As the Rugby World Cup throws top more surprises and drama, jeopardy and predictability, Peter Florence continues his snapshot vignettes in response to the tournament’s big moments.
Ian Foster, the All Blacks coach, last week asked the press room which sort of rugby game the public preferred, New Zealand’s flairing demolition of Italy or Uruguay or whoever it was that they’d just landed a gazillion tries on, or the tense, titanic face-off between no.1 in the world Ireland and reigning champions South Africa. To be fair, it was a kind of reasonable question from a coach who’d belatedly remembered that Damian McKenzie, a man he’d mostly ignored, is the most exciting player in the world. The final weekend of the Pool stages gave us a pretty resounding answer. It’s a helluva lot more fun to watch a game between two sides who are well matched than it is to watch a great team pulverize good teams. And in a stroke of scheduling magic, the last day of the round, featuring only one of the top eight teams in the world, gave us the two best matches of the tournament, and many of the best tries. If Argentina’s defeat of Japan in a winner-takes-all contest for qualification lit the fire, Portugal’s glorious, last minute match-winning try against Fiji fanned the flames into a beacon for the game.
It’s worth noting that this last game provided the only genuine shock result of the tournament. Pundits may have expressed mild surprise that Fiji beat Australia or that England beat Argentina, but no betting chains lost money there. After hugely vocal complaint about the lopsided-ness of the draw, the Quarter Finals feature 8 of the top 9 sides, 4 matches that pitch Southern Hemisphere countries against North, and 4 matches all of which could go either way, and one match with two teams who have Welsh speakers! Yes, the top 4 sides meet a round early, but each of them believes they will win, and if they lose, none of them will care whether they lost at quarter- or semi-final stages. The knockout rounds will have 5 close matches rather than just 3, and both losing semi-finalists will be thrilled to have got there.
There were some iconic moments this weekend captured on camera, that might yet make the highlights reels of RWC23 roundups, but even the less appealing ones are worth noting just for now: The scenes of wild joy among the Portuguese players and fans after their first ever RWC win; the look of horrible understanding on the faces of the Georgian backs as Louis Rees Zammit collects the loose ball and looks up into open space 75 metres from the tryline; the spectacular buckled swash of Scottish tries that almost counterbalance the ugly despair of being brutally outclassed by Ireland; Owen Farrell’s look of confusion at his shot-clock fiasco; the dancing feet of Mateo Carreras.. but for me, the moment of the weekend is a guy in a suit and tie walking onto the pitch. Someone calls his name. He looks up. We see the dark bruising under his right eye. A wolfish smile. “Antoine!”. Ça va.
PS – actually I don’t know whether Emiliano Boffelli speaks Patagonian Welsh, but I’m sure he has a cousin…
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