As the Rugby World Cup moves on from the carnival of the group stages and looks forward to the business end of the tournament and the knockout quarter finals, Peter Florence continues his snapshot vignettes in response to the tournament’s big moments.
There’s a moment in the 69th minute of the Italy vs New Zealand game. Worth noting that by this point in the game, everyone involved has run about 15 miles. Will Jordan (he will, he will, and he probably will again) breaks over halfway, 2 vs 5, he chips and chases towards the line. There’s a high bounce on the 5m line, confounding Tommaso Allan and Michele Lamaro. Ardie Savea leaps to catch it. He takes it maybe 11 or 12 feet off the ground. As he lands, tackled front and back, he turns his body left as he flips a no-look pass over his right shoulder into Jordan’s hands, who touches down the umpteenth try. Watching the replay is a joyful thing. The physics-stressing wonder of Savea racing past Jordan on the chase is captivating. The height at which he takes the ball at the top of its bounce is NBA-astonishing. But somehow the absolute certainty of the pass, the confidence of that improbable ball handling, doesn’t surprise you at all. In a week where there’s been precious little jeopardy; where the only mildly unlikely victory was Australia’s triumph over Portugal (I know, strewth); there’s a breath to take here, a pause, to enjoy the two most magical ingredients of international rugby – ball skill and speed.
All the focus on power, collision and dominance has, perhaps understandably, skewed the conversation towards the merits of the French, Irish and South African teams. I’d somehow forgotten that this other thing, this catch-pass, breathless, ball-beats-eye rugby is what the All Blacks do better than anyone. There’s something else here too. I was banging on last week about iconic, “world class”, star players, and in my World XV there were no All Blacks at all. Yuh-huh. And yet, as a team of equal, integrated parts, they are phenomenal. They are seamless. Watch the shared effort, the oh-so-many selfless last passes that put teammates into try-scoring space, the commitment to high-tempo, super-skilled athleticism. Warren Gatland lauds Wales’ fitness. He’s armed his team with endurance and resilience. But this Kiwi thing is about speed. Can they outrun every other team in France? It’ll be good to see them try.
Scotland beat Romania 84-0. Nothing to see here. But that Darcy Graham is living proof that a good littl’un can score way behind you whilst a good big-un is still flailing at the air where Graham was but a nano-step ago. He may not be the fastest player in the world cup, but he is almost certainly the fastest over 5 metres from a standing start. The McBoks have a dash and swagger that is reliably entertaining. There is little but wild romanticism to suggest they will prevail next weekend against Ireland’s total rugby, but this generation of Scots have wild romanticism woven into their tartan. Can they trick and batfoggle their way past the tightest defence they’ll meet? It’ll be good to see them try.
In the Champions camp Rassie Erasmus has perfected his man management skills with his classic Manie Libbok Pull Your Kicking Shit Together ploy of bringing Handre Pollard over to France. Now he’s got two 100%ers. Watch that ball in the air, the way it hangs, the way it curls, the growing anticipation and recognition in the roar of the crowd behind the posts. Pollard and Libbok, Mounga and Mackenzie, Sanchez and Healy offer a healthy reminder that it’s possible to make perfect goal-kicking sexy. And they blaze a klaxon to all their opponents that offering up penalties within 55m of your own posts can lose you the game just as surely as missing tackles will. Whilst the rules still equate unfair infringement with cynical foul play, can referees be consistent with offsides, jackalling, not-releasing, crossing, scrum tension and tackle height? It’ll be good to see them try.
Everyone has everything to play for. After this weekend there’s elimination and departure for half the participants, and relentless tension and crushing expectation for the remnants. With all the fandango about a lopsided draw, the World Cup has delivered a pool climax where pretty much every game this coming week is massively significant for every nation. Can all these teams make this week the greatest rugby festival the world has ever seen? It’ll be good to see them try.
Click here for all of Peter Florence RWC Diary entries.