Done and dusted

Like a lot of Melbourne I found myself in a pub last night to watch the RWC semi final between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. A few beers, a pizza, a vocal crowd and the scene was set. In the end it was a disappointing result for Australia. The All Blacks jumped the Wallabies early, who were disorganised and slow to react in the initial stages. It was the best possible result for the All Blacks. Getting an early lead took many of the nerves out of the equation. From there it was head to head. The Wallabies improved, showed some dash at times, and in the second half really challenged the AB line for a period of about 20 minutes. Every time they looked likely though they would lose the ball. In the end a combination of factors saw the All Blacks victorious – a dominant forward pack, the Australian weakness under the high ball, and a superior kicking game. Match that with critical mistakes and the All Blacks were the much the better team. As an Aussie it’s a disappointing result, but not devastating. The All Blacks deserved the win and you can’t complain. Besides, just for context, Australia beat New Zealand in a league match earlier (not that that counts for much), and Casey Stoner sewed up the MotoGP championship at Philip Island.

So next week it’s the All Blacks versus Les Bleus (or cheese eating surrender monkeys as some may term them). Unlike many I don’t mind the French. I love the country, and I don’t mind the unpredictable nature of their rugby. It’s hard to see them beating the All Blacks, but if they click as they’re capable then they’re every chance. The biggest danger to the All Blacks as I see it is complacency. This was the big match of the tournament. The whole country raised itself to a pitch of excitement. For the All Blacks the final may be a bit of a psychological anti-climax after that, and might be seen as a bit of a walk in the park after taking on the Wallabies. If the French get an early lead then some of the mental heebie jeebies that have plagued them for years. It’s a longshot, but it’s a possibility.

So, who will I be barracking for? Well, there’s a certain romance in perpetuating the ‘choke’ (if you’re not a Kiwi). And I like the French. Still, I have to support the All Blacks. I was chatting to a Welshman yesterday and he was cheering for the All Blacks. Why? Because they deserve it, and that’s a fair call. A world cup win is well overdue for the Kiwis, and they’re our neighbours and brothers. The rabid hostility towards all things Australian has taken some gloss off that brotherly affection, but, on balance, I guess I’ll be on their side come the big game.

As for the Wallabies, they play off for a consolation prize. Disappointing result this time, but they have some big years ahead of them. I’ll reiterate what I said at the start of this tournament. The Wallabies are a young, developing team of great talent. They have weaknesses i the forward pack, but I expect all the same that Australia will become the dominant team over the next 3-4 years, particularly as both the All Blacks and the Springboks are aging teams on the verge of generational change.


For the want of some long stops…

There’ll be a lot of talk about how brave Wales was last night, and how unfortunate they were to lose to France, but for mine they only had themselves to blame.

This is a match Wales should have won, even with one player down. The send off of Warburton is contentious and subject to bitter dispute, but once it’s done it’s history and you have to get on with the game. Wales didn’t do that, not for too long. I reckon for about 40 minutes after the incident Wales let France dictate the game, which went against the early trend. Wales were up and about early and looked clearly the better side, but the loss of Warburton seemed to send them into a mental and tactical spin. Viewing from afar I wonder if they took on a bit of a victim mentality. Tactically they went into their shells, kicking away the ball away too often, and often ineptly, as if field position was their sole saviour – and too often didn’t chase hard enough. The fact is that Wales needed to score and the only way they were going to do that was by taking the game on. That’s how they had got to the semi-final, and they’d looked good early against France doing that. Losing their captain should have given them the freedom to go for broke – you may as well lose by plenty as a point, but you might just come out on top regardless. Instead they seemed to accept their handicap too readily until the last 20 minutes, when they came alive again.

Many will think I’m being harsh, and maybe I am, but it’s a RWC semi-final for fucks sake. You throw the kitchen sink at that. Play without regret. Without excuses. Honourable losses count for fuck all. To me it was a failure of the coaching staff as anything else. The tactics should have been re-affirmed, and the mindset turned around to something more positive: what’s done is done, we’re the better team, now lets go out there and prove it.

Having said that a lot went wrong on the night. What was the story with the line-outs? Terrible all night, and never really fixed. And the goal kicking – something I’ll come to in a moment. The biggest disaster of all was at fly-half though, who were diabolical, and unfortunately set much of the negative tone for the Welsh play.

But to goal kicking first. If I was Welsh I’d be furious with Hook today. This is high stakes, a big occasion, a professional sport. Yet Hook, such an experienced player, takes to a greasy field 15 minutes after a downpour in short stops. I’ll make it crystal clear: if Hook had have worn long stops, as the circumstances demanded, Wales would be in the final next week. Two straight forward penalty kicks were botched because his foot slipped on impact. On top of that he slipped over at crucial times both attacking and defending. That the rest of his play was ordinary is almost incidental. He played too deep, kicked too much, and mostly to little or no tactical advantage. His replacement Jones was almost worse. There’s a very strong argument to suggest that decision making cost Wales the game. In attacking positions they gave the ball away. When they should have run they kicked. And the attempt at a drop goal with 10 minutes to go was typical of that. What the fuck were they thinking?

As for the French? Well, I’m pretty confident in thinking that the winner of the RWC will be the winner of today’s match. France did enough to win, and no more. Under the pump early they copped a big break when Warburton was sent from the field. From that point they controlled the game with clever kicking. They didn’t try too much because they didn’t have to (because Wales didn’t test them enough). It was a pedestrian, but calculated effort. Enough to win, not nearly enough to suggest they might be world cup champions next week.

The real highlight of this tournament should be this evening’s match. Kurtley Beale is out, which is a blow to the Wallabies, but not critical. I can’t help but think this match is set up for Quade Cooper to do his thing. He’s such a controversial, divisive, charismatic character that’s hard to believe that he won’t be pivotal to the outcome tonight. Hero or villain, that’s his destiny, and this his stage. Last week he was awful, and roundly condemned. He’s hated by All Black fans for a variety of reasons, not least his treated of Saint Richie McCaw (no saint really). Cooper is mercurial, terrible one day, match-winner the next. I just have a feeling he’ll turn it on tonight, or at least be central to the result, positively or negatively. I think it will be positive – I think he thrives on this occasion, knows that this is his time.

As I said, I think the Wallabies will win. Regardless of sport Australian teams are deadly at this stage of the tournament. It’s rare that an Australian team will lose a cut-throat match. They always seem to find ways of winning. I can write that watching from thousands of kilometres away, but my faith is shared by most Aussies, and is a distinct part of the psychological make-up of the players who will take the field today. So often it becomes a self-fulfilling belief. We might get beaten today – we’re underdogs – but we won’t lose it. Ultimately that’s all I ask for – the win is a lovely bonus.


Wallabies vs Springboks lineout

Image via Wikipedia

After a couple of days shifting furniture for someone else I was very happy to sit down on Sunday afternoon to watch the RWC quarter-final between the Wallabies and the Springboks. Man, what a cracker of a contest it turned out to be.

After the match Robbie Deans, the Australian coach, termed it a match between the defending champion and most experience team in the competition against the youngest and least experienced team. As he put it, the boys came of age.

South Africa shopuld never have lost. As a died in the wool Aussie even I have to admit that. They dominated pretty well every significant stat in the game, and sometimes to a ridiculous lop-sided margin. Australia made 147 tackles for the game for example, against 53 – which goes to show who was doing all the attacking. Likewise territory was heavily in South Africa’s favour. On top of all that the Wallabies line-out was misfiring, Quade Cooper played the worse game of his career, and the Wallabies couldn’t string any phases together. They hardly had the ball, and too often lost it early or gave it away with poor options and skewed kicking. Offensively it was probably as bad as Australia has been for years – and yet our attacking flair is said to be our great strength.

Still, we won. Why?

Firstly, the few chances we had we pretty well capitalised on. We went forward and we scored, with only an aberrant conversion kick by O’Connor missing in the first half. By contrast the Springboks virtually camped in the Wallabies half, but could score only three penalties for the match – which pretty well leads onto the second reason the Wallabies won: outstanding defence.

Australian teams have always been built on a philosophy of positive attacking play. Every country has their own philosophical bias – in England for example it’s generally about their forwards, similarly the Springboks, who always have a bruising forward pack, but often united with punishing backs. France is all about flair, and often unpredictable, spontaneous flair, and so on. The biggest team in the world, the All Blacks, have generally combined the two main elements, big forwards with creative backs, which is why they’ve been the most winning-est team in history.

Tournament rugby is different though. It demands something different from the participants because if you lose there is no tomorrow. It’s all or nothing. History shows that Australia – unlike New Zealand – has a great record in tournament play. We tend to be like that in most sports – come the crunch we’ll come to play. That’s our history, which has become a heritage that others recognise and our teams strive to live up to. In terms of Rugby World Cups it has meant that in those critical stages of the tournament attacking flair has been meshed with fanatical defence. In 1991 and 1999, both years the Wallabies won, it was defence that got the team into the final. Same again in 2003, when outstanding defence stifled the All Blacks in the semi-final (when hot favourites), and nearly won the final against the English.

It was the same story on Sunday. The Springboks had the run of the game, but couldn’t penetrate. Again and again they threw themselves at the Australian defence, only to be denied again and again. The only progress they made was by inches, gradually overtaking Australia to lead with 10 minutes to 9-8 on the back of three penalties. I have to admit, watching it at that stage I wondered how Australia could possibly win. For the last 50 minutes of the fame we’d barely had a sniff at a scoring chance. The ball was at the wrong end, South Africa relentless, our attack flagging, and our players near spent on their feet from their incessant defence. It only takes a moment though.

A clever kick – for once – and then a silly penalty gave James O’Connor a shot at goal, 40 metres out on a 45 degree angle. A challenging kick, and doubly so given the circumstances. O’Connor is only 19, but he it paced it out, lined it up, and kicked it right through the middle. 11-9, and for the remaining 9 minutes the Wallabies managed to hold out the Springboks to record a famous victory and a spot in the semi-final against New Zealand.

That form will see us lose against the All Blacks, but I’m pretty confident we’ll improve quite a lot on that effort. Our offense could hardly have been worse. Quade Cooper, who was dire for most of the match, can only improve – on his day he is a matchwinner. I think we’ll likely go into the match against New Zealand with an improved line-up to, with Berrick Barnes alongside Cooper. My experience of watcjhing sport over the years also tells me that wins like that galvanise a team. The Wallabies know they were lucky, but know also that they made their luck on the back of steely defence. They won ugly, but they won, and nothing instils belief more than that. And, not to be discounted, there’s the history. Australia win the big matches. Just about always.

The All Blacks will be nervous. It’s every New Zealanders fear that once more they’ll come up short in the biggest event in the game. That fear, and the pressure that goes with it, is magnified by playing on home soil. The worst possible nightmare for every Kiwi is that they get knocked out by the team they fear and despise most – the Wallabies. That’s the situation that now faces them, and there will be thousands of Kiwi’s living in terror at the moment.

I doubt that will affect the players, but it will have some influence. The All Blacks have their own monkey’s to shed. Indisputably the best team in the history of the sport, they have failed at every world cup since the inaugural event in 1987, which they won. I doubt there has been a world cup when they haven’t gone in as outright favourites, but each time they find a way to lose, and have made but one final appearance since 1987. If Australia are over-achievers, then the All Blacks have been rank under-achievers. It’s a definite burden, and a definite issue. One day they’ll get by their reputation as chokers – hopefully not this time around.

It should be a cracking game. I think New Zealand deserve to go in as favourites, but only marginally. Injuries to important players have come at a bad time, but they play in front of an adoring crowd at the least favourite venue for the Wallabies. I think Australia will win though. There seems great belief around the squad – they’re here to do the business. Though the All Blacks have beaten the Wallabies much more than often, the record in RWC is 2-0 to Australia, and both occasions at semi final stage. Time will tell.

Easy to forget – the winner goes on to play the final against either France or Wales. It’s far from over, and while the ultimate champion will likely be the winner of Sunday’s clash, nothing is certain.