So, despite all the hullabaloo, South Africa beat Samoa quite convincingly. We should not really have put ourselves in a must-win situation in the first place and hence the apprehension, but the reality is that Samoa has never beaten us before and it would have taken a huge effort by Manu Samoa to turn that stat around. The Boks scored some very good tries after a nervy first half where an intercept try was all we had to show for our attacking efforts (not really attack is it?). JP Pietersen got a hat-trick and Schalk added to his impressive tally (he must be close to the forward with the most tries in a Bok jersey). Habana kick-started his try scoring at RWC and will be looking to add to his impressive tally as the tournament rolls on. De Allende made a huge difference with his presence and his carry, and Du Preez was solid with his pass and decision making behind a dominant pack. Etzebeth was outstanding, and so was Lood when he came on.
Samoa lacked the cohesion to trouble the Boks, who defended their line well, despite some solid collisions. Unfortunately, Jean de Villiers got injured again in one of those collisions, which signalled the end of his international career. What an incredibly brave warrior he has been over the years. He’s had to tough out some big disappointments like any other sportsman, but he made a successful comeback each time. He led his country with distinction, and I for one, could sense his selfless mindset going into the tournament where there were questions surrounding his fitness and form. He has always been dignified as a spokesman for his team, yet always retained his sense of humour. Thankfully, he has a RWC winning medal in his cabinet already, and I’m sure the team don’t lack motivation to improve their performance so that he can add to it.
I’m not going to talk about the ref as there was very little to say… As it should be!
Earlier in the day, Australia pumped an overmatched but willing amateur team from Uruguay, hardly getting out of 3rd gear as they flexed their muscles. This was their B team (I think ) and they looked the part. Hardly a surprise that Quade Cooper got a yellow card though, as he always gets involved. He is a multi-skilled athlete, but his temperament doesn’t always match his ability. His kicking was a liability on the day, and he will have to improve to feature in the knockout stages.
I thought the USA versus Scotland was a wonderful advert for the RWC. It was played at pace throughout and was very well refereed by Chris Pollock (who has been through the mill to get to this RWC, as he has had a number of injury setbacks and fought really hard to get to the tournament, only to lose one of his games when he had to fly home for a family bereavement). I was really impressed with the physicality and phase play of the USA, who have really developed well over the past few years! They have some bulk in their team and were equally enthusiastic on defence. I thought they were stiffed a couple of times with incorrect maul rulings and had a strong case for a penalty try when Scotland appeared to pull down a strong maul close to their line. Having said that, I will say that Scotland too were well organised and have some good game breakers in their ranks.
Georgia too are a much stronger team and were hanging in with the Argentinians until a yellow card to influential skipper Gorgodze brought the contest to a shuddering halt. What a pity, as they looked enthusiastic and more than competent up until that point. But equally, it showed what a very skilful Los Pumas can do with a mismatch. They are all but through to the next round and will not be a rollover at all!
My favourite dark horses for the RWC – Ireland – were too good for Romania. They have a great balance of skill and force, and a game plan that appears to get the best out of their players. The match-up against France will be one of the games of the tournament! Romania also had quite a short turnaround from their game against France, and with far smaller player depth available, it was always going to be tough. Still they performed with admirable grit, mostly on defence.
The match of the weekend was undoubtedly England vs Wales (25-28). Despite leading for much of the game, England somehow found a way of losing this game to injury-depleted Wales, who fought to stay in the contest throughout. And then ultimately won it! It wasn’t so much that it was an upset, but just the manner of the win was extraordinary. The England set piece was so dominant (more on that later) and they looked in control for much of the game. Wales already had an injury list going into the tournament, but it got a whole lot worse. They lost centre Williams with a tournament-ending knee injury and then two players in one phase of play, one a sickening (but unintentional kick) to the head of their fullback by Wood. They had to deploy their personnel to makeshift positions on the field, and then scored an amazing try to draw level. In a frenetic final few minutes, they were awarded a questionable penalty for holding on, where no clear release could just as easily have been awarded to England, and Dan Biggar stepped up on his man-of-the-match performance to slot the winning penalty. Still there was more drama with England going for the win after they too got a penalty, only for their opportunity to be repeatedly snuffed out by some willing Welsh defence. England now find themselves in a hole and need to beat a strong Australian team to progress. What a game that promises to be!
I thought Jerome Garces had some issues with the scrum on the day.
He rewarded a dominant English scrum with penalties, which on the face of it seems right. However, on closer inspection – and this would have been part of his preparation – it was clear that English loose-head Marler was going in on the angle. Repeatedly. This is not the first time this has happened, and while some pundits have pointed out that the tighthead also needs to play his part, this player has a long history of not scrumming straight. The hawkeye angles were very clear, and if we are going to get parochial and nationalistic, and defend this type of behaviour, then referees will never get on top of this aspect. If this was Crockett, and NZ were doing it to win the RWC final, all and sundry would be having their say.
Where the ref did get it right was to penalise Dan Coles (as an example) for not supporting his own body weight and going beyond the ball to balance himself. Interesting for me was the comments by ex-player Gomersall who claimed he was unlucky and could feel hard done by. What nonsense! A clear infringement and well done by the referee, who then penalised this behaviour repeatedly. It is a blight on the game when players do not support their own body weight on defence and stop the attack from advancing. The English players looked bemused by this at times, and I can only think that they have been allowed to get away with it on the domestic front (they have, I’ve seen it). The referee was right. He explained his decisions well. He didn’t let up and was consistent throughout the fixture. It wasn’t about England adapting to the referee, it was about them doing it right from the beginning and not putting themselves under needless pressure when, in truth, they didn’t need to.
The last match winning penalty also needs review, as I believe there is a case for no clear release by Wales. The third player in has all the rights on arrival, but what of the first two? There doesn’t appear to be a clear release, and a penalty to England would not have been out of place! These types of decisions are not only game defining but also tournament defining, and perhaps there is a case for a white card review (trialled in SA) where the outcome hinges on human error.
Italy narrowly triumphed 23 – 18 over Canada. It was a good test for both, and a very important game. I’m sure it would not have made headlines everywhere as Canada are not going to win the tournament, but I know from experience that they really treasure their RWC wins, and this is a game they could have and perhaps should have won. They were unlucky with a few calls, notably a TMO call, and an errantly raised flag by assistant referee, Jackson. I thought Clancy was again reliable and steady and gave both teams a chance to win the fixture.
Yesterday, Namibia tried bravely to stem the red tide of Tonga in a game they would have pencilled in as one they could win. They scored three good tries but ultimately fell short against their more illustrious opponents. They have one more opportunity against Georgia later in the comp, and they will be giving their all to win their first RWC game!
I’m in London for a few days, and I am looking forward to watching a few of the games live. On Sunday, I will be running the Chester Marathon, which I am really looking forward to! Billed as one of the best in the UK, I’m sure it will be a fun run through the English and Welsh countryside as well as the historic city itself!
Today, I will be on a luxury boat called Mischief as a guest, wining and dining on the Thames with some other luminaries, including the likes of Stransky, Mehrtens, Dawson and Skinstad. There are some top class chefs on board, so it promises to be one of those special RWC moments for me… With a difference.
Not exactly a dog’s life is it?
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