Sunday morning was ushered in with a sea of sore heads and hazy recollections that something fairly extraordinary had happened the previous day. A glance at the Sunday papers and a nudge of the Sky Plus button brought it all flooding back.
New Zealand had done the impossible and ushered in a new benchmark for sporting choking, putting their 1999 effort and anything the South African cricket team have managed into the shade. Never had a team been such hot favourites to win the World Cup, never had a favourite fallen so far.
England meanwhile had maintained their extraordinary record of being the only country to have beaten Australia in the knock out stages since 1987. This also meant that the obituary for English rugby which I wrote 3 weeks ago has had to be put on ice once again and may just have to be ripped up completely. The unlamented Aussies, after a week of high class whingeing are on their way home just days after the mind-numbingly tedious David Campese had said that an English win would be the worst thing to happen to rugby. No David, the worst thing that could happen is that Australia continue to get away with trying to sideline the scrum as a force in rugby and make it just a way of restarting the game. Finally they may realise that they cannot be a force if they continue to pick as props the fat kids nobody wanted on their side in PE rather than nurturing hulking man mountains like Andrew Sheridan (whose name will surely be used to scare naughty Australian children for years to come).
Unsurprisingly there was something of an ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ feel going into Sunday’s games and at half time in Marseilles, it seemed that a dose of normality had been restored as Fiji struggled to make an impression against South Africa. 20 minutes later, it seemed that in a World Cup with its share of upsets, Fiji were preparing to trump the lot. If England and France sent a seismic shock around the rugby world, Fiji completing the humiliation of the Tri-Nations would have been akin to a meteorite decimating everything we thought we knew about the sport. Inspired by the livewire Moseke Raulini and the tireless Delasau, they tore to shreds the same South African defence against whom England (World Cup semi-finalists lest we forget) had drawn a blank.
Indeed had it not been for a sensational cover tackle from JP Pietersen, Fiji would have taken the lead with 10 minutes to go. As it was, South Africa went up the other end and scored almost immediately, and closed out the game with efficiency. It was probably asking too much for all of the Southern Hemisphere giants to be telling their story walking but Fiji made yet another stirring contribution to this magnificent event. Their final work was to provide their near neighbours with a lesson on grace in defeat and exiting a tournament with dignity. What a terrific bunch of blokes.
South Africa march on to play Argentina who battled their way to a victory against Scotland which was in truth a little more comfortable than the scoreboard suggests. It was only when the Scottish bench was introduced into the action that the Celts began to threaten with Chris Cusiter and Kelly Brown combining well to give the Scots 5 points and some hope. Scotland gave a glimpse of the potential in the team if they shake off the restrictive shackles of their limited gameplan. Perhaps we may see a more expansive Scotland emerge post-World Cup.
Scotland will undoubtedly see this as a missed opportunity and rightly so. Kenny Logan estimated after the game that Scotland had made 10 unforced errors – triple that Kenny and you may be in the right area. The Lamont brothers alone strung together a series of mistakes which could easily have been accompanied by circus music. Argentina did not play one of their better games of the tournament but they have developed an efficient method which is hard to counter, coolly orchestrated by Juan Martin Hernandez, surely at the head of the queue for player of the tournament. They stand a very real chance of winning this World Cup.
So, as 4 years ago, we have a Northern Hemisphere semi final and a Southern Hemisphere semi final. It would appear that not much has changed up north in the meantime but down south the identity of the semi finalists has taken an unexpected twist. Let’s be honest, this week will just be a time-killing exercise as we await for hostilities to recommence at the weekend.
By Stuart Peel