We’re now into the real business stage of the Rugby World Cup, but before the tension cranks up a couple of notches, here are the highlights from the final weekend of the group stages:
Ireland & Wales power past Italy and Fiji to set up Celtic quarter-final
The last Home Nation to play this weekend produced arguably the best British Isles performance: toiling with a tricky Italian side in the first half before breaking away through a brace from birthday boy Keith Earls and a well worked score for skipper Brian O’Driscoll. The Irish camp have been clear in stating that they have achieved nothing yet, but the reality is that winning their group has exceeded the wider expectations of the rugby world, and for that they have to be commended. Italy crudely boasted of their scrum’s supremacy before the match, which was only ever going to set them up for a fall. The fact that by the end they had committed more infringements at the scrum than Ireland summed up the match perfectly.
In a way, it’s a shame that Ireland and Wales will be facing each other in the quarter-final, because both sides have been playing magnificently, and deserve a shot at the final itself. But the fates have paired two of the form teams in this Rugby World Cup together, and it will make for a incredible clash next Saturday morning, a sumptuous appetiser before the probable disappointment of England v France afterwards.
The Welsh performance against Fiji was brutally efficient. The Pacific Islanders, lacking the punch of four years ago in Nantes when a quarter-final spot was within their grasp, simply wilted as Wales sped through gaps that were far too open and brittle to break through. Having said that, 9 tries against Fiji is no mean feat, especially after the scare they gave Wales back at the Millennium Stadium last November. Scott Williams, the 20 year old from Llanelli, has particularly been a revelation in the back line. Unheard of outside of Wales before the start of the Rugby World Cup, he and another youngster, George North, have taken the tournament by storm.
England stutter through as Scotland go home
For just a moment yesterday morning when Georgia were leading Argentina 7-5 at half-time, the Scottish dream was still alive. But Los Pumas came through as expected, and as we speak Scotland are on their way home. It didn’t seem that way on 55 minutes however, leading 12-3 thanks to the boots of Paterson and Parks. What Scotland needed was to score within the next five minutes. Instead, Jonny Wilkinson knocked over a drop goal minutes after the restart and England clawed their way back, striking in the 77th minute through Chris Ashton’s try when it was too late for Scotland to come back.
England though, were appalling for most of the match. Their set-piece suffered massively in the first half, unable to fluently regather the ball in the air with Richie Gray bounding around and snaffling anything he could at the line out, and Matt Stevens conceding two penalties for the exact same offence, dropping his bind at the scrum, which Scotland turned into points. This combined with the ineffectiveness of Mike Tindall at inside centre in attack, Ben Youngs’ hesitation under pressure at scrum-half, and the inaccuracy of Jonny Wilkinson’s boot all halted England’s momentum. Couple this with their bête noire of failing to control the breakdown either physically or legally, and England were stagnant. And yet they keep winning. It’s like 2007 all over again.
Scotland can either look at this two ways. They either, as they’ve been saying in the press, have not progressed due to 30 seconds of madness against Argentina, or can be philosophical and accept that perhaps this Rugby World Cup has come four years too early for their pre-dominantly young side. Max Evans, Ruaridh Jackson, Richie Gray, Ross Ford, John Barclay and Richie Vernon will be four years and perhaps one Lions tour more experienced come 2015, where they can really challenge. Jackson is the most important of all of those players, as Scotland need a 10 who can kick at 80% and take the opportunities when on offer. The future for Scotland is not as bleak as the present.
All Blacks mourn Carter as Australia progress and France are shambolic
Despite the chaotic news filtering through the media and frantically whispered around the Wellington Regional Stadium that Daniel Carter was to play no further part in the Rugby World Cup, New Zealand clinically dispatched of Canada, winning 79-15. Colin Slade’s rise from understudy to global star initially looked rocky, an early charged down kick not exactly convincing the crowd. But he grew into the game, before an ankle injury saw him leave the field to add further concern.
Zac Guildford bounced back from his recent public confession of a drinking problem with four tries in his first start since the revelation, a much needed personal boost for the young winger. There was also a try on his 99th cap for Mils Muliaina, the full back getting his first start of the tournament after being kept out of the side due to the impressive form of Israel Dagg.
Australia also marched through to a tasty quarter-final against the Springboks, but at the cost of losing another back in Drew Mitchell, who suffered a cruel hamstring injury just weeks after he completed a remarkable comeback from his severe ankle injury. There was good news though for the Wallabies as Stephen Moore and David Pocock returned to the side, both players looking very sharp all round, with Pocock scoring twice. Also the balance that Berrick Barnes showed in the number 12 shirt may prove to be Australia’s saving grace. Whilst they ran in plenty of tries, letting Russia score three tries of their own will have driven Robbie Deans mad. They will go into their match against South Africa as underdogs.
Lastly, however poorly you think your World Cup campaign is going, just cast your eye over at France. Disintegrated moral, individual camps of players, a poisonous relationship between head coach and key players, and now after the hammering by New Zealand, a defeat to Tonga. Yes, Tonga. And yet, because they are Les Bleus you cannot write them off beating England next week. Madness.
Try of the Weekend goes to Ben McCalman of Australia. A cross-field chip from Berrick Barnes found winger for the day Radike Samo on the right, who beat two before brilliant flinging the ball inside to Pocock. If Samo’s one handed offload was good, Pocock’s was even better, finding Nathan Sharpe as he went to ground, through the hands to Quade Cooper, and on to McCalman to finish. Incredible.
Hero of the weekend is Tonga’s Sukanaivalu Hufanga, for what proved to be the match-winning try against France in Tonga’s biggest ever victory. The flyer did well to shove off Julian Bonnaire before regaining his balance and diving over for a huge try.
Villain of the weekend is Italy’s Leonardo Ghiraldini. Normally a case of innocent until proven guilty, the video said it all with Cian Healy’s accusations of the Azzurri hooker gouging his eyes initially looking correct. The ban should be a big one.
What were your highlights of the last weekend?
by Ben Coles