Dogs have their day
Stuart Barnes is thrilled by the bark of the underdogs and feels England need a change at fly-half.
Last Updated: 14/09/11 9:57am
This was a spectacular start to the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
The fireworks that lit the Auckland night sky were to be eclipsed by some of the pyrotechnic rugby played in the first three days of the tournament.
The wins may have gone exclusively the way of the favourites but for the majority of the competitors winning - despite what received opinion will tell - is not everything.
How can it be for Japan when they face France or Namibia up against the flair of the Fijians? The glory goes almost exclusively to teams I would have labelled as 'minnows' as late as last Friday afternoon.
Some of you may know I enjoy a punt on the courses so, as a useful analogy, let's imagine these matches as a handicap with the unfancied teams being given a points start rather than the weight advantage inferior horses receive to ensure a proper contest.
We kicked off Friday with New Zealand a daydreamer's 70-points-plus favourites to run amok and over Tonga. The All Blacks were ruthless in punishing the opposition errors in the first half, scoring a rapid four tries for the first bonus point in World Cup history but after the break Tonga scrummed their way back into credibility and with New Zealand fading the final margin of victory was a mere 31 points.
In their three previous meetings the average score has been 79-5. The victory went to the hosts but had this been a handicap match Tonga would have won at a canter.
Saturday was a series of surprisingly creative contests with the fear of failure that will surely gather strength later in the tournament only arriving to spoil the festival feel in the shape of the day's highest-powered contest between England and Argentina.
Before that Romania had Scotland on the ropes with some intelligent and muscular forward play proving a bad omen for Scotland who will need to produce something from another class to compete with the strong England / Argentina packs. This game was far closer than anyone dreamed.
Then Namibia stepped up and despite the trend of late scores going the way of the bigger teams, they performed with huge guts and no shortage of smart rugby to score 25 points with some superb running rugby and Saracens' Jacque Burger putting in an utterly heroic effort in defeat.
Japan had France quite dizzy as they fought back from 17-3 to a point where they were within four points and had the momentum. At that point the thought actually dawned... John Kirwan's men scared the French by playing at a pace the European defenders had not encountered - or rarely before.
There should be some pause for thought for Southern Hemisphere coaches. Six Nations rugby has intensity but not the raw speed to it. The faster the opposing team plays the further from their comfort zone look the Europeans. Class, experience and some glorious French late tries flattered France who almost paid a savage price for letting down their guard and helping provide the game of the day.
Cynics will note the grinding refusal of England to join in the seeming celebrations of the competition; their plan was plain; to slowly batter Argentina with their power, working the legs off the South American veterans.
Had they played with pace and accuracy they would probably have tired them earlier and not set so many English rugby hearts beating. The win is all the history books show but this was another negative in the Martin Johnson reign.
The negativity alone will not suffice later in this tournament. I have no hesitation in saying that if England cannot find something a little more varied the competition would be better with them out sooner than later.
That - of course - would be tough on England's fabulous travelling support that combined with Argentina's fans to deliver some atmosphere in Dunedin's outstanding new stadium.
They would not have suffered the palpitations France endured against Japan yet nor would they have enjoyed some of the magic of France who flickered at times. If France tighten their game and England loosen their approach an intriguing quarter-final looms ahead.
Unless England reveal more offensive firepower I don't think a team of such mediocre ambition will eke their way to another final. Lightning does not look set to strike again but, after the dramas of this weekend who knows for sure?
Italy were handicapped with a 41-point start by the Kiwi bookmakers and were hanging on at 6-6 against Australia at half time on Sunday afternoon. Then Australia found some forward momentum and produced a mesmeric half hour to run rampant and score four tries.
Quade Cooper was typically mixed in the good and bad of his game but when the Wallaby pack allowed him front foot ball the combination work between he and his back three was thrilling. It was the classiest thing we saw all weekend. Still, the final score of 32-6 paid out on the Italian side.
USA puffed their chests and offered up plenty of 9/11-inspired defence in the wind and rain of New Plymouth to lose to Ireland 22-10 but win the neutrals' hearts with a relentless defensive display.
Conditions were bad and so were Ireland. Their nervous efforts left the backers of the smaller sides counting their money and the Home Unions and Ireland amongst the poorer performers, although all three had recorded wins.
That ended in Wellington where Wales upheld the honour of the underdogs and outplayed the world champions, South Africa, only to lose in the same manner Argentina did; finding their more experienced opponents able to take the big plays at the crucial time and steal a game that looked the other side's for most of the match.
17-16 was particularly cruel on Rhys Priestland who missed what is, technically, a simple drop goal to give Wales a 19-17 lead with mere minutes left.
Had Wales a history of beating South Africa he would have nailed the kick. He played quite beautifully all game but whereas Morne Steyn would have expected to succeed the Welshman tightened with the tension of so rare a win so tantalisingly close.
The best match of the tournament and some of the best performances. Sam Warburton was colossal as captain and open side, while Jamie Roberts terrified the Springboks with his savage running lines. Credit to Warren Gatland who picked a tactically astute fifteen and had them in the shape of their rugby lives.
The danger for Wales is that the disappointment of the loss causes a loss of form in a pool where Samoa and - to a slightly lesser extent - Fiji prowl dangerously.
Wales have a horrible record against both of these sides and are probably (not absolutely certainly, such is the competitive nature of this pool) one game from elimination.
To date they have been the best of British and Irish but Martin Johnson will tell you this competition is not a beauty contest. South Africa are in the English mould but if they are to retain their title the time has come to drop John Smit.
Such was the impact of Bismarck Du Plessis off the bench you wonder how Wales's pack would have coped had the world's best hooker been on the field for the first hour and not the last quarter.
In England there is renewed debate over the fly half position.
Jonny Wilkinson had a nightmare with the boot but to slate him for a bad kicking performance (at goal) is ridiculous. He owes England nothing in that department where everyone has to have the odd bad day.
The missed kicks do not worry me, but his inability to control a game and bring his backs into it does. Toby Flood has lost his way but should be given the next two matches to find his feet.
The return of a fit Ben Youngs could coincide with Flood finding his legs again and England some sort of rhythm behind the scrum. The back three will disappear as an attacking force unless the fly half makes his plays on the gain line.
The attacking jigsaw is all out of kilter with Wilkinson at ten, and the tactical kicking is no great shakes either (and that is not a one-off weakness). If England want to play their way into some creative form they have to hope Flood rediscovers his mojo.
If grinding out penalties and drop kicks is the forward route then, with hesitations about his tactical game but none about his kicking - which went awry in 2003 before his stunning precision against France in the semi final - Wilkinson remains the man.
I'll bet he doesn't kick like that again. I wouldn't bet he'd release Chris Ashton though. Therein lay the sort of dilemma Johnson faces as the incompleteness of the England project stands revealed.
English fans would probably settle for Wilkinson and a powerful pack to take them the distance. Neutrals would prefer Flood and some gain line savvy. Neutrals will hope the former fails. Johnson might expect the latter to come up short in World Cup rugby.
England were the ugliest of the leading nations but they remain fascinating and respected by New Zealand coaches, if not the general public. Rugby, like life, is all the more interesting for its rich contrasts.
Here's to the second week being half as good as the first and best wishes to Samoa, Canada, Russia and Georgia when they make their 2011 bows.
I head to Invercargill for Scotland against Georgia. Andy Robinson's men will have to be a lot better up front although their improving back line should see them safely home.
With Argentina on the horizon this is a game where the result and quality of performance is vital to set them up for the key games to come. It's wet and cold down there but where else would I rather be?
It's been a fabulous first weekend.