The Wallabies can still win the World Cup but …
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The magic and the agony of the Rugby World Cup tournament is that it can produce results that defy prediction.
The tournament is won on the field in 80-minute contests where underdogs can have their day in the sun.
Ireland’s well-deserved and splendidly thought-out victory over a (perhaps overly) confident Wallabies side was also a night in the rain, cold and unpleasant conditions for running rugby at Eden Park on Saturday night.
Your reporter (thanks to the argument between Fairfax and the IRB over the use of match videos) was seated virtually at ground level, about 10 rows from the front.
Notes I took during the game, for instance, were hard to decipher (even more so than usual) as the ink ran down the page in sporadic showers.
Even before the match you sensed that something special was about to take place. In one of the oldest sporting clichés, the atmosphere was electric.
The crowd roared when the names of the players were announced. You’d have sworn you were watching in Sydney or Dublin.
Huge clusters of yellow-clad Wallaby supporters spread around the vast towering stands of Eden Park.
In a poetic moment before I knew, of course, the devastating outcome of the match, I had the notion of the Wallaby supporter groups being like clumps of daffodils among the long green grass of the Ireland supporters.
In hindsight, there were some telling prompts (if we’d been able to read them accurately at the time) that gave clues to the way the match might go, and certainly to which team was the favourite of the large non-partisan contingent of the huge 58,000-plus crowd.
The names of the Irish players received by far the heaviest roaring from their Irish supporters. And when Quade Cooper’s name was called out, or indeed whenever Cooper touched the ball during the match, heavy roars of boos like a barrage of cannon shots blasted around the ground.
The animosity to Cooper, in fact, went much further than just booing him. At one point in the match Cooper took the ball to the line (which to his credit he did frequently) before being smashed in a tackle.
The fiery Irish pack collapsed on him and seemed rather unworried about where their elbows, shoulders and knees landed on his prone body.
A spectator a couple of rows behind me screamed out: ‘Smash him! Kill him! Kick him in the head!’ It was a man dressed in All Blacks supporter clothing.
All this goes back to Cooper’s stupidity in continually trying to bait Richie McCaw.
Courtenay Lawes, the young, talented but overly-pugnacious English second-rower got a two-match suspension for kneeing an Argentinian player for an action that looked much less deliberate than Cooper’s kneeing of McCaw in the last Bledisloe Cup match at Brisbane.
New Zealanders cultivate and like hard rugby. But, in the modern era, they intensely dislike the dirty, smart-arsed rugby in which Cooper has been indulging with McCaw.
The upshot of all this is that as Nick Farr-Jones predicted, Cooper’s behaviour has rebounded on the Wallabies.
Instead of being the second team in the affections of the New Zealand rugby public (with the Robbie Deans syndrome kicking in), the Wallabies have become the team New Zealanders least want to win the World Cup tournament.
So the Wallabies have lost the home ground advantage they would have had before the Cooper antics when they are playing sides that are not New Zealand.
When Ireland kicked for goal there was relative silence. When James O’Connor kicked for goal there was so much booing that around me there were ‘ssshh’ calls even from Irish supporters for some silence.
When Ireland made some surges, the roars of the Irish supporters were ballasted by the roars of the New Zealanders at the game, too.
There was one little incident that gave a clue to the advantage that this gave Ireland.
Around about the 30th minute mark, when the match was truly in the balance, the Wallabies kicked deep. Two Irish players exchanged passes around their own 22. The pass, although it was only a short one, was marginally but clearly forward.
In circumstances like this, with the referee and touch judges well behind in the play, an angry roar from the crowd identifying the error forces the referee to call a forward pass and set a scrum.
But there was no identifying roar. And so Ireland got away with the pass and the need to defend a tough situation.
When we go through this match, several factors stand out as elements that created the surprise result.
The first factor is that Ireland played very very very well. Their tactics of slowing down the Wallaby drives by keeping the tackled player off the ground thereby forcing a maul and a turnover were smart. What is more the players, forwards and backs, carried out the plan expertly.
Ireland presented one of the best scrums I have seen for a long time.
Whether the Irish scrum was really as good as it look, straight-backed, driving low with plenty of grunt, or whether the Wallabies without Stephen Moore had a bad night, will become clearer as the tournament progresses.
Their have been some suggestions by writers on The Roar that the Irish props bored in illegally.
But I must say that watching the game live (where admittedly you sometimes don’t see too much, although some scrums were quite close to me) and on a television replay that I could not see any boring in by Ireland.
I thought, in fact, that towards the end of the match referee Bryce Lawrence went out of his way to give the Wallabies the benefit of the doubt when scrums collapsed, even though it was pretty clear that the Wallaby props had slipped their binds and had gone down with their backs bent like a staple.
One scrum, in particular, which led to the last penalty saw the Wallaby front row go down two times before they were penalised on their third collapse. Either of the first two collapses warranted a penalty, in my view.
A second factor was the loss of David Pocock and Stephen Moore through injury and ill-health just before the match, and Digby Ioane out for a few more matches with a fractured thumb.
Pocock would have provided a contest with the excellent Irish number 7 Sean O’Brien for the ball on the ground (and in the slippery conditions there were plenty of such balls).
Ben McCalman, Pocock’s replacement is not a fetcher or scavenger. In hindsight, it might have been better to start with Scott Higginbotham.
Certainly, either McCalman or Rocky Elsom, who looked metres off the pace and out of puff for most of the match, should have been subbed earlier.
There was nothing that could be done about the Moore situation. Tatafu Polota-Nau is the second hooker. He looked over-weight (to put it kindly). He went down frequently, as he did for the Waratahs. His lineout throwing was poor. And, seemingly, his scrumming left a lot to be desired.
The Wallaby backline looked laboured too, with too much running across the field. Adam Ashley Cooper needs to come into the centres again.
Berrick Barnes should be given a crack at inside centre to provide two play-makers for the outside backs and Kurtley Beale to run off.
At the worst, provided the Wallabies win their next two matches against the USA, and Russia and Ireland defeat Italy in the last game of Pool C at Dunedin, the team will go into the quarter-finals and a match against a rampant (against Fiji, at least) Springboks outfit.
There is some comfort that England, of all sides, has twice lost pool round matches and gone on to play in the finals, in RWC 1991 and RWC 2007. Both times England came close to winning the final. So there is a precedent for the Wallabies to look too, although no one that has lost a pool round match has actually won the final.
The All Blacks could lose to France and go into the half of the finals draw away from the Wallabies.
Or Italy could defeat Ireland and the Wallabies could get to the number one position in their pool on bonus points.
Or, who knows what other upset results could be thrown up. Samoa might defeat South Africa, for instance, and take the Springboks out of the New Zealand half of the finals rounds.
And what if the rainy and windy conditions that have applied in the tournament so far give way to an October without rain but with sunshine and dry fields. These are the conditions that favour the Wallabies running game. All these missing stars will be back, too.
There is a saying in politics, particularly as it relates to by-elections which governments tend to lose: ‘While there’s death there is hope.’
The 2011 RWC tournament has plenty of deaths like the Wallaby loss to come, one would think. So hang on for the ride …
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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