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.

7 thoughts on “Rugby – Down to the Wire

  1. I’ll just point out that England were even worse going into the knockout stages of the last WC, and got to the final. World Cup experience counts for a lot. Australia also tend to do well (until they play England, that is). An Australia – England final is not that implausible. Actually, the only team in the last eight that almost certainly _won’t_ get to the final is Argentina. Anyone else wouldn’t really be a surprise, which is unusual for the quarter finals of any tournament, in any sport.

  2. I’d quibble that the early games were dull even for a casual fan. I’ve actually been astounded at the quality of play from some of the Tier 2 nations, which, with the exception of the poor old Naibians has been full of some of the most balanced International Rugby I’ve ever seen at this level.

    Georgia, in particular, were a revelation.

    As for my take on the last 8…

    NZ beat Argentina – the All Blacks will take them but, hopefully put up a fight.

    RSA really have stepped up since the Welsh game playing much tighter Rugby. With the Australian forwards looking so weak, I think they can give them a real run for their money. If they don’t then life will not be fun in the O’Neill household.

    England v. France – yup, ugly ugly game is likely. My money, at this stage is on England grinding out a nasty, ugly victory – Flood on in the first half, Wilkinson in the second for the drop goal that will probably win it.

    Ireland v. Wales – game of the weekend I expect. Both teams on great form. Ireland feeling 10 feet tall from beating the Wallabies – my money is a narrow win for the Irish.

    Of course, an England v. Ireland semi really does divide my loyalty right down the middle.

    Final? Baring a classic NZ choke, NZ v. Ireland, with NZ winning.

    Don’t quote me on that.

    1. By “casual fan” I mean people more concerned about the results than the quality of play.

      Flood and Wilkinson are both starting – Flood replacing Tindall at inside centre.

      1. Hmmm… I hadn’t looked at the team line up. Wilkinson just isn’t up to a full game and his kicking isn’t as sharp as Flood’s has been. Oh well… we shall see.

        Casual or not, and I’m not, the general quality of play (England and France excepted) has been fantastic this time.

  3. Julian has a point. Going into the QF last time around, England were nursing that 36-0 drubbing by RSA – still, I wouldn’t have put money on England winning the Quarter Final then.

    I’m a little more confident this time. But, only if England can stop giving away penalties. Although, the NZ weather is making that less of a problem than it normally would be.

  4. Good summary Cheryl. Weather is looking decent.
    Possibly buying a BBQ this weekend to go on the deck at the new house.

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