The Agony & The Ecstasy

Rugby World Cup 2011

Semi-Finals Review – Finals Preview


by JJ Leahy

The Semi Finals

France 9 d Wales 8

Rugby is the number one sport in Wales and their team carries the hopes and the weight of a nation in the same way as the All Blacks do for New Zealand. In the late 60’s and through the 70s , Wales had a golden era based on the emergence around the same time of a wonderful group of players. It has been a long time between drinks for the Welsh, and their good performances in the tournament had them feeling their time had come again. On the other hand, the French had played some dismal Rugby in the pool games, were riven with conflict between the coach and some of the players, but turn on 50 decent minutes to knock off England in the quarter final.

The Welsh lost impressive young fly-half Rhys Priestland due to injury, and replaced him with the experienced James Hook. Wales started strongly, and were on the front foot most of the time until the 18th minute when young captain, Sam Warburton, lifted French winger Vincent Clerc up into the air and drove him into the turf. Warburton got a red card, and the collective heart of a whole nation sunk.

France have a reputation for playing sparkling running rugby. It was a characteristic of French Rugby of the 20th century and the names of great players such as Serge Blanco, Phillipe Sella, and Jo Maso bring back memories of exhilarating stuff. However, the French have changed style in the last decade. They have become more forward orientated seeking field position through strength in the set pieces, and using high quality goal kickers to score the points. They have become more English in style, but still retain some Gaellic flair. After the dismissal or Warburton, they filed the  F for “flair” game plan, and pulled out the G for “Grind” one. They used their forward power and extra man to graft for field position and fly-half Morgan Parra kicked the goals. The only real exception to this was on two occasions when Parra sensed space in front of him and went round the plodding Hook to make long runs down the field.

Wales took it to the French, but they did not show sufficient composure. They struggled in the scrum, and on occasions used a back to even up the numbers when they had the scrum feed,  reducing their attacking options. Their lineout organisation fell apart and Lionel Nallet kept winning on the Welsh throw. The Welsh halfback Mike Phillips scored an individual try. In the later part of the game, the Welsh had a fair amount of the ball but the French defence was strong. Phillips at halfback did not manage things well. His clearance from the ruck and maul was too slow to give the backline any chance to attack with space available. Hook at fly-half, and his replacement, the veteran Steven Jones, are more kicking players than passing and running players. Wales just could not organise themselves to pull off a win. The fact that they only kicked one goal from seven attempts added to their misery.

France did what was required and proceed to the Final.

New Zealand 20 d Australia 6

In the Rugby League Grand Final of 1994, Canberra kicked off and the Canterbury-Bankstown front row forward Martin Bella dropped the ball. It seemed as though all the self belief gushed out of the Canterbury Bulldogs. Canberra scored a couple of early tries and won easily 36 to 12. Mental images of that moment flooded back when Quade Cooper kicked out on the full at the start of the semi-final. The All Blacks went on the offensive and scored an early try.
They subjected the Wallabies to 80 minutes of unrelenting pressure. It is not easy to exert total dominance over an opponent at the highest levels of any sport, but the All Blacks did it. History will come to view this as one of the great All Blacks performances. They have the most skilled and best balanced team in international Rugby by a considerable margin. New Zealand has extraordinary depth in playing strength, and can replace injured players such a the two fly-halfs, Dan Carter and Colin Slade, with another player who is very close in ability. Australia do not have this depth. This Australian side is a good one, but it is far short of being a great one. The short comings were clearly visible. The centres were competent defenders but could offer nothing in attack. The backrow forwards could not match their rivals. Rocky Elsom and Radike Samo are past their prime. David Pocock is an absolute top-shelf player, but his counterpart Richie McCaw is one of the true greats of the game. The scrum is just not good enough. The gene pool from which Australian Rugby draws its playing strength is the private and Catholic schools of Sydney and Brisbane. This gene pool is not conducive to producing the 120kg blocks of granite required for international rugby. The great moments in Australian Rugby have come when there has been a strong front row. In the mid 60s John Thornett, Peter Johnson, and John White anchored a series win over South Africa. In the 1984 Grand Slam winning tour of the UK and Ireland, it was Enrique Rodriguez, Tom Lawton, and Andy McIntyre. At the 1991 World Cup, it was Ewen Mackenzie, Phil Kearns and Tony Daly. The 1999 saw Andrew Blades, Michael Foley and Richard Harry with Dan Crowley on the bench. The current team is a long way short of the standard required.
Meanwhile, on the same day in Newcastle, the Australian Rugby League side soundly defeated New Zealand. There is not a single player in the New Zealand side that would get remotely near All Black selection. On the other hand, there are quite a few in the Kangaroos that would have made great Wallabies.
Australia stuck at the task. This team does have heart. It just does not have the all round quality and depth required.
Play Off – 3rd v 4th
Since its inception, there has been a play off for third against fourth. The International Rugby Board like it because it is a money spinner. The players loathe it. They have played a long hard tournament. They did not get the lolly, and have to front up for another match when they would rather go home, see family and friends, have a holiday and a few beers. It is hard to decide who will win this. There will be a temptation to select the players in the squads who did not get much playing time, and the rest the battered and bruised. Australia should resist this approach. They should select the best team they can. Australia needs to build for the future starting now. The young blokes in the team will be nursing that hollow feeling that comes with a major defeat. They need to get back on the horse and get on with it. The same applies to the Welsh.
Tip – Australia
The Final
Four and a half million people’s identity and self-worth goes on the line in the Final. Rugby is at the core of the New Zealand soul. In the past year, this small country has faced a mining disaster, earthquakes that have cost many lives and destroyed a city, and a ship lies spewing oil onto its beautiful coastline. They need this Cup.
This will be the third World Cup Final for the French. Rugby is a popular and growing game in France, but their identity and self-worth is defined in other ways. They have made the final playing some good Rugby for parts of games, but not at the 80 minute intensity of the All Blacks
Tip – The Rainbow Warriors will win with ease.



  1. You are absolutely right about the Australian forwards, when you consider the remarkably small gene pool the Wallabies fight well above their weight. Rugby has never really tried to poach forwards from League. I suspect that is because the games diverge so much in forward play. I thought the Wallabies did well when you consider the youth of the side. Four more years….

  2. Thanks JJ – your thoughts on any sport are always insightful. As an occasional rugby watcher I have found the quality of this year’s Cup appalling. Apart from the first All Black try on Sunday there has been no creativity or flair.
    The Wales/France game was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, as both teams did their best to lose. That Steve Jones that Wales brought on, and has played over 100 tests, found 55 new ways to stuff up. Poor bugger – must be a horrible end to a fine career.
    The Kiwis were very professional and fierce in their tackling, but when Australia won their share of possession in the second half we couldn’t hang on to it for more than 2 or 3 phases. The scoreline flattered Australia.
    Don’t think I can find any enthusiasm for watching the final.

  3. Ian Hauser says


    Your insights into rugby past and present are spot on! When it really mattered, the Australian forwards were found severely wanting – even Pocock looked flustered. The total commitment and frenetic passion of the All Black forwards is something to behold. Their backs just seemed to be greater in number, bigger and faster, better in structure, and incisive in execution. The back three, in particular, were faultless. By contrast, the Wallabies looked small, reactive and, at times, clueless. The scoreline flattered the Aussies. And, as you correctly say, after what New Zealand has been through in recent times, it’s hard to begrudge them their success. Hopefully, they’ll finish the task off this weekend in style.

    I remember that 1994 rugby league grand final. When Bella dropped the ball from the kick-off, Liam and I looked at each other and said “game over”. I seem to remember a Friday night game at Newcastle when something similar happened. So when Cooper’s kick-off flew well wide, I thought the same thing. The Wallabies blinked; you could almost see the All Blacks claim “advantage receiver, now we’ll make you pay!”

    My tip: All Blacks by 15+

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