The Celtic clash between Ireland and Wales is the best of a cracking quarter-final lineup
In a Rugby World Cup group game, the average winning margin is 28 points. In a knock-out game, it is 14 points. In a final, it is 10 points, and three finals have been decided by less than one score.
The newspaper in which I read those statistics used them as evidence that knock-out rugby is boring. I strongly suspect the correspondent was a football fan, because the actual reason is quite the opposite – it gets close in the quarter-finals because that’s when the best teams start playing each other. This is where it gets fascinating.
While there are those who will complain that the competition has again failed to produce a group-stage upset, it is difficult to be too downhearted about this because it guarantees an immense weekend of rugby. The obvious weak link is Argentina, who are extremely unlikely to overcome New Zealand (30/1 last I checked), but then Dan Carter thoughtfully ruptured a tendon he never knew he had, giving the game huge resonance for Colin Slade and those who put their house on the All Blacks instead of a pension plan. I for one will be tuning in with rapt attention, not only to see if Slade can fill the winged sandals of Carter but also to seize upon the first sign of choking, spluttering or even mild heart burn from the men in black.
Elsewhere, England and France will renew an historic rivalry with both sides looking to improve. This may turn out to be hubristic, but I make England heavy, heavy favourites. Not only have England won 4 from 4, including two games that thoroughly resembled knock-out rugby, they also have pedigree in this type of game. Add to that the abject form of the French, the deteriorating relationship between coach and players, their weird selection and the psychological impact of a certain J Wilkinson, and I will be astonished if England lose. That said, it is a World Cup quarter final, and if ever there is a game where form goes out of the window, it’s a knock-out game in a World Cup. France are always capable of a mercurial turnaround. I just think that in this instance, it’s more unlikely than usual.
As if that wasn’t enough, the really mouthwatering clashes are the two I have yet to mention. Australia vs South Africa will be titanic, with large numbers of travelling supporters set to create a pulsating atmosphere. David Pocock against Heinrich Brussow, Will Genia against Fourie du Preez – huge clashes in a huge game. Australia are favourites, having beaten South Africa in their last four meetings, but I actually fancy the Springboks to win. Not only is this side the most experienced in their history, with 836 caps, it contains a number of players who are World Cup winners, where Australia have none. Ireland showed that you can beat the Wallabies by kicking your goals and having a blanket defence, both strong facets of the South African game, and I expect that will have had a psychological impact. The onus is on Australia to make the play quick and loose, and in the knock-out stages I always bet against the side who have to break free to win the game – it’s just not how knock-out rugby works.
That is in turn what makes the Celtic clash the pick of the round, as neither side should look to stifle the other. Wales will never abandon their free-flowing style, regardless of circumstance, and a Northern Hemisphere opponent reduces the chance that they will execute badly because of nerves or psychological weakness. Ireland, meanwhile, have the pack to play it tight, but they cut loose against Italy and their dynamic back row will want a broken game so that they can scavenge possession. Although it would buck the trend of late-stage rugby, there is a genuine chance that we’ll see exciting, fast-paced, incisive rugby. The last time Wales and Ireland met in an ultra-pressured game was the 6 Nations decider in 2009, and that was an absolute belter. I really can’t pick a winner, although my heart just about says Wales. Ultimately, whichever of the outstanding back rows wins the day will lead their side to victory, and Warburton against O’Brien is too close to call.
Categories: All Blacks · Argentina · Australia · England · France · Ireland · RWC 2011 · South Africa · Wales
Tagged: Argentina, Australia, Colin Slade, Dan Carter, David Pocock, England, Fourie du Preez, France, Heinrich Brussow, Ireland, Jack Lewars, Jonny Wilkinson, New Zealand, Rugby, Rugby Blog, RWC 2011, Sam Warburton, Sean O'Brien, South Africa, Wales, Will Genia
McCaw and Cooper's ongoing battle typified the physicality and intensity of the TriNations final
Australia may have inflicted a second successive defeat on the All Blacks in Brisbane last weekend, but this hugely entertaining match provided no reason to doubt that New Zealand are still firm favourites for the World Cup.
For the duration of the first half, Australia’s performance resembled those we have come to expect from their opposition. Their physicality at the breakdown was astonishing – as was the intensity of their play – and New Zealand seemed to be dead and buried after Samo’s brilliant try. After receiving the ball on his own 10-metre line and casting off Adam Thompson’s weak challenge (who was, it must be said, hampered by an injury), Samo galloped to the try line with ease – a sensational turn of speed for the oldest man ever to have represented Australia in this competition. Dan Vickerman epitomised the Australian effort: he piled into every ruck with total commitment and even acted as scrum-half to feed Samo for his try. Time spent leading Cambridge University certainly has not dulled the ferocity or skill of his play.
New Zealand could not handle Australia’s pace, physicality, or penetration. It was an unexpected performance from both teams: there were plenty of errors from the usually perfect Dan Carter; and New Zealand’s defensive frailties were exposed, particularly around the fringes by the outstanding Will Genia who scored one try and created another for full-back Beale. Australia, on the other hand, showed an edge to their play which has been missing, probably since the last time they won the TriNations in 2001. We all know about Australia’s great backline – any side which can afford to leave Matt Giteau out of their World Cup squad must either be foolish or outrageously talented in that department (or perhaps both); we know that David Pocock is one of the few sevens who can match McCaw’s excellence; but Australia showed, in the TriNations finale, something of which we were previously unsure – that they are up for any fight.
This newfound hardness was highlighted by the supreme defensive effort of the Wallabies in the second half. New Zealand’s resurgence – thanks to some stern words from Graham Henry, no doubt – was largely based on a pick-and-drive game. It was brilliantly executed for Conrad Smith’s try: due reward for twenty-six phases strung together by the New Zealand pack (missing both Thompson and Read through first-half injuries). Nonu ran in another try, but throughout this period of play the Wallabies’ defensive effort was even more impressive than New Zealand’s ball retention and relentless attack.
With the score tied at 20-20 a New Zealand victory seemed inevitable, such was the certainty of their revival. But Genia, searing past Mealamu, found another hole in the black wall and fed Ioane who, as ever, was tracking his run on the inside. Ioane stepped off his right to beat Jane and passed to Beale for a well-worked try.
Australia produced an extraordinary performance. They showed that they are serious contenders for the World Cup (if Cooper can kick his goals) with a hardened edge to their contact work, and a greater hunger for victory. But, worryingly for the rest of the world, a great display from the Wallabies showed just how good this New Zealand team really is: that they can come back so strongly from such a demolition in the first half, and are prepared to grind out results predominantly with their pack demonstrates how seriously New Zealand are taking this World Cup. Australia will probably not play as well as this in the World Cup. But Richie McCaw will certainly not allow his team to get themselves into a 20-3 deficit again.
New Zealand had an off day but still managed to compete with this Australian side on top form. No other team in the world would have got close.
Categories: All Blacks · Australia · RWC 2011 · Tri Nations
Tagged: Adam Thompson, Australia, Chris Gollop, Dan Vickerman, David Pocock, Kurtley Beale, New Zealand, Quade Cooper, Richie McCaw, Rugby, Rugby Blog, Tri Nations, Will Genia