Quarter-finals. Facts & fascinations.

  • Ok. That’s done then. Probably, the best four teams are through – though around that the Irish might do whatever the Irish equivalent of quibbling is.
  • Just now, unloved South Africa squished the wunnerful-joyful hosts, once the early carousel had been closed-down. Disappointing for neutrals, given the electrifying entertainment Japan have provided but guess we do want the strongest teams in there at the death. (Don’t we?)
  • South Africa looked strong, in the same way Wales have been strong, over the last eighteen months or more. More durable than delectable: more efficient than effervescent.
  • The Springboks – are they still called the Springboks; feels somehow vaguely politically unsound? – will play Wales in a semi which could either be a reactionary bore-fest or a full-hearted classic.
  • Two wee interjections, at this point. 1. I’ve lived in Wales most of my life and want them to win the tournament. 2. Some of this stuff, below, which fascinates me 👇🏻.
  • Short memories. Almost everyone in Wales was actually rather contemptuous of Gatland & ‘Gatlandball’ a couple of years ago. He & it were dinosaur-tastic in a profoundly unattractive way.
  • The miserable Welsh performance in a medium-dramatic but poorish quality game against a fitfully revitalised France was a disappointment on several counts. Chief amongst them was the Welsh retreat into box-kicking/set/defend.
  • Wales have played some rugby in this tournament but they are plainly primarily concerned with playing within themselves, to a limited game-plan. They believe it’s a way to win: the evidence would suggest they are right.
  • In defence of arguable Welsh defensiveness, notably against France, they were without one of the great players of the modern era – Jonathan Davies. Davies is ‘class’, with and without the ball. I suspect he is more critical to Wales’ defensive shape than we give him credit for and his rare mixture of intelligence, subtlety and raw courage in attack is often powerfully, often discreetly influential.
  • I am also pret-ty convinced that Biggar is playing with restricted movement – playing hurt. (Wags might say Danny Boy always looks that way; him being the relatively fixed point of the whole Gatlandball organisation. He can’t sprint, we know that but he looks unusually sluggish, just now, to me).
  • *See also Liam Williams*. Picked for his lion-heartedness and inspirational qualities. Should be under genuine pressure now, for a place, from Halfpenny.
  • Next weekend Gatlandball II will face-off against another side likely to play conservatively. Understand that approach but am I/is anybody else looking forward to seeing that kind of game? God no; we’d rather watch Japan any day of the week.
  • Except this is Tournament Play. And much of the drama is/was always going to be of the nail-biting kind. And though my preference for glorious, expansive rugby holds fast, I’ll be as feebly hypocritical as the next man in the moments that matter. 
  • *Plus*, Wales’ obstinate refusal to get beat is, in its own way, magbloodynificent, yes? Romantic, even. It smacks of old-school, matey defiance as well as cultivated belief. I like that – the former.
  • On the subject of match-defining moments, mind, how many thought the TMO and ref swept past the possible forward, as the ball was ripped, immediately before Moriarty’s killer try? I had a slight sense that the adjudicators didn’t really fancy getting caught up in too much scrutiny of that. In short, France may have been robbed. (Discuss over sake/beers).
  • That drama aside, the Wales France game was almost shockingly ordinary in comparison to the first hour of England Aus. (Yes! I am going to do that thing where you mindlessly compare how A played against B and then judge how T (playing U) would have done if they played at that same level… against A, (assuming A retained their B standard, as it were).
  • If Wales had played like they did against France, against either England or Australia, they would have  been battered. There was simply no comparison in intensity or quality. Gatland must and will lift his posse before the ‘Boks.
  • Yes. England versus Australia, for an hour, was scarily, magnificently competitive to an extraordinary degree. It was a fierce, fierce, structured rampage. It was awesomely modern. Both teams looked Absolutely Top Level – and neither France nor Wales did. Know what’s great, though? This prob’ly means nothing.
  • The All Blacks, expected to win, destroyed Ireland. De-stroyed them. Their skills, their power, their athleticism was simply unanswered. All Ireland felt hollowed-out as the absurdly dominant ABs ran all over Schmidt’s men. If clinical can be beautiful, it was that.
  • The watching world took a breath, looked again at the draw, almost felt sorry for England (almost) – and resigned itself, actually, to another New Zealand tournament win. Who will they beat? Wales, I reckon.

Icons as themselves.

The names are icons in themselves. Carter, Nonu, McCaw; plus that icon-let (iconlite?) Beauden Barrett. Try keeping them out of any report or reflection on this superb final.

One name that’s odds-on to be missing though, is that of Matt Giteau, the Australian centre-playmaker, who was cruelly and arguably significantly lost to this showpiece twenty-odd minutes in.

Early doors at a roused but curiously multi-national Twickers belonged to Nonu – Giteau’s opposite number – the specimen centre yet again epitomizing the ideal of a space-seeking, rhythmic, intelligent force of nature as he tore forward into the Wallabies 22. Then, as McCaw led his magnificent monsters to scary levels of dominance, Carter sat back and prompted.

In fact he did more than that. Dan Carter orchestrated; he *intervened*; he wound the entire game round his finger and played yoyo with it – and I don’t mean like you and me would. He pyoinged and pyoinged so beautifully and successfully that it was absurd.

Absurd in particular that he could caress the ball so freely and immaculately and sweetly from the tee, in the World Cup Final, with a universe of expectation allegedly bearing down. Ludicrous.

Ludicrous that he could channel Liam Brady circa the maestro-Italiano Years whilst smoothing the ball through the posts, unfailingly. Every blog or column will be full of clunky linkages to Carter’s collection of superhero costumes; I will stop just short… but still observe that his performance was something pret-ty damn close to a marvel.

He struck the ball from the tee with the kind of grace that made Jonny Wilkinson’s punchier, thuddier, stunnier style seem kinda coarse. Either that or he so seduced me that I am unable to uncouple the peerless All Black from some erm… superhero of my own imagining. In short Carter (whilst all the time playing within himself, playing controlling rather than mesmeric rugby) gave one of the great championship-winning performances. Then he clattered into onrushing Aussie forwards, heaving them back’ards notably on more than one occasion,

Beauden Barrett makes the first paragraph here chiefly on account of his decisive, breakaway try, scored late on. He sniffed out an opening as the desperate Wallabies pressed, played a decent bitta footie and collected a doll of a bounce before diving over.

In a sense that could have been anybody wearing black, such is the breadth of their dynamism. True Mealamu is less likely to sprint clear but the relentless, all-court threat that is the All Black fifteen tends to make these things happen; as a team, they capitalize.

Australia, having manfully stormed back towards parity in the match, were simply punished when they themselves were on the offensive. As so often, the game’s opening out led to a ruthless counter from New Zealand.

I’m guessing these fine and hugely watchable Wallabies, as silver-medalists, will not be comforted by the fact of their emphatically positive showing in this tournament.

Only in their annihilation of France (and arguably their brutally composed victory over the Boks) did the All Blacks suggest they might find a decisively higher level than their tremendous rivals from the southern oceans but ‘getting close’ ain’t gonna be enough for Cheika or his players.

Fardy, Pocock and Hooper have deservedly been right up there as the darlings or running dogs of the competition. Today they had their moments but were ineffectual compared to previous outings. The AB’s simply kept the ball alive so often and shifted the focus of attack so constantly that to some extent the breakdown was less present as a feature (or potential source of issue) in the contest.

When Pocock looked to be threatening ball mid-way into the first half, New Zealand engaged carousel mode and the ball was everywhere but on the deck with a Wallaby back-row all over it. Australia were consequently simply outplayed.

Wonderful miscalculation of family taxi-duties meant that after screeching to an inspired halt, I watched the impressive and (certainly early-on) wholesale subjugation of the Wallabies principal weapon in my favourite hostelry in West Wales. Here things were even-handed, even to the extent that our National Treasure (the ref) was mildly scalded for alleged transgressions against fair-play and rectitude – a forward pass here, a missed pen there.

You may have to take my word for it that I was amongst folks who get rugby; in a deepish, visceral and somehow hearty way as well as being able to decipher its codes. However, as the AB’s streaked clear, points-wise, that ole chestnut Underdog Syndrome seeped into the boozer’s consciousness.

The game ‘definitely need’ an Aus try. Carter had ‘been the difference’ but ‘something needed to turn’. It did with a second or two’s indiscipline…and a yellow for AB’s full-back Smith..

After (no doubt) a few galvanizing words from their profoundly influential coach, Australia had set about recovering the frankly unpromising 16-3 deficit after half-time. The bald truth may be that their recovery was more about the AB’s reduction in staff for ten minutes than their own resurgence – although plainly one was predicated on t’other – but something stronger than mere sympathy invites respect for the Wallaby comeback.

Pocock and Kuridrani’s tries around the hour were maybe moments for sure – they hiked the twitchy fibres of all of us, bringing the scores back to 21-17 – but ultimately and rightly they were a challenge to which Carter and then Barrett responded.

The All Black kingpin/pivot/superhero drove over a longish range drop-goal – beautifully, yet again – to do the appropriate statement-making thing. Then as we entered Absolutely Shit-or-Bustville, Barrett robbed his try. And the headlines went Back To Black.

The pub applauded. A single Kiwi stood up and we unanimously wished him well(cryptically, by jeering ‘good-naturedly’) and turned back to our pints and our analysis. Who knows how much of the following we actually said but it feels like we came out with stuff like this…

You might fear or think or figure that an event as prolonged as a World Cup, with its inevitable and essentially regulated slabbettes of drama might stall at some period, or might fail to build.

A Group Stage then a knockout that simply has to be spread to allow bruises to heal, lungs to recover. People – nations! – leaving, extinguished. A week, between the semi and the final. More shuffling home; home to Buenos Aires or Jo’burg or Matlock. Cruel, debilitating, necessary non-activity. Surely this is going to mean some sense of pause or gather, or that loss of momentum which often undermines the Grand Event will intervene, like some superfluous usherette?

Nope; not here. Or okay hardly – hardly here.

This #RWC2015 has fair bundled along; seamless and typically smiley; pleasingly controversy-lite. Populated by powerful wedges of expressive, engaging sport. Simply a bloody pleasure from first to last, despite the loss of hosts England and later demi-hosts Wales. Despite that possibility for epic-scale (Northern?) stomping off in a huff.

The sport’s been too good for Brian from Barnsley or Geoff from Gloucester to skidaddle. Most of us in the ranks of The Defeated got immediately sucked back into it by the brilliance of some foreign geezer – some bloke from Japan or Argentina, quite possibly. (Incidentally, Cindy, how fabulous is it that plenty of Brits, pre and post the elimination of ‘our teams’, have been cheering on the Pumas in this? Sport transcending? Yes indeedie!)

So without actually being in one of the Fan Zones we’ve still been doing congas or necking cocktails (metaphorically speaking) with folks from all over. Captured. We really should all be thankful for all that; thankful to the players, coaches, organizers, stewards and everybody else who’s yaknow, ever met them.

I’m not thinking it’s dumb patriotism that drives me to say that I think the UK – with the obvious caveats re the rip-off hoteliers etc – has done a top job hosting this pardee – as it did with the 2012 Olympics. It’s entirely ENTIRELY fitting, therefore, that a truly great Rugby World Cup was collected by Mr McCaw… and lifted aloft by Messrs Nonu/Mealamu/Smith etc , etc, etc.

So hey thank you, fellas. Thank you, truly, for showing us how it’s done.

Enter the North?

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.