This weekend provided an absolute feast of rugby (and some pretty decent football too). It started for me with Quins’ first Premiership game of the season on Friday evening at the Stoop. They beat a good Wasps team 26-21, so that was pretty encouraging.
But the main attraction was the World Cup quarter finals: two at Twickenham and two at the Millenium Stadium, Cardiff. No England, but we’ve long since put that out of our minds and just sat back to enjoy the action.
And what action it was! Each game was brilliant, but in different ways. Each included moments of sublime skill, brutal collisions, controversial refereeing decisions, and huge passion. And in the end, the Southern hemisphere asserted its supremacy like never before. Only easily in one case, but nonetheless in an unprecedented way – and in the heartlands of the northern game.
We started with Wales v South Africa at Twickenham. The Boks won 23-19, overtaking Wales late on with one of their few moments of guile, as No 8 Vermeulen created space from a wheeled scrum with a crafty backhanded offload to scrum Du Preez, who raced in for a try. Mostly the game was a battle of power and will, and the South Africans – as is their wont – slowly ground a depleted Wales team down until they could exploit the situation with a moment of high skill. Obviously not planned exactly like that, but the physical pressure opened up the weak spots in the Wales defence – though only at the last. Bad luck Wales, but it felt like it was coming, even though they led for quite a while, after coming back from a slew of penalties against them early on, as they figured out what referee Wayne Barnes was up to. Good ol’ Wayne – not the most popular man round the Stoop, and definitely persona non grata in Cardiff right now.
Next up was New Zealand v France. France have had a bit of a hex over the All Blacks. They’ve beaten them twice in knockout stages over the years and gave them a fright in the final last time. Why, it’s hard to say – just that Gallic unpredictability, I guess.
Last night any demons were well and truly exorcised. The All Blacks crushed the French, 62-13. Nine tries to one. As an all-round display of brilliant rugby, it’s hard to remember a better one. A true lesson in how to play the game. There are no obvious weaknesses in this team, and it’s great to see the supreme fly half, Dan Carter, finally surviving injury to play through the tournament. Just hope the Boks don’t crock him in the semis – they’ll no doubt try to, as the best way of getting a win.
New Zealand must be hot favourites to get to the final, but those South African hard men should never be underestimated. Let’s hope the beautiful game – aligned to some steel too – wins.
Today we started at the Millenium with Ireland v Argentina. Ireland and France the previous weekend had battled it out to avoid the All Blacks and secure the supposedly easier tie. Ireland triumphed. But easy it was not. Argentina trounced them 43-20 in the end. It was a close match for the middle part of the game, but otherwise the Argentinians showed how much better they have become since they joined the annual championship with NZ, SA and the Aussies. From being a team reliant mostly on forward power, they are now devastating in the backs – a complete team.
I got back from a cycle along the Thames with twenty minutes gone and Ireland were something like 20-3 down! We didn’t expect that. We thought of Ireland as the leading European team, destined for a semi with Australia, which they were capable of winning. But injuries to leading players like O’Connell, Sexton and O’Mahoney clearly had weakened them. In leadership terms as much as anything else. And Argentina, playing an expansive game, getting the ball wide, had exploited that. Ireland clawed their way back into the game and got within three points of the Argentina lead. It looked for a short while that they might take the game, but Argentina stepped up another gear and scored a couple of superb tries. Ireland were done.
The Argentinians can no longer be underestimated, that is for sure. The final is a real possibility.
Finally, Australia v Scotland at Twickenham. Surely an Aussie walkover? But no. I missed the first half – doing the weekly shop at Waitrose. OK, so if England had been playing, I might have re-prioritised, but I assumed it would be an Aussie try fest which I could catch up with at half time.
Wrong! Scotland were leading and only at the end of the first half did Australia get close. Why was that? Maybe the fatigue from being in the Group of Death? A touch of complacency? Who knows. Unsurprisingly, the Aussies came out in the second half more decisive and went into the lead. But with each lead they then made mistakes, gave away penalties – and tries. This continued through the match until a telegraphed Australian pass in their own half led to a Scottish interception which put the Scots 34-32 up with very little time to go. It looked like the first big upset of the knockouts was on. Scotland, the worst northern hemisphere team in the quarter finals, were going to be the only one to get through to the semis.
But then a Scotland lineout in their own half. Messed up. A scramble, with the ball bouncing all over the place in the direction of the Australia defence. A Scottish player gathers it – offside. But was it? It depended on whom it bounced off previously. The ref, the South African Craig Joubert, gave the penalty, without referring to the TMO. Fair enough, he was right on the scene. The Aussie fly half, Bernard Foley, under intense pressure, kicked it firm and true. Over the posts. Australia 35 Scotland 34.
Absolutely gutting for Scotland; joy for the Aussies. A familiar tale.
But breathtaking stuff. This World Cup is really shaping up, with England’s underachievement a distant memory. The semis are New Zealand v South Africa and Australia v Argentina. You’d expect an All Black/Aussie final from that; but it really could go in any direction. The knockout stages are like that, as more and more it becomes about the mindset, the ability to stay focused and effective under pressure.
Roll on the next weekend!