Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Rugby World Cup starts in earnest.

Despite some nonsensical calls to make the tournament even longer, one of the reasons that the rugby version of the World Cup suffers from a lack of global interest (in exactly the same way that the cricket version does) is aside from the lack of depth of competition and meaningless games, it simply lasts for far too long. For that reason the harsh reality of the knockout phase that took place on the weekend provided welcome respite.

Saturday saw the Northern Hemisphere take centre stage with the battle of the two remaining Celtic nations first up. Wales produced a solid performance to beat a fine but ultimately underachieving 'golden generation' of Ireland players, some for whom it was their World Cup swansong. For Wales who were unlucky not to beat the Springboks in their opening match, the irony has been that failing to do so has opened up the draw fabulously for them and they will hold great hope of making it to the final for the first time in their history.

Standing in their way will be a schizophrenic France side who dispatched a wholly uninspiring England. No one knows which France will turn up this weekend but the reality is that even playing well, this is not a vintage French team and it should be an evenly matched contest against a Welsh side with their tails up.

It is hard (even for a Scot) to dislike Martin Johnson, he comes across as an extremely principled man who has always excelled in rugby and held himself with dignity. Something however is not working for him with the England team.

It may be his pragmatic common sense approach to management, allowing the players to have their boisterous nights out, assuming they will and trusting them to have the same level of professionalism that he did. It could be he suffers like football managers such as Graeme Souness, Glenn Hoddle and Roy Keane who seemingly cannot identify with players who cannot perform to the phenomenal levels that they did themselves.

Whatever the reasons are, England do not look to be progressing as they should under Johnson. That being said however, he is an in-experienced coach growing in the job and should be given time to work things out, it is after all four years until the next one.

Sunday saw the Southern Hemisphere showdown between the Springboks and an emerging Australia team. The Wallabies are certainly far from the best of their previous teams but they have in David Pocock a player to rival Richie McCaw and a solid goal kicker in the young James O'Connor.

For the reigning champions, it was a disappointing end to the tournament and it was a game that they will certainly feel they should have won, ultimately a very poor first half cost them the match much as it did England twenty fours earlier.

The Kiwis endured a nervy hour and the scoreline flattered them somewhat it must be said against the hard working Pumas. Of the four remaining sides, New Zealand are the best team and have the advantage of playing at home. What is not clear however is how much the burden of expectation is weighing them down as they laboured for much of Sunday's match and Australia now loom large.

For Australia, the sight of an All Black shirt in a World Cup Semi Final and on their own patch will provide all the motivation they require. It will however take an excellent performance from Australia to beat the Kiwis who will be favourites for the match. Much may depend on an improved performance from Quade Cooper who was out of sorts against South Africa. The New Zealand loose forwards will be unforgiving and another big performance from Pocock will be required to neutralise that and give his half backs the time and space to play.

On a wider note, the IRB has to wake up to the fact that the 'closed shop' of International rugby is counterproductive to the growing of the sport. Fixture congestion and the sheer number of them in the International calendar is clearly a huge issue. The reality is that the major associations simply wish to keep playing each other in tests to fill stadia to in turn fill the coffers. The sport would benefit far more in the long term - financially too - from doing everything it can to increase the depth of competitive nations.

The bringing of Argentina into an extended Tri Nations is a huge step forward as they currently play around a third of the number of tests that the other leading nations play. Argentina have become a true force in rugby and this increased international exposure will do much to help them further.

Italy whilst not pulling up any trees are competitive within the Six Nations and have been a welcome addition. Much has to be done to help the next level of countries such as Romania, Georgia, Tonga and most certainly Japan for whom the potential is in particular huge. Had it not been for cronyism and a carving up of future competitions, this World Cup would have been held in Japan opening up a vast new audience and with matches at a more suitable time for global viewing.

If rugby wishes to switch away from it's current round robin of half a dozen or so of real contenders then it must be prepared to do away with the narrow minded politics and open its' doors to the World - No Nonsense.