Perhaps some of you readers are wondering why I have not published any recent articles on the Rugby World Cup, now nearing its ultimate stage. Am I totally depressed following the fairly mediocre performance of England (the country in which I was born)? Or the equally, and in some cases even more so, mediocre performances of France (the country in which I live)?
France quite easily beat England in the quarter finals, playing by far their best game so far (and England their worst). All the top teams, with the sole exception of New Zealand, have played poorly in at least one game so far. And even New Zealand have occasionally had the odd hiccup, mainly because of having to adjust to losing their fly-half Dan Carter.
Having watched both semi-finals this weekend, I have no doubt as to the issue of the final that will take place this coming weekend. (I know, there is no such thing as certainty in rugby!)
In the first semi-final, France only beat Wales by the tiniest of margins (9-8) having played for about 60 minutes with 15 players against 14 for Wales, following the expulsion of the Welsh captain, Warburton, for a dangerous tackle. Wales clearly deserved to win this match. Their courage and their calm were both admirable. They simply lacked one player, and a key one at that. They missed essential points in the kicking departement, with Hook not being regular. This was a clear moral victory for Wales, which will not console them I fear. France proposed virtually nothing in terms of play, turning this into a purely defensive game of wait and see. The suspense was total (and at times stifling), but the beauty of the game was at the lowest level of any world cup final stage game that I can remember watching.
Many people in France are saying now that only victory counts. I find this attitude miserable! How can anyone be proud of such a timid perfomance? The only image I will retain of this game is that of the excellent Vincent Clerc, the French winger, comforting Shane Williams, his Welsh alter-ego, after the game. This is one of the things that I like most about this strange game of rugby, when adversaries totally respect and feel empathy for each other, having fought a fierce battle for 80 minutes.
In the other semi-fianl, New Zealand played a very impressive game against a valorous Australian team, totally dominating them in virtually every aspect of play: scrum, touch, offensive and defensive organisation, inspiration, individual skills and speed. The All Blacks, at least for the first 25 minutes, turned this game into a demonstration of how to play rugby. Then they controlled the situation, showing also that their courage in defending was total as well. All they needed was somebody to succeed in the goal kicking and their victory would have shown a margin of 30 points, rather than the 20-6 of the final scorecard.
Can anyone now doubt the issue of the final against France? The only question worth betting on is the margin of the NZ victory. I think I will go for 30 points or so. In any case, let's hope at least for a game of some beauty, where both teams try to play the game of passing the ball and creating space, and not some kind of rugby ping-pong. New Zealand deserve to win this World Cup, on account of their record over the past few years, but also on the strength of the play they have shown during all their games in this competition. Let's hope that they achieve it in style as well. Good luck to the French, as they will indeed need it!