Decent weather, running rugby, hope for Wallabies
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I received an email from a friend telling me that he’d been given a ticket to the Rugby World Cup final. “Let’s hope it stops raining,” he noted. Well, the good news is that for the last round of pool matches, the weather has turned.
I walked around Wellington in almost summer conditions. Tongans looking forward to the weekend match against France were having parties everywhere.
The All Blacks trained before big crowds who were virtually sunning themselves after a couple of weeks of rain at Waitangi Park in downtown Wellington.
The golden weather was shining throughout the nation. The effect on the rugby was obvious.
Japan and Canada played out a wonderful match at Napier which was full of abrasive running and fierce tackling.
The match seemed locked up for Japan with minutes to play and a 10-point lead. But the Canadians are a gritty side. They stormed through for a try. And then forced a successful penalty goal.
There was time left for a series of Japanese assaults and a missed drop at goal before Jonathan Kaplan blew the full-time whistle.
There is no doubt in my mind that the fine day and dry field was an important factor in this exciting and well-played match.
It has been my contention that the wet weather in the opening weeks of the RWC tournament told against the performances of some of the teams in their early matches.
The most crucial match in this context was, of course, the Australia-Ireland match.
Ireland played a perfect, restricted, middle-of-the-field tactical match.
The Wallabies tried to play their running and chip and chase game. The backs couldn’t hold their feet while they tried to make outside breaks and were easy picking for the Irish defenders.
Ireland, themselves, had faced the same circumstances in their opening match in wet conditions at New Plymouth against the USA.
It seems a long time ago now and most people have forgotten the score line, 22 – 10 for Ireland. The crucial factor here is that Ireland did not win a bonus point against the United States.
This lapse, forced more by the conditions than by bad play, leaves Ireland slightly vulnerable when they play Italy on Sunday. The Italians in fine conditions at Nelson (the sunniest part of New Zealand generally) scored a bonus point win against a tough USA side.
The Italian scrum was able to gain traction on the hard, dry surface. This scrum dominance, as in so many other matches in the tournament for other strong scrumming sides, created the opportunities to force tries at close quarters.
It also enabled Italy to win a penalty try from a 5-metre scrum after the USA, once again, were concertinaed by one of the best scrumming pack in the tournament.
This victory gives Italy the slightest chance of getting through to the finals if they defeat Ireland at the enclosed stadium at Dunedin.
The five-day turnaround, though, should tell against Italy, just as it will against Samoa in their match on Friday against South Africa, after playing a tough match last Friday against Fiji.
One of the features of the tournament, aside from the fact that the quick turn-around teams have not fared well, is that scrum power has been more effective than lineout power, the opposite to what happened in RWC 2007.
Wales, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Samoa and England have all based strong wins on their power scrumming.
It was terrible conditions, too, that have prevented Scotland from making the finals, in my opinion.
Although superior in the backs to Argentina for most of the match and enjoying field position for long periods of time, Scotland were just unable to get their backs finishing off breaks in the mud and wet. I reckon that on a dry day Scotland would have won this match easily.
The Pumas, like Ireland against Australia, played a restricted negative but smart match in the conditions. They hung on even when it seemed they were out of contention.
Winger Lucas Gonzalez scored a memorable try sliding betewen Scottish defenders who couldn’t get set in the slippery conditions to make a tackle. Felipe Contepomi converted the try.
Scotland will need to defeat England by a large margin to make good this loss. This is unlikely. Historically Scotland have only won 42 Tests against England, while England have defeated Scotland 86 times.
In this tournament, too, England have played most of their matches in the closed stadium at Dunedin. They have been able to play ensemble rugby that is invariably beyond them on the wet fields they usually play on.
The match against Scotland is being played at Eden Park on Saturday. The weather forecast is for a fine day. England with their strong wingers and an exciting running fullback in Ben Foden should have the advantage in this match.
On Sunday we had what was supposed to be the glamour match of the tournament with Samoa playing Fiji at Eden Park which was packed out with 60,000 spectators.
The match was a dour encounter for most of the match as drizzling rain made handling and running difficult. Towards the end of the match, the rain cleared and play opened up.
Samoa got their victory. They play South Africa at Eden Park on Sunday.
The Springboks have been able to play some expansive rugby in this tournament, aside from their first match in the wet against Wales.
A dry field, though, will suit Samoa more than the Springboks in that the big Samoan backs should be able to get the sort of traction they need to launch the kind of attacks that monstered the Wallabies a couple of months ago.
In my opinion, the Wallabies are the one top tier that is most affected when conditions are wet and slippery.
They do not have a dominant scrum, and this failing is accentuated on a wet day when players find it hard to get their footing in the shoving match of the scrum. There are more scrums, too, because of handling errors.
But when it’s fine the brilliant Wallaby backs can carve up any side.
The latest long range forecast is for fine weather into next week with temperatures rising to the mid-20s which is regarded as hot at this time of the year in New Zealand. But, according to the forecasters, there is some more bad weather coming up for the finals.
As Mark Twain once remarked: “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”
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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