Sunday, October 21, 2007

A Bridge too Far for Ashton's Army

Well, there's no shame in being beaten by the best. Despite tearing up the form book, the play book and any other book you care to mention, England's oak-strong World Cup challenge was finally neutralised by a clinical Springbok team, who adopted their opponent's tactics in closing out a second world title.

On the day (or evening, rather), there can be few complaints from Brian Ashton and his team, after vastly-overachieving in the tournament's final equation. Had South Africa blown the English away, it would have provided a bitter after-taste to the deposed champion's sweet run to the final; but the two teams tussled competitively, and it's no disservice to the Boks to say it could have gone either way.

The Cueto 'try' call was of course crucial. The extra points would have almost certainly allowed England to mount a more credible challenge during the game's dying moments, and the boot of Monsieur Jonny may well have become the deciding factor once again. Although I'm of the mind that the attacking team should benefit when there is such an element of doubt for the TMO to take into account, probably, just about, on balance, extremely grudgingly, Stuart Dickinson - probably - got it right.

Allain Rolland's 'crossing' decision - a far worse call - some 15 minutes later, effectively ended it for Phil Vickery and co. Despite allowing an almost identical incident involving Bryan Habana to pass unnoticed, Rolland decided that Cueto had used Ben Kay to obstruct the South African tacklers, allowing a different boot, this time belonging to tyro Francois Steyn, to put England's chances to bed. The decision didn't look hugely significant at the time, but had England been awarded a similar penalty beforehand then the difference would probably have been reduced to three points again. Ah, for ifs and buts...

South Africa were my own tip from the start, and they've played the most consistently well since touching down in France. But England have salvaged a lot from their increasingly durable performances, and should now set about getting their house in order so that the post-World Cup blues does not strike twice.

Although I thought the grinding, forwards-based style of play championed by England in '03 was as dated as Martin Corry's haircut, it prevailed again; but invention with the ball in hand must be added to satisfy onlookers and ensure that the team is not simply outmuscled in future. If the blend can be perfected, there may be fewer surprises next time they get the Web-Ellis out of its cupboard...

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Favourites Dazzled by Northern Lights

Deftly sidestepping my last post on the dominance of the southern hemisphere, two giants of the northern game delivered hammer blows to antipodean rugby in a barnstorming World Cup quarter final weekend. Australia and the overwhelming favourites New Zealand were sent tumbling out of what is cranking up to be an outstanding tournament - setting up a repeat of 2003's Anglo-Gallic last four clash, and potentially clearing a path to the trophy for this year's form team: South Africa.

As the events of Saturday dramatically unfolded it became increasingly clear that we had been watching two games of incredible moment. Bernard Laporte's Redemption Blues will have left livid marks across the hearts and souls of many a Kiwi, and the recriminations will surely not be long in coming; but it was the English assault on their oldest enemy that was the more impressive, as unexpected as it was timely.

The odds on such an outcome as Saturday morning dawned must have been enticing. France were clinging to memories of their famous 1999 humbling of the All Blacks at Twickenham, having conceded over 100 points during two meetings between the teams in June. England, like Les Bleus runners-up in their group, had the withdrawal of Andy Farrell from Brian Ashton's original XV to contend with, as well as suggestions that the Aussies were less than daunted by the prospect of facing the English back line.

Yet as the dust settled on the opening exchanges, it became clear that England's early-tournament hesitancy had been banished. Opting to revert to traditional strengths, white shirts pounded into gold again and again, disrupting Australian phases, shaking the confidence of the world's second ranked team. Ashton's charges were emboldened as the ball was transferred efficiently if not electrically through the attack, a renewed purpose infusing their play; and then came the detonation of the Australian scrum.

It's clear now that the tests posed by Fiji, Wales, Japan and Canada were not quite the best preparation for Matt Dunning, Stephen Moore and Guy Shepherdson. As England's front row, powered by the man-mountain, Andrew Sheridan, ground repeatedly against the head, cracks appeared more devastating than the San Francisco fault line. And with Lewis Moody crashing into the breakdown, Nick Easter punching holes in the Australian defence, and Simon Shaw even displaying a cute eye for an offload, England's front eight supremacy left their opponents floored.

Not that it wasn't tight. The tension was almost paralysing as the minutes ticked away: and when Stirling Mortlock cocked his boot for a siege gun effort from way out on the left, a nation crossed everything it had to cross. But despite Jonny's errant kicking, and the inability to cross the try-line (though Mike Catt was a dropped pass and five yards from doing so), the lads sneaked home, worthy winners, huge drifts of pent-up frustration sliding from their shoulders. Bloody fantastic, and almost as exhausting to watch!

And then came the drama of Cardiff. Quite why the Kiwis played such a narrow game, picking and driving into a staggering French Resistance, with the calibre of the backs they had lining up outside, I don't know. But that mercurial cockerel, still recovering from its Argentine bullocking, crows on, and will fancy its chances against England. With both teams building their way into form, we could be set for an enthralling crescendo next weekend.

The winners in all this, other than in the immediate sense, must be South Africa. Jake White has navigated his team's path smoothly through to the semis, keeping his star performers fresh, and chalking up some impressive displays in the doing. While they will surely need to play better than against Fiji to end Argentina's continuing fairytale, the final beckons. And even if their performance arcs continue upwards, England and France must face a mighty Bok standing in the way of their quest for glory...

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