much every scrum in the game, and were starting to resort to illegal play in the ruck as well.

The turning point in the game came when Scott Lawson was sin-binned for yet another infraction in a ruck. Wales stormed forward, taking advantage of the extra man, and Leigh Halfpenny ran in for a try. Crucially he had the presence of mind to run around behind the posts to give Jones the easiest of conversions.

From the kick off, Wales attacked again, and Lee Bryne broke through the Scottish defense. Phil Goodman panicked, and tripped him up. Wales were awarded a penalty, which Jones converted to bring the teams level. Goodman was, of course, sin-binned, leaving Scotland with only 13 men on the pitch.

Time ran out as the players were lining up for the re-start, but in rugby a game cannot end until the ball goes dead, so the referee insisted on one final play. Mike Blair could have hoofed the ball out of play to settle for a draw, or even kicked short to give his team a chance to recover the ball, but instead he kicked long and Wales poured forward again. A couple of minutes later Shane Williams (who else) cut through the Scottish line for the winning try.

It was, I have to say, a total steal. For 74 minutes Scotland absolutely deserved to win that game. But from the moment Lawson was sin-binned Wales ran in 17 unanswered points. As Wales found out last week, you can’t win if you leak points like that.

Elsewhere on a bitterly cold day in Paris Ireland looked to get some revenge for their soccer world cup defeat by the hand of Dieu Thierry Henry. Unfortunately the French comprehensively outplayed them for a 33-10 win. They look very good indeed. The tournament is now taking a week off to let players recover a bit, but in two weeks time France will come to Cardiff. Wales will have to raise their game significantly to avoid a thrashing. Richie Rees appears to have done enough to earn a start at scrum half ahead of the ineffective Cooper, but I’m very worried about Wales at the breakdown and the lineout. Thankfully the French lineout is their one weakness, but their back row forwards are probably the best in the tournament.

Les Bleus Look Scary

The third and final game of this weekend’s 6 Nations matches was between Scotland and France. Jerry Guscott noted earlier in the week that statistically France tends to win the 6 (or 5) Nations in years following a Lions tour. Despite their bruising trip to New Zealand over the winter, which probably left them with as many bruises and the Lions got in South Africa, many people are tipping Les Bleus for the championship this year. On the basis of today’s game, those people are right.

Firstly the French pack totally destroyed the Scottish scrum. Had the Scots not had the excuse of a pitch that was cutting up badly and making keeping your footing difficult Nigel Owens might have awarded a few penalty tries. And of course they out-ran the Scots too. Scotland were defending horribly narrowly and were always vulnerable to quick, wide ball. The stars of the French back line were the cunning little Francois Trinh-Duc, and the amiable, chubby giant, Mathieu Bastareaud, who clearly fell into a cauldron of magic potion when he was a baby and doesn’t know his own strength.

The Scots will be pleased with the performances of Sean Lamont and Beattie, and with the fact that Chris Patterson is still the best kicker in the world. They will be less pleased at yet another match in which they never looked like scoring a try.

As Bill McLaren would have said, they’ll be dancing in the streets of Paris tonight. Here’s hoping that the fleur-de-lis flies proudly over the Louisiana Territory as well. Geaux Saints!

Giving It All Away

In sport there games that you win, games that you lose, and games that you give away. Wales gave away today’s game against England.

The game turned on an incident about 5 minutes before half time when Alun Wyn Jones was sin-binned for tripping Dylan Hartley. It was a stupid offense, committed right in front of the referee. While Wyn Jones was cooling his heels in the bin, England scored 17 unanswered points. In addition to that, Tom James messed up a golden opportunity for a try, and Stephen Jones and James Hook missed three penalty attempts between then. That’s a total of 33 points given away, in a game that we lost 30-17.

England will be reasonably pleased to have taken their chances when they came, even though all three of their tries were given to them in one way or another: two when Wales were a man down, and the third from an interception. They should be less pleased with how long it took them to score the first try. Their forwards clearly don’t trust their backs with the ball. Possibly the best news for them is that Wilkinson is still at his metronomic best with the boot.

As I feared, Gareth Cooper had a poor game at scrum half, squandering two good scoring opportunities with ill-advised chip kicks and generally giving poor service to the back line. Gareth Williams had a nightmare throwing into the lineout. Both men were replaced in the second half, after which the Welsh team appeared to function more smoothly.

That’s by no means the end of the road for Wales. They have three home games to come, and played well enough against England that I expect them to beat Italy and Scotland. The home game against France, and the away game against Ireland, will be much more of a challenge.

Speaking of the Irish, they opened their campaign against an Italian side lacking their inspirational captain, Sergio Parisse, and as toothless as I have ever seen them. Italy appeared to require a committee meeting each time before releasing the ball from the ruck. If this year’s Ferrari is as slow, Lewis and Jenson will be laughing. Ireland, however, only managed a 29-11 win and will not be happy with their lack of incisiveness.

Weekend Entertainment

This weekend sees the most important sporting event of the year. No, not that little game in Miami, though I will be watching that as well (Geaux Saints!). I refer, of course, to the annual Wales – England rugby match.

This year the game is in London, which should help England overcome their natural disadvantage of being, well, English. Also the England side is very much in a rebuilding phase, with many young players looking to establish their reputations. The Welsh side, on the other hand, is stuffed full of veterans of two Grand Slam campaigns. They ought to win. Expectation always brings pressure.

My main worry is at scrum half. Gareth Cooper is the Welsh third choice – Philips and Peel both being injured. He’s a good player but, as I’m sure Will will explain in the comments, Danny Care is a wily fox and proving worthy of being England’s first choice at the position.

My other worry is the referee. As the BBC and Martyn Williams explain, some new regulations have just been handed down regarding how rucks will be policed. Going into the game, the players will be unsure what is legal and what isn’t. They will need to watch the referee carefully and see how he whistles the game. But Wales cannot afford to give away penalties, because if they do then Jonny Wilkinson will kick them, and then we’ll probably lose.

On the bright side, the selection of Tait instead of Hipkiss suggests that England are actually going to try to play rugby rather than mud wrestling, and when they do things that don’t come naturally to them they often get in a terrible mess. We shall see.

Thanks Boys

Some of you have doubtless been expecting me to say something about the current fuss affecting Welsh rugby. Well, you know, what Gareth “Alfie” Thomas does off the field is his own affair, not that of the newspapers. I’m sure that there are a lot more rugby players who are gay, and I’m very impressed that Alfie has been brave enough to admit to his sexuality in public. The main point of this post, however, is to say a warm “Thank You!” to Will Carling and Clive Woodward. They might be the enemy, but where matters like this are concerned they have also shown themselves to be fine human beings. If only the same could be said for the readers of the Daily Malice.

Rugby Goes Olympic

According to the BBC, the International Olympic Committee has voted to include golf and rugby in the roster of sports for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. This will not, I hasten to add, be the full blood-and-guts, two-hour-game format of rugby that we mostly see on TV. Rather it will be the much shorter, all-action seven-a-side game.

Many of you will have seen 5-a-side soccer, which is generally played indoors on a pitch about the size of a basketball court. Rugby players would never do anything so wussy. Rugby Sevens is played outdoors on a full-sized pitch. There is a lot of running involved. The game emphasizes speed and ball skills rather than the brute strength that is often a feature of the 15-a-side game. Because of the pace of the game, each half is only 7 minutes long rather than 40, which makes it much easier to fit a good tournament into the Olympic format.

The Pacific Island nations are very, very good at this game, and it would not surprise me to see a country like Fiji or Tonga take gold in Rio. However, the usual elite rugby-playing nations should also figure strongly in the competition. Modesty forbids me from mentioning which country currently holds the Rugby Sevens World Cup, but there is a clue somewhere in this post.

Auckland – Day 1

Another plane flight over, another immigration process successfully negotiated. And score one for New Zealand for not having any stupid questions on their forms. People coming here don’t have to lie in order to get into the country.

On the other hand, things here are very expensive. $36 for a 5-minute cab ride from the airport to an airport hotel (and no shuttle bus). Internet access is metered, and is so expensive I’m reluctant to open my email just in case I have messages with attachments. I think I’ll be covering this event mainly on Twitter.

The con is open and I have my registration packet. We’ve been allowed to pick our own membership numbers, so I am #666. I also have a badge that says I am a biohazard, which after all of the nonsense I have been through in the past few days is entirely appropriate. No sign of Julie Czerneda yet, but there are opening ceremonies and an ice cream social later today so I’m sure I’ll find her.

The con program is full of the usual stuff. I suspect that the panel you folks will be most interested in is Norm Cates talking about what is happening at WETA these days. In the program it says that we’ll be required to eat our notes and have our brains wiped on the way out, but Norm doesn’t know that I have an iPhone and Twitter. Stay tuned.

The good news for you folks is that the Super 14 final is in South Africa and will take place at 3:30am, NZ time – and yes that’s despite there being an NZ team in the game, UK TV schedules are much more important than local fans here – so the only part of the con I’ll be missing for that will be the 24 hour bad movies track. Having jet lag may prove useful for watching it.