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SPIRO ZAVOS: Portugal prove Cup critics arguing against the true spirit of rugby, what's sparked Ireland's rise as contender

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10th October, 2023
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Hollywood could not have scripted the climatic last 15 minutes of Fiji v Portugal, the final match of the pool rounds of RWC 2023, much better for thrills and spills.

So roll the tape.

Fiji, down 10 – 17 to Portugal, confront a Perils of Pauline series of episodes to avoid a bonus point loss that will boot them out of the finals.

Portugal, playing passionately for a first RWC win that will transport the side into rugby immortality, confront their Billy Elliot moment.

We are in disaster territory for Fiji.

And glory territory for the Os Lobos players, for Portugal rugby and their passionate supporters.

Portugal now make a mistake in the ruck.

From the penalty Fiji kick to their opponent’s 5 metre mark. There is a ferocious series of mauls and hard-shouldered drives, with the Fiji onslaught resembling a beach-head invasion, before Mesake Doge powers across the try line.

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Frank Lomani kicks the conversion. Fiji 17 – Portugal 17.

We are in the 68th minute now. There is still time for Fiji to lose the game by 8 or more points.

After some frenetic play from the kick-off, Portugal are caught off-side from a defensive lineout. Romani boots the goal.

We are in the 73rd minute and Fiji now lead 20 – 17.

From the next series of play, Fiji field the kick-off, win a penalty from the ensuing lineout and Romani kicks a 43m goal.

Fiji 23 – Portugal 17.

The clock shows 76 minutes of play gone. The ticking clock has become the friend of Fiji and the enemy of Portugal.

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For the crux of the drama has now changed.

Fiji will make the finals. There are no more threatening perils for the side to be navigated.

But Portugal can still win the match if, and it is a mighty IF, they can score a converted try. The drama of the script now hangs on whether there will be a Billy Elliot triumph for the underdogs.

The commentators tell their television audience that Portugal look ‘fatigued’ from the pace of the game. The tough draw against Georgia the week before is taking its toll on the energy levels of the players, they opine.

Portugal fields the kick-off and go through a desultory ball-in-hand series plays that move the ball more across the field than forward.

It looks like the fatigue theory is right.

Raffaele Storti scores against Fiji. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

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Then there is a flash of brilliance from the winger Raffaele Storti, a sort of bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky.

From a ruck inside Fiji’s half and near the touch-line, Storti sprints down the short side which the fatigued Fijians, ironically, have not covered.

To his astonishment and amid the bellowing cheers of the crowd, Storti races towards the Fiji try-line. He deceives the covering defence with a deft pass to his left wing partner Rodrigo Marta who plants the ball across the line.

Fiji 23 – Portugal 22.

But there is a conversion to come to win the match.

There is indecision from the referee and touch judges just where the try is scored. The commentators note that Portugal’s goal-kicker halfback Samuel Margues missed a penalty to defeat Georgia from a similar position the week before.

A mark is made about 17 metres in from the touch-line.

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Margues, with the ice-cold temperament of a champion, converts the try with the ball just going inside the right uprights.

Fiji 23 – Portugal 24.

80 minutes of play is up but because the try is scored in the 79th minute there is time for one more play.

Can the Portugal hold on to their lead?

Fiji kick long. Portugal take the ball into a ruck. The ruck is fiercely defended. The ball comes out to Margues who boots it into the crowd behind the posts – and into rugby history.

Portugal have won their first victory at a RWC tournament. And have done playing with the panache, resolve and skill of a top tier side.

The stadium explodes in a riot of noise with screaming, bellowing and chanting.

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The brilliant coach of Portugal, Patrice Lagisquet, a former famous French winger, talks about his players as ‘a team of friends’ and that he ‘loves our fans.’ Tears and hugs are flowing all around the stadium.

The Guardian’s Gerard Meagher at the ground writes: ‘Os Lobos have won hearts and minds throughout the tournament and now they have a victory to savour. The sight of the players singing their lungs out in front of their delirious supporters soon after the final whistle will be one of the abiding memories of the tournament.’

Portugal’s iconic hooker, Mike Tadjer, tells reporters: ‘Obviously I can die tomorrow. I have retired after this World Cup, to finish like that, it is unbelievable for me.’

Later on Fiji’s coach, Simon Raiwalui, goes to Portugal’s changing room and gives the players a large bag of Fiji kit.

Let us hold those memories in our heads while we consider a series of complaints from some senior rugby journalists that the RWC 2023 tournament has already been too long, that there have been too many mediocre teams playing in it and, as a consequence of these defects, there have been too many blowout scores.

All complaints, in my opinion, are against the true spirit of rugby. The game at its best embraces all shapes, sizes and nationalities. Touring and long tournaments are part of the DNA of the game.

The top six blowout scores explain in their detail how unlucky Romania were to be in a pool with Ireland, South Africa and Scotland, and Namibia in the same pool as France and New Zealand:

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France 96 – Namibia 0
Scotland 84 – Romania 0
New Zealand 96 – Namibia 17
Ireland 82 – Romania 8
New Zealand 73 – Italy 0
South Africa 76 – Romania 0

The fact that Italy, a Six Nations team, was blown away by the All Blacks 73 – 0 shows that even experienced teams can be smashed when a top side, as three of the big winners France, New Zealand, South Africa are, gets its game together perfectly on the day.

This argument about too many blowouts is wrong factually and wrong from the perspective of developing depth of quality in teams around the rugby world.

As Chile’s coach pointed out after his side was defeated 71 – 0 by England, the heavy loss was to be expected. ‘The only way to alter that is by playing them on more occasions in the future … We play the top team every four years and we are facing tier one countries at the top of their form … It’s our reality and it’s a shame.’

LYON, FRANCE – SEPTEMBER 29: Brodie Retallick and Samuel Whitelock of New Zealand prepare to contest a scrum during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between New Zealand and Italy at Parc Olympique on September 29, 2023 in Lyon, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

In other words, the minnow rugby nations have to be exposed more to the top tier nations, not less, if World Rugby wants to grow the minnows into strong teams.

Japan was defeated by the All Blacks in RWC1995,147 – 15. Twenty years later, these things do take time, Japan defeated the winner of RWC 1995, the Springboks, 34 – 32 in a victory described as ‘the greatest RWC shock ever’ in RWC 2015.

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There is one further point I want to make about the need to have as many teams as possible in a tournament as prestigious as the RWC. This goes to the psychic pleasure that players, especially, but supporters and their entire nation experience when their national team is taking part in a big sporting event.

I feel very strongly about this notion of psychic pleasure. It is personal. For I was once, when I was a university student, one of these out-of-their league players playing for Wellington against the touring England cricket team in 1961.

England batted on the Friday and declared after 40 minutes or so of play on Saturday, 9 down for 511. Wellington were dismissed twice that day for 127 and 173. On the scale of defeats I would rank this one, in rugby terms, on the France 96 – Namibia 0 level.

My contribution to the defeat I would put on the level of Japan’s 145 – 17 defeat at the RWC 1995 by an All Blacks.

Yet the psychic pleasure I got from those two days have thrilled me all my life: opening the batting against Freddie Trueman and Frank Tyson and scoring 3 and 5, bowling to Colin Cowdrey and being stroked through the covers for three sumptuous 4s, being at mid-on when Tom Graveney hooked a bouncer from our feared fast bowler Bob Blair for a four and hearing him tell the infuriated Blair, ‘that length was perfect, Bob, keep them there,’ were memories, as Mike Tadjer said, to die for.

The special thing about a sports tournament is not how long it is, it is the experience itself.

In medieval times, if one believes Sir Walter Scott’s novel ‘Ivanhoe,’ tournaments were jousting competitions where the champions and their rivals showed their true colours in a fierce competition.

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This latest edition of the RWC has certainly fulfilled these tournament ideals going into the finals.

The other point that needs to be stressed is that touring by teams and their supporters is part of the DNA of the rugby game. The rugby world is an oval ball.

Dr Arnold, the famed headmaster of Rugby School, and the real hero of ‘Tom Brown’s School Days,’ the novel that created the rugby myth, was an inveterate traveller. The day the school term ended, Dr Arnold would get into his carriage and head off to a port city to catch a boat to Europe.

This touring ethic was imbued in the Rugby School boys who created the rugby game in the 1840s. They became muscular missionaries forcing the spread of rugby through the touring ethic. And when they toured they established the tradition of taking their colours with them on their jerseys – Rugby School’s were white later adopted by England – and encouraging their supporters and friends to travel with them to be part of the touring experience.

This touring ethic and rugby was picked up around the world wherever the game was played. In Australia, in 1882, a team from NSW toured Queensland and later embarked on the first tour of New Zealand by an overseas team. A year later, an Auckland team toured NSW and gave local rugby supporters their first experience of a pre-match haka.

The touring ethic of rugby became so entrenched in New Zealand and Australia that in 1904 a team from the famous Maori College, Te Aute, came to Sydney to play a series of matches against the GPS schools and university sides. The Te Aute style of vigorous, skilful, fast and expansive play was picked up by St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill, later to become a famed rugby school, after their match against the unbeaten ‘Maorilanders.’

That Te Aute team brought over 100 supporters with them to Sydney.

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This tradition lives on.

The combination of a touring team playing in a tournament and being cheered on by supporters, on and off the field, has been a sensational aspect of the 2023 RWC, the 10th edition of the tournament. And at the heart of this enthusiasm has been a charismatic Ireland side.

Early on there was the remarkable spectacle of 12,000 spectators coming to watch Ireland have their first training run in France.

My favourite rugby writer, The Guardian’s Robert Kitson, described how Ireland’s Green Power has lit up RWC 2023 with this description of play, on and off the field, at the end of the game against a knocked-out Scotland:

‘A ruthless Ireland were 36 – 0 up inside the hour … With Johnny Sexton also comfortably winning his head-to-head with Finn Russell, it was a special Saturday night for the hordes of Irish fans who gathered in Paris to roar their heroes home …

‘As the Pogues, the Cranberries and U2 blasted out after the final whistle, it was as if half of Ireland had decamped to France. There were shamrock bucket hats paying their lunchtime respects at Oscar Wilde’s memorial in the Pere Lachaise cemetery, Connacht jerseys in the sunshine at Republique and pea-green berets at the Gare du Nord.’

The real problem with this RWC 2023 schedule, then, is not its length. It is the draw itself. The four best teams in the tournament, Ireland, France, South Africa and New Zealand, are in the same half of the draw.

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The draw was drawn up based on the World Rankings in December 2020. Those rankings then are clearly not the ranking now when the draw should have been made:

The 2020 World Rugby Ranking:
South Africa (94.20 points)
England (89.49)
New Zealand (88.95)
France (85.30
Ireland (83.65)
Australia (83.08)
Scotland (80.82)
Argentina (80.31)
Brian Moore, the former England hooker, writing in The Telegraph, has rightly slammed a draw that has lumped the current top four teams in the world in the same half of the tournament:

‘It is an absolute farce … of the seeded teams in the bottom half of the draw only Wales can legitimately claim they have got near to performing somewhere near their best, and even then only sporadically … To their credit no country from the top half of the draw has whinged inordinately about this, but with each unfolding week their lot can be clearly seen as unfair.’

This weekend’s quarterfinals, especially for the teams in the top half of the draw, are in effect semifinals and the final matches.

It is most unlikely that any team outside of the Rugby’s New Big Four, Ireland, France, South Africa, and New Zealand, will win the Webb Ellis trophy at this RWC 2023 tournament.

Ireland have never made the semi-finals of a RWC tournament. It goes into the Test against the All Blacks at the weekend as the top rugby power in the world.

In RWC 2019 in Japan, the All Blacks smashed Ireland in their quarterfinal.

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This followed a trend of the All Blacks winning 27 with one draw in their first 28 Tests against Ireland.

But just before 2019 Ireland started to defeat the All Blacks. And in their last six Tests, Ireland have won four times, a record that includes their last two Tests in New Zealand.

All this represents a remarkable turn of fortune for Ireland, especially as back in 1991 Ireland was a minnow rugby power that lost two successive Tests to Namibia at Windhoek. Ireland’s rise from this ignominy, albeit over 30 years ago, gives a rugby context to the famous Readers’ Digest headline: ‘New Hope For The Dead.’

The modern revival of Ireland coincides with the high-performance work at the Dublin Headquarters of the former Wallaby hooker and the only Brumbies coach to win a Super Rugby title and succumb to an ousting by player power, David Nucifora.

IRFU performance director David Nucifora before the Bank of Ireland Nations Series match between Ireland and South Africa at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

IRFU performance director David Nucifora. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

In 2013 Joe Schmidt, a New Zealander, took over as Ireland’s coach for a 7-year tenure. Schmidt’s Ireland won the Six Nations three times and defeated the All Blacks twice. For a time, and the first time, Ireland was the No.1 ranked team in the world.

The new coach of Ireland, Andy Farrell, had a mixed start in 2020. But by 2022 Ireland began to record big wins over Japan and Argentina, and later a historic 2 -1 Test series win against the All Blacks in New Zealand.

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What Farrell, a hard as teak player in the rugby league game, has given Ireland is a toughness, mental and physical, plus a rugby league-type of attention to detail from all his players, that allows props to substitute as hookers in a crisis and players like the dynamic halfback, the New Zealand-born Jamison Gibson-Park, to successfully replace Mack Hansen on the wing during the drubbing last weekend of Scotland.

I was particularly struck by Gibson-Park’s play as a winger because Ireland, it seems to me, are playing a complicated three-wingers format during this tournament. At one point late in the match he took a tackle on his wing side of the field and then got up and raced across to the far wing to make the extra man, after a 20m run, to set up a try.

This three-wingers format, with fullback-wing Hugo Keenan and wingers Mack Hansen and James Lowe, allows Ireland flood the outside attacking line with two and some three runners.

The format puts enormous stress on the defensive line. When the line stretches to cover the touchline, Ireland’s big backs, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose, then burst through the stretched middle defence.

The format also forces Johnny Sexton to be the only playmaker, something that suits his style and bossy temperament.

Pundits like Stuart Barnes are picking Green Power Ireland to defeat the All Blacks. And even the All Blacks coach Ian Foster suggests: ‘This is their moment. If they’re ever going to win a World Cup. It’s now.’

This seems too much like putting the All Blacks as a hostage to fortune for my liking.

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