Let’s hope the coming Rugby World Cup doesn’t suffer the indignities and the general scorn deservedly poured upon Channel 4’s coverage of the World Athletics Championship. In trying to rescue the situation, that near-hunky young bloke in a lumberjack shirt, with worryingly good teeth, who looked like maybe he was just about to offer the nation DIY tips, convinced almost nobody, even with the fairly wonderful Michael Johnson supporting. The commentating ranked about no. 142 in the world this year, and Iwan Thomas – whilst coming across as the kind of geezer you might want to jaunt down the wine bar with to swap news about bands coming to the Uni – performed substantially below his PB. Given the outstanding nature of some of the sport… t’was a shame.
And it’s only now that having looked at telly schedules, I begin to fear a repeat…
Steve Rider – too smooth and bland by half – whom you might imagine has no connection whatsoever with sport, never mind rugby, fronts ITV coverage, with ‘back-up’ from Craig Doyle. (ITV1 and 4 have it all. The Beeb lost the radio slots too, to Talksport). Personally, I won’t miss Guscott’s slightly porky platitudes but the Butler/Moore axis, even if watched from behind the settee during their Anglo-welsh spats, will be missed. Big Eddie – a cultured and generous sort – will be essential reading in The Guardian and Observer, whilst Moorie will apparently be contributing – sharply – on Talksport. In combination with David Campese, the gifted and lary Aussie winger, that could be worth a listen. But it’s the action that counts, right?
The All Blacks have to be favourites, despite recent defeats in the Tri-nations. The fabulous tension around their likely progress is all in the head; but the head of a nation, plus, in truth, a whole world of rugby-conversant bystanders, now familiar with and even excited by the notion that the Kiwis could choke. Again. The Blacks are an astonishingly engineered and prepared side, year after year turning in performances of a standard far beyond anything achieved by pretenders from the North. This year is no different. France and England might compete for parts of a game – usually not more than about half of it – and an inspired Wales side (who have been known to genuinely threaten them) may conceivably make a match of it… but I doubt it. The All Blacks are still – are always – in a different league in terms of their pace and handling at breakdowns; they are more ruthless – magnificently so – when opportunity twinkles; they seamlessly switch from planned moves to electric impro’. They still have McCaw and Carter and so much more besides.
Surely then, they have too much for any of our lot? England may benefit from the need to be massive/conservative in dodgy weather and tight games – though games tend, unsurprisingly, to be tight when teams daren’t play expansively. Which England turns up per game will either by a complete irrelevance or an important and developing theme in the tournament, depending on results during dodgy weather and tight games. Ireland are almost certain to be found out as a seriously declining force fairly rapidly. Scotland may compete with real honour in a group suggesting forward power will be key, but surely they could never get beyond a quarter final? Wales, as always have a real pool of talent, particularly in the backs, so that if something really goes for them – a special and uplifting moment or two from Hook or Williams, perhaps? – then their Lion-like colours may begin to chase. But surely not to the end?
The Aussies and the Springboks however, do pose a legitimate danger – as real as the sickening possibility for psycho-doom alluded to by so many already. It appears likely that the Aussie pack (or perhaps more accurately their front five), having been mangled by the Italians and the Irish in the group phase, may not carry them to ultimate victory, despite their recent Tri-nations success. Elsom and Pocock are odds-on to be influential or even outstanding, but for the Wallabies to win big their admittedly hirsute ‘girls’ – extraordinarily minus Giteau – may have to play out of their skins. Indeed, for anyone other than the homesters to win the tournament, it may necessitate a new breed of exhilarating brilliance to emerge; or might it just be moments?
Whether the South Africans, until a year or so ago arguably on a par with the Blacks, can produce enough… I wonder. They should bludgeon and/or dance their way through their group and if they emerge fired up and confident then maybe lookout. The ideal scenario for us who are either unbiased or who know in our hearts that our own are Mullered Men Walking might be all three of the Tri-nations giants shaking off the minor inconvenience of the group stage with a controlled heat idling. For then we might see that top level international rugby really can be as dangerously exciting as a forest fire.
So burn burn burn.