Fri, Oct 17, 2003 - Page 24 News List

Professional rugby produces dominant World Cup teams

AP , SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA

The first week of the rugby World Cup has seen mountainous scores and lopsided matches, but no real clue as to who will win it.

New Zealand and England are still the favorites, but maybe the French have jumped above the defending champion Australians as the third best bet.

A total of 751 points from 12 matches works out at a whopping 62.6 points and eight tries per game.

That may have kept the fans happy. But is it a good image for the game?

The International Rugby Board admits it's concerned that while the emerging nations are getting stronger, the gulf between them and the traditional powers is widening.

The arrival of professional rugby has meant that teams like England, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and France produce faster, fitter players and newcomers such as Uruguay, Georgia and Namibia just get left behind.

The powerhouse teams are bulldozing their way to the quarters and it will be amazing if they don't get there.

The one big matchup in the group games is South Africa-England at Perth on Saturday with the winners expected to have an easy route to the semis and the losers almost certain to have the mighty All Blacks standing in their way in the quarterfinal. Only then does it start to get interesting.

Australia, with veterans of their 1999 triumph now bolstered by new talent and also recruits from rugby league -- Wendell Sailor and Mat Rogers -- weren't convincing in their opening 24-8 victory over Argentina at Sydney's Olympic stadium.

But they have a habit of getting stronger as the tournament goes on and a likely semifinal matchup with New Zealand would be a match to savor.

Not much can be read into New Zealand's 70-7 hammering of Italy, South Africa's 72-6 beating of Uruguay and England's 84-6 crushing of World Cup rookie Georgia except that their players know where the tryline is.

There was a big question mark over which French team would show up. The one that dazzles with its handling skills or the one that can do nothing right.

Facing the speedy and muscular Fijians in Brisbane, the French could have had a nightmare start. But Bernard Laporte's team played disciplined rugby before demolishing the Pacific Islanders 61-18. Scotland should be its toughest game but there should be a clear route to the quarters where a likely match against Argentina or Ireland beckons.

Of the 99 tries scored so far, there have been three hattricks from Yannick Jauzion of France, South Africa's Joost van der Westhuizen and Argentina's Martin Gaitan. The top individual scorer so far is French fly half Frederic Michalak, who collected 26 points against Fiji, all with the boot.

One surprise so far is that there has been just one successful drop goal. It was the first score of Canada's 41-10 loss to Wales and was kicked by veteran Canadian fly half Bob Ross.

Thursday was an off-day in terms of action and the next match is New Zealand vs. Canada on Friday at Melbourne before six more games are played at the weekend.

But Aussie coach Eddie Jones and John Eales, the well-respected Australian captain who led the Wallabies to their triumph in 1999, injected a note of controversy on Thursday when they suggested that England's famed rolling maul was illegal.

Eales said that the tactic to use flank forward Neil Back, unbound with his fellow forwards yet protected by them at the back of the maul is against the rules because opponents can't get at the ball.

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