Jack Lewars in Cloud Cuckoo Land
Can someone please check the drinking water in New Zealand, preferably as a matter of urgency? I only ask because there must be some reason why half the coaches in the tournament seem to have gone stir crazy with their selections this week.
First up, we’ve got France. Now in many ways this is the least surprising one, given that Lievremont has form here. As a mate of mine said recently, you never play for France, you just play one game for them. Then there’s every chance you’ll be out of the squad the next week and captain in a fortnight. Even given the truth in this, however, the French coach has gone properly overboard this time. This is one of the biggest games of the tournament, certainly the crunch match of Pool A, and Lievremont has dropped Trinh-Duc, his established fly-half. Oh well, you say, England have changed like that effectively in the past. Well, yes, they have, but they did usually replace the dropped player with another fly-half. Lievremont has put Morgan Parra there, a man with 35 minutes of test rugby in that position. Ever. And twenty minutes of those were against Japan. Can you imagine what David Skrela must have said?
DS: ’You’re doing what?’
ML: [shrug] ’We’re going with Parra.’
DS: ‘Yes, you said. I just wanted to know who’s playing fly-half?’
DS: ‘I see. In that case, can I start at prop please?’
ML: ‘I was thinking more water boy.’
Now the New Zealand press have gone to town on this, as tabloids over there are wont to do (thank goodness ours are so down to earth - today’s Mail led with ‘Staring Down the Barrel of Economic Disaster’). They have claimed that this is match-fixing, as France want to end up in the quarter-final draw with England, Wales and Ireland – the half of the draw that the IRB officially renamed on Sunday as the ’easy route to the final where the All Blacks will crush you’ half. The media have further pointed out that people who bought a £241 ticket for the game are unlikely to be too happy about it, leading Lievremont to tell a reporter “I will speak to the players to see what they decide. Perhaps they will decide to give up if it’s easier for us afterward.” Ah, the old ‘tell the truth sarcastically enough and people won’t realise’ trick. How wiley.
Imanol Harinordoquy was a bit more direct, saying that the idea of the French deliberately losing the game is preposterous - a cunning line to take, as it distracted attention from the French squad and selectors, who are dead keen on deliberately losing the game. He added, “I feel like telling them that I’ve bought four tickets at 250 euros (£217) each, and I’m not complaining.” In fairness, he probably bought them in case Lievremont dropped him in favour of Carla Bruni. Let’s hope he at least gives one to David Skrela.
Next up on our carousel of bafflingness is Andy Robinson, a man normally associated with stolid predictability. This week, however, faced by an absolutely crucial game against Argentina, he decided to spring a tactical surprise. Unfortunately, the only surprising thing he could dream up was to drop his captain, Alistair Kellock – it was that or tell them to wear odd socks, and the Argentinians haven’t fallen for that one since the Falklands. Now I am a bit cautious about taking on a man who was assistant coach of the immortal 2003 England side, but I think we can be pretty sure that he wasn’t much involved in selection back then. “I know Martin Johnson’s good, but have you considered Iain Balshaw for the final?” “Just wait outside and watch for eavesdroppers Andy, like we agreed. Leave the socks.”
On the subject of England, they are (predictably) the one rock of solidity in a sea of surprises. After resting several key players against Georgia – a reasonable enough decision, even if it did backfire a little when England weren’t very good – Johnson has named the team that he hopes will take England to the final, minus the unavailable Stevens, Easter and Lawes. Thank goodness – some sanity. Sorry what’s that? They’re doing what? That’s right folks – the Romanians are putting out a second XV. They’ve made 11 changes since the Argentina game? Of course they have.
Now hold on a minute. Clearly while the rest of the rugby-watching world turned to the man on their left and went ‘there really aren’t any minnows in this tournament, you know’, they had all forgotten the one glaring exception: England. Thank heavens the Romanians are here to remind us what a pushover the English are. After all, their World Cup form since 2002 does read played 16, won 14, lost 2. Many of you will no doubt read this and say ‘they’re obviously resting players for Georgia’, which seems fair, until you realise that the Georgia game is undoubtedly the last one they’ll play in the tournament. Surely their players can lift themselves for the only winnable game they’ll get in the group, especially as it’ll be ‘one last push’ time? And anyway, what are they resting them for? God forbid that, after two games in four days, the Romanians won’t be fit for their next match, the always-crucial European Nations Cup Division 1A tie against Portugal in February. I’m not trying to be rude about developmental rugby, but Romanian players live to play in World Cups, and they only get four games every four years. So why not give who deserve to start the chance to play the most successful Northern Hemisphere team?
I may, of course, be wrong on all of this. It could all be genius. Scotland may win convincingly, thus securing the quarter-final spots for themselves and England, in turn allowing Johnson and Robinson to pick their teams solely on height for next week’s meeting; Romania may lose heroically, discovering a new generation of young superstars who will sweep to glory in 2015; and France may thrash New Zealand, with Parra scoring 80 unanswered points and breaking both the New Zealand backline and Dan Carter’s sense of self-worth at the same time. But I doubt it. So perhaps someone could spare a thought for the real losers in all these shenanigans, who are the players. After all, they don’t go out there just to get in a bit of dwarf-throwing.