This World Cup has blown the global game wide open
For Ireland and almost everybody associated with the game in this neck of the woods it's been a bitterly disappointing World Cup. A team that had promised so much yet delivered so little has left us all a little stunned and certainly mightily humbled on the back of this way below par experience.
The depth of that disappointment has probably given us a blinkered take on the competition overall.
Well, if that was the case then this past weekend has certainly changed all that. Events in Cardiff, Marseille and Paris has seen France '07 come alive and with it a hitherto watching but sceptical sporting world is riveted to what is now a genuinely wide-open global competition as the best of Northern Europe, Africa and South America scrap for that much-treasured main prize.
To describe what transpired in the quarter-finals as sensational -- certainly in the first three -- is not stretching it in the least. It might not have been open flowing rugby of the Barbarian order but in terms of competitive intensity, with the result always in doubt, this was as good as it gets. Even the least committed rugby fans watching with just a passing interest must have been sucked into the drama of it all.
As reputations were blown apart, so too were the theories that accompanied them. The Six Nations, derided by many as being second-rate prior to this Antipodean fall, has suddenly been re-assessed. Such sweeping generalisations are dangerous at the best of times particularly so given the white heat of battle of a Rugby World Cup.
So much too for Eddie O'Sullivan's theory on Ireland's demise re lack of rugby i.e. for Northern Hemisphere nations when compared to the stage in the season the Southern Hemisphere is at. At face value it appears to have some merit but with three of the four semi-finalists -- France, England and Argentina -- in the same build-up boat as ourselves, so much for this particular 'poor unfortunate paddies' theory.
I think it highly significant too that all four semi-finalists come from just two Pools -- the widely-accepted Pool of Death (Pool D) and Pool A (where England and South Africa fronted-up not only to each other, but also to mighty Pacific Island opposition in the shape of Tonga and Samoa as well). These tough matches have served them well in their physical and mental preparation for sudden death rugby.
It would be wrong to suggest the All Blacks or Wallabies were caught unawares but equally it is fair to say that neither performed to the optimum pitch of knock-out resilience required.
Thinking and performing under pressure doesn't just happen on the day, it is part of the build up whether by accident or design. Even the Pumas, the least impressive of the four semi-finalists based on last weekend's evidence, dug it out against the Scots because they had been to the same well of intensity at least twice if not three times (the Georgian game too given the three-day turnaround) in the Pool stages.
Both England and France produced top-drawer performances embodying heart and guts as much as any other factor. The English bulldog spirit, which we on this island so grudgingly acknowledge, was never more in evidence than against their great sporting rivals from down under. On this occasion John O'Neill's pommie-bashing obsessed nation were out-muscled and out-manoeuvred where rugby games are still won and loss irrespective of the level. Andrew Sheridan and Simon Shaw were immense but it was half-backs Andy Gomarsall and Jonny Wilkinson who added the sensible direction to the fundamental forward platform brutishly laid in front. It is not stretching it to suggest the English eight demolished the Wallaby forward unit with the only travesty the actual score-line, bearing little resemblance (12-10) as it did to the demolition derby which had gone before. In that English performance was everything we had expected of Ireland but never saw in our four performances in the Pool.
Bernard Laporte, like Brian Ashton, can look back on probably his proudest coaching moment with equal satisfaction given the nature of the victory over the 'Blacks.
Here -- by contrast with the all-conquering English eight -- was a French defensive display on the back foot but crucially one riddled with discipline. The pass to Freddie Michalak from Damien Traille for the break in the lead up to the match-winning try seemed forward but when collectively you run yourselves into the ground you make that bit of luck which turn these decisions your way. The Kiwis can bitch about the otherwise excellent Warwick Barnes from now to doomsday but to any impartial observer the victory on this massive occasion went where it was most deserved.
While one can sympathise with Richie McCaw and the rest of the New Zealand players given their humility in painful defeat nonetheless I find it difficult to be overly sympathetic. Perhaps I might be accused of nit picking but I do believe the 'Blacks to be abusing the privilege they enjoy by way of the immediate pre-match Haka. As we know they now have an alternative version finishing with a throat-slitting gesture, but on Saturday at the Millennium with so much on the line by way of the psychological build up I felt they abused what is undoubtedly a great tradition.
I too am coming around to the view that they should no longer be given this psychological upper hand by right. Between us and all harm -- and despite not winning the competition outright since 1987 -- they are the country in need of an extra gee up least of all. The French were superb in their dignity prior to kick off but why should they be put through what is now undoubtedly becoming an intimidating and increasingly abused ordeal. Great theatre for the fans, but fair it ain't.
With the host nation back on track (ironically on the end of a political trek to Cardiff)
the tournament is now touching boiling point. We are in for two superb semi-finals with France and South Africa the obvious favourites but is there anyone out there who would bet against England or Argentina coming through?
The 'Boks were somewhat flattered by the final winning margin against the brilliant Fijians -- tell me that sevens involvement doesn't benefit the 15 man game -- yet they appear the best equipped of the final four at this stage.
Meanwhile O'Sullivan and the Irish squad can take some solace with France and Argentina making it through to the last four. What of a French/Puma final? Either way it doesn't take from the paucity of our own abysmal effort but wasn't it great to experience that 'feel good' once again. Paris and the semi-final shoot-out can't come quickly enough.