Friday, September 21, 2007

RWC late-mid-week Two notes

A few quick hits on the past few days Rugby World Cup France 2007 mid-week matches, and a preview of today's Big One...

On Tuesday SCOTLAND skunked ROMANIA in an error-strewn match without extending themselves, winning 42-0 on the damp evening in front of a sparse attendance at Murrayfield. Except for the occasional butterfingers, Scotland took care of business and looked prepared. On the other side, Romania were worse than disappointing. In a tournament that has already been remarked as "The Year of the Minnow," Romania put in the lousiest effort so-far at RWC 2007. They showed more naivete than commitment, with forwards repeatedly standing by staring at idle ball on the ground and allowing the Scots to walk over it and claim easy possession. Back to the chalkboard and Rucking 101 for Romania, who will be hard-pressed to beat Portugal if they repeat the same effort.

Wednesday saw more Pool C action with ITALY taking on upstarts PORTUGAL. Less than a year ago it was all one-way traffic with Italy pummelling these same Portuguese 83-0, galloping in thirteen tries to none. The RWC re-match looked like more of the same early, until Italian skipper Marco Bortolami was sin-binned for throwing a phantom punch in the games' 8th minute. The Italians were camped in the Portuguese half for most of the match, but couldn't construct much of the possession into valuable points, whereas Portugal's first foray into the Italian twenty-two, as late as the 32nd minute, resulted with a beautifully worked try to Portuguese lock David Penalva. Italy led 16-5 at the half-time break, did not score for another 23 minutes (landing a penalty), then drawing away with a try to Mauro Bergamasco off the back of a strong maul. Somewhat ridiculously, Italy's desperation to score a 4th try for a table bonus-point, saw them kicking the ball away repeatedly. Made no tactical sense to me, either. Italy needs a wake-up call if they are to have any chance of knocking back Scotland and stealing the coveted Pool C runner-up position. Final score: Italy 31 vs. Portugal 5.

Rugby Planet says, "Italy are now clear second favourites in their race to finish as Pool C runners-up behind the All Blacks."

Clear favourites...? - I don't know what they're talking about.

The Guardian's Michael Aylwin makes more sense:

Canny Scots could sneak to the semis and beyond

Right now, dark horses Scotland look the most likely of the four home unions to make the latter stages of the World Cup.

He's got a solid argument. O-kay, so the "... and beyond" headline may be stretching reality "beyond elastic." But do yourself a favour and be sure to check Aylwin's entire commentary, click here.

Yesterday WALES trounced brave JAPAN by a score of 72-18. The mis-match saw a strong performance by Wales in front of (another) disappointing crowd at Millenium Stadium.

(Digression time.... Last November Wales hosted Canada in a "friendly" tour test match in front of a packed 73,000 spectators. Yesterday we didn't see nearly as big a turn-out at that same stadium for a home Wales test in the deepest pool at an actual meaningful World Cup tournament. What is up with that? I was relieved to see the upper stands at Millenium Stadium - the sorts-of-nosebleed sections that we here in Maple Leafs Nation call the "Greys" - where the real grassroots supporters sit, were all packed. It was down closer to the sidelines, in the corporate sections, where seats were noticeably, and embarrassingly empty. Scotland is getting lousy sales for their home RWC tests; Wales is not living up to their usual high ticket sales on their end; and yet France is packing their stadia even for games involving minnows. Surely it is time to make one exclusive host nation and stop gifting RWC matches to nations outside the host nation. Or price the premium tickets cheaper. Or schedule the fixtures at a smaller park - say, Stradey Park in Llanelli. Or keep 'em in Cardiff, but stop giving away comps and freebies to corporate wankers who won't show, and give them instead to Taffie schoolkids who would scream their lungs out if given half the chance.)

O-kay, so Wales win was emphatic, they are looking good value (even if Kevin Morgan and Shane Williams dropped too many simple balls that would've given their side a century), and are giving their fans cause for optimism. The high point of the match however, were the plucky Japanese scoring what must be shortlisted for "Try of the Tournament." In the 19th minute, ahead by 7-3, Wales were camped near the Japanese line and recycling dangerously. Wales then had a lapse of concentration (and not for the first time), leaving unprotected ball sitting like a blinking neon watermelon at the back of their static ruck. Japanese captain Takuro Miuchi claimed the loose ball and set in motion a counter-attack down the left flank, putting the ball through several sets of hands at pace and angles that brought this neutral spectator out of his seat and screaming. 95 metres later, Japanese wing Kosuke Endo dotted down for a classic score. Take a bow Japan, that was genius. High point aside, Wales cruised, and are looking for a win against Fiji to make the knock-out stage. They should get there.

To-day's match is one of the biggest. The Pool D FRANCE vs. IRELAND showdown was always going to be big before the tournament started, but France's opening-day shock loss to Argentina, and Ireland's funereal wins over lowly Namibia and Georgia, have meant the sting of this outcome is gigantic. If France loses, they can kiss their chances at raising the championship trophy goodbye. If Ireland loses - and even their most optimistic supporters are mournfully conceeding it's more than just a distinct possibility - will have only one remaining last-day chance against Argentina to try to qualify for the knock-out, and then it'll all come down to bonus-points. It's a tall order. In an eye-opening decision, Irish coach Eddie O'Sullivan has hit the panic button and dropped veteran scrumhalf Peter Stringer altogether, not even fancying the stalwart veteran's form good enough for a limited bench. The fact is, for France and Ireland, the playoff stage has arrived early. Both teams need the win desperately, the ramifications of this match are massive. Rugby Planet preview here.

FRANCE: 1. Olivier Milloud, 2. Raphaël Ibañez (captain), 3. Pieter de Villiers, 4. Sébastien Chabal, 5. Jérôme Thion, 6. Serge Betsen, 7. Thierry Dusautoir, 8. Julien Bonnaire, 9. Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, 10. Frédéric Michalak, 11. Cédric Heymans, 12. Damien Traille, 13. David Marty, 14. Vincent Clerc, 15. Clément Poitrenaud. RESERVES: 16. Dimitri Szarzewski, 17. Jean-Baptiste Poux, 18. Lionel Nallet, 19. Yannick Nyanga, 20. Lionel Beauxis, 21. Yannick Jauzion, 22. Aurélien Rougerie.

IRELAND: 1. Marcus Horan, 2. Jerry Flannery, 3. John Hayes, 4. Donncha O'Callaghan, 5. Paul O'Connell, 6. Simon Easterby, 7. David Wallace, 8. Denis Leamy, 9. Eoin Reddan, 10. Ronan O'Gara, 11 Andrew Trimble, 12. Gordon D'Arcy, 13. Brian O'Driscoll (captain), 14. Shane Horgan, 15. Girvan Dempsey. RESERVES: 16. Frankie Sheahan, 17. Simon Best, 18. Malcolm O'Kelly, 19. Neil Best, 20. Isaac Boss, 21. Paddy Wallace, 22. Gavin Duffy.

Date: Friday, September 21
Kick-off: 21:00 local, 3:00 PM ET (Toronto, New York).
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Referee: Chris White
Touch judges: Dave Pearson, Hugh Watkins
Television match official: Jonathan Kaplan
Assessor: Michel Lamoulie


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