Friday, November 09, 2007

Magic Sponge!

The rugby world cup of 2007 was a strange affair. Games that promised little delivered epic encounters. Games that offered huge match-ups fell flat.

The presumption prior to the tournament was that the ‘small’ teams would be swatted aside in a series of meaningless group games, leaving the big boys of the rugby world to entertain us in the knockout stages. Was that presumption ever wrong. Have the warm-up matches ever been more deceptive as to the final outcome?

Argentina sprang upon the world cup stage first, playing the hosts France, and delivered a statement of intent that could not be misunderstood by anybody. They took a disheartened-looking France apart. The Argentinians have long been on the wrong end of the world rugby system – getting hideous schedules in these tournaments while things are made easier for the so-called ‘big’ teams. Not allowed in the southern-hemisphere tri-nations, not allowed in the northern-hemisphere 6-nations. The black sheep of the rugby world, they came with a serious point to prove.

You knew that something was up before a ball was kicked. As the camera panned across the Argentinian team faces during their national anthem, you could sense something massive coming. The intensity of their expressions was on a different level, even for a competitive international game – some looked ready to burst, some looked furious, some were glazed, lost in thought, some had tears streaming down their face. Could they control their emotions? While you worried for the Argentinians if they couldn’t, you could only fear for the French if they could. Of course, they could, they did, and they humbled France, throwing the group that also contained Ireland wide open.

The Irish, inexplicably, self-destructed almost from the first game. A team filled with some of the most incredible individual talents in world rugby somehow managed to lose shape, direction, form, and ended up adding up to significantly less than the sum of its parts, submerging from the competition in the group stages. The Irish coach (having signed a four-year deal just prior to the competition) is presumably pleased that the crisis which exploded in Irish football immediately after the RWC diverted the national spotlight away from the immediate aftermath of his teams failure. Wales similarly foundered in the group stage, although they had the dubious compensation of participating in a deciding game with Fiji that could be used as an advert for rugby for the next 20 years. Scotland scrabbled out of their group after a nip-and-tuck decider with Italy, but were put to the sword in the quarters by Argentina.

Other great moments lit up the competition. France / New Zealand was a defining moment - the hosts taking on the favourites. While it’s difficult to like the way that New Zealand collect the cream of talent from the South Pacific, one of the appealing things about the All Blacks on the field has always been their refusal to lose, their relentlessness, their single-minded desire. One of the appealing things about France has always been their unpredictability – their mental imbalance. One half of a game they can be destroyed, hideous, a shell of a team. Then they can turn it on like it’s a tap – suddenly, the French flair is there, and they are the best team in the world. They did it to the All Blacks before in a world cup – and in 2007, they did it again – fighting back from behind to mug New Zealand in a massive show of heart, an incisive break from Freddie Michelak, swift hands and a killer try.

So as for the highlights of the world cup? I have four.

First is Argentina, bursting with pride and determination, turning France’s world upside down in the opening game.

Second is France, holding on by their fingernails for almost an entire match, staying in touch, and then finding a few minutes of inimitable French inspiration with the introduction of Michelak, and overturning an All Blacks side everyone had pegged to win the final.

Third is Sebastien Chabal. From a publicity point, the player of the tournament. But I pick him not for a moment of play, but for the expression with which he regarded the New Zealand ‘Haka’. There are many ways to stare down the Haka, but this was beyond intense. Check out the charged up expression Chabal has for the All-Blacks – and the raised eyebrows from the French player just after the end of the Haka is a nice touch too - here.

There’s a clip from the stands showing just how up close and personal it got here

(Note the All-Blacks crowding up in the French faces as it goes on – and the French sneaking over the halfway line (which you’re not supposed to do). No quarter asked for and none offered)

And just to confirm that the heroically violent sport of rugby is watched by gents, check out the crowd scenes in Cardiff before the match, as a large group of French encounter a large group of Kiwis. Brilliant.

Finally, as I was a lock forward, one for the real rugby players out there.

One of the latter Irish group games (possibly against the Argentinians, although I’m not sure). A ruck is on the ground, ball coming back on the Argentinian side. An Irish player is trapped head-and-chest on the wrong side, legs buried in the ruck. An Argentinian is trapped head-and-chest in the ruck, legs sticking out the Argentinian side.

As the Argentinian scrum-half comes in to collect the ball, the Irish player trapped in the ruck grabs an Argentinian leg (belonging to the buried Argentinian), and as no hands are allowed if you are on the ground, uses the spare Argentinian leg to poke the ball at the critical moment. The referee is unsighted by the bodies, and sees only an Argentinian foot poking the ball. The Argentinian scrum-half is subsequently faced with a ball zipping out of the ruck under his feet when he wasn’t ready for it, and onrushing Irish defenders.

While it wasn’t a decisive moment, it’s a great reminder of the hidden, beautiful moments that make rugby such a fantastic game.

Here’s looking forward to the six nations!

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