Thursday, September 06, 2007

Formez Vos Bataillons!

It's the World in Union, sang Kiri Te Kanawa, deploying the play on words still beloved of Rugby World Cup organisers to this day.

Except it's not, of course. It's mainly the former British Empire, various pug-nosed French peasants, some Argentinian polo players and motley frightening Pacific Union.

Still, though, it's not a bad old collection of half-men, half-buses that will occupy our front centre of the sporting stage for the next God knows many weeks. The quadrennial installation of the All Blacks as favourites has been duly completed, and the quest of the men from those damp islands on the derriere of the globe to add the seal of the William Webb Ellis Trophy to their generally held position as the best team in the world will be compelling.

But the RWC (if you don't mind us referring to it as that henceforth), despite having a short history, is nonetheless in thrall to that past. All wizened experts, seeking to justify their wizenedness, point to the stumbles of highly fancied All Black teams in past tournaments: to the suspicious dose of Jo'burg belly that did for them in 1995 and the wily French and Australian outfits that outfoxed them in '99 and '03.

They can't handle the pressure, say the sceptics, who are invariably supping from a can of Fosters and driving a Ute at the time. Australia, masters of the sledging arts, have been poking the All Black beast in the belly since the Tri-Nations game in Melbourne in June, which the Wallabies won 20-15. "Awww, same awwld Awll Blacks," they've been drawling since, "ye can get to 'em, eh?"

Wallaby nous could very well test Kiwi mettle in the semi-final (should New Zealand overcome their quarter-final opponents, more of whom anon..), in a repeat of the 2003 semi. Yes, the All Blacks are bigger, better, deeper, stronger ( did I mention bigger?) than ever, but.....

We'll deal with the holders with the short shrift their reign as world champions deserves. With the departure of Clive Woodward, the retirement of Martin Johnson, Matt Dawson and Neil Back, and the descent into infirmity of Jonny Wilkinson, English rugby went through its most dismal period in perhaps three decades since that evening in Sydney four years ago.

The appointment of Brian Ashton as coach and the desperate re-arranging of the deckchairs on this doomed vessel will do little to discourage the view that a tame defence of their title is likely. Their pool game against South Africa should be of interest to geologists, replicating - when the two packs meet - the movement of the earth's plates. The Springboks have class all over the field; they should meet an equally immovable object in France in the semi-final, but one a little lighter on its feet.

If there is a surprise to be caused, and it is not at all a surprise, it should be Italy to emerge over Scotland in Pool C, repeating their Six Nations victory. Scottish preparations have been marred by the decimation of their domestic game, and it's now or never for Italy.

Wales's regression since their Grand Slam of 2005 is a fascinating demonstration of how the game of rugby changes. Back in '05 'offloading' was the word - everyone was doing it, it was the cool new craze!

But if you happened to catch Wales's recent warm-up match against France, you would have witnessed how the coaching intelligentsia responded to that tactic: defence, my boy, defence. Bigger, tighter, blitzier than ever and, according to those who know these things, likely to be the central theme of this tournament, unfortunately.

Now then, who have I forgotten? Ah yes. Samoa. No, okay; how are we going to do? We'll lose to France, beat Argentina and lose to the All Blacks. It is written by the prophets.

Had Ireland won the Grand Slam this year, the leap of faith to the semi-finals (i.e., topping the group and avoiding the All Blacks in the quarter-finals) would have been imaginable. Look at England in 2003. They didn't sit around in meetings telling each other they could win the World Cup. They had been the best team in the world for the previous two years. They knew they could win the World Cup.

The RWC is too gruelling, too taxing and too inhospitable a place to play yourself into title-winning form. You can't go there and find yourself. You rather need to have located yourself well in advance.

Ireland won't win this World Cup because they will sustain injuries to irreplaceable players, they will struggle in the scrummage against any of the other rated nations, they tend toward inconsistency too much, and because, fundamentally, they know they are just short of what is needed.

And Ireland will not top their group, avoid the All Blacks etc., etc., because they will be facing the future world champions in their third game. Excuse the crudity of the term in advance, but we have been 'ridden' by the draw. This France side are, as we already know, the real deal; they have extraordinary depth, and ferocious power. They are not the 'flair' side of old, only deploying the Rougeries and Dominicis when games are well won now; but my, they are strong.

All that, plus the "Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons!" bit in La Marseillaise resounding from the patriotic-when-they-want-to-be-as-long-as-there-are-no-bullets-involved French public in Stade de France, means they could be unstoppable.

There's an Achilles heel though. I'd rather like to have my half-back pairing sorted out on the eve of the tournament, thank you very much. Fragile Freddie Michalak might wobble at the right time for Ireland.

And then you never know.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

At odds of 20/1 to win the RWC Ireland might be worth a punt for the believers amongst us!
Call it a hunch but I think we will beat the French and top our group thus avoiding the All Blacks. After that anything is possible!!

3:27 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After last nights debacle I take back above comment!
We will be lucky to even beat Georgia!!

9:52 a.m.  

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