Saturday, September 29, 2007

Pacific Storm

In the two weeks since England's schooling at the hands of the Springboks, the ascendency of the southern hemisphere has become increasingly confirmed. However, aside from the fearsome triumvirate of South Africa, New Zealand and the Aussies, it has been the Pacific islanders making waves at this French World Cup.

The Samoans were widely considered as the most dangerous coming into the tournament, their greater experience and destructive runners more fancied than the attributes of either Tonga or the Fijians. And Samoa brought their physicality to bear in England's battling, resurgent victory of last Saturday; as they pummelled the English line in the second half, it took a deal more resistance than many thought Brian Ashton's men had to keep the blue waves at bay.

But moments of menace are different to sustained threat, and Tuilagi and Co. found little consistency at any point during the pool stage. The ability to maintain a 'perfect storm' of attacking rugby seemed to have passed across the international dateline to their neighbours the Tongans, who terrorised South Africa for much of their group encounter before the second-string Saffers squeaked home. For England, the task of neutralising one of the tournament's best back rows so far must have seemed as daunting as anything they had planned for.

In the event, the Tongan centres almost filleted their opposite numbers; but a much improved English rhythm enabled the monstrous red tide to be bravely withstood and then effectively subdued. Memories of Epi Taione and Sukanaivalu Hufanga slaloming through a routed defence will be treasured for some time though, while the extraordinary outline of Finau Maka must surely now loom large on the horizon of world rugby. If the Tongans (or their islander brothers) get a fair crack at the big nations from here on, that is.

And after this afternoon's thrilling contest between Wales and Fiji, there can surely be no argument that the lesser-known lights of Australasian rugby are deserving of greater exposure. The Fijians displayed raw power, technical accomplishment and no little spirit in slaying the Welsh Dragon, blasting holes in a hierarchy that has become increasingly destabilised. Argentina will likely dump Ireland out of the tournament tomorrow, establishing another point on the new power axis, while Scotland face pressure from the slowly improving Italian game for a quarter final berth. Only the traditional powers from the southern hemisphere remain comfortable dining at the top table.

In his French headquarters, Brian Ashton will be hoping that the stern Pacific test his players have passed in the last week will go a good way towards preparing them for their game with Australia. And while South Africa will not be unduly worried by their quarter final with Fiji, we will at least have another opportunity to view some more of the islanders' tenacious play. Surely the IRB's top priority must now be to make sure that the growing storm isn't allowed pass.

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