Monday, October 08, 2007

All-Blacks Bite the Dust - Who Weeps Not for Baldr?

Richie McCaw ag sileadh na ndeorThe cheap sniggering that’s accompanied the spectacular crashing to Earth of the best team at the Rugby World Cup™ has been unedifying, and the one bum note in what’s otherwise been a spectacular weekend for the game of rugby football. We are a nation that allows its head coach to make an eejit of himself bigging up Triple Crowns when the real action is elsewhere, and have been celebrating a game we lost (v Australia in 1991) for sixteen years and counting. Can you imagine the reaction here if Ireland had been on the business end of referee Wayne Barnes’ zanier decisions?

But that’s rugby. The New Zealanders like to big up their team, but your close-attention-paying correspondent doesn’t hear much whinging out of them. Chris Jack was interviewed on Newstalk last night, before the Scotch game. He sounded like a man at his own funeral, but never once did he whinge or whine. To do so would have been the work of a “sook,” and the All-Blacks were never that. They have been able to dish it out, but now they’re taking it, and taking it like men. It’s hard not to feel that the tournament is poorer without them.

Not least as Saturday night’s quarter-final would have made such a thrilling final, if the tournament had gone according to plan. Just what exactly happened is harder to figure, as three narratives are already developing. The first is that the Blacks got done. The second is that they choked. The third is that the French were able to strike back at the Blacks by playing the champagne rugby for which their nation is far-famed and of which is rightly proud.

The incredible potency of the ball-in-hand approach is George Hook’s analysis, a man lately much given to discussing potency, according to the worrying ads An Spailpín Fánach has seen in the gentlemen’s rest rooms of the bars of Ireland. On this occasion, however, George must be on stronger tack than the little blue pills. Surely, as Brendan Gallagher points out in the Telegraph this morning, the reason that the French were still in it was because Bernard Laporte, who’s been derided as a fool since his appointment as head coach of France, played a tactical game at the start and kept the All-Blacks frustrated for the first hour. To go toe to toe with them was to invite doom. Instead, the French waited for their opportunity, and struck hard when they got the chance. Richie McCaw mentioned the same thing in his post match press conference, and he ought to know.

Judgement on the referee is up to the individual. These things happen in rugby and the game is such that referees’ interpretations will always have an influence stronger than the ideal. In the 1980s, games were won and lost according to how the old lineout was refereed. Now, it’s all about reffing the breakdown. The bottom line is that the ball just isn’t round, and it’s going to bounce funny from time to time. C’est la guerre, la vie et la rugby. The choking is something your philosophically inclined correspondent hopes to look at more fully before the tournament is over - or else just after it. Watch this space.

New Zealand's demise was not the only shock of the quarter-finals. For the first time ever your correspondent, who has shed tears for Parnell and always thinks well of the Fenian dead, was cheering England for all he was worth on Saturday as they screwed Australia to the sticking-post. Australia was always more a league than a union nation, and their inability to scrummage correctly is proof again of that. Fare thee well to them.

South Africa are the team that are coming out of this tournament the best, as momentum builds and builds behind Die Bokke. New Zealand’s experience shows how vulnerable you become without hard matches, but too many hard matches will leave you physically smashed to ribbons – not many Frenchmen will be able to sit up today after putting in tackle after tackle on Saturday; in fact, Imanol Harinordoquy probably lacks sufficient strength to shave off that disgraceful moustache of his. Die Bokke got a thorough going-over from Fiji, and the Argentineans will have a good close look at them as well, but South Africa will not have that just-spent-the-night-in-a-cement-mixer feeling that the winners of France v England must endure. An Spailpín hopes it's France - cheering for England is something An Spailpín can't do every week, and besides, my little flutter on France is still alive. Où est la vie, l'espoir, mes petits!

Finally, An Spailpín is sorry to write off the Argentineans, who have thrilled so many in this World Cup, not least with the firefly genius of their stand-off half, peerless Juan-Martín Hernández. But the law of diminishing returns was looming over the Argentina as they huffed and puffed against a severely limited Scotland, and that law will be fully enforced by South Africa on Sunday night I’m afraid, when it looks very much like a case of buenos noches, Buenos Aires, and thanks for the memories.

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