New Zealand finally gets a monkey off its back

THE Shaky Isles have finally got a monkey off their back by winning the rugby world cup title again. They won the first, held in their own country, in 1987, and have been knocked out at various stages of the tournament ever since.

Due to the series of losses, they have been accused of choking. I’m sure it won’t take long for the next diatribe to emerge – that they choke whenever they play in this tournament away from home.

The manner in which New Zealand won was strange; they were defending for a better part of the game and their flair was totally missing. But then they had raised their game to the level of a final the previous week to defeat Australia – whom they overpowered though it was not reflected on the scoreboard – and peaked a week too early. It is generally difficult for a team to lift to that level twice in a single tournament.

Hence, on the day of the final, New Zealand was somewhat listless. The first half of the game saw numerous opportunities come their way but their running game was desultory and the kicking of Piri Weepu inaccurate. As a result of his wayward kicks, they missed out on eight points in that half. The only points came through a try by loosehead prop Tony Woodcock when a gaping gap appeared at lineout time after Jerome Kaino had gone up to receive the throw; Kaino flicked the ball down to Woodcock and he charged through.

Incidentally, Woodcock scored twice in similar fashion in the last game of the Tri Nations in 2008 and Ali Williams did something similar in the first Test of the 2005 British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.

In contrast to New Zealand’s powerful show against Australia in the semi-finals, France had a listless game against Wales in the semi-finals, one they did not deserve to win. They defended for the most part.

The French played a meandering game for the first 40 minutes of the final against the All Blacks but in the second they were transformed and were unlucky not to win the cup in the end.

The All Blacks defended grimly for much of the second 40 minutes and saw very little of French territory. Had they let the French through that chain-gang-like defensive line even once, it would have been all over. Once France scored in the second half, only a point separated the teams – and it would end that way.

But then fate decided it that way. The New Zealand public have gone through a great deal of trauma in the last few months, with an earthquake in Christchurch. Had the All Blacks lost at home, it would have been too cruel a blow to a nation that lives and breathes rugby.

France has now contested three finals and lost all. Australia has been in three finals and won two, New Zealand likewise. England has contested three finals as well, but won only one. South Africa has won both the finals it entered, the first courtesy of a dose of food poisoning which the All Blacks were served the night before the final.

The 2015 cup will be held in England.

Wayne Barnes proves that incompetence will help one make progress

ENGLISHMAN Wayne Barnes has earned a reputation for refereeing bloopers, continuing the trend he set in the World Cup rugby tournament of 2007 when he awarded France a try from a blatant forward pass.

That try helped France to knock out tournament favourites New Zealand in the quarter-finals. Barnes does not appear to have improved much – at the ongoing tournament, which concludes on Sunday, he denied Wales a try conversion when the ball had clearly gone between the uprights. This was in a pool game with South Africa and as Wales lost the game by a point, they certainly had reason to feel cheated.

But Barnes has been rewarded for this blunder by being given the third-placed decider which is being held on Friday (October 21) between Australia and Wales. It looks like the man has a merry gang of backers somewhere in the International Rugby Board.

If one thinks that Barnes only makes occasional errors, think again. On the day of the Australia-New Zealand semi-final, I was trying to kill time in the afternoon in the run-up to the game and suddenly remembered that I had not watched the final Tri-Nations game between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. I sat down to do so.

Coincidentally, the referee happened to be Barnes. After I noticed a couple of refereeing errors, I decided to make some notes. This is some of what I noticed:

  • In the eighth minute, Barnes failed to notice that Australian winger Digby Ioane had gone off his feet in a ruck and was continuing to play the ball.
  • Seven minutes later Barnes asked New Zealand to position themselves for a five-metre scrum when one of their players grounded the ball in his own try-in goal area. It should have been a dropout from the 22-metre line.
  • In the 13th minute, Australian lock Daniel Vickerman played the ball while sprawled on the ground in a ruck. Barnes did not blow his whistle.
  • A minute later, Australian fly-half Quade Cooper took a swing at New Zealand captain Richie McCaw; again Barnes did not notice.
  • In the 17th minute, Australian centre Anthony Faingaa brought off a try-saving tackle from an offside position. Barnes failed to notice.
  • In the 21st minute, an Australian forward deliberately went to ground to prevent the progress of a maul. Barnes? His mind was elsewhere.
  • A minute after half-time, New Zealand lock Ali Williams tripped Adam Ashley-Cooper who appealed to Barnes. The referee refused to get involved.
  • Ten minutes later, Australian captain Jams Horwill grabbed hold of All Blacks centre Ma’a Nonu while both were on the ground in a ruck and would not let go. It was clearly visible – but Barnes was of a different opinion.
  • In the 64th minute, three All Blacks forwards were offside when they charged down a kick but Barnes kept his whistle in his pocket.
  • In the 75th minute, Isaia Toeava, who had come on as a substitute for the New Zealanders, pushed the ball back after tacklers had gone right over him. He was on the ground at the time. Barnes did not notice.
  • In the 76th minute, Australian hooker Sai’a Faingaa threw into the lineout – and even a blind man would have seen that the throw was wildly off centre. Not Barnes, though.

It is ages since I covered a game of any sport so I would probably have missed a lot more. But what I have noted should provide an indication of Barnes’ abilities. Australia won this game 25-20 and took the Tri-Nations title as a result. Had someone like Craig Joubert, who has been rightly picked to referee the World Cup final between New Zealand and France on October 23, been officiating, one doubts any of these contraventions of the rules would have escaped him.

But then there is one fundamental difference between Joubert and Barnes – the former is competent, the latter is a mass of incompetence.

Rugby union is still a fringe game, even though 20 nations gather once in four years to play a World Cup. If the IRB wants to encourage more people to come to games, it is surely doing the wrong thing by continuing to use officials like Barnes for high-profile games. People may call the third-place playoff a waste of time – but given that both teams will be smarting at having not made it to the final, it often turns out to be quite entertaining. In 2003, New Zealand, miffed at having lost to Australia in the semis, hammered France 40-14. It was a good game.

Australia and Wales are both proud nations and neither will give each other any quarter in the third-place playoff either. But the game may well degenerate into a farce – remember, one Wayne Barnes is holding the whistle.

Australia should be grateful this was not the final

AUSTRALIA has one reason to be grateful after last night’s humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks in the world cup rugby union tournament – this was not the final.

According to the draw, Australia was expected to come through the pool stages on top of its pool. play Wales/Samoa/Fiji in the quarter-finals, England or France in the semi-finals, and meet New Zealand in the final. That would have been a real blockbuster for the organisers given the fact that the tournament is being hosted in New Zealand.

But as we know, things did not run according to this script. Australia was beaten by Ireland and finished second in its pool; this meant a quarter-final against South Africa and a semi-final against New Zealand. It lost the semi-final 6-20 last night. Had this been the final, there would have been calls from Australian sportswriters for somebody’s head; as things stand, there is not much criticism because the same sportswriters had made it look as though Australia had a genuine chance against New Zealand.

There’s one aspect of the two teams which strikes me – Australia plays mostly as individuals while New Zealand plays as a team. This is graphically illustrated by looking at two players – Quade Cooper and Aaron Cruden. For some reason, Cooper decided to start a running battle with the New Zealand captain Richie McCaw some months ago. It developed into physical confrontation at times and Cooper, without realising what he was biting off, kept portraying himself as New Zealand public enemy No 1.

It was a wrong decision. Cooper is an infant in international rugby while McCaw has been around for eight years and is quite easily the best in his position in the world. The New Zealand rugby captain is more important to the 4 million citizens of that country than even their own prime minister; Cooper has no such status or anything even remotely like it in Australia.

Cooper built up a lot of pressure on himself and clearly could not handle it in front of the hostile New Zealand crowds. Every time he made a mistake on the field during the tournament, the crowds cheered. They booed whenever he got the ball. Did anyone in the team advise Cooper against building up this image? Clearly not. The coach or senior players could well have done so. But they left Cooper to his own devices.

Look at the case of Cruden. He has been suddenly thrust onto the international stage; he would have been in Fiji on a holiday had not Daniel Carter been injured. Then Carter’s back-up Colin Slade got injured. And Cruden was suddenly the No 1 fly-half in the country.

It helped no end that there are four others from Cruden’s Super 15 team playing for the All Blacks and all in the backline too. Piri Weepu, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Cory Jane all play for the Wellington Hurricanes where Cruden does the job of fly-half. And they all helped him no end – Weepu took over the duties of kicking which a fly-half normally shoulders, Jane took over the job (along with fullback Israel Dagg) of collecting the aerial balls, and Nonu and Smith did a marvellous job in covering for any lapses in Cruden’s defence. Cruden was targeted by the Australians but it all came to naught. Freed up of all these tasks, Cruden played an excellent game and even kicked a drop-goal, something with New Zealand rarely does. He has grown into a man in one and a half games and credit goes to both him and his teammates.

That comparison shows why New Zealand won and why Australia lost. Cooper kicked the game off and sent the ball out on the full. From that moment, it was clear that he was going to stuff up things repeatedly and that he could not handle the pressure of around 50,000 of the 60,000 crowd being against him. His captain should have spoken to him and tried to soothe him and unruffle his feathers. But James Horwill did nothing of the kind.

Australian coach Robbie Deans was, unfortunately, too proud to call Cooper off and put Berrick Barnes on for the second half. That’s a pity because with a sensible fly-half on the ground, Australia would have benefitted. But it was not to be. There is some background to the promotion of Cooper as the fly-half but Deans apparently has not learned from that experience.

Australia also thought that David Pocock would function as he did in the quarter-final against the Springboks when he got away with a lot due to lax refereeing. But the man who officiated at the semi-final, Craig Joubert, is a top-notch referee and Pocock was pinged repeatedly.

The final is October 23 and New Zealand faces France, the latter being a team that can play to please the purists one day and lose to a rank outsider the next. If the French team that turned up to play England arrives for the final, then New Zealand may well lose. But if the French team that played Wales in the quarter-final plays in the final, then it will be a cakewalk for the home team.

Wales deserved to lose

There were great expectations of Wales after they made it to the World Cup rugby semi-finals and came up against France.

Today they lost a match they should have won. The scoreline was 9-8 in favour of France. And in the process they illustrated one fundamental fact of the knockout stage of the World Cup – you also need some intelligence to win these games.

For all the playmaking it did, Wales should have gone home with a final in the bag, despite playing with 14 players for 62 of the 80 minutes. France did nothing of note, they played a waiting game and made a couple of line breaks.

But they kicked straight on the night despite getting less penalties within range; all three of Morgan Parra’s kicks bisected the uprights.

Wales were down to 14 men in the 18th minute because of their captain’s stupidity. All through the tournament, we’ve heard about what a great leader Sam Warburton is; we never heard that he is short on intelligence.

As bad enough as it was to make a tip tackle on an opposition player – winger Vincent Clerc was the French player who was up-ended – Warburton compounded his offence by carelessly dropping Clerc after he lifted him off the ground. Every high-school rugby player knows that if you lift an opposing player off his feet in the tackle, then it is your responsibility to bring the man safely back to earth.

Had Warburton made even the slightest attempt to cushion the blow for Clerc, referee Alain Rolland would probably have given him a yellow card and he would have been out of the game for 10 minutes. No referee wants to spoil a game. But in the circumstances, Rolland had no option.

Six minutes before this, Wales had lost its tighthead prop Adam Jones, a man of vast experience, due to injury. Then came Warburton’s stupid mistake. It is well to bear in mind that Wales started the game with a disadvantage because of the loss of fly-half Rhys Priestland to injury; in his place, they had to play James Hook, an erratic place-kicker and not the best man to steer a team.

Hook missed two of the three penalties he took and Stephen Jones missed a conversion after scrum-half Mike Phillips had gone over in the 59th minute to score the only try of the game. In the last quarter, fullback Leigh Halfpenny just missed kicking a 50-meter penalty, the ball dipping just before it reached the crossbar.

Even with 14 men, Wales could have pinched it as France played a lacklustre game. But Wales just refused to show any patience, hurrying a couple of drop-kicks – one by Hook, one by his replacement Stephen Jones. And they kept kicking the ball away to the French. This was a game where 14 were attempting to win a game against 15 and they kept gifting possession away. Not the most intelligent tactic to use.

Had Wales shown even a tenth of the patience they showed in the last play of the game – when they went through 26 phases before they lost the ball to France – they would have been home and dry.

But they did not deserve to win. They had it in their hands and threw it away.

The loss of Adam Jones and Warburton told in the lineouts and France’s experienced No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy pinched some half-a-dozen Welsh throws.

That apart, France did nothing of note. They defended well and waited for the 80 minutes to get over. If the French play this way next week they will meet their third defeat in a final – they lost to New Zealand in 1987 and to Australia in 1999 – no matter whom they confront.

How Australia beat the Springboks

AUSTRALIAN rugby writers are in the seventh heaven after their national team, the Wallabies, ensured the ouster of the defending champions, South Africa, in the world cup rugby tournament over the weekend.

Australia was behind the Springboks in every possible aspect of the game but still ran out 11-9 winners. In the process of trying to explain this, writers from the Australian side have put forward every possible reason – the relative age of the two teams (Australia had a much younger team), the lack of stragegy on the part of the South Africans, the courage of the Australians, etc etc

Nobody, but nobody, is willing to look at the fact that the presence of a referee from the southern hemisphere played a big role in the Australian win. Not that the referee was one-sided and favoured Australia – no, he had a very good game. But his interpretation of the rules went Australia’s way due to the prevailing circumstances.

Let me explain. In rugby (union, not league), when a person is tackled and goes to ground, the tackler has to release the tackled player. The tackled player has to release the ball and when he does so he positions his body in a manner that protects the ball. His teammates crowd around him to protect the ball so that opposition players cannot get at it. And the opposition also piles in, trying to get hold of the ball. The resulting mass of bodies is known as a ruck.

For a player from the opposition to legally get hold of the ball, he has to be on his feet when trying to wrestle it out. He cannot play the ball when his feet are off the ground. If he does so, then he will be penalised.

But given the mass of bodies, it is extremely difficult for the referee to notice if players are indulging in illegal tactics – for example, some player at the bottom of the ruck may prevent the other side from getting the ball out by holding on to it, something he is not allowed to do. The attacking team will always want to get the ball out as soon as possible in order to prevent the other team from organising its defence.

Experienced referees know that foul play is going on when the ball repeatedly keeps taking a long time to emerge from a ruck. Or when it keeps repeatedly popping out to the team which is defending. They watch and bide their time and, the moment they spot an infringement, they send a player off. Welshman Nigel Owens did this during the quarter-final between Argentina and New Zealand, catching an Argentine player late in the second half.

But the referee for the Australia-South Africa game, Bryce Lawrence of New Zealand, did not penalise either side for this tactic. And Australia had the upper hand in this department because they have a talented openside flanker, David Pocock, who knows how to slow the ball down and not be caught. South Africa’s specialist in this tactic, Heinrich Brussow, had to unfortunately leave the field with a rib injury even before a quarter of the game was completed.

Had Pocock been pinged – and repeatedly, as he deserved to be – the South African fly-half, Morne Steyn, would have ensured victory for his team by converting the resultant penalties. Steyn is a very accurate kicker from any distance less than 40 metres. Unfortunately for him, two of the penalties that his team was awarded were well beyond his range; the specialist Springboks kicker from longer distances, Francois Steyn, did not play that day as he was injured.

Only English writers have referred to the illegal tactics that Pocock employed because it was apparent that the ball could not be taking so long to emerge from rucks unless someone was keeping it there by illegal means. But it is easy to dismiss their writing as sour grapes because England was beaten in the quarter-finals – and Englishmen like nothing better than to slag off Australia.

This is no slur on Pocock – every team tries this tactic, some are more successful due to the skill of the player involved. The New Zealand skipper, Richie McCaw, is a master at this, even better than Pocock. But he knows his referees well and plays to their likes and dislikes.

In the semi-finals, Australia will come up against New Zealand. The official for the game is South African Craig Joubert who did a marvellous job in the quarter-finals when he controlled the Wales-Ireland game.

If Pocock tries the same tactics that he used successfully against the Springboks, Australia will leak penalties like a sieve. Joubert is a strict disciplinarian; he puts his stamp on the game early and then makes himself more or less invisible. That is a thing that few referees do these days – they love being in the limelight.

Teams from the southern hemisphere know Joubert well and respect him no end. He does not try to be front and centre and make the game all about him. But he comes down like a ton of bricks on infringers. Given this, the same tactics that worked against South Africa will not work for Australia on Sunday.

The revolution is on hold

MONTHS after the governments of both Egypt and Tunisia were toppled, protests continue apace in Yemen and Syria but there is no end in sight, one way or the other. In Libya, on the other hand, it seems to be the end of the road for Muammar Gaddafi.

In Syria and Yemen, the governments are hanging on because the US has been unable to provide military aid through its proxies; an attempt by the US to pass a resolution in the UN Security Council against Syria was vetoed by both Russia and China. The same two countries have connections to Yemen, Russia from the old days when there were two countries, North and South Yemen, the latter friendly to the old USSR. That the US has been unable to get Russia and China on-side is an indication of how much the US has lost its clout as a superpower.

Yemen is more likely to fall to protesters, given that its economic clout is less; Syria buys a sizeable amount of arms from both Russia and China and hence is more valuable as a client. Bashar Al-Assad is likely to survive.

Bahrain has quietened down, once the protesters realised that there was no chance that the US would support them. Being home to the US Fifth Fleet, it is a centre of stragegic importance. More than anything else, Saudi Arabia is the country that calls the tune in Bahrain and since it is still of importance as an oil supplier to the US – not to mention the private deals the al-Saud princes have will US politicians – its writ runs in Bahrain.

But despite the ousting of Hosni Mubarak and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, there is no guarantee that anything like western democracy will come to Egypt and Tunisia. A gang of Mubarak cronies is now running Egypt and has been hailed as a force for stability by the US. The government in Egypt will always have to be one with which Israel is comfortable and that is the one factor that will determine who gets the backing of the US.

Tunisia heads to the polls on October 23 and indications are that Islamists will figure prominently among the winners. The transitional prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, is 84 and no certainty to continue. Whatever eventuates, the Western world has to be willing to accept the outcome. Meddling in these regions and rejecting the choice of the people will not go down well.