Best of RWC - Episode 13


2007 – Upsets

Episode 13, kind of fitting.

Two things defined Rugby World Cup ‘07: Stifling defence (did someone say boring rugby?), and a series of astonishing upsets that scrambled the knockout stage into something quite unexpected. Both traits are neatly showcased in the opening match of the tournament, setting the scene for the event in so many ways.

Opinions expressed herein are correct. Facts may not be.

France 12 v Argentina 17

Have a strong forward pack, a long passing half-back and a fly-half standing deep in the pocket banging the ball as far as possible down the guts of the field. Repeat.

This was the recipe that turned the World Cup on its head as Juan-Martin Hernandez’s siege gun boot pinned the French in their own territory.

An intercept sent Los Pumas full back Ignacio Corletto scampering away for the only try of the match in the first half. Unfortunately neither side seemed capable of constructing a try and I recall the match was a rather stolid affair, although unclear whether that was a result of a lack of endeavour or the laws (and interpretation current at the time) which stifled attack.

France entered Pool C as the top seed, ranked 3 in the world. Sure, it was the “Pool of Death” (dum-dum-dum DUM!) with Ireland looking promising with a World Ranking of 5, and Argentina, the Pool’s third seed, ranked at 6.

Seed 6 beating Seed 3 may not seem a huge upset, but Argentina’s success had largely been at home, and France, as host and reigning Six Nations champions would no doubt have been targeting at least a Final appearance.

Despite the nature of the game, it was rightly celebrated as one of Argentina’s greatest moments. Played at France’s pride and joy, Stade de France, the unexpected result brought the long awaited tournament alive and set the host nation’s nerves a-jangling.

The result was repeated in much less dramatic circumstances later in the tournament, as Los Pumas grabbed the “Bronze Medal” across town at the Parc de Princes…

France 10 v Argentina 34 – 3rd vs 4th Playoff

Included out of chronological order here, but really it held little interest as a spectacle back then so who cares when I talk about it now.

Well, perhaps the Argies cared, as their comfortable three try to one victory gave Los Pumas a leap up the world rankings from 6 to 3 (yay) whilst France dropped from 3 to 4.

Wales 34 v Fiji 38

Why do Wales fail so spectacularly against Pacific Island nations in World Cups? Western Samoa in ’91, the whole of Samoa (minus the American bit) in ’99 and now Fiji.

Who cares? It makes for entertaining footy.

Well it would have been if you could drag yourself out of bed to watch it. Or even find a replay on at a decent time in Australia without pay TV. So I missed one of the most spectacular games in RWC history. Thank goodness for You Tube!

It seems the game had everything: spectacular tries, the underdogs grabbing an improbably huge early lead, a genuine, good old fashioned, just like the old days push over try (Wales, we salute you!), a massive comeback, Shane Williams magic, an intercept that seemed to win it and a nerve wracking TMO decision for the underdogs to snatch victory at the death.

Wow! What a game. What PI team are Wales up against this year?

Ireland 15 v Argentina 30

Back in Episode 12 the Paddies were battling to hold out the Georgians. They managed just. But they couldn’t deal with the Argies having the tournament of their lives.

As mentioned in the previous article Ireland’s “Golden Generation” were expected to challenge strongly well into the knock-out rounds. Unfortunately they were in the “Pool of Death” (dum-dum-dum DUM!).

The South Americans took a lead into the break, scoring two tries to one, Brian O’Driscoll having (rather aptly) ghosted through a gap to grab the Irish five pointer.

Geordan Murphy kept the Paddies in the game finishing off a superbly worked move, but Felipe Contepomi kept the score ticking over for Los Pumas.

Hernandez added three drop goals, the third off his left foot, to send the Irish out at the group stage for the first time in RWC.

Australia 10 v England 12, QF1

Part 1 of a horror evening for the antipodean nations.

I can’t recall too much about the game, other than Lote Tuquiri scored the only try for the Canary Yellows and some bloke called Wilkinson kicked a few penalties for the (at that stage in their history) all whites.

It seems the Poms, led by Andrew Sheridan, rather punished the wobbly Aussie scrum, and Stirling Mortlock missed a couple of easy penalties.

From a personal point of view I’m quite glad I kept my mobile phone in my pocket (pretty much). I did get a text from an Aussie friend, work colleague and team mate bemoaning the result, and graciously placing his (“and all Australian fans”) support behind the All Blacks. A man of taste. I meanwhile had drafted up a suitably mocking text message, which I decided to save until after the ABs got through their QF. It, of course, never got sent

(highlights of Aus vs Eng & NZ vs Fra)

New Zealand 18 v France 20, QF2

Oh shit here we go again.

For crying out loud WHAT DO WE HAVE TO FREAKING DO?

There was plenty of talk in the build-up of comparisons between the 1999 Semi and this QF between the same two teams. Obviously just media talk as lightning would not strike twice. This All Black side was not recovering from the horrors of 1998. It did have a solid seasoned pack of tight forwards and suitably dynamic loosies to complement their brilliant backs. They were well selected and well coached. They were not going to freeze like possums in the headlights like eight years prior.

And I was right, they didn’t.

But they still lost.

It is amazing to remember that the All Blacks dominated virtually every aspect of this game. They did not fold like a pack of cards. They controlled possession, they controlled territory. They did 95% of everything right.

So why did they lose?

You think I’m going to say “Wayne Barnes” don’t you? Well … I’ll come back to him.

There have been multiple reasons advanced for why the All Blacks scored fewer points than France that day, let’s consider a few:

  • Selection. A number of contentious selections raised eyebrows. In my opinion all were justifiable, and further, had little direct effect on the outcome. Luke McAlister had elevated himself into the number one second five-eighth in the squad and played brilliantly (when at 12), Keith Robinson was every inch the All Black (on the field at least), Sitiveni Sivivatu provided great attacking threat (maybe Doug Howlett may have offered a tiny bit more on defence), and with Conrad Smith injured Mils Muliaina was the best option at 13.

  • Preparation. When Sione Lauaki was suspended for an incident in the match against Romania he was left off the bench. The suspension was overturned on appeal but it was too late to re-include him. The All Blacks preferred tactics had to change.
  • Injury. Lose the best 10 (arguably the best player) in the world (and contrary to some opinions he’d been playing very well in the pool matches), AND his classy replacement and the backline option taking may not be as composed as you’d hope. Lose your strongman loose forward as well and you’ve taken a bit of a hit personnel wise.

  • On field decision making. We’ve talked drop goals and the not taking thereof ever since. I won’t rehash further.
  • Tactics. Should the All Blacks have abandoned the conservative, take no chances rumble of the second half to chance their arm and try and score tries?
  • Officiating. There it is.

Serious questions need to be asked of the appointment body. Wayne Barnes is an excellent referee. However in 2007 he was an extremely promising 28 year old rookie. Despite his potential it is astonishing that a novice could be given a gig of this importance while referees the calibre of Jonathon Kaplan and Tony Spreadbury were relegated to the side lines. Further it is noticeable that the referees for the semi-finals had not officiated in the quarters. Surely the best referees should be appointed to the biggest matches.

A minor change in the circumstances of any one of the above criteria could easily have delivered a different result.

So why did they lose?

You thought I was going to say “Wayne Barnes” … ?

You’re right.

In my opinion, the major reason for the All Blacks walking off behind on the scoreboard was a referee whose quantifiable errors directly contributed, by my reckoning, 23 points to the margin. In a match lost by only 2 this kind of “train wreck” is inexcusable. To disregard that is to remain deliberately ignorant. Nevertheless, the 2007 team lived down to the ABs (previously undeserved) reputation as chokers.

Much has to be said for the dignity with which the team conveyed itself in the period following the loss (I expressly exclude us fans from that observation – we were feral … it’s fun being that angry) with not one public comment about the officiating emanating from a player or member of team management (until Ali Williams suggested, during the coaching reappointment saga, that the non-awarding of 17 penalties was “bullshit” some 8 months later).

The All Blacks and their coaches returned to a media frenzy, although to my mind the public reaction was somewhat subdued, except perhaps in some pockets of Canterbury, than following the previous two tournaments. Perhaps due to the goodwill built up over the four years previous, and a realisation that the team had encountered a perfect storm of circumstances, most beyond their own control, that conspired to dump them out earlier than any All Black team had exited RWC before.

The saga of the Cartel’s reappointment and the passing over of Robbie Deans played out for a further four years, culminating in the most enjoyable, satisfying, enthralling and gut wrenching Rugby World Cup imaginable for Kiwis in their own backyard.

Stay tuned.

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