The foibles and fateful wotsits have begun to weave their magic and so, in truth , have the Celts. The World Cup Draw, that dull calendar formerly only notable in terms of the scramble to avoid the All Blacks, is now animated; a northern beacon being run across its landscape. Following just a few tweaks of the original presumptions – Ireland and Argentina and Tonga having been arguably the chief protagonists – firstly the balance of the draw and now we hope its democracy, its capacity to permit open challenges has been transformed.
Because Wales should have beaten South Africa; because Ireland did beat Australia and Tonga did beat France, the possibilities swung wide as the draw narrowed against the Tri-Nations. Australia’s defeat effected an unfortunate consequence; they joined South Africa and the home nation in the Quarters. With the Wallabies facing the Springboks for a place in the semi’s and the All Blacks facing Argentina not Scotland (no great surprise, that one) only one of the great Southern powers can reach the final. One the one hand this is a clear affront to sporting justice – the Tri-Nations still providing 3 of the top 4 rugby-playing nations – but on the other this also means that a Six Nations side must make the final, thereby providing a true all-world centrepiece.
I imagine the residents of Sydney or Darwin and possibly Jo’burg berating this freak of fortune; but the truth is a) if the Aussies had beaten Ireland they would have faced Wales not the Springboks and b) Wales punctured most of the arguments for Southern superiority during their group match against the ‘boks, which they contrived to lose (again) from a position of clear … superiority. Wales have now gone on to produce the most fluent and complete performance of the tournament by annihilating Fiji – Fiji, mark you, not Russia or Namibia! – 66 points to nil. In doing so, the names of Warburton and North have been beamed powerfully into the consciousness of the event; Warburton for his inspired leadership and supremely athletic presence all round the pitch and North for his joyful bursts to the line. Wales suddenly have a right to believe they may earn a place in the final. Only Ireland and then perhaps England stand in their way.
The Irish have risen from nowhere to join their Celtic brothers in the Quarter-final. For a year or more prior to this tournament, despite the presence of powerful and experienced players throughout their squad, the Irish have seemed frankly a bit lost. Unable to convincingly raise the traditional fires or play expansively with any consistency, it seemed they arrived in New Zealand as makeweights. But the outstanding win against the Wallabies, plus today’s pasting of the Italians makes a nonsense of former blandness. They may be only muttering quietly and darkly in the corner, but Ireland too believe.
England remain both an enigma and a bore. Miraculously shapeless and uninspired – given the awesome proportions and reputation of the Man (very much) At The Top – they have bundled through like the Leeds United of old, knowing they are generally loathed but, unlike Revie’s mob, unable to use that for motivation. But they are immensely durable. Their recent World Cup history is of impeccable over-achievement. They really might play near-shocking ‘winning rugby’ to another final, having bored France and Wales out of the way; a sort of dull parity around the pitch followed by rare interventions by Foden or Ashton really might do it. Possibly even with Wilkinson miscuing – although I fancy his position may genuinely be under review. As should the manager’s, if France beat them.
France have been more French than the French, having gone largely and directly from worse to worse. And this time their propensity for gallic squandering seems likely to fully express itself; following a dour defeat by England they will surely miss the flight home and be found sobbing in isolated clumps in the cheapest of local nightclubs. There to be hugged generously by Mike Tindall.
So – sticking my neck out – New Zealand or Australia or South Africa will meet Wales or Ireland or England for ultimate glory. It’s as simple as that. That, mind you, is discounting the Pumas. But surely the All Blacks couldn’t..? No… no… no.