Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A Look Back & A Look Forward

I was absolutely incandescent. I was irately dancing up and down in my dressing gown and slippers, shrieking hell and damnation at the tv - as unedifying an image as you are likely to have seen at that time on a Saturday morning.

My one consolation was that the entire collective of ITV experts - plus Steve Rider - seemed to be even more flummoxed than I was. At that moment, during the 18th minute of the World Cup semi-final between Wales and France, there appeared to be only one person on the face of the planet who thought Sam Warburton's tackle on Vincent Clerc was deserving of a red card, and he was the man on the pitch with the red card in his hand, and his name was Alain (I say 'was' - I imagine it still is, unless subsequent accusations of favouritism have induced him to drop the 'i').

And yet. With the benefit of hindsight, a lengthy period of cooling down, and much conversation on Twitter, I can confirm that I was wrong. Note this down, because it never, ever happens - ask Mr Grimes. HOWEVER. I believe that the tackle was no better or worse than other examples which have been highlighted during the tournament, and which garnered no worse than a yellow, but I believe the referees were given a directive after the pool stages to clamp down on these types of tackles. Do I think there was any malice in the tackle? Emphatically not; would I rather see an over-zealous referee and no players with broken necks? Emphatically yes, semi-final or not.

I see now that Sam Warburton was a player bursting with enthusiasm, power, and zeal, combined with the youth and relative inexperience of a 23 year old at his first World Cup, and captaining his country in the semi-final; keen to lead by example, he committed to a thumping tackle which garnered admiration from such a player as Francois Pienaar ("Textbook!" I think Francois said. Better throw out that textbook, Francois - it's out of date). It also, unfortunately, gave Rolland the opportunity to interprete it as being dangerous. Ultimately, the fault lies with Warburton.

With hindsight, I don't believe Warburton's sending-off lost Wales the game. Their inability, unimaginable as it would have sounded a couple of weeks ago, to field a single one of four potential kickers who could actually kick the ball between the posts lost Wales the match, and that's all there is to it. With Priestland injured, many teams would have given the right arm of their physio and a large amount of chocolate biscuits to have James Hook, Stephen Jones and Leigh Halfpenny as stand-ins. Even Sally Morgan would have struggled to predict that that one wouldn't work out. She probably could have predicted, however, that with Priestland gone before the match, and then Warburton, Adam Jones and Alun Wyn-Jones gone during it, the gods were not looking favourably on a Wales/New Zealand final.

With the sending-off, and 60-minutes of the most impressive display of fitness and determination by a 14-man team I think I've ever witnessed, if Hook, Jones or Halfpenny had managed to get any of the penalty or drop goal attempts between the posts, that match would've been one of the greatest comebacks ever witnessed on a field of international play. It was one point away from being Wales' finest hour this century. Instead, we have a New Zealand v France final, and a Wales v Australia third place play-off.

I don't believe this guff about no-one wanting to play in the play-off match. Wales will be desperate to end on a good note, and third place is still a great result for them. Hopefully it will be a fittingly impressive way to bid goodbye to their mercurial and talismanic wing, Shane Williams, who looked close to tears after the final whistle on Saturday. Without wishing to belittle Australia's efforts, they crumbled with little resistance  in their semi-final against the raging All Blacks, and I would question their motivation for wanting to come third in a tournament they will feel they could've won. Alright, I'm lying - I think it's hilarious. The Aussies have always been a bit susceptible to rolling over under the onslaught of a decent mind game - happy to dish it out, they can implode as easily as they can seize the upper hand during a match.

And so to Sunday, and the World Cup final. Many people, myself included, will watch merely out of curiosity, to see which French team turns up. They are undeniably 15 highly talented and able players. But I hesitated to call them a team, which tells you all you need to know. Will the fractured and uncomfortable French play? Or the mesmeric, brave French, who can start an attack move from their own tryline? If anyone won't underestimate them, despite their unimpressive and fractured World Cup campaign, it is the All Blacks. They will have no need of being reminded of the 2007 World Cup semi-final, or that bitter memory of 2009, when France had the temerity to beat the All Blacks at Carisbrook, of all places.

But hand on heart, and as much I want the Final to be a close match, I cannot see anyone standing between New Zealand and the William Webb Ellis trophy. I thought they would win from the start, and now, within spitting distance of the final whistle, I don't see anything to change my mind. In truth, if the World Cup is to be awarded to the team which has shown global dominance for not only the duration of the tournament, but for the past four years, there can only be one winner.

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