The last four have made their way to the semi finals using a combination of heart, skill and dodgy moustaches. But will that be enough to ignite a thrilling final phase, asks Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson?
And then there were four! This weekend was when the fog finally started to clear and the Rugby World Cup finally started to take on some discernable shape. For the first time countries were involved in a do-or-die situation and those that were found lacking – in either heart, head or both – soon found themselves clutching their boarding passes for that infamously subdued plane ride back home.
Perhaps most surprising of all – even more surprising than James O’Connor’s terrible highlights or Jonny Wilkinson’s terrible kick off straight into touch – was the fact that France suddenly found a collective set of testicles and bulldozed an ineffectual England out of the way in Auckland to tee up a meeting with Wales in next weekend’s semi final. Did Head Coach Marc Lièvremont’s dodgy tache, adopted with glee by both the ladies and gentlemen of the French press corps, have some sort of magical powers? It seems the most likely explanation as to why a bunch of disparate and dispirited jokers who’d lost to Tonga a week previously suddenly found their vim and vigour and simply swept England aside.
I thought it was only bull’s pizzle that could imbue mere humans with such superhuman powers! But it seems miracles can, indeed, happen and we’re suddenly faced with the prospect of the once-farcical French being in with a serous shout of not only making it all the way to the Final itself, but of actually going on and winning the damn thing. Sacré bleu indeed! I got into a bit of a verbal headlock with former England skipper Phil Vickery on the radio after France’s victory when he told me in no uncertain terms that Les Bleuswould lose to a rampant Wales in the semis. Ah, but I’d heard the same certainty from Brian Moore the week before, when he would brook no argument over the fact that England were going to ‘do’ the old enemy, no bloody doubt about it! I admit that the French fella who gleefully told me that there was “no shame in losing to the future World Champions” may we have been getting a wee bit over-excited, but whether Vicks believes it or not I’m in no way discounting French chances of going all the way in that crazy Gallic way of theirs.
And after all, what exactly is there for France to deal with in the semis? Wales have been a breath of fresh air – all pumping hearts, endless endeavour and no little skill raffled up into the bargain. But you can’t tell me that their squad has more raw talent than the French, because I won’t believe you. Australia, too, showed hearts as big as New South Wales when they got one over South Africa in Wellington. But even the most one-eyed Wallaby knows they were lucky to survive ferocious Springbok pressure for the entire second half and that ref Bryce Lawrence was particularly kindly disposed to Australia. He can’t have been feeling well. And if Quade Cooper, the most booed man in New Zealand, packs two left boots for a second successive weekend then they’ll definitely lose to New Zealand.
And what about the host nation, for so long touted by all and sundry as the ultimate shoo-in for this tournament’s victory? Without the mercurial Dan Carter they look precisely 57.2% as good as the all-conquering rugby übermenschen the critics have so often told us they are. The All Blacks really, properly struggled against a defiant but very limited Argentina side in their quarter final, and without the excellent shift put in by scrum half Piri Weepu they could have been seriously humiliated on their own turf. Me? I’d be distinctly uncomfortable having to rely on anyone with both ‘wee’ and ‘poo’ in his surname, though I’m perfectly willing to admit this is most likely because I’m unreconstuctedly childish! I do like his beard, though. Still, I digress...
We all know that the All Blacks have a terrible, almost morbid fear of what France can do to them when the gloves are off and the result really, really matters. They can put 50 plus points on the men in blue when it’s one of those daft friendlies in Marseille or wherever, for sure. But at the business end of a knockout competition with the pressure mounting by the hour, the minute and the second, I for one wouldn’t be too quick to open my wallet and go for a flutter on New Zealand. I honestly wouldn’t.
Will the semis produce scintillating, mile-a-minute rugby that will have the whole world on the edge of its collective seat? Judging by what’s happened so far you wouldn’t think so, would you? This Rugby World Cup has been diverting at times, but I think it would be stretching things a bit – no, make that an elasticated lot – to claim it’s been any sort of classic ram-jammed with scintillating, unforgettable moments. That doesn’t mean things can’t or won’t take a decidedly upward curve from next week, though? Because if the French can now be proper, serious World Cup contenders then frankly anything’s possible, isn’t it?