Monday, October 01, 2007

Rugby World Cup pool stage completed

The final weekend of pool play got kicked-off Friday with ENGLAND facing upstarts TONGA at Parc des Princes in Paris with the coveted Pool A runner-up post and qualification for the knockout round at stake. Things didn't begin s'well when Lewis Moody took Pierre Hola's knee to his head in the games' 2nd minute, but England prevailed 36-20 in a spirited contest, showing good value for the win and earning tremendous respectibility to the Tongans who in recent years have been getting creamed by cricket scores. England has gotten better each game. Jonny Wilkinson's presence alone gives his team command and confidence, but the standout back on Friday was ex-league international Andy Farrell, who scored the first try of his international rugby career and made an impact all game. England are not looking like world beaters, but they are definitely on the uptick. They also looked mystified at lineout time when a number of times in the early 2nd-half Tonga adopted a cheeky tactic of refusing to come into maul contact, and instead stepping back from the lineout while the ball was in the air and permitting England to organize an uncontested maul and getting them pinged by the ref for "truck-and-trailer" obstruction. Prit-tee clever.

Following up on an earlier post about the prohibitive cost of RWCL broadcast rights and Tongan's having to listen the radio for live coverage of their World Cup matches, it seems that somebody realises how a good gesture can make excellent publicity:

Fundraising effort allows Tongans to see England match live

China's ambassador to Tonga has contributed to a fundraising effort which will allow Tongans to watch their national team's critical Rugby World Cup clash with England live on free-to-air television.

Another follow-up - add Brendan Gallagher's name to the list of Repeat Offenders Who Should Know Better. The wounded putz indignantly repeats serial nose-stretchers in his latest commentary, "Tonga deserve IRB's help":

Of course, one of the game's legends – Jonah Lomu – is a Tongan, and there was a mad panic in the week before the 1995 World Cup final when his immigrant parents were hastily issued New Zealand passports for the sake of propriety.

Jonah Lomu was born in Auckland, NEW ZEALAND. It's the nation where he played ALL his schoolboy, club, representative provincial, international and professional rugby. A week before the 1995 RWC kickoff, the New Zealand-born Jonah Lomu had already played for the All Blacks eleven months earlier. Since Lomu had already represented the land of his birth, IRB laws ruled him ineligible to represent any nation other than New Zealand. There's no indication before-or-since that Lomu ever wanted to play international rugby for any team other than the All Blacks. Gallagher continues to live in a make-believe world where Jonah Lomu was poached. No mind that Lomu represented:

New Zealand Under 17 in 1991-92
New Zealand Secondary Schools in 1992-93
New Zealand Under 19 in 1993
New Zealand Under 21 in 1994

We're talking basic and easily retrievable facts about arguably the most famous rugby player of all time, yet Gallagher's narrative would have his readership believe the NZRU operated with sinister motives a week before the 1995 RWC and that Jonah Lomu was a big dumb brown native gangpressed beneath a coconut palm on a faraway island, gagged and straitjacketed against his will.

The race-baiter continues:

[...] There's the All Black, Sione Lauaki, who is Tongan through and through and played against New Zealand for the Pacific Islanders, before he was snared.

Sione Lauaki was born in Tonga -true- but immigrated to New Zealand when he was in primary school. Lauaki attended Birdwood Primary School at Massey in Auckland, Wesley Intermediate College, and Kelston Boys High School, receiving the entirety of his education in New Zealand, the land of his residency. Like Lomu, Lauaki was never "snared" from anywhere, and played every level of schoolboy, club and provincial rugby in New Zealand.

Brendan Gallagher and his equally clueless cohorts Eddie Butler and Stephen Jones don't do the sport of rugby union, the athletes, nor the daily newspapers that employ them, any favours by repeatedly peddling ignorant disinformation campaigns fueled by cynicism and envy (and worse, perhaps for "darker" unspoken reasons - see here and here).

Back to the games...

On Saturday, those nasty-cheating-thieving-Island-raping-conquistidor All Blacks of NEW ZEALAND took on the mighty Oaks of ROMANIA at Toulouse. The All Blacks scored a try directly from kick-off, run back 80 metres, set through several hands and finished off by Sitiveni Sivivatu. New Zealand ran away with the game winning 85-8 and leaving head coach Graham Henry with a rare smile. Flyhalf Dan Carter was a late scractch, down with a calf strain, and ably replaced by both Luke McAlister and Nick Evans. New Zealand has great depth at the position, but they will be concerned about Carter's health and preparation for what is looking like an incredibly tough knock-out road to the finals (France > Australia > South Africa) after having played comparatively soft opponents in the weakest pool division. The "through-and-through" Tongan Sione Lauaki had a barnstorming game at No. 8, but was cited and has been subsequently banned two weeks for a high shot on winger Gabriel Brezonianu.

AUSTRALIA had a tougher time wrestling to beat CANADA 37-6 in the rain at Bordeaux. Canadian skipper Morgan Williams, showing his roots with the initials "N.S." (Nova Scotia) crayoned onto his jersey, was playing his last game in Canadian colours, having started and finished his international career at the same park. Many critics are going to browbeat both teams for the performance. Wallaby fans will say their team should have destroyed Canada by 70 points. Canadian critics will say their team was too one-dimensional and gave away possession far too easily (true). In Australia's defense, Canada are not pushovers. The All Blacks learned that in June; Wales learned it a couple weeks back; and Fiji and Japan didn't get easy rides the past fortnight either. In Canada's defense, most of their starters faced the Wallabies on only four measly days rest after their disappointment against Japan. I'll have a proper post-mortem about Canada's overall RWC performance once the tournament is completed, but all I'll say right now besides the brief comments above is that this was a team that showed a lot of heart and character throughout their four games and never once dropped their heads and quit. Wallaby No. 8 David Lyons left the game - and now the entire RWC - out with a broken leg.

FIJI then defeated WALES at Nantes to steal the Pool B Runner-Up ticket, in a game many journos are calling "the greatest World Cup match ever played." It certainly makes the shortlist, but the sting of the excitement is taken away for those of us at the mercy of Setanta Sports policy of delaying many of the most important RWC matches for later broadcast on tape-delay. By the time Setanta broadcast the Wales vs. Fiji game, I already knew the result and basic plot outline as repeated endlessly by Setanta announcers and panelists throughout the Scotland vs. Italy match which was televised live. (Are you sensing my agitation yet?) O-kay, this game really was a firecracker. I had predicted the past couple months this match had a good chance of a boilover, and I was not disappointed. Fiji came all-out and showed they meant business. Vilimoni Delasau had shown nothing more remarkable earlier in the tournament than a penchant for dirty cheap tackles that should've had him sin-binned several times, but on Saturday he was a revelation in attack against the Welsh, unpredictable and threatening with every touch of the ball. My notes remind me that Akapusi Qera earned a yellow on a short defensive kung-fu kick to Stephen Jones; that Alix Popham must've woken up with sore kidneys after that hard clean body shot by Seru Rabeni; that Fijian replacement prop Henry Qiodravu did an ugly faceplant at a collapsed scrum near the 68th minute; and that there were several moments late in the match with pick-and-goes, mauls and full-on attacking moves sweeping around M*A*S*H units on the field with medics attending to fallen players. It was dramatic stuff. Three different lead changes in the games' last seven minutes. Some Welsh fans may well wonder why Martyn Williams dotted his 73rd minute intercept touchdown without rounding to score between the sticks, because the subsequent conversion bounced off the upright and missed. Fiji shock the world, beating Wales 38-34, and advancing to next weeks' QuarterFinal engagement against the Springboks at Marseille on Sunday. That would be a tough task made any time, but fatefully, at the 80th minute of the Wales match, flyhalf Nicky Little went down with unspecified knee injury and he'll be out for the remainder of the World Cup. His commanding leadership and skills - not to mention goal-kicking duties - are irreplaceable, and Fiji's task now rises from monumentally difficult to virtually impossible. Post-script: The WRU wasted no time pointing the finger at head coach Gareth Jenkins and fired him.

Saturday's late game saw SCOTLAND face ITALY in a winner-take-all knock-out match as Pool C Runner-Up in the drizzle at St. Etienne. The Italians scored the games' only try (to Mauro Bergamasco, collecting a ball after an up-and-under that saw referee Jonathan Kaplan knocked on his backside), but they couldn't match Chris Paterson's six penalty goals and fell 18-16. The match was a seesaw contest that saw Rory Lamont upended on his face, a dirty Bergamasco trip, and Ramiro Pez hissed and ridiculed by spectators for his "Hooray For Hollywood!" impersonation of Jurgen Klinsman in a penalty box. Italians lineout was a mess all evening, but No. 8 Sergio Parisse was pure class. The final whistle saw captain Alessandro Troncon inconsolable. Scotland get Argentina in Sunday's QuarterFinal at Stade de France.

Sunday morning saw hosts FRANCE, on 9 days rest, doing a training run on GEORGIA, who were hitting Marseille on only 3 days rest. It was no contest, France winning easily 64-7. Bizarre curiousity during the national anthems saw a small mob of French deaf sign-language translators dressed in white, performing "La Marseillaise". Since the lyrics of that anthem go - "Qu'un sang impur abreuve nos sillons! / May tainted blood water our fields!" - it looked - fascinatingly enough - something like a Gaulish haka, I kid you not. More M*A*S*H units, stretchering offs and foul play in this contest, the nastiest being a WWE Undertaker-style powerbomb-slash-piledriver "spear tackle" by Irakli Machkhaneli on Remy Martin, somehow missed by the referee Alan Lewis and his touch-judges. Georgia do try desperately hard, but they are also desperately naive and clueless. Down 54-nothing at the 65th minute, Lewis had to artfully warn the Romanians about their repeated abusive infringements within the "context" of the game, meaning his having no other option than to begin dishing out yellow cards in a game that was already a blowout. France are looking good, and have improved by leaps and bounds since the shock opening loss to the Pumas. The QuarterFinal matchup against New Zealand at Cardiff on Saturday looms as one for the ages.

Sunday's blockbuster was IRELAND versus ARGENTINA at Parc des Princes to decide Pool D. To make the QuarterFinals, all Ireland had to do was: 1. Win; 2. Score four tries; 3. Stop Argentina from scoring four tries; and 4. Beat Argentina by at least seven points. For three-quarters of the game, you actually believed that it might be possible. But Ireland couldn't match the Pumas simple gameplan kicking the ball down the tramlines deep into Irish territory and soaking up the pressure. Some terrific tries to Brian O'Driscoll and Geordian Murphy couldn't match the brilliance of Felipe Contepomi and Juan Martín Hernández, the latter slotting three beautiful drop goals, the last one at 79 minutes being an emphatic exclamation point! Final score: Argentina 30 vs. Ireland 15. The weapon of the drop goal looms as the big dark horse of the quarter-finals. The Pumas face Scotland on Sunday. Expect the Irish Union to conduct an inquest regarding the future of head coach Eddie O'Sullivan.

In the last and fortieth of forty pool-stage matches, SOUTH AFRICA downed plucky UNITED STATES OF AMERICA by a score of 64-15 at Montpellier. The Americans have acquited themselves admirably throughout the RWC, and their game contest against the Springboks, despite the Boks having an extra-man in referee Tony Spreadbury, was no different. (On a try to Fourie DuPreez, Spreadbury actually ran a pick in the flyhalf channel to block an American tackler, and he didn't call it back.) Flyhalf and captain Mike Hercus was huge again, as were tireless flankers Todd Clever and Louis Stanfill. 'Bok fullback Percy Montgomery was again masterful with his kicking boot, and Bok prop CJ van der Linde scored an awesome forwards try, but by far the moment of the match, and what is sure to be one of the abiding memories of RWC 2007, was the 39th minute try to American flyer Takudzwa Ngwenya. Todd Clever intercepted a stray Springbok pass near the American 22. Clever burst into space, gave a massive fend to Butch James' face throwing him off balance, before offloading cleanly to lock Alec Parker, through the hands to Hercus who put over a huge lateral pass to Ngwenya standing flat-footed, then shimmied, sidestepped and directly challenged Bryan Habana, burning him on the outside and scorching 50 metres to score without a diving Habana so much as even laying a finger on him. Apparently professional contract offers are "flooding in" for Ngwenya. Boks face Fiji on Sunday, in what is almost certainly the easiest of the four quarter-finals.


Saturday 6th October:

QF1: AUSTRALIA [Winner Pool B] vs. ENGLAND [Runner-up Pool A], Marseille -- 9:00 am ET

QF2: NEW ZEALAND [Winner Pool C] vs. FRANCE [Runner-up Pool D], Cardiff -- 3:00 pm ET

Sunday 7th October:

QF3: SOUTH AFRICA [Winner Pool A] vs. FIJI [Runner-up Pool B], Marseille -- 9:00 am ET

QF4: ARGENTINA [Winner Pool D] vs. SCOTLAND [Runner-up Pool C], Stade de France -- 3:00 pm ET

I'll get some previews up later in the week. Until then, turn up the heat!

NZRU black as jersey debate resurfaces

By JIM KAYES in Toulouse

CLASH OF COLOURS: France's new dark blue uniform means the All Blacks may have to give up their trademark black jersey.

A coin toss will decide whether the All Blacks wear black against France in their World Cup quarter-final this weekend.

And with no way to stop what appears to have been a deliberate ambush of the famous black strip at this World Cup, the New Zealand Rugby Union is working to ensure it won't happen again in 2011.

France have darkened their blue jersey – some think in a deliberate move to force the All Blacks to wear their silver alternative strip if they meet in the playoffs.

(The rest.)

More conspiracy...

France have regularly played in a lighter blue jersey but in what is seen by many as a cynical marketing ploy by Nike, the manufacturers of the French jersey, to provoke a conflict with the All Blacks' adidas clothing sponsor, they have produced an inky blue-black new kit.


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