One of the best things about this Rugby World Cup was the element of unpredictability last weekend.
Not early on – there were the usual 67-5 , 83-7, 87-0, 67-3 type of results which bored everyone and did no-one any good. At every Rugby World Cup, these non-matches are fan-fared as valuable for the smaller nations.
Well, the answer to that one is that they have become so ‘valuable’ that many of the minnows now deliberately field a second team against one of the bigger nations, preferring to keep their strongest outfit for more realistic games.
It has shot a hole through the long held belief that only by playing the top sides would these smaller nations improve.
The biggest upset of the pool stages was undoubtedly Ireland’s 15-6 win over Australia. That shocked the Aussies to their collective core and was a major boost for Irish rugby. Some suggested that Tonga’s 19-14 win over the French was a similar seismic event but I’d disagree. France knew they’d get through as pool runners-up even if they lost. That took a lot of the importance away from the game.
With the exception of that single match between Ireland and Australia and possibly Tonga’s win, there were no other real shocks in a pool programme that spanned 23 days and covered 40 matches.
But it was only when we reached the pool stages that things really began to take on the kind of unpredictable element that you want in a serious sports event.
For example, I think it’s fair to say most people (myself included) tipped Ireland to beat Wales in the first quarter final. They lost. Most people thought England would put out a disappointing France to reach the semi-finals again. They failed.
Just about everyone I know thought South Africa would set up a high impact collision semi-final against New Zealand by eliminating the Australians. They failed, losing narrowly, 11-9.
The only quarter final that was predictable was New Zealand’s victory over Argentina, although great credit goes to the Pumas for keeping their try-line intact against the All Blacks for 67 minutes. That took some doing, some real courage and commitment.
These upsets in the round of the last 8 were just what the tournament needed. Had all the favoured sides got through, this World Cup would have forever been remembered as one of dull predictability, especially if, as most believe, New Zealand go on to win it.
As I write this morning, it is wet again here in Auckland and the forecast is for more rain in some of the days leading up to the weekend. That won’t necessarily help the Australians, who like to play a fast moving game, ball in hand, that features attacking from deep. Having a wet, slippery ball is hardly conducive to that game style.
But we’ll see, we don’t know. Let’s hope that the surprises continue in this weekend’s semi-finals. Upsets are the essence of a real sporting event.