At last, we are at the tail end of the Rugby World Cup, with only four matches left to be played and only four teams left in the running to lift “The Bill” come D-day on Oct. 23. In a strange twist of fate, they are exactly the same nations that played in the semi-finals of the inaugural World Cup in New Zealand in 1987: Wales, Australia, France and hosts New Zealand.
In 1987, the New Zealand All Blacks won the rugby showpiece — the one and only time they have done so — by beating France 29-9 in a final played in Auckland. Will fate take things further and see these two teams face off in the final again, with the All Blacks the victors? Only time — and the referees, many rugby pundits say — will tell.
Today, in the first semi-final, the French Cockerels are up against the surprise package of this year’s tournament, Wales. Wales reached the World Cup semi-final stage for the first time since 1987 after a tenacious and inspiring grind through the pool stages, and soundly defeated Ireland 22-10 in their quarter-final game last weekend. Throughout this World Cup, the young team have been displaying excellent running rugby, while scrumming and fetching like men possessed in the breakdowns ... but will this be enough to beat mercurial France?
Last weekend the Cockerels outplayed a strong England side 19-12, after scraping into the quarter-finals following a dismal showing in the pool stages, where they lost two games. The problem with France is ... no, wait, the two problems are that first, they have never in their rugby history been consistent and second, nobody ever knows which team will arrive at the match venue: the brilliant achievers or the lackluster losers. If the latter proves to be the case today, Wales are going to run them ragged and win easily. If it’s the former, the men from Wales are going to have their hands full and will probably lose. It’s all up to Les Bleus.
Tomorrow, the second semi-final is definitely the game everybody will have their eyes on: Australia against New Zealand at Eden Park. This is for two reasons: These are seen as the two teams most likely to win this edition of the World Cup and, sadly, the performance of the referee will be under immense scrutiny — all because of criticism from all quarters of the way Kiwi referee Bryce Lawrence handled last weekend’s brutal quarter-final between South Africa and Australia.
The Wallabies won the intense match 11-9 — it could have gone either way, but for Lawrence’s repeated failure to whistle Australia’s David Pocock for slowing down the ball in the ruck, going off his feet in the ruck, not rolling away from the back of the ruck ... the list carries on. It is sad, because Pocock is an open-side flanker and fetcher of note and he deserved the man-of-the-match accolade. His brilliant performance did not deserve to be overshadowed by the sub-par showing of a referee. (By the way, a Facebook page asking the IRB to never, ever allow Lawrence to officiate at a top-level rugby match again already has more than 75,000 signatures, and the number keeps on growing.)
Both Pocock and All Blacks star fetcher Richie McCaw have been known to try their luck in testing the rules when it comes to the ruck-and-maul. These will be the two players to watch, although it’s not certain how effective McCaw, nursing a foot injury, will be tomorrow. If he is able to contribute, the game will boil down to three men in the rucks: Pocock, McCaw and South African referee Craig Joubert.
All Black assistant coach Steve Hansen has been outspoken and critical of Lawrence’s handling of the rucks last weekend.
He has been piling on the pressure on Joubert to prevent a free-for-all at the breakdown and to “adjudicate in line with rugby’s rules.”
“Joubert’s pretty good [refereeing the breakdown], but how he’s going to do it on Sunday night, we don’t know,” Hansen said on Thursday. “He’s human and he’ll make decisions based on what he thinks he’s seeing and it’s pretty clear what you’re allowed to do, but you get variation every week, don’t you?”
“I would say that Bryce [Lawrence] is probably a little disappointed with how he did it last week. I think Bryce was [a bit lenient]. You’re not allowed to go off your feet at the breakdown and you’re not allowed to hang on to the ball after the ruck is formed and let it go,” he added.
The Wallabies’ coaching co-ordinator David Nucifora, as to be expected, did not find any fault (in public) with Lawrence’s interpretation of the rules last weekend.
“I thought the referee did a fine job ... I thought it was consistent for both teams,” Nucifora said.
In an added aside to the All Blacks assistant coach, Nucifora added: “I’m sure Steve [Hansen] has seen enough of No. 7 [McCaw] pushing the boundaries, he knows how it works.”
The battle lines have been drawn. Luckily for all involved in the All Blacks-Wallabies game, the referee is a proven top-level officiator who should allow the best side to win, leaving no bad taste in the mouth or niggling doubts about the outcome of the do-or-die match.
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