RWC weekend and early-week action!
The Red Terror apologizes for the tardiness of RWC match reports and commentaries. Alas, the Red Terror is at the mercy of Canadian rights broadcaster Setanta Sports, which sometimes means viewing fixtures like New Zealand vs. Scotland delayed 36-48 hours. O-kay, enough bitchin' - here's what I've been watching...
Friday got the weekend started in a big way with FRANCE hosting IRELAND in a critical Pool D encounter. The Irish, under the gun for the past couple weeks, were teary eyed during the anthem "Ireland's Call," except for skipper Brian O'Driscoll who looked like a passive zombie. By way of contrast, French winger Aurélien Rougerie was chuckling during a stirring "La Marseillaise". Fair enough - he was on the reserves bench. An absorbing first half was fairly divided in terms of scoring chances, but the Irish spoiled most of theirs with silly mistakes, touches out of bounds, accidental offsides, and a remarkable front-foot attack at the French 22 stopped by Andrew Trimble headbutting referee Chris White.The French lost a desperate try with fullback Clément Poitrenaud having his leg in over the touchline, but otherwise made good on four penalty goals, to Ronan O'Gara's drop-goal, to lead 12-3 at the break.
Sidebar anger at Setanta sports: This match was broadcast over a day late, and sadly without the pre-game, post-game and half-time analysis. It's bad enough we don't get many of the most important RWC matches live. It's made doubly worse when Setanta short-changes us and gives us less of the content, to boot. More than a few rugby fans would have liked to hear the Irish panelists from Irish broadcaster Setanta analyzing Ireland's first half, especially since Ireland's chances have been the focus (read: obsession) of Setanta's RWC programming from Day One. We got short-changed. Again. Continuing...
The 2nd-half saw Brian "Could Have Died" O'Driscoll destroy Poitrenaud in a clean textbook tackle. Star man Sébastien Chabal had a quiet game and was replaced at the 46th minute, and shortly thereafter French coach Bernard Laporte began playing his hand, pressing the advantage of his deep bench, and Ireland could not compete. The French lineout was working like a song, and Vincent Clerc scored a pair of well-taken tries to see France out. Final score: France 25 vs. Ireland 3. Ireland have their work cut out for them to make the Quarter-Finals. We'll look at those chances later in the week. Silliest nonsense of the match was a defensive Irish 5-metre lineout midway through the 2nd-half, with Irish hooker Jerry Flannery having a brainfart and mis-throwing short into the ground, and having the ball skip into the hands of French No. 8 Julien Bonnaire (in an immense all-around game) who collected and dove over the line to score. For what reason I am not sure even referee Chris White could tell you with a straight face, he blew his whistle, then had a confab with the touch judge, picked up by the microphone, asking, "What happened? Did you see that? Do it again - I'm not having that. We play again." Ireland were very, very lucky for that brief reprieve.
On Saturday, SOUTH AFRICA faced a surprisingly resilient TONGA, who showed they had more more surprises up their sleeve and made the otherwise hot Springboks look sluggish, reminiscent of that forgettable warm-up match against Connaught a couple weeks back. The Springboks bombed many, many great try-scoring opportunities in the first half and only led 7-3 to the changing sheds. The match was level at 10-10 as late as the 58th minute, but South African bench reserves saw the Boks run out a comfortable lead before Tonga valiantly clawed back and ensured themselves a respectable bonus-point, losing only 30-25. 'Bok fullback Percy Montgomery, who is so-far looking like the only goalkicker who can handle the fluttering Gilbert official RWC knuckle-ball, made his 90th test cap appearance - a Springbok record.
ENGLAND then faced SAMOA at Nantes. England got off to a flying start with a quick try to Martin Corry after two minutes, and a few mnutes later booted a penalty to stretch out to 10-0 early. The Samoans made England work hard - indeed, every game at RWC 2007 has so far been a tough slog for the defending champs - but England is showing definite improvements. When flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson is healthy, as he was here, England are a much more cohesive, confident and effective unit, and remain a threat. For a 2nd time, the all-time longest serving player in RWC history, Samoan skipper Brian Lima had another inglorious exit. Lima knocked himself out cold with a dangerous flying tackle minutes after he came off the reserves bench against South Africa. This time he went after Wilkinson's head, and his last World Cup has been cut short early with a suspension for his trouble. Final score 44-22 was not a fair reflection of the contest, but England deserved winners.
Saturday's late game saw Pool D front-runners ARGENTINA dusting off NAMIBIA 63-3 after leading by a more respectable 25-3 at the break. The Pumas were clinical and ruthless. Namibia was tired and listless, 'tho did well enough for the games' last ten minutes to hold out Argentina and staunch the damage. Namibian openside flanker Jacques Burger was once again Namibia's lone shining light, bustling with energy wherever the ball bounced, and probably on his way to a European contract. Argentina is the only team in the entire RWC comp to have not yet conceded a try. The Pumas bonus-point is also a big obstacle to Ireland's slimming chances to advance. More on that later in the week.
On Sunday AUSTRALIA proved too much for FIJI, running away 55-12 winners, but not as impressively as supporters might have hoped. Berrick Barnes, the rookie revelation who replaced injured Stephen Larkham, did not have the kickass game he did a week earlier, but didn't make any mistakes aside from copping a heavy blow to the head from a wicked open-field shoulder shot from Seru Rabeni. The Wallabies racked up the tries, it wasn't always pretty, but the win was deserved and any nutpicking in victory can wait until another day. Quietly, Australia rate a formidible chance.
In Sunday's late game, NEW ZEALAND travelled to Murrayfield to take on hosts SCOTLAND. The All Blacks prevailed easily, skunking the brave Scots 40-0. It wasn't champagne rugby. It was all one-way traffic, but New Zealand bombed enough try-scoring chances they could have easily doubled their margin. Their butterfingers should be a worry. Winger Doug Howlett scored a pair of tries, passing Christian Cullen and becoming the all-time leading record All Black try-scorer. Quick-hits: Leon MacDonald took a knock early and hobbled off the field. Byron Kelleher played his best game in an All Black jersey for a while. Dan Carter's kicking form is woeful, hitting on only four of his nine chances. Incredibly, Scotland had 62% of possession in the first half, yet never looked likely to score, as the All Blacks patiently soaked up the pressure, allowed the Scots to recycle, and then pushed them back. Zaniest side-story: The Scots wore their navy blue jersies, which meant the All Blacks had to wear their alternate strip. The Scots new kit has large swaths of grey along the jersey trim; the All Blacks alternate jersey is silver (i.e. "grey") with large swaths of black along the trim. The result was confusing colour-clash. Apparently at the break the All Blacks were asked to wear their black jersies, but those uniforms never made the trip.
--That was the weekend wrap.--
Week Three began Tuesday with CANADA facing JAPAN at Bordeaux in the Pool B "Wooden Spoon" match. This was another capacity crowd (major kudos to France who have really shown up for ALL the games hosted in their nation). Recent history between the two sides pointed to a close contest --
2005: Canada 15-10 Japan
2004: Japan 34 - 21 Canada
2001: Japan 39 - 7 Canada
-- and that's exactly what we got. Canada started in slow-motion, and the enterprising Japanese opened matters with (another) terrific try to winger Kosuke Endo, aided & abetted by some weak tackling, running over Ryan Smith and through DTH van der Merwe to score in the corner. Smith had a game I am sure he would like to forget, suffering not only the indignity of the Endo try, but being on the receiving end of multiple heavy blows to his body in the tackle and late hits. Canada trailed 5-0 at the break, but rebounded in the 2nd-half with olde fashioned "pick & go" siege warfare and claimed a pair of well-taken tries by Pat Riordan and DTH Van der Merwe and led late 12-5. Canadian captain Morgan Williams, a terrier around the base of the scrum and always covering defense, once again showed he's playing the best rugby of his career, and looked for the world he was going to carry his team on his back. A brutal clearance kick by Smith at the 80th minute (I can't believe Smith even survived all 80 minutes, let alone understand why Canadian coach Ric Suggitt still had him on the field at that critical juncture) allowed the Japanese to pressure, and Williams ran into the VISA advertising boards behind goal after swatting away a high bouncing ball away from the in-goal area to touch - illegal, and spotted by the TMO - that saw Japan awarded an attacking 5 metre scrum deep past the 80-minute mark. In a thrilling last ditch effort at the Canadian line, they swung the ball wide to the short side where there were no Canadian defenders (!!?!?) where Koji Taira strolled to score a try in the corner four minutes into added-time, and Shotaro Onishi slotted a cool-as-ice conversion from the touchline to round off an extraordinary draw. Final score: Canada 12 vs. Japan 12.
Another sidebar: As per their agreement with Setanta, Rogers Sportsnet carried the Canada vs. Japan match live on their national and regional networks. The game was scheduled during the day, when most Canadians were at work. Setanta re-played the match for their Canadian prime time viewership. Sportsnet, however, chose to do otherwise. I might have understood if they had a Blue Jays vs. Yankees game or a marquee MLB match-up with pennant and playoff implications. Instead, Sportsnet elected to broadcast more Poker - a worthless two-hour tournament.
Tuesday's RWC evening game was another close one with ROMANIA downing plucky PORTUGAL 14-10. The sleepy, dour affair played at Toulouse in front of another capacity crowd, reminded this fan of vintage 1970s rugby, minus the legal tap-dance-on-the-head rucking from that era. It's a curiosity the minnows come to test matches they expect to lose with a devil-may-care throw-caution-to-the-wind attitude, but when confonting other minnows, they play the test matches tightly and try not to give anything away.
Similarly, Wednesday's early match saw Pool D bottomfeeders GEORGIA against NAMIBIA in rainy drizzle at Lens. The ridiculous RWC schedule-makers saw Georgia resting on ten days rest, a full week more than Namibia who played Argentina on Saturday. The fatigue showed. Georgia ran wild and won their first ever RWC match 30-0. Flanker Rati Urushadze hailed his teams' first World Cup victory as the greatest moment in Georgia's rugby history.
And Tuesday's late test saw SAMOA finish out their tournament against USA, in Michael Jones last match as Samoan coach. The Iceman's old teammate and fellow Hall of Famer John Kirwan, now current coach of Japan, was livid about the unfair and punitive RWC schedule for Tier 2 and Tier 3 nations. This game is glaring evidence. Samoa came into this game on only three days rest, after playing England on Saturday; whereas the United States last game was against Tonga, a full thirteen (!!!) days ago. The discrepancy is ridiculous, and it's fair to ponder what effect the schedule had on the respective teams. It was already bad enough that Samoa was missing 12 of 15 regular starters through injury. Samoa opened well enough, with two quality tries taken by wingers Lome Fa'atau and Alesana Tuilagi in the games' first ten minutes, then another before the halftime break to Kane Thompson for a comfortable 22-3 lead. In the second half, the Americans woke up after a yellow card offense at the 52nd minute to No. 8 Tasi Mounga for repeated infringments, killing the ball on Samoa's attack. A minute later American winger Takudzwa Ngwenya outraced his cover to score in the rightfield corner. The conversion from the touchline closed the gap to 22-10. Mounga returned from the sin-bin, only to get stretchered off the field minutes later after a long delay that appeared to see him whacked unconscious from a forearm smashing into his head after he slipped into a tackle. At the 65th minute Yankee flyhalf and skipper Mike Hercus, who has played consistently well throughout the tournament, landed a penalty goal to close the score to 22-13, and the Eagles were looking by far the fresher of the two sides and carrying all the momentum. An exchange of penalties, and a late 79th minute try to American blindside flanker Louis Stanfill saw a nerve-wracking finale and Samoa hold out 25-21 winners and finish their RWC 2007 campaign with a win.
Yet another sidebar:
The Setanta announcers and panelists were -yet again- using the Samoan game to get in their whacks against the All Blacks. The refrains are familiar: Boo-hoo, "if the Samoans were allowed to keep their best players, they'd be world-beaters," whinge-gnash, " the "Samoans are lured by money to play for the All Blacks," etc.
As somebody who grew up decades ago playing club and schoolboy rugby (union and league) in suburbs of south Auckland like Te Atatu, Mangere and Otara, I can tell you from firsthand experience that I played plenty of rugby matches against teams comprised entirely of players who were neither Maori nor Pakeha. They were New Zealand-resident Polynesians and children born in New Zealand of Polynesian parenthood, who resided, were entirely educated, employed and played their first-ever games of rugby in New Zealand. I have written previously about the misinformed "raping & pillaging" strawman arguments and British sports journalists' ignorance about New Zealand society. I don't want to retread old ground covered numerous times, but would like to point non-believers in the direction of Jim Kayes' pointedly direct pre-emptive strike:
Time British scribes got their facts right
By JIM KAYES in Marseilles
12 September 2007
It's always good to get your shots in early. So before the [mostly British] scribes starting writing about how the All Blacks are the Pacific Barbarians and the NZRU pillages the southern seas, here's a few facts.
Five All Blacks were born in Samoa - Jerry Collins, Rodney So'oialo, Chris Masoe, Mils Muliaina and Isaia Toeava - and 12 of the Samoa squad were born in New Zealand.
It might be asked, tongue firmly in the cheek, who is pillaging from whom.
Add in Fijian-born wings Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu, and Tonga's Sione Lauaki, and the All Blacks tally rises to eight. [...]
The attacks on the racial make up of the All Blacks have always conveniently ignored the immigration trends of Pacific Islanders moving to New Zealand and the diverse cultural mix in our major cities.
Critics also gloss over the fact many of the All Blacks born in Fiji, Tonga or Samoa moved with their families to New Zealand when they were young. Muliaina, for instance, was just three.
Such facts won't stop the claims the All Blacks have gained an unfair advantage by poaching players from the islands, especially when such critics begin to fear New Zealand might win the World Cup.
Finally, a quick note to help out 'Viz:
U.S. RUGBY FOUNDATION AUCTIONING AUTOGRAPHED WALLABIES JERSEY
A Qantas Wallaby jersey, signed by 30 members of this year's Australian team, is the latest jersey to be auctioned off by the USRFF. The Wallabies, currently 3-0 in World Cup play, are the only two-time Rugby World Cup champions, and are one of the favorites to hoist the Webb Ellis Trophy at the conclusion of this year's tournament.
Signatures on the jersey are from some of the all-time greats in Australian and world rugby including the world's most capped player, George Gregan; 102 capped Stephen Larkham; Wallabies World Cup skipper Stirling Mortlock; explosive backs Matt Giteau and Lote Tuqiri; and dynamic loose forwards George Smith and Phil Waugh. This mint-conditioned jersey was donated to the Foundation by John O'Neill, CEO and Managing Director of the Australian Rugby Union.
"I, along with the ARU, wish the United States Rugby Football Foundation the best of luck in its fundraising efforts and in spreading the game across the States," said Mr. O'Neill.
Photos, a more detailed description of the jersey and more information about this year's Wallaby team can be found on eBay, item #180161439831. The bidding will conclude at 6:00 p.m. (PDT) on Saturday, September 29.