What typically marks the mid-point of a World Cup – the phase where most of the pools have been determined, the quarter-finals are still ten days away, and the frequency of meaningful matches drops – is that bored journalists and frustrated editors have to try to rustle up stories out of nothing, in order to keep feeding the beast.
Fully aware that my own penning of a column about other people’s stories about nothing carries its own taint of hypocrisy, it was interesting to scroll through my newsfeed on Wednesday morning to find a headline jumping out that accused the All Blacks of being cheats.
That the banner immediately alongside read ‘Bureaucrat fined after urinating in kettle’ should have told me all I needed to know.
Nevertheless, I ventured in, wondering if overnight there had been a profound revelation about the All Blacks gaining an unfair, underhand advantage over other nations in the World Cup.
Predictably there hadn’t. Ex-Ireland international Neil Francis, writing for the Irish Independent (see how that one goes when the Irish cop a rough refereeing decision) merely full to the eyebrows with red/green mist, eager to reveal to the world what he knows about the All Blacks.
“They cheat, they cheat, and they cheat! And they are let away with it time after time!”
The proof tendered was made up of Francis’ own forensic evaluation of the All Blacks’ play against Canada, where he determined that in just a single play, “Barrett should have got a yellow, Read arguably a red and Williams a yellow and (referee) Poite should have awarded Canada a penalty try”.
Evidently Francis is not in the camp that believes referees are ruining the World Cup by dishing out too many cards.
Williams’ particular offence – cheating worthy of a yellow card according to Francis – was a “comic moment” where Williams “jumped offside at the ruck and put his hands in the air”.
It may or may not surprise you to learn that I’ve never urinated into a kettle, but I do know the stench of effluent when I smell it. And I know where I can find a hundred examples from this tournament, of players from all countries doing exactly what Williams did.
Perhaps the next time Francis is in Sydney he can look up Kearnsie and they can buy each other a beer to cry into.
One aspect where the All Blacks finished second was on Sunday at the respective press conferences following the New Zealand versus Namibia match at Tokyo Stadium.
Coach Steve Hansen was in one of his succinct moods, perhaps because something was nagging away inside him about the way he wasn’t quite nailing the correct pronunciation of his opponent, now known as Manibia.
By contrast, Namibia coach – Welshman Phil Davies – cut an impressive figure, selling a story that every single person in the room swallowed hook, line and sinker about how it was possible to be genuinely proud of the way his team played, despite being on the end of a 71-9 scoreline.
That score was rough justice for a side that gave as good as they got for the extended periods of the match when they were able to retain possession and compete at the breakdown. The manner in which Davies described TJ Perenara’s thrilling try – explaining how he leapt out of his seat simultaneously thrilled by the brave work of his own defenders and the sheer exuberance and skill of Perenara – sent a message that here was a man who loves and understands rugby, and one who is worthy of a coaching gig higher up the tier-one ladder.
From the pressers it was a mad dash to a sports bar in Shibuya in time for the NRL grand final, notable for most of the crowd electing to ignore the league and cheer on Tonga over France instead, and the Canberra Raiders’ misfortune putting to bed any notion that rugby might one day benefit from moving to two on-field referees.
Famously, the French know how to do a revolution better than most, with the 2011 side reportedly sidelining coach Marc Lievremont to allow them to get on with the business of making the final against New Zealand, which history records that they came agonisingly close to winning.
It thus came as no surprise to learn that this current side was in the midst of a similar upheaval, with colourful Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal happy to pour fuel on the fire by openly encouraging the players to mutiny.
Via a video blog Boudjellal laid it all bare, stating “Take control guys, take the power, because the coaches are all over the place”, and “Tell the coaches to go on holiday. Start today, kick the coaches out. Tell your own story, we are ready to follow you”.
This from the very same Boudjellal who earlier this year publicly criticised his own winger Julian Savea, and when fellow players rallied around to post messages of support for Savea, said, “It’s easy for players to post messages but if they had to give some of their money they would be fewer”, and that he wanted the Savea case to “serve as an example” and that he “didn’t care what this situation might have on his relationship with his players”.
Clearly, it’s vive la revolution for France, but don’t dare pull that trick in Toulon.
In a blow to the ‘referees are ruining the World Cup’ campaign, vision emerged of Canadian loose forward Josh Larsen entering the South African dressing room following his side’s match against the Springboks to apologise for his actions, which saw him given a red card by referee Luke Pearce.
Note how Larsen was apologising for his own behaviour. He had a whole wide side of prime South African beef in Thomas du Toit on which to target his clean out, yet somehow ended up slamming his shoulder into his opponent’s neck instead.
A victim of overly pedantic referees sanitising rugby beyond recognition? Or a player a bit late to get the memo about what are now acceptable zones for contact now taking responsibility for dangerous play, instead of playing victim? Good on Josh Larsen for acknowledging the latter.
To the relief of most people, the Wallabies’ Cup campaign to date has largely been an Israel Folau-free zone. That uneasy peace was wiped out, however, by news that Jordan Petaia’s mum Helen earlier this year adopted a faked identity to infiltrate Folau’s Truth of Jesus Christ church in order to try to uncover the truth about its teachings, all with a view to keeping a close watch on potential influences around her son.
If Petaia junior – a 19-year-old with one Test under his belt – had hoped to get through his first World Cup on the quiet, without his mother splashing herself all over mainstream and social media newsfeeds, he was to be disappointed.
Let he who hasn’t lived through their mother embarrassing them in front of their mates cast the first stone. Meanwhile Helen joins a select list of infamous Australian sporting mums, in illustrious company alongside the mothers of Mitchell Johnson and Shane Warne.
For much of the week, stories about nothing included conjecture about the threat Typhoon Hagibis and what that might do to the final make-up of the pools – never mind the people and infrastructure in its path.
By Thursday this was no longer a story about nothing, with World Rugby announcing the cancellation of Saturday’s New Zealand versus Italy and England versus France matches, and the crucial Pool A match between Japan and Scotland, at the time of writing, still hanging by the merest thread.
By happenstance I enjoyed a mid-week break free of the bustle of Tokyo on the Izu Peninsula, two hours or so south, a location that as well as being beautiful, sits smack in the middle of the typhoon’s predicted path.
A couple of days of spectacular coastal walks, bike riding down extinct volcanoes, authentic Japanese cuisine and refreshing onsens seemed a world away from Hagibis and the Cup – although not so far to be disconnected from both.
Never a particularly adventurous eater, I gave the steamed egg with Konowata (salted entrails) a crack. Let’s just say it won’t make my top ten list of reasons to come back to Japan.
There was no danger of going hungry, however. A café near my ryokan offering ‘crunky shrimp’ (I couldn’t figure out if they were meant to be crunchy or angry), and another Italian place, where I assumed for an extra 5000 yen you got to drop a South African on his head for fun and then pretend that not playing the All Blacks cost you a spot in the quarter-finals.
Early in the week Scotland coach Gregor Townsend joked about ‘Typhoon Haggis’, thinking that it might be the Irish who would be affected, at that stage having no issue with there being no contingency for moving games. “The Ireland game cannot be postponed, it has to be played that day,” he said. “If it cannot be played that day then it’s two points for each team.”
Only when the penny dropped that Scotland’s must-win match against Japan was also in Hagibis’ sights did Townsend change his tune. “Scottish Rugby fully expects contingency plans to be put in place to enable Scotland to contest for a place in the quarter-finals on the pitch, and will be flexible to accommodate this”.
By Friday the legal action card was being brandished, while John Greechan of the Scottish Daily Mail leapt in; ‘The fact that organisers are even thinking about allowing extreme weather to knock our boys out of the game’s showpiece global tournament? It smacks of disdainful respect, treating Gregor Townsend’s men as the 21st century equivalent of cannon fodder.”
If the Scots are indeed sent packing because a cancellation denies them the very real opportunity to defeat Japan, it would be a prodigious shame – dwarfing the bad luck they suffered at the 2015 tournament when they were denied a famous victory against Australia in a thrilling quarter-final.
But to imply that World Rugby has some kind of control over a looming typhoon, or the logistics of moving such a match are a snack, or that a rugby match really matters when people face the very real concern that roofs will be torn from their houses?
It took All Black Sam Whitelock to offer aggrieved Scots some perspective. “I’ve had a couple of Super Rugby games cancelled, with the earthquake and the [mosque] shooting, and with both those games you understand why. Rugby is just a small thing. Sometimes the right thing is not playing. There would be nothing worse than if we did play and people were getting hurt.”
There is no denying that this World Cup has hit a crazy speed bump, one that shrinks even maligned TMO Ben Skeen into insignificance. But the suggestion from Irish sports journalist Michael Cantillon that “the game’s showpiece tournament is officially unfair and the eventual winner of the trophy may forever have to carry an asterix” is but one example of the overreach from many fans and sections of the media that has marked the tournament so far.
Notably, the coaches of the four best teams here – Steve Hansen, Eddie Jones, Rassie Erasmus and Warren Gatland – have all made the right noises about taking events they have no control over – weather and refereeing – in their stride, and resetting their campaigns as the situation demands.
While we buckle down and ride this crazy weekend out, and pray that Hagibis doesn’t deliver on its potential to harm the people of Japan, and at least fans of those nations can rest easy knowing that their teams are in sure hands.