‘Merde’ happens! – RWC 2011

18 10 2011

‘Merde’ happens!

It certainly did to the Welsh rugby team in Saturday’s World Cup semi-final against France.

The fiery Welsh Dragon has certainly roared at this 2011 competition – a breath of fresh air, in what for me has been an overly drawn out and largely uninspiring tournament.

My opinion is undoubtedly coloured by England’s dismal on and off the field performances. There is no escaping that ‘Johnno’ and his ‘boys’ have a lot to learn from Warren Gatland’s ‘young men’.

The wheels have well and truly fallen off the English chariot, with more column inches devoted to drunken exploits in a dwarf throwing bar, lewd behaviour towards a hotel employee, and the final coup de grâce, that inexplicable showboating plunge from the back of a ferry by Manu Tuilagi, than to match performances.

Tuilagi’s ill advised ‘dip’ in Auckland Harbour less than 24 hours after a disappointing quarter final exit, at the hands of a French team there for the taking, was somehow symbolic of the dive taken by England Rugby’s reputation during a disastrous World Cup tournament.

To be fair, Tuilagi, the youngest player in the squad, had been one of the few to emerge in credit from his on field displays, but one has to question an England set up where lax management and a poor example set by senior players has allowed such a culture to emerge where he thought he could possibly get away with it!  

As host nation in 2015, such a shambolic showing would be unthinkably embarrassing. England could do no better than start their road to recovery, on and off the pitch,  by taking a long hard look at their nearest and dearest from across the Severn Bridge.

England’s one-dimensional, play by numbers approach, was ponderous, stilted and error strewn. Wales by contrast, well organised and uncompromising in defence were lively and decisive in attack, liberated to depart from the script with an off the cuff cut and thrust capable of putting the very best of opposition to the sword.

The Welsh performance didn’t happen by chance. In Kiwi Warren Gatland and Englishman Shaun Edwards they have a coaching duo with a clear vision of how to blend winning rugby with an entertaining style, and have mixed a potent cocktail of experienced old stagers and exciting young guns – unleashed to stirring effect.    

Equally importantly, the Wales players have bought into the master-plan and believe in it. They have maintained a discipline and focus on the training ground and in between games that has enabled them to play at the top of their game throughout.   

Nobody has epitomised the Welsh work ethic more than 23-year-old captain, Sam Warburton. Gatland deserves immense credit for spotting and nurturing the potential of the young Cardiff Blues flanker who has proved both an immense player and inspirational leader. He and his team have been a credit to their rugby mad nation with performances that have drawn comparison with those of the ‘70s ‘golden era’ of Welsh rugby.    

It was ironic therefore, that Warburton should be at the heart of the controversial 17th minute incident which impacted so dramatically on the semi-final; his crunching ‘spear tackle’ that lifted French winger Vincent Clerk off his feet, turning him upside down before releasing him to land head and shoulders first on the ground.

Alain Rolland, the Irish referee with a French name (his father is French), who took charge of the 2007 final, and is considered by many to be the best in the World, had no hesitation in immediately brandishing a red card and reducing the Welsh team to 14 men for the remaining 63 minutes of the game.

Everybody who saw the incident, from dripping wet rugby die-hards in the floodlit Eden Park Stadium, to pyjama clad cereal munchers in front of their TVs, 12,000 miles away, has an opinion.  

For many, me included, the tackle whilst potentially dangerous had lacked any malicious intent, the French player had not been injured and with the benefit of countless TV replays it looked worse than it was. A yellow card, yes, but not worthy of a red.

Rolland appeared to act in undue haste and, at very least, might have taken time to draw breath and think again by consulting the technology available to him.

For others, a minority at first but increasing in number with the passage of time, the referee acted in strict accordance with the letter of the law and a pre-tournament briefing that dictated a red card should be shown immediately for any illegal tackle. He was left with no alternative.  

Welsh supporting ‘celebs’ were all of a ‘Twitter’ during the game:

@RobBrydon (comedian): “Just put my cereal bowl down with a thud. No doubt worthy of a red card in the eyes of this ref.”    

@Gabby_Logan (Radio & TV presenter): “Warburton let go of the man. That’s a spear tackle, he had to go. He’s not dirty though.”

@sjamesjourno – Steve James (former cricketer, sports journalist): “How well has Warburton taken that decision. Imagine a footballer in that scenario?”

I’ll leave the last word with highly regarded former Welsh international rugby referee Clive Norling (retired 1992, after officiating in a then record 35 Tests) who has come out in full support of Alain Rolland’s decision, claiming, “Referees look at the game in a different fashion to journalists and fans…………..Intent does not come into it because we are looking at facts.”       

However, what most would agree is that Warburton’s dismissal reduced the game as a spectacle and was a decisive factor in determining the final result.

To their credit 14 man Wales were magnificent in adversity against a stodgy, unambitious, out of sorts French team, who have been at odds with their coach throughout the tournament.

After scrum half Mike Phillips dummied and dived over for an opportunist individual try, with a quarter of the game still left to play, things seemed to be turning in Wales’ favour, but it was not to be.

In retrospect, if any of their normally reliable artillery of kickers, Hook, Jones or Halfpenny, had landed just one of 3 penalty, 2 drop goal and a conversion opportunities that came and went during the 80 minutes, Wales would have deservedly been through to the final.  

It was all the more agonising, therefore, to lose by the finest of margins, 9 points to 8.

The only consolation for Wales is that they are an emerging team who can only get better, with a core of young talent around which the British Lions squad to tour Australia in 2013 is likely to be built.

Prop Gethin Jenkins, block-busting centre Jamie Roberts (MD) and scrum half Phillips are in their prime, while fly half Rhys Priestland, who missed the semi- final through injury, nineteen year old winger George North and Sam Warburton have huge futures ahead of them. 

Les Bleus, are unlike any other French team, I ever remember. Artistic flair has given way to dull pragmatism. What was once compelling technicolour rugby, easy on the eye, is now monochrome and negative.  

All is not well in the French dressing room, where dysfunctional players are constantly at loggerheads with, out-spoken coach, mustachioed Freddie Mercury look-alike, Mark Lièvrement, who has dressed them down in public on more than one occasion –  all very reminiscent of their round ball counterparts in last year’s FIFA World Cup.

After scratching a couple of unconvincing early victories in the group stage they were comprehensively beaten by the All Blacks and lost pathetically to Tonga, in the one genuine upset of the tournament, but still managed to limp through to the quarter finals where, at last, they managed to put together a decent first 40 minutes – enough to see off England.

Incredibly, they will now line up against the All Blacks again in Sunday’s Auckland final where, all things being equal the home nation will bring the tin lid down on the tournament with a resounding win.

The All Blacks, for so long the dominant force in World rugby, having lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy in the inaugural 1987 competition, have surprisingly never won it since, despite being favourites in every subsequent tournament.  

It appears to be their destiny, this time around, on home soil but the French have proved to be their nemesis on more than one occasion; most recently the 2007 World Cup quarter-final, staged in Cardiff, where France came back to win, in dramatic style, 20-18, having looked dead and buried at half time. One of the all-time great games – I know I was there!     

This time around the All Blacks have looked convincing throughout despite a crippling injury list which forced them to call on their third choice fly half for the semi- final against the Wallabies.

The legendary Dan Carter, the highest point scorer in Test match history, was forced to pull out of the competition early on while captain and open-side flanker Richie McCaw, the first All Black to win 100 caps, has been struggling with a foot injury.  

Ma’a Nonu, he of the flying dreadlocks, has been in rampaging form at inside centre, alongside his hard tackling and illusive partner Conrad Smith, while winger Cory Jane and young full back Israel Dag have both stepped up to put in eye-catching performances.   

I can’t see it going any other way than an All Black victory.

If it does, four million Kiwis in a country recently devastated by the Canterbury earthquake, where rugby is less a national sport, more a religion, will erupt.                           

Then again ‘Merde’ happens. Just ask the Welsh who will be scratching their heads in amazement at the latest IRB World rankings which add insult to injury; England having been elevated to 5th, one place above them!   

  

    

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3 responses

19 10 2011
Gerry

Good to read, but what price a National coach who contemplates cheating to restore his advantage, decides not to, but then tells the world of his temptation! Unbelievable.

19 10 2011
outofafrica2010

Hi Gerry! I obviously wrote this piece before Gatland dropped his bombshell. I think it was ill advised. I’m not sure what he was hoping to gain when public sympathy was already with Wales. He seems to imply they were ‘cheated’ by the referee & so it was excusable for him to consider bending the rules in order to even things up. The sad reality is that this sort of thing clearly goes on all the time in professional rugby, as we know from Harlequins and the ‘bloodgate’ scandal.

19 10 2011
Gerry

You have summed it up precisely Phil. This revelation has tainted my opinion of the latest saviour of the Reds. Maybe we can retrieve some standing on Friday.

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