Monday, September 10, 2007

Rugby World Cup weekend round-up



The opening weekend of the World Cup was an overdose for rugby starved fans in Canada. The way it works on Setanta, the Irish broadcast rights holder for RWC in Canada, is to give all of Saturday's live coverage to FIFA Euro Cup or World Cup soccer qualifiers (Malta vs. Faroe Islands, or something like that) and delay Saturday's RWC matches until Sunday following Sunday's live matches. That meant a day-long camp on the couch, beginning at 8 A.M. with Wales vs. Canada, and not clicking off the TV set unil Setanta began their repeat of the same test 15 hours later.

So, after rubbing the sleep outta mine eyes after sixteen out of the twenty participants have played their opening round matches, what do we see?

Three themes prevail:

1. The Southern Hemisphere is kicking arse.

2. The Americas are acquitting themselves respectably.

3. The European nations are bloody awful.

Friday's opener was the best-and-worst start the RWC could have imagined.

Best, because ARGENTINA defied the experts and pulled off a monumental upset to beat FRANCE, the host nation and most punters second-choice to claim the championship. The Puma win has stirred intense excitement and brought a mood of optimism to every underdog in the tournament.

Worst, because France's shock loss means a wave of pessimism drowning the host nation and threatening to bleed the RWC of local enthusiasm and support.

France made a critical mistake starting winger C├ędric Heymans at fullback, a position he is not experienced at the highest levels of international rugby, and the tactic backfired. The Pumas tactic was to put Heymens under a barrage of up-and-under bombs. Although at least half were shallow, undercooked high balls that served no more than NBA 50/50 tip-balls, they put so many on top of him, and so many French mistakes made off those balls, that the crowd went quiet, the French collars tightened, and an upset was on the boil.

The game was ignited in the first half by Argentine fullback Ignacio Corleto collecting the ball on the burst mid-field, counter-attacking against flat-footed French defenders. Corleto raced a breathtaking 55 metre chase to score in the corner and bust the game open.

A tremendous Puma defensive goalline stand to keep France out shortly after the halftime break was equally as big a turning point.

If fans thought the Pumas wasted any mental and physical energy crying during the pre-match anthems - and almost to a man Argie players and fans seemed to be bawling - they were wrong. Mind you, the French seemed to be equally drained by all the blood seeping out of their bandaged heads.

The only thing the Pumas will be disappointed about afterwards is missing a pair of penalty shots in the games' last minute, allowing France to escape with a bonus-point in the table standings (by virtue of a loss by 7-or-less) which could play out to be significant to which team advances from Pool D, the toughest of all pool groups.

And truthfully, as thrilling as the result was, and without wanting to take anything away from the Pumas greatest win ever, it has to be said the conclusion of the game was spoiled for the neutral spectator with professionally-cynical Puma players grinding the game to a virtual standstill with rest stoppages and all manner of phony time-wasting injuries. Final Score: Argentina 17 vs. France 12.

The Pumas next opponent is Georgia, on Tuesday. Japanese coach John Kirwan is right to gripe about the pathetic short turn-around the RWC organizers have scheduled for some of the "minnows" and supposedly weaker nations. Les Bleus get several more days rest to rebound against Namibia on Sunday.

On Saturday NEW ZEALAND torched ITALY for five tries in the games' first 20 minutes, and the result was never in doubt, the All Blacks drawing away to an impressive 76-14 win.

AUSTRALIA started slowly against JAPAN before turning on the afterburners and scorching the Cherry Blossoms to run away 91-3 victors.

The day closed with defending RWC champions ENGLAND stumbling and bumbling their way to a 28-10 win over USA, where the Americans closed out the match not tiring, as expected, but actually on the ascendancy.

Sunday started with the game Canadians have circled for months: CANADA vs. WALES. The previous 24 hours must have had the Canucks in mentally good frame of mind. After all, the Pumas defeated the Six Nations champs; Italy, who had won a pair of matches in this years' Six Nations, brought significantly less fight to the All Blacks compared to Canada's strong showing against them at Eden Park in June; and the United States, a team Canada currently owns, fronted well and put defending World champs England on the back foot.

Indeed, Canada were buoyed. Despite missing early drop-goal attempts, and then falling behind 9-0 on three silly penalties, Canada got themselves into the match at the 25 minute mark off patient and ruthlessly effective rucking at the Welsh line, with Jamie Cudmore squirting through the mass of piled bodies to score. A near-intercept by DTH Van Der Merwe almost gave them another try, before Craig Cuplan, the Canadian center, made sure of his intercept off a Welsh attack on Canada's goalline and raced the length of the field to score at the 36th minute. The Canadian backline had been playing suspiciously offside (or close to the line) most of the first-half, but Culpan's intercept was fair, clean and well-deserved.

Canada playing in their red jersies meant Wales played in their alternate strip, in this case, black. But these Welshmen did not play like men in black, and trailed 12-9 at the break. At 45 minutes Canada scored another try, this time to captain Morgan Williams who was on fire all afternoon, through another series of sustained rucks, and led 17-9, having scored 17 straight points, three tries to none, and probably having blown several chances (missed conversions, blown Van Der Merwe intercept) to put even more on the scoreboard.

Then it all came unglued, ten minutes of madness between the 58th and 68th minute where Wales got a bonus point for their first four tries. At least two of those tries came off the back of ridiculous, appalling, chicken-with-the-heads-cut-off defensive tomfoolery. Then it was all over, with Canada and their elusive grasp on a famous victory, flashed before their eyes. To their credit, they finished strongly and never quit. Final score: Wales 42 vs. Canada 17.

SOUTH AFRICA sustained some early strong physical contact from SAMOA as well as conceding the games' first try, before prevailing rather easily 59-7. The Boks are looking quietly ominous. Star-man was Bryan Habana who collected four tries, albeit some of them by pisspoor weak tackling, the Samoan defenders seemingly mesmerised by Habana's twinkle-toes and electrifying speed. The sight of Samoan legend Brian Lima running onto the paddock as a second half replacement and stamp himself as the first player ever to play in five World Cups was dampened only minutes later when he commited what looked like a dangerous illegal tackle and came off second-best, seeing birdies and stars and clearly concussed, departing the field only minutes after taking it.

SCOTLAND then dispatched PORTUGAL 56-10 that was on the one hand an easy win, and on the other not nearly as impressive as the scoreline might suggest. Scottish fullback Rory Lamont was simply too much for the Portuguese to handle, but the newcomers showed plenty of pluck and grit, and came away with a heroic try to winger Pedro Carvalho for their troubles.

In the weekend's last match, a rusty and unimaginative IRELAND defeated world 24th-ranked NAMIBIA 32-17 in a match that Irish Setanta broadcasters and analysts were describing as "shocking," a "nightmare" and "disaster."

The Irish can consider themselves extremely lucky that referee Joel Jutge inexplicably refused to go to the TMO on a controversial try awarded to Irish hooker Jerry Flannery. The score looked dodgy. The Namibians were incensed. Jutge refused to go to the TMO. And television match replays showed Flannery did not properly ground the ball. Sorry Jutge, your RWC has got to be over, there's no way you deserve to officiate any more matches. With fifteen minutes remaining, Namibia trailed Ireland only 27-17 and a truly enormous upset loomed, before the natural order resumed. No mind that Ireland claimed the win and a full five points on the table, their victory was a clueless debacle, and Irish fans have everything to worry about after the earlier results of their pool opponents. If anything, the rusty Irish can count their four-leaf clovers that the RWC draw favours them facing Naimbia and Georgia before heavyweights France and Argentina.

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