Only two games this weekend, but that doesn’t mean we’re short of topics to talk about. By this time next week, the Rugby World Cup 2011 will be over. But that’s too sad for us to think about. Let’s crack on.
Brutal All Blacks crush Australia to reach the final
Australia probably thought they’d played the most physical match of the tournament the week before against South Africa in the quarter-final. After the performance of New Zealand, that’s up for debate. The way the All Blacks shut down Australia was as impressive as it was dull. The dedication of their players to attack the breakdown, particularly when counter-rucking, paid off again and again as Australia were unable to generate the quick ball they thrive off. If the Wallabies were not driven off the ball and turned over, then they had to scrap and commit more bodies than they wanted to try and salvage any kind of possession. What came back was scrappy and sluggish. Will Genia must have felt like he was having a nightmare.
The physicality wasn’t just limited to the rucks though from New Zealand. Some of the tackles in open play were phenomenal, draining Australia mentally and physically. One huge hit from Kieran Read on Rocky Elsom immediately springs to mind, two giant men clashing but with only one winner, the man in black. This pressure in the tackle area, as well as in air under the high balls towards Quade Cooper in particular, was extra special.
In fact, New Zealand essentially adopted South Africa’s gameplan from recent years, using the box kicks and up and unders to great effect. Cory Jane and Israel Dagg thrived taking the high ball, making countless perfect catches. More importantly, it was also Dagg’s good footwork that lead to the only try of the game for Ma’a Nonu, slipping tackles on his to the line on the right hand side, before having the sense to look around for support and find Nonu for the offload. He has finally proved his ability at this level, and will be around for a long time yet.
For Australia, this loss should be treated as a one off. They have enough good young players to compete seriously in 2015. Some serious work is needed at the scrum, where James Slipper is developing but not quite quick enough, but when it comes to physicality you’re either strong enough or you come up short. It will be a lesson learned. Unfortunately, it happened in a World Cup semi-final.
Wales begin to recover as Lievremont “praises” his players
24 hours later and the debate is still raging on. Should Sam Warburton have been sent off? By the letter of the law, yes. By personal interpretation? No. The rules are in place for a reason, and the tackle could quite easily have resulted in a serious injury to Vincent Clerc. Warburton came out afterwards and swore there was no malicious intent, but the level of intent is irrelevant when the technique is wrong. If Alain Rolland had chosen to sin-bin Warburton rather than send him off, then there would be nowhere near as much reaction. However with the emotion put to one side, which it has to be said many people who commented on the match yesterday failed to do so, making wildly ignorant comments about Rolland’s background and professionalism, it was the right call.
Wales still could have won this match despite their captain’s absence, something that has perhaps been forgotten due to the controversy over the sending off. Wales missed kickable chances for 11 points in total, James Hook missing two penalties, Stephen Jones a conversion, and Leigh Halfpenny a long range effort. If any of those chances had been converted, we’d be talking about a Welsh-Kiwi final this Sunday. On top of those opportunities, when pressing on the edge of France’s 22 around the 73rd minute, no drop goal attempt was made. Stephen Jones has since come out and said he wanted to get closer, but in reality, he was close enough. It was a chance missed, Jones’ “Jonny Wilkinson” moment. He choked.
Wales will head into the third place play-off against Australia without Adam Jones or Sam Warburton, which in a bizarre twist of romantic fate opens the door for a potential return and 100th cap for Martyn Williams, who was in New Zealand working as a TV pundit for ITV last weekend. With no other specialist openside flanker in the Welsh squad, Williams could be called into the squad as an injury replacement for Adam Jones. One last smile to wash away the pain of the semi-final perhaps.
France though move on to a repeat of the 1987 final against hosts New Zealand, and have been as united and harmonious as ever. With certain members of the squad freshly labelled sales gosses (spoiled brats) by Lievremont, Morgan Parra nursing an injury, and Vincent Clerc coming out and saying that he had “never been so scared on a rugby pitch”, they’re in the perfect condition. Don’t write them off though. That would be madness.
For Try of the Weekend, there is a grand selection of, uh, two. So congratulations to Ma’a Nonu. It was a case of right place, right time for the big Kiwi centre as he benefited from Dagg’s brilliant running.
This weekend’s Hero is Richie McCaw. Few people will know how fit he actually was before kick off, but the captain bullied and hustled his way through a bloody encounter against his favourite enemy with aplomb.
Villain of the weekend is not Alain Rolland, but Stephen Jones. He should have backed himself to take the drop goal. Even if he’d gone for it, at least he would know whether things might have turned out differently. It will haunt him.
by Ben Coles