Rugby Celebrity Corner

And then there were three…

So what has the phoney war told us about the World Cup to come.

New Zealand are the favourites. The most passionate rugby nation on the planet playing in their own back yard. You have to have good reason to look beyond them to see who could even get close.

Well, on the basis that whoever is going to challenge them has to be able to win away from their own patch that leaves you with 3 contenders. Australia who won in S Africa and France and England who both won in Ireland

Fresh from a win against New Zealand at home Australia seem like the real deal. But it is just over a month since they lost to Fiji and S Africa were riddled with rust when the fell to the Wallabies. Perhaps the most damning argument might be that no-one with a front five as average as theirs has ever won a global tournament. It is stretching credulity that they can win knock out rugby again and again with a tight five that frail. Remember England demolished them up front in Australia last year.

So to England. Probably too little too late. Not enough tries in the team. They have not really moved on since thrashing Australia at Twickenham last autumn. Some brilliant offensive talent but not enough consistency or intelligence. How they lost in Cardiff remains a mystery. Too inexperienced this time.

So to France. For half an hour in Dublin they looked like world beaters and then lost concentration. They are very big and very talented behind the scrum. Whether they have the smarts to react to adversity without becoming fragile we will see. But they seem ripe and ready. Perhaps they alone can strangle the All Blacks and beat them at the same time. The hammer and the rapier.

On reflection though France look like they will go closest for me New Zealand will still edge it. Lots of people talk about the fear factor damaging New Zealand. I see it the other way round. They are truly terrified to waste this opportunity. Truly terrified to let a golden generation Carter, McCaw, Nonu. Mulliaina pass without a crowning glory. Too afraid to let their countrymen on the sidelines down. Fear works both ways. Only New Zealand know they really have to win. That is why they will.

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Away form is the key

So far in World Cup warm ups,South Africa have failed to win away (in fact their second string was almost embarrassing). Ireland, England, Wales, Argentina and now New Zealand have all failed to achieve anything on the road. Only Australia and France have achieved anything away from their own pitch.

Why is travelling so hard?

Rugby at the top level remains a game of ebbs and flows. The physical battle between the two sides is so full on the margins are fine. It is rare that a team does not have some period of ascendancy, some chance to get on top. Never more so than when you are at home. The strength of the crowd’s support the confidence on your own patch all seems to allow a team to take points even when they are not playing well.

Away fro home the reverse is true. You have to keep the scoreboard moving in the toughest of moments. You have to be able to take your chances, all of them when they come and close the door on the home tide when it comes. Brilliant defence and opportunistic attack do not always come from the same team.

South Africa before winning in 2007 had a clean sweep of Europe. England before 2003 had won all through the Southern Hemisphere all the way to the Cake Tin, outscoring New Zealand with only 13 men on the field.

So what has the weekend taught us.?

It is hard to think that any South Africa result means much at the moment. They are so out of sorts that Australia’s narrow win does not really say that much about a team outclassed by New Zealand the previous week.

So what about France? Going to win in Dublin has not been easy for almost a decade. Ireland dominated the game for long periods. They started and finished well. They scored three tries and d still lost. For periods of time France were unstoppable and when they weren’t they weren’t Ireland couldn’t stop them scoring.

They took their points brilliantly and defended just as well. They have the look of winners about them home and away.

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Knock-out rugby

Following the 6 nations defeat to Italy many doubts arose to the ability of Marc Lievremont to lead the French team to a successful World Cup Campaign!

Then after naming his World Cup with 5 long term injuries and forgetting some key players people started questioning his ability once again. Then to add even more problems to his already existing ones Marc Lievremont has to deal with the Bayonne winger (Yoann Huget) failing to show up to a drug test and then deciding to go back home of his own will not to disturb the preparation. What a sad moment for Yoann!

Now to the serious stuff… the pitch, France had their first preparation game against Ireland in Bordeaux. They played a very good first half with punch, speed and energy as well as having their kicker slot all his attempts at goal. The Irish were poor, unable to line up enough passes and phases to create any dangerous situations and score any tries.

France brought in a new and exciting player in the name of Mikael Lakafia a 22 year old from Biarritz. He showed great skills and power and might be a revelation for France at number 8. Yachvili and Trinh-Duc were paired for the 3rd time at half backs which might indicate that Marc Lievremont sees them as his half pair?

The game also confirmed France’s good scrum and line-out during the game which is something that has to work if they want to perform during the world cup. Now the next challenge is to improve on the bordeaux game in Ireland and hopefully have all their front row available as this hasn’t been the case with the injuries of Servat, Domingo and Barcella. Let’s see what that game will bring us!

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Now the games come thick and fast

What a great weekend of International Rugby. The Southern Hemisphere showed the way as always with what I can say was the fastest and strongest game of the year.

It was great to see the all blacks playing their attacking rugby with speed, power and precision with the stars of the future like Kaino and the ever so efficient Dan Carter with his second to none game management. The All Blacks rucked amazingly well as usual and obviously the ability of Richie Mccaw to be invisible in the eyes of the referee and be able to get away with what can be called daylight robbery.

In the northern hemisphere with saw the new England team with their new jersey dominate Wales! Wilkinson regaining his number 10 shirt to shine just before what could be his last world cup! We also had a new young star in the name of Tuilagi which gave a great balance a plenty of options to the the Wilkinson flutey pair.

Other teams have also made their preparation like Canada, the USA, Argentina, Scotland and Ireland! Next week France will make their entrance to the international show against Ireland.

So hoping for some serious stuff from Europe next week!

So now the games come thick and fast. New Zealand v Austarlia, England v Wales, Scotland v Ireland.

Will we learn anything or will it all be shadow boxing prior to the World Cup?
Whatever the results or the scores perhaps the real thing to watch for is styles. In boxing they say styles make fights and over a tournament the team that will win will be the team that finds a style that they can make work good days and bad. When you are on the ropes you have to know that you can still pack a punch that your opponent can’t stop and can’t take.

The English lost the final in 1991 for changing the style that got them there. New Zealand lost in 1995 because they became too dependent on a style that was made for the South Africans, and they walked into an ambush. Australia have always trusted their backs and their attack. South Africa have always trusted their forwards and their defence. Nobody could stop England’s pack or Jonny Wilkinson’s boot.
So maybe tomorrow we will find out if there is a winning style on show that will see a team through 6 punishing games.

Australia in New Zealand is a massive marker. For all their ability have the Australian backs got the combination to unlock New Zealand often enough or will the ‘all court press’ of the All Blacks simply blow them back into the Tasmin Sea?

Can Ireland produce enough penetration away from home to represent any sort of threat in New Zealand or have Scotland found a pack to slug out a close game at international level?

Have Wales found enough professional athletes in one place at one time to liberate their natural flair and passion or have England found too many good players just too late to make a consistent assault on the tournament.
And will France come to a tournament and play like the French for 6 games rather than for a few unconnected halves.

Players can win matches but styles and systems win tournaments, so this weekend we will find out if there is a winning style on display and that could mean a lot more than the results.

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Self belief for the All Blacks

Following the second game of three nations there is no doubt that the All Black are magic even if, as we know following last weekend, South Africa are young and lack experience because of their strategy to test new players. We saw a great Dan Carter who was the Man. The great Man of the game, well done! This is why we enjoy watching All blacks play rugby, but… BUT…!

In 2007 they lost to France in France in 2003 to Australia in Australia, in 1999 to France again in Europe and in 1995 to S Africa in S Africa. New Zealand has not competed well on foreign soil. Think of it another way: of all the teams that have won the Webb Ellis trophy New Zealand is the only one never to have won away from home.

It can’t be just the weather and the grass of Wellington, Christchurch or Auckland that makes all the difference.

It seems that somewhere deep down when they are faced with the rising tide of the opposition’s passion, fuelled by a home advantage, they have lost the belief to win through. In 2005 there was a mismatch of ability in their favour but a mismatch of national belief in favour of their S African hosts.

Will anyone ever be able to explain how the Blacks lost in 1999 to a France team who simply believed they could win even though Lomu had already beaten them.

So with the mythical All Blacks it is a question of belief…in themselves.

When they won the trophy in 87 they had not had a great year but the comfort of being at home seemed to restore that self belief.

It is hard to see much beyond the All Blacks as winners on their own soil but maybe one of their challengers can muster just that little more belief in what they are doing. Maybe again it will be the young, cocky neighbours from Australia, or maybe, just maybe the irresistible combination of power and magic that is France at their best.

Whoever beats New Zealand will really have to believe not in the world rankings but in themselves.

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South Africa vs Australia

It was difficult to get up early during my holiday to watch this match, but it was worth it!

I had many doubts about Australia following their surprise loss to Samoa, but I have to say I thought they would have revenge in their guts!

South Africa was a bit of an unknown… A team of experience for sure; nearly 800 caps together as a squad I believe. Some great players, some great leaders, but… and this is a big but! Their game has not evolved… I really feel they are stuck with the rugby they won the World Cup with in my country, only with a bit more volume to it.

But with this much experience I thought that things could change and maybe, with some of the talent they have in the squad, they could pull off one of their big matches, especially when you see the problems Australia had at the breakdown last week and their apparent lack of confidence in their kicker…

Things went very quickly for Pieter De Villiers’ men! They were 12-0 down after 10 minutes.

Three changes for Australia from their last match against Samoa had a huge impact! Genia, Beale and of course Monsieur Cooper. These guys injected speed, power and genius throughout the match and Australia becomes a different team with these boys! The final score was 39-20, but had Australia been more serious in their rugby, it could easily have been more than 50!

This Australian team impresses me more and more. They have learned from their defeat and worked on repairing their faulty parts; and as a result kept the ball for longer phases and hurt the South African team. What is scarier is that they have managed to do this with a large amount of mistakes, which I truly believe they will erase from their game as the tournament advances.

For South Africa, who in their defence maybe put a second team on the field, things are going to be difficult; especially next Saturday against New Zealand!
I can’t wait to see this All Black team less than 2 months before the start of the World Cup, with a pressure that is mounting on them. How will they perform in the start of their Tri-Nations campaign?

I would bet on a large All Black victory, especially if the South African team is not “reinforced”! Having said that, as there will be absolutely no pressure on the South African shoulders we could be in for a surprise: being French, I can tell you that it is when you play liberated that you can play your best rugby, as you have sometimes seen in our great victories over the mighty All Blacks!

But South Africa is not France…

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SA:Top of the World or Over the Hill

You might think it was a great thing for S Africa to have 12 of the 15 world cup winners in their provisional squad for the World Cup in September. A squad with over 800 caps has a lot of experience. But you cannot help feel that they are not as good as they were in 2007 or when they beat a very strong Lions in 2009.

Just as in 2007 they are sending a weakened squad to the tri nations and keeping key men in reserve, for the world cup. But can the same strategy work twice? Losing games is never a good way to prepare for winning them .
Former coach Jake White says captain Smit is too old and should quit. Matfield and Botha will find a lot of younger men jumping higher in the lineout and Schalk Berger only plays in bursts now and does not dominate. Is Bryan Habana as fast as he used to be?

Some people would say that New Zealand are not a young team and that McCaw has to bend the rules more every year that passes. But maybe it is not the years that will be in their favour but their hunger to win. Maybe South Africa over so many tough games in a short space of time will lack that hunger that makes winners.

If you want a good bet based on age then Australia have a lot going for them at the moment. Their average age of 26 is ideal for winners and if they can take on New Zealand in the Tri Nations who knows what can happen.

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