The Ousting of the Antipodes in the Rugby World Cup

October 8, 2007 at 5:37 am (Uncategorized)

Before I met Llew, I didn’t know a thing about rugby. I don’t think I’d ever watched so much as a sponsor’s ad, let alone a game. But rugby is something Llew enjoys. He used to play, and now he likes to watch. I have come to enjoy watching rugby myself, because it’s a lot easier for me to share this part of Llew’s life if I can find ways to make it fun for me too. Now I understand quite a lot of what’s going on, the various rules, and these days I am not bad at the kind of ‘chat’ that comes with watching the game. So I was watching on Saturday night when England won the World Cup quarter-final against Australia, and I was shocked watching the replay of New Zealand’s game against France on Sunday.

We watched our game at the Royal at Five Ways in Paddington with some friends (an Englishman among them). It was rammed, and the atmosphere was excellent because there was a real mix of fans between the two countries. Sweet Chariot kept a rumbling start up in the background, and the tension in the air was electric. It was all but impossible to get to and return from the bar, but valiant efforts from the men did eventually procure enough drinks to see us through, and we had what can only be called pole position in relation to one of the screens. I love being in a good pub for an event like that, it adds whole dimensions to the experience.

It’s a serious bummer that we lost. Mortlock didn’t have a good game on the boot, and I wonder why he didn’t stand aside for Giteau to take over kicking duties, but Llew was really seething by the end of it because of the performance of the forwards. I was mistakenly accusing Gregan (for the record, I am a huge Gregan fan and always have been) of not getting the ball out fast enough at the breakdown. It was taking too long, and England capitalised on the delay every time. But Llew said it wasn’t Gregan’s fault, the fault was originating with the forwards, who weren’t providing Gregan with good, quick ball. Watching the replay yesterday, I finally understood what he meant. On Saturday, I didn’t really get it, I only knew that everything seemed sluggish at the breakdown and that Gregan’s characteristically super-quick clearing of the ball wasn’t happening. Now I know why.

We deserved to lose. England deserved to win. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. Wilkinson missed drop goal and penalty attempts, and so did Mortlock (the drop goal attempt on our side came from Latham, who didn’t have his best game, crucially hogging the ball when we had numbers outside, and taking a drop goal attempt despite our not having advantage), but it was England who controlled Australia’s ability to use their possession, when Australia had to be able to control it themselves. They couldn’t, because there was insufficient support from the forwards at the breakdown and in the scrum, and we lost.

Losing sucks, losing to England is worse, but I think the hardest thing of all was watching Larkham, overcome with emotion as the reality of it all came home, so visibly distressed after the final whistle blew. He might have been able to play on Saturday, maybe, but now we’ll never know what effect he might have had on the result. Instead, his international career ended with him on the bench due to injury. It is just so sad. Gregan played his last game for Australia too, but at least he actually played it (on watching the replay, I was also able to appreciate just how omnipresent he was in defence – his tackling skills are improbably good). Poor old Larkham had to just watch it unfolding before him like a slow-moving nightmare. Well, I daresay it’s no consolation, but I must say I have loved watching Gregan and Larkham play, really loved it, and coming to the game whilst they were in it has been my very great good fortune.

Given Australia’s absence from the remaining contest, I was looking forward to supporting the All Blacks, whose time had surely come. I always go for the All Blacks if they’re not playing Australia – it just seems the neighbourly thing to do. I know plenty of people disagree with me, but it’s always been my policy and I’m sticking to it. Besides which, the All Blacks play tremendous rugby, and I can’t help but admire them for it, so I figure they deserve something in return for all the pleasure they’ve given me over the years. Oh, and then there’s the haka, surely the highlight of any All Blacks game.

So imagine my despondency upon receiving a northern hemisphere text from Kate first thing Sunday morning before I knew the result: ‘How about those French?’ No, I thought. No, no, no. No way.

I said to Llew: “Bugger, I’ve just been told the result.” Llew: “Get away from me.”
Then Llew’s phone beeped. He checked the message. “Fuck!” he yelled.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Spencer. He said ‘Di’s going to have to go for the Fijians now.'”
“We’re going to have to call him Spence the Spoiler from now on. Doesn’t he know that’s illegal?”

So we sat down to watch the NZ/France replay knowing the result (which, for the record, is not ideal). Watching the first half, we just couldn’t fathom how NZ went on to lose the game. And yes, the French did come out harder and faster in the second half, but I don’t think that’s why they won. Llew and I were curious about several things. One was the ref, who seemed to give NZ a really hard time. The stats at the end of the game showed that France tackled NZ something like 139 or 169 times. This shows a couple of things, including the fact that NZ dominated possession. What we wanted to see but didn’t get was a penalty count. As Llew said, “Is that ref trying to tell me that France tackled NZ that many times and yet didn’t do a single thing wrong?” It just doesn’t add up. He penalised NZ for everything, harsh calls, too, in some cases, and sent a man off just for good measure when it really didn’t seem to be required. France by comparison didn’t seem to be penalised at all.

Then there’s France’s winning try, which came after an obvious forward pass. There’s no doubt about that – it was forward. Kiwi players outside the pass pointed and called out and clearly expected the ref to call the ball back, but he didn’t and a converted try to France ultimately secured their win. This is galling perhaps particularly because NZ was the better team on the day. They’re a better side, no question, but they actually deserved to win that game, which isn’t always the case with any ‘best’ of anything.

NZ had a couple of late runs – dominating possession as they did – and, playing advantage, a drop goal attempt. The attempt failed, but that should have brought the ball back to NZ to the point where the advantage began. That return of the ball is why they played the drop goal – if successful, they get the points. If unsuccessful, they get the ball back. That’s the way it works. But as soon as the drop goal went wide and was picked up by the French, the ref ended the advantage. Llew was gobsmacked, and actually sat forward in his chair spluttering in shock. I checked I hadn’t misunderstood the rule, then remembered that Ben Tune in the Channel 10 commentary box had noted in both Australia and England’s drop goal attempts that it’s bad strategy unless you have the advantage. NZ had the advantage. They should have been able to attempt the drop goal and maintain possession. The end of advantage call from the ref sealed the fate of the All Blacks, but unlike Australia, they did not lose their game. We lost our quarter-final fair and square; NZ was robbed.

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