Stuart Peel spends a productive 30 hour journey to New Zealand pondering the events of the opening weekend of the World Cup.
A levelling of the playing field?
The outstanding feature of the opening round of matches has been the competitiveness of the so called “minnows”. There was a noticeable absence of cricket scores with the USA, Romania and Japan providing genuine scares for Ireland, Scotland and France respectively. Italy and Tonga did not let Australia and New Zealand run away from them. Argentina, now a leading rugby nation which is not yet treated as such, made light of their lack of warm up games by pushing England to the very limit.
The obvious question to arise from these results is are the minnows getting better or are the top teams not as good as they have been or think they are? The answer I suspect, rather boringly, is a bit of both. With the exceptions of New Zealand and Australia, modern professional rugby at the top level has been characterised of late by a great deal of perspiration at the expense of inspiration. Most of the Six Nations teams and South Africa are packed with big units at the expense of game breakers. Meanwhile the smaller rugby nations have been benefiting from greater levels of professionalism, the first sign of which is usually better organisation particularly in defence. The combination of better defence from the smaller nations and less imaginative, more robotic attack from the bigger ones has led to games remaining close for longer. Where the gap remains however is in levels of experience, strength, fitness and conditioning and that has taken it’s toll over 80 minutes.
As the tournament progresses it is possible the gap will widen again as the big boys hit their straps and the rest start to feel the effects of several games of an intensity and physicality which they have never experienced before. But in terms of basic rugby skills the gap appears to be narrowing.
Non-rugby supporters not welcome
I write this as I wait at Auckland airport to board a plane to Queenstown, 28 hours into an epic 30 hour journey. My god it had better be worth it. Alighting at Auckland airport, the Rugby World Cup just hits you in the face. It is everywhere. Every advert, every bar, every shop is all about the All Blacks. It borders on a cult. Even most of the passengers walking through the airport seemed to be wearing black, or maybe I was just getting paranoid. Richie McCaw is ubiquitous, Sonny Bill, Dan Carter and Conrad Smith not far behind. Even the rather amusing Air New Zealand safety briefing is about rugby and features McCaw, Graham Henry and several of the others. If some Scrooges back in England are worried that the Olympics is going to get rammed down their throat, believe me it won’t be on the same level as this. Non-rugby supporters will need to go into hibernation in the coming weeks, or possibly flee the country.
For my part I think it is fantastic. Wales is probably the only other country in which being hosts of the Rugby World Cup would completely dominate everything and bring the country to a borderline standstill. I can’t wait to get to Dunedin to sample the atmosphere of a match. My one hope is that the whole thing is not exclusively about the All Blacks and is about the Rugby World Cup as a whole. One thing I am sure of is that after 2 months sampling this party, I anticipate being a very broken man.