Welsh Red Mist
Here we go, then. Two supposed upsets, and two straight-forward clashes that went according to plan.
In what has been a bittersweet weekend for Great Britain, favorites England have crashed out to an erratic but extremely impressive-under-the-pump Les Bleus team (who have certainly made amends for the humiliating loss to Tonga last week).
Wales, meanwhile, have maintained their inspiring form and demolished an unimpressive old-looking Irish team that had done well enough to get so far, anyway.
In what was the real game-changer of all the four games, The Wallabies (Australia) have beaten defending champions South Africa, and have ended the four-year reign of the Springboks in true against-the-odds style.
And finally, the All Blacks made sure there was no such upset, and are still nursing realistic dreams of repeating their long-gone ’87 World Cup win- something that is LONG overdue.
From a neutral perspective, what is most heartening to see is that the recent change of rules has, indeed, done what it was supposed to: It has pushed forward offensive teams like Australia and New Zealand, teams that favour runs and tries- and given them a bit of advantage.
QF 1: Ireland v/s Wales at Wellington
With most of the quarter-finals taking place at a ridiculous hour in most parts of the civilized world, viewers only hoped that the quality of the matches would make up for this preposterous time-difference.
Ireland were trying to get to their first ever semi-final, and Wales to their second after 1987. Shane Williams started in typically aggressive fashion, with Wales scoring their first TRY in the third minute. Before they knew it, Ireland were 7-0 down and looked quite nervous on this big stage. What followed was a typically hard-fought and brutal European next 20 minutes, with an unbelievably strong Wales backline thwarting one Irish recycle after another. Ireland earned a penalty soon, and converted it through O’Gara. But Halfpenny soon converted a monster penalty from the halfway line, to bring scores to 10-3 at halftime. It was all but one-way traffic for a monstrous first half by Wales.
The second half started in seemingly unrecognizable fashion, with Ireland’s Keith Earls scoring their first try in controversial circumstances to level scores at 10-10. Game on. Wales were beginning to show signs of mortality, but soon enough, they showed their class with a opportunistic try by Mike Phillips. It was 15-10, and normalcy had been restored.
That was about it for a demoralized and tired-looking Irish outfit, with Wales adding yet another try after the hour mark and ending the one-sided affair with a massive 22-10 scoreline- with Ireland wasting too much of their possession throughout the second half. The stage was set, for their first semi in 24 years- either against England or France.
QF 2: England v/s France at Eden Park, Auckland
England held all sorts of World Cup Advantage over their neighbours, with 3 World Cup wins out of 3- in 91, 2003 and 2007. The Les Bleus looked out of sorts during the Group Stages, and in the run-up to this tournament. England were clearly the better team over the last four years, and the French had been awful during the last year or so.
But writing off France at a Rugby World Cup is like writing off Pakistan at a Cricket World Cup. Wilkinson started the game with a kick-off that probably set the tone for him throughout the first half. He was never on-target, always drifting towards the right side of every intended target. Yachvilli, for France, put them into the lead with a lovely penalty in the 10th minute. The nerves were settled, time for some real Rugby.
Very soon, England conceded their fourth penalty of the game, but this time, Yachville didn’t make it, sending it to the far-right of the post. English fans couldn’t believe their eyes. Shockingly, France continued their dominance and sealed the first half with a TRY after Wilkinson missed a tackle and CLERC swung 360 degrees to cross the line. 11-0 and an upset was brewing.
Stage-fright continued for a shellshocked English team, as Medard bombed over the line after the halfhour mark to probably seal the game for an inspired French frontline. 16-0 and there was going to be no looking back. Finally, in the 39th minute, England strung more than TWO passes together- a minor miracle considering how ugly they were throughout the half. By now, the English fans were wondering if they were watching a repeat of last year’s Football quarter-final against Germany- with a typically inept knockout performance by their national teams.
The second half started better for them, with the French hell-bent on defending their lead. A converted try by a transformed Wilkinson led to a 7-16 scoreline, finally. But a drop goal in the 70th finished things off for France, almost, with Trinh-Duc doing the honours and taking France to 19-7. England were on the brink. A heroic run by Banahan, whose effort was topped off by Cueto with a TRY, gave them brief hope at 12-19, but by then it was too little too late.
An inept first half was never going to help England make it through to another semi-final, and the first major upset of the 4 games had taken place.
All Blacks doing the Haka
QF 3: South Africa v/s Australia at Wellington
The mother of all dogfights was due. Australia were having a bit of a dismal World Cup after their inspiring Tri-nations performance in August, where they clinched it at Cape Town. That made them odd-on favorites for this game, of course. The Springboks, though, were the defensive masterminds- and were looking forward to break down a fluent, skillful young Australian outfit into pieces.
Wallabies captain Horwill started things off with a TRY in the 10th minute, with their first attack of the game. South Africa dominated possession, runs, recycles as well as coverage, but it was a wonder that they were down 8-0 soon after a penalty was converted. Australia were playing smart, utilizing whatever little scraps they were handed- and we had a game on our hands.
Meanwhile, Morne Steyn- the best kicker in the tournament- began missing penalties, and that was not a good sign for the Boks. Finally, a simple kick by Steyn helped them claw their way to 3-8 right before halftime, but ominously, he missed once again right at halftime, to leave the score at that.
It was all penalties for South Africa again, as Steyn converted once again in the 55th minute to make things 6-8, with a massive 20 minutes lying ahead. The Boks were never going to go for outright tries and daredevil runs, unless their lives depended on it.
Finally, Australia began to lose focus and conceded too much once again, with Steyn scoring a drop-goal after the Aussies lost the ball from the line out. It was 9-8, and the Boks could smell victory. Their World Cup was back on track…or was it? South Africa kept coming, again and again, trying to break down the Aussie backline, and if it wasn’t for Pocock, the game would have been OVER. In the 67th minute, it should have been curtains for Australia- as du Preez was knocked down when he was certain to score. A drop kick went wide, and Australia were, shockingly, still in it.
Against the run of play, and in true underdog fashion, the Wallabies- who couldn’t keep a ball for much of the second half- took the lead with a fabulous under-pressure penalty by O-Connor, with eight minutes to go. It was 11-9, and they gamely held on, inspite of a Bok onslaught in the last minute- with referee Bryce Lawrence making sure that he was spot-on once again.
It was all over. 11-9, and a darn good game. Australia were, somehow, in the semi-finals. The Champions were out.
QF 4: Argentina v/s New Zealand at Auckland
After a nervy first forty minutes, the All Blacks made sure that their dream repeat of 87 was still on track. The same four teams had reached the semis 21 years ago, and New Zealand were eventual winners. They’re at home now, and they want it bad- some would say it is their destiny.
A commanding second half performance against the Pumas made sure that inspite of an early scare that had them at 12-10 at one point, they would finish 33-10, with TRIES coming a dime a dozen in a game that betrayed the closeness of the previous two quarter-finals.
Piri Weeplu was the penalty-kick hero, missing only one in eight kicks- and helping NZ overcome Argentina in storming fashion- sealing their status as clear outright favorites.
It will be a cracker of a semi-final lineup with Aggressive Wales taking on erratic France, and a tough Australian side determined to score another upset against an intimidating All Blacks lineup.
What is good to see is that we will watch clear offensive rugby, much like having to watch Federer playing against Federer in a Grand-slam final.
There is no room for any sort of defensive lineups left in the sport, atleast for now.