Monday, August 27, 2007

France the Bet for the Rugby World Cup

For the beleaguered Irish rugby coach, the dark skies over Ravenhill on Friday night were for once not solely attributable to the malign summer weather. Eddie O’Sullivan, spun into a corner at last, can only have beheld a sky dark with the sight of chickens coming home to roost.

This Irish rugby team has been living on no small amount of gas and hot air being generated jointly by fans with typewriters, cynical advertisers trying to turn a buck and the ambitions of the aspirant classes of the Celtic Tiger cubs. But now the squad is exposed as being desperately thin, and only one unlucky injury to O’Driscoll, O’Gara or John Hayes away from humiliation and exposure as fools’ gold. A sad fate potentially in store for the most talented squad ever to wear emerald green in the great and glorious game of Rugby Union Football, and one which they will have all the rest of their lives to regret, as Brian Moore pointed out after they let in those two soft tries against Italy in Rome on St Patrick’s day to choke another Championship away.

So if Ireland don’t win the World Cup – and they won’t – who will? New Zealand are the hot favourites of course, and if they do win, not only should we not be surprised, we should not begrudge them. No country loves the game as the New Zealanders do, no country is as steeped in the game’s traditions. Begrudging articles in the press over the past months wondering who will save us from these troublesome All-Blacks reflect no credit on their writers.

That said, for a team that’s consistently choked in every World Cup since David Kirk lifted the first Webb Ellis trophy twenty years ago the All-Blacks are really quite shocking value at 6/4 on or so. They may win it, but An Spailpín Fánach will not grow fat(ter) and full(er) on odds like that. Time to look further down the card.

South Africa are historically second only to New Zealand in terms of rugby prestige. Despite many internal turmoils Die Bokke are coming to the boil quite nicely now, and certainly won’t be anyone’s tomatoes in the tournament. They’re in the soft half of the draw too – likely pool winners, with a quarter-final against Scotland or Italy. If they take fire, there’s nothing to stop them going all the way, but the continual sniping at the squad and management as political agendae are served back home in the Rainbow Nation make the Springboks hard to fully trust with the children’s allowance for September.

Australia has a tremendous record at the World Cup, winners twice and getting to the final last time out when they arrived at the tournament with no chance. However, your faithful correspondent will never bet on Australia on principle, on the basis that they are the carpet-baggers of World Rugby. Once can’t help but feel they’d all be much happier playing Rugby League in a pool of mud somewhere around Widnes and environs. Let them away.

Wales is the only other country with New Zealand and South Africa to hold rugby as the national game. During the amateur era the Welsh could keep up to an extent, but the harsh reality of professionalism exposes their lack of population. Wales' 2005 Grand Slam was a thrilling return to everything that makes rugby great, proof that it need not be all about simple brute strength, but all the good of that has been subsequently squandered by infighting and, perhaps, Sir Clive’s disgraceful selection policies during the 2005 Lions tour. In James Hook the Welsh have, potentially, a right and true inheritor of the blood-red ten shirt of Davies, Bennett, John and Morgan, but Wales have no chance of winning the World Cup. More’s the pity.

Brian Ashton, coach of the defending Champions, has been returning very quickly to basics in his selections, realising that champagne rugby is all well and good, but it was old fashioned bully beef that brought dear old Blighty through at Cawnpore and Corunna. That said, the ten-man game has no answer to falling behind in the scores, and the bull-headed persistence in trying to make a Union silk purse from a League sow's ear can only end in tragedy. England will not retain the Cup.

And that just leaves us with the hosts. France have an excellent record in the World Cup, getting to two finals, even if both final appearances were on the back of inspirational against the odds semi-final wins (1987 against Australia, and 1999 against New Zealand). But history shows us that the host nation always gets to the final, and that alone makes them worth a bet. As the likely winners of Group D, theirs is the softer route to the Final. Their talent base is rich and deep – remember Benoit Baby? Benoit Baby gave a man of the match performance at centre against Ireland in Lansdowne Road in 2005 as a replacement, as I recall, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. That’s riches, as Keith Duggan pointed out in the Irish Times at the time.

An Spailpín is a little concerned at Bernard Laporte’s preference for Michalak at stand-off half, and would certainly not be entrusting this particular Fredo with softening Moe Green’s cough beyond in Vegas. The steady Skrela is my preference, although I get the feeling that Lionel Beauxis could become a star at this tournament. There’s something about the gimp of him, you know.

But perhaps the most fascinating characteristic of the French that inspires An Spailpín Fánach to dig the garden for some gambling doubloons at the price of 17/2 or so is what the French themselves call “l’esprit du clocher” – the spirit of the clock-tower. Your village in France is defined by any point at which you can still see the spire on the village church, and the village must be defended at all times. It’s not so much that France will want to win on home soil, as the soccer team did in 1998, as the notion of seeing someone else triomphe-ing under their Arc on October 20th will be more hateful to them than words can express, and all will be smashed before them to ensure that doesn’t happen. A semi-final line-up of Australia v New Zealand and South Africa v France then, with les bleues to triumph over les noirs in the final. Aux armes, citoyens, and invest in France. From an Irish perspective, there will be no other solace from this World Cup.

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