Monday Morning 1st-Five (06/19/2006)
June 19, 2006
1. Australia crushed World Cup holders England by a score of 43-18 in Melbourne on Saturday and reclaimed the Cook Cup. It was a clean sweep for the Wallabies who defeated England in the first test match a week earlier 34-3. For those keeping score, that's a two test cume of 77-21, a pair of hammerings by any reckoning. Rugby Planet reports England, "are now at their lowest ebb since 1984 - that was the last time England suffered five successive Test matches losses. Big Ben is striking thirteen. It was another chastening experience for England coach Andy Robinson, who has lost 10 of his 18 Tests in charge since replacing Sir Clive Woodward."
2. Ireland ran the All Blacks close a second time, falling late again for the 2nd successive week, this time 27-17 at Eden Park in Auckland. The test was played for the most part in a torrential downpour, and both sides playing to minimize mistakes. New Zealand coach Graham Henry's rotation selection policy has so far demonstrated that in a few positions -- critically, at first-five and blindside flanker -- that the distance between the first picks (Dan Carter and Jerry Collins, respectively) and their replacements is a huge gulf. And there's still uncertainty at the center position following the retirement of Tana Umaga. Ma'a Nonu has not looked particularly great; on Saturday Casey Laulala wasn't much better. Injured Conrad Smith is still an option, as is fullback Mils Muliaina...
3. Argentina defeat Wales for 2nd week in a row, wrapping up their test series 2-0. After squeaking past Wales in Patagonia last weekend, they turned on the afterburners and ran Wales ragged for a 45-27 runaway victory in Buenos Aires. The Pumas have been in turmoil the past few weeks with striking players, but they have regrouped and come in to form perfectly for a home test against an understrength All Blacks squad next week.
4. New Zealand Maori won the Churchill Cup in Edmonton, thrashing Scotland "A" by a score of 52-17. The contest was much more exciting than the scoreline suggests. The Scots did not rollover, but were faced with a committed team on the gas pedal who were sticking incredible passes and offloads for tries. Even the All Blacks didn't come close to exhibiting the same ball-handling skills (albiet in wet conditions) earlier that morning against Ireland. It was "champagne rugby." Hosea Gear's off-balance offload to Joe McDonnell for a try, and Chris Smylie's sideline behind-the-back pass to Anthony Tahana, who offloaded to try-scorer Liam Messam, were both spectacular and had to be seen several times in slow-motion to be believed.
The only downside of the afternoon was the size of the crowd. Ordinarily a crowd sized at 7983 would be something worth crediting. But played in the 63,000-seat capacity Commonwealth Stadium, it is much too generous to say the stands were half-empty. It was 87% empty. The finals should not be played in a stadium that big and that empty. Better to play in a small stadium that seats 7,500 and let 500 unlucky spectators go home disappointed than to try selling a sport played in a cavernous and mostly empty stadium. It looks humiliating -- like throwing a party where nobody comes. Of course, that's not the reality (ie. "cool, nearly 8000 people showed up!"), but that's the perception (ie. "nobody came; pathetic; embarrassing.").
In other Churchill Cup action that same afternoon and venue, Ireland "A" snatched a thrilling 30-27 victory with a try in extra-time to get past the England Saxons in the Plate Final. And in a test many in the crowd would have appreciated as their "big test," hosts Canada rolled over the USA Eagles 33-18 to win the Bowl Final and claim 5th place in the six-team tournament.
5. Rupeni Caucaunibuca returns to international test rugby and Fiji downs Six Nations tourists Italy by a scoreline of 29-18 at Lautoka in Fiji. These two teams have a great head-to-head history, with Fiji now leading Italy 4 wins to 3.
South Africa claim a two-test series victory over Scotland, winning an uninspiring 29-15 borefest in Port Elizabeth on Saturday. And one northern hemisphere team got lucky and won a test -- albeit against weak northern hemisphere opposition: France downed Romania 62-14 in Bucharest.