The two semifinals, played on successive nights at Eden Park, contained everything a rugby lover could want – and a few thihngs we could’ve done without.
New Zealand’s 80-minute victory over Australia was comprehensive. The All Blacks dominated all phases from beginning to end. They dished out a physical beating and applied overwhelming pressure. In the absence of front-foot ball their swarming defense rattled the Australians and left them with few attacking options. Five missed kicks at goal made the 20-6 scoreline respectable. It did not reflect the passion and purpose of the All Blacks or the level of their commitment.
All Blacks Triumph
Robbie Deans’s record against Graham Henry is 3 wins and 11 losses. The Wallabies have not won in New Zealand in ten years and none of the current team has tasted victory on New Zealand soil. Ten of their 22-man squad were not born the last time Australia won at Eden Park – in 1986.
All of this meant little to Deans as he attempted to attack the All Blacks through the air. He didn’t figure that fullback Israel Dagg and winger Cory Jane would handle everything with ease and send it back with interest.
“We weren’t as effective in the air”, said Deans afterward, “They were superior and it was a big point of difference.” Dominated in the tackle area, at scrum time and in the air, captain James Horwill summed it up. “We were beaten fair and square by a better side tonight. We changed our approach at halftime but just weren’t able to generate enough momentum.”
New Zealand had some concerns prior to kickoff. Scrumhalf Piri Weepu played with a dose of the flu while flyhalf Aaron Cruden was starting just his second test. The lineout was considered suspect as was captain Richie McCaw’s injured right foot.
In the end they needn’t have worried. Weepu lasted most of the game despite missing four shots at goal. Cruden was a rock who took his tackles, steered the team with a steady hand and landed a 30-meter drop goal for good measure. McCaw played 80 minutes and largely neutralized the scavaging of Wallaby flanker David Pocock.
The All Blacks will face France in the final. Setting aside their two pool losses and internecine bloodletting, the French are a fearsome scrummaging unit. They have an impressive lineout, a solid kicking game and they view rugby as war. Coach Graham Henry described the moment, “To get this far took four years of planning, four years of frustration and four years of trying to get things right. It’s a good feel but the job is not done”.
The Welsh rugby nation died a slow death on Saturday. Having dominated France for 17 minutes of their match, they saw their finals dream expire with the issuance of a red card to captain Sam Warburton.
Many viewed referee Alain Rolland’s call as excessive, including 65,000 jammed into Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium. They and most of 60,000 at Eden Park believed a yellow was more suitable as punishment to fit the crime. Yet Rolland’s decision was correct according to law 10 (4) (j) , strongly supported by the IRB’s recent policy of zero tolerance for dangerous play.
Warburton’s tackle on Vincent Clerc WAS dangerous. He lifted the French winger, turned him over and sent him downward before letting go. That Clerc landed on his back, and was not injured, is beside the point. So too is the sense of occasion, that this occurred in a World Cup semi-final.
What is indesputable is that Rolland’s call became the decisive moment in a knife-edge contest won 9-8 by the French. It effectively decided this intriguing match allowing an almost comically limited France into their third World Cup final.
It’s a shame that such a huge game had to be so heavily swung by one decision. While the red card was justified, the effect was devastating to a disproportionate degree. Wales not only lost their captain and best loose forward, but had to commit their bulldozing center, Jamie Roberts, to forward defense and balancing the scrum. His absence took away the explosive point of their attack in midfield.
Yet Wales played on with huge heart and richly deserved to win this match. Incredibly, they got themselves into position to take the lead having inserted flyhalf Steven Jones, a kicking specialist, to bag the points. As befitting a tragedy, Jones missed the easy conversion of Mike Phillips’ try and later botched a match-winning drop goal off the wrong foot.
Wales should be in shape to face a battered Australia in the never-favored Bronze Medal game. Their youth is the reason coach Warren Gatland re-signed for four years. Seven of the starting XV is aged 24 or younger with three more on the bench plus the injured Rees Priestland.
France, on the other hand, fielded a team with seven forwards and two backs aged 31 or older with two more in the reserves. They scrummaged, won lineouts, kicked goals and played defense against Wales – nothing else. After the game Gatland commented, “No disrespect to France or their players because they didn’t make that decision. They’re in the final. I just hope they play a bit more rugby than they did tonight.”
A British broadcaster put the same thought differently. “If they don’t improve against the All Blacks”, he mused, “:they’re going to resemble a ghastly conconction of some of the things they eat: garden pests, animal entrails and Kermit’s legs.”
Notes: Craig Joubert will take charge of his first Rugby World Cup Final after the International Rugby Board announced that the South African has been appointed to the New Zealand versus France game at Eden Park on Sunday, October 23.
Joubert, who called the New Zealand versus Australia semi-final on Sunday, becomes only the second South African to take charge of rugby’s showcase match following two-time Final referee Andre Watson.
Joubert will be joined by Rugby World Cup 2007 Final referee Alain Rolland (IRE) and Nigel Owens (WAL) as Assistant Referees and Giulio De Santis (ITA) as Television Match Official in a highly-experienced team. Rolland is the reserve referee.
AW Scott is one of the founders of Rugby Magazine. He lives in New Zealand