Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rugby World Cup weekend Two round-up

A heavy second weekend of World Cup rugby saw seven fixtures, featuring five of my "fifteen vital pool stage matches." Setanta's regular TV channel only just broadcast the New Zealand vs. Portugal match for North American viewers last evening - two days after the game - and I wasn't prepared to pay their PPV rates for that contest, so only now do I feel comfortable assessing all the matches from the comfort of my living-room.

The weekend got started early on Friday with the titanic heavyweight encounter between world champions ENGLAND (still not exactly comfortable calling them world champions, but they are defending RWC champs) and SOUTH AFRICA. The Springboks were simply lethal, outclassing the moribund English with a comprehensive 36-0 thrashing. Springbok coach Jake White has had a toughtap-dance dodging slings and arrows the past few years, but his RWC template to take U-21 players and develop them for a RWC appears to be paying handsome dividends. They certainly look to have the physical tools to win the championship; one wonders however, about their mental agility and experience come the knock-out stages. Still, a massive squash of the defending champs will have done their confidence no harm. The Boks are looking very, very ominous, 'tho it's difficult to give an analysis without wondering what the hell is wrong with England. Are the many foreign imports plying their trade in England's domestic professional leagues harming the development and new blood of their national program? It's worth a debate. Right now, I haven't written off France, but by-the-day I can only see one of the three Tri-Nations superpowers lifting the World Cup trophy in a months' time. Oft-injured wunderboy Johnny Wilkinson is suiting up for Samoa and back to save the day for England. Or can he...? If not, England is staring down the barrel of an ignominious early departure from France.

On Saurday morning, NEW ZEALAND fielded something like a B-side against PORTUGAL and as expected hammered them by a century, winning 108-13. It wasn't always easy and not always pretty. The All Blacks started disjointed, and ended the same way with too many reserve-bench bodies taking the field, keeping jersies warm and making the 2nd-half a stop-start affair. When you see All-World prop Carl Hayman slotting in at lock, you realize this is a difficult test to assess, even when cruising in for something like 14 tries (although I lost count). The All Blacks were clinical, hardly ever stretched, and it is probably true that Portugal may have been awarded (read: patronized) with ten gift points by referee Chris White, that in a closer and more important test match wouldn't have been awarded. Alas, the quality of refreeing at this RWC has not been especially good. High point of the game was fan reaction when the TMO awarded Portugal's only try. You would've been mistaken for thinking the Portuguese fans thought they'd just won the World Cup - the FIFA World Cup. The All Blacks still look like the team to beat, but when analyzing coach Graham Henry's rotation policies, and for all the talk of New Zealand's depth, there is obviously still a big falloff going from Richie McCaw to backup Chris Masoe, and the All Blacks can ill-afford to lose any of their stalwarts.

Saturday's mid-afternnon contest saw the battle for Pool B with AUSTRALIA topping the feisty WALES at Cardiff 32-20. I am still not sold on Australia's forward pack, but they looked convincing in victory, and rookie Berrick Barnes, their last-second replacement for veteran Stephen Larkham, looks the goods and might be a Wallaby star for years to come. Barnes was a revelation, and not even unsettled on a nasty late shoulder-barge by Welsh skipper Gareth Thomas after offloading to Matt Giteau for an easy try under the sticks. Thomas should have been carded, should be cited, but certainly no more than Wallaby hooker Stephen Moore's late out-of-bounds cheap shot on impish winger Shane Williams. There was a fair bit of niggle and retaliation going on between both sides. Nevertheless, both came out of the game with the expected result, and much credit to build upon.

Saturday's evening match saw struggling IRELAND tie themselves (and their ashen-faced supporters) into even more knots dowing lowly GEORGIA by a shocking scoreline of only 14-10. Ireland has two wins from two games, but the tough contests begin, and even baffled Irish coach Eddie O'Sullivan has conceeded his team has reached a "crisis" point. The Georgians were brave, and an intercept try by winger Giorgi Shkinin off a long mouth-watering gift pass from Irish scrummie Peter Stringer saw furious skipper Brian O'Driscoll with fists balled and spittle flying at his teammates. On Setanta - the Irish broadcaster - it's all doom & gloom, a "wake without a corpse" said one of the panelists.

Sunday morning saw CANADA at the "last chance saloon" having to beat FIJI at Cardiff to have any chance of advancing to the knock-out stage of the competition. First of all, the crowd in Wales was disappointing, especially after the huge enthusiasm we're seeing displayed at ALL the venues in France. Truth be told, in a game that Canada simply had to win, they played their 1st-half with too many mistakes and not nearly enough commitment (although skipper Morgan Williams, bless 'em, played his heart out again for a second straight week). Fiji had a deserved 15-6 lead at the break, then tagged a couple penalties on-top shortly thereafter, but Canada clawed slowly back into the game and scored a great rucking try at the 60th minute to trail only 22-13 with twenty-to-go. At the 71st minute a huge momentum-shifter: Fullback Mike Pyke bombed an easy overlap try and took it to the line himself and appeared to have scored, only to be ruled a double-movement by the TMO.

Rugby Planet breaks down the movement:

The Canada backline was lined up with the biggest overlap the World Cup has seen. But Pyke went on his own and the rest was TMO history. ... At first, it looked like the Canadian was held up and dotted down after two movements. But referee Tony Spreadbury made the right decision to go upstairs and leave the final call to Joubert, who took a good few minutes to make his verdict. After countless replays, it was clear that Pyke had not been held over or before the line and the try was successfully scored in one movement. The South African TMO [Craig Joubert] thought otherwise though and the jeers from the Canada supporters in an empty Millennium Stadium could have matched that of a capacity crowd.

The IRB Laws and Regulations specify:

Law 15 Tackle: Ball carrier Brought to the Ground

(f) If a tackled player’s momentum carries the player into the in-goal, the player can score a try or make a touch down.

(g) If players are tackled near the goal line, these players may immediately reach out and ground the ball on or over the goal line to score a try or make a touch down.

Canadian coach Ric Suggitt is still convinced Canada was robbed of a try. Rugby Canada should request an official clarification on the IRB Law ruling.

Wrong TMO call aside, Canada was guilty of not using the option of the outside-man too many times, and it killed them. Pyke's decision was simply the most glaring and egregious example. That missed score was crucial, and would've had Canada breathing down Fiji's necks by a couple points. Canada then kicked a penalty at the 73rd minute to bring themselves within a chance at late victory. And into stoppage time rugby fans around the world saw a breathtaking finale, with Canada, down six points, patiently recycling the ball, maul-ruck-maul, and attacking the Fijian line mere inches away. It looked for the world that Canada was going to steal the match on the last play of the game, but a fateful turnover at the ruck saw the ball spill to Fijian fullback Kameli Ratuvou who raced 100 metres to touch down at the other end of the paddock. Truly, a 14-point turnaround try if ever you saw one, and the final score of 29-16 was in no way an accurate indicator of the game. Rugby Planet cited their moment of the match as, "The dying seconds of the game must have had Canadians' hearts in their throats with an upset just inches away." *Sigh* Canada is now out of the knock-out stage, but still has a pair of remaining games to play for Canadian pride (and maybe bruise a couple Wallabies, eh?).

Sunday's middle game say SAMOA face TONGA. Although the Samoans showed some heart going down gamely to the Boks a week earlier, and despite their having thumped Tonga by 47 points in a Pacific Cup contest earlier this summer, it was the Tongans who brought the commitment. They also brought noticeably more size, if less professionalism. Both sides played with a more conservative approach than was expected, but the Tongans, down to thirteen men for the games' concluding minutes, held on for an absorbing 19-15 victory. Standout for the Tongans -again- was big-haired No. 8 Finau Maka. Indeed, if the IRB hands out awards for "Best Hair," then Tonga wins hands-down. England can be thankful, as a Samoan victory could have thrown this pool wide open.

In the last match of the weekend, hosts FRANCE needed to make amends for their shocking loss to the Pumas eight days earlier by annihilating NAMIBIA - which they did. It feels right to say on the display of their 87-10 dismantling that "France is Back!" and Sebastian Chabal's Lomu-esque highlight 50 metre try put the fright into the rest of the championship contenders. But in a game already seen as a mis-match before kickoff, referee Alain Rolland spoiled the affair by handing a red card to Jacques Nieuwenhuis for a high hit on Chabal in the games' first ten minutes. It was certainly a yellow-card offense, but not a red. Namibia having to play the game a man short for 70 minutes made a foregone conclusion nothing more than a training run. And with a full eight days since their last match - the Pumas, by contrast, had only three days rest for their second match - it pretty much was a dry training run. France are definitely the high mark of the Six Nations entrants, but more remains to be seen to be fully convinced.

Lastly, time for another swipe at the greed merchants at the IRB and their RWCL organizing subsiduary:

Whether many in Tonga managed to watch a live broadcast was debatable as only 700 families subscribe to pay television, which has the exclusive right to show the tournament.

The local free station, Television Tonga, has not picked up subsidiary rights to screen the matches live because it cannot afford to pay about US$700 ($980) to broadcast one game.

Instead most Tongan fans have been tuning into their radios to pick up the coverage.

Rugby is Tonga's national sport. The RWC is the biggest event in that national sport. One would imagine that for a Tongan, any match against Samoa is presumably a huge geographical and cultural rival. Perhaps it's true that Television Tonga are cheapskates, being, after all, free-to-air public broadcasters. But when the IRB believes the fatter wallets of 700 cable subscribing homes are more valuable assets to them than all of the other eyeballs in Tonga, there's something terribly wrong.

I thought the RWC was supposed to be about growing the game, hmm? Again, and I repeat: Selling broadcast rights beyond the affordability of the markets to broadcast them is not a positive sign for the promotion and development of the sport. If Tonga brings more benefit to the global "brand," identity and excitement of the Rugby World Cup than the mere value of $700 per game - and they do - then surely it behooves the IRB to reward their participation by giving their market television broadcast rights at prices they can afford, and allow their - let's face it - impoverished supporters and countrymen to see the actual games. The short-sightedness continues to exasperate me.


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