But before the quarter-finals begin, I'd like to look back on a group stage. It had its surprises, but at times, it really did seem to be going through the motions and we found out nothing new about the All Blacks except that we need a specialist centre to suddenly discover some form. Damn you, Conrad Smith! You had so much promise, living in Tana Umaga's shadow, but then you break your leg and now that he's retired, you haven't recaptured your spark!
But let's go to Group A first. As I think everybody in the world and their dog predicted, South Africa simply dominated left, right, and centre - except, bizarrely, against a gutsy Tongan outfit. This current Springbok team is a complete reversal of the dismal outfit that competed in 2003, and frnakly, it scares the shit out of me. Habana and Pietersen on the wings are the equal of anything New Zealand can put on the park, though amazingly enough, the US has a scintillatingly fast winger who can outrun even Habana and must have Super 14 talent scouts trying to get him to sign a deal.
England are looking absolutely pathetic. Their entire World Cup was summed up in their game against South Africa when, in the 57th minute, their only player showing any imagination or attacking initiative, Robinson, pulled his hamstring while in clear space. Their defence seems mildly capable if they can pull some cohesion together, though, and if Wilkinson can step up to the plate, they may at least be a competitive opponent for Australia. They have no offence, though. The fullback and wingers seem to just be there for decorative effect.
I was really impressed by Tonga. Just like how South Africa aren't the dismal 2003 outfit, the same could be said about the Tongans. They've gone from being pounded into the ground 91-7 by the All Blacks last time around to defeating their traditional and usually well superior Samoan rivals. The US ... didn't do so well, with not a single win to their credit, but they did expose England for the lacklustre dolts that they are. Come on, 28-10? When you're England, you should not be defeating the US by such a pitiful margin.
Well, what can we really draw from this group with regards to Australia's form? Not much, and the little we can gather isn't necessarily cause for optimism - though not if you listened to the media around here. The shock of the group was when Fiji upset Wales to turf the Welsh out of the competition early and progress to only their second quarter finals ever (the first being back at the inaugural Cup in 1987). Considering that Australia destroyed Fiji by about 40 points but beat the Welsh by only 12 or so, I don't know what to draw from that. Australia hasn't really looked as impressive as I expected. They didn't really brutalise anyone on the attack; sure, Japan got utterly wasted, but there was nothing at all notable about Australia's play, and Canada did remarkably well, all things considered.
I think Australia are actually a bit weaker than many people realise. Injuries are taking their toll, and their reliable older players have either retired or aren't what they used to be. Look at Australia's backs: they're a joke, either hanging on to form by a thread or lacking in ability (yes, that's you, Ashley-Cooper, and you too Huxley, you pair of hacks). And then in the forwards is Matt Dunning! Looking at him, you'd think he's training to win the world cup of hotdog eating. Most forwards are built like tanks; he's built like a fucking chocolate cake. That man is a joke, he can't set a scrum to save himself (though even if the scrum did collapse on his neck, he's got enough padding to avoid a lifethreatening injury), and no team with him deserves to win ... even a school fete raffle, let alone the World Cup! Well, in any case, we'll see what this Aussie team is like tonight; if they can't beat England convincingly, they aren't going anywhere beyond the semis.
ON THE FUCKING ALL BLACKS! Er, ahem. This group was a laughable joke, just like I predicted. After four games, the All Blacks have scored over 300 points. It sounds like bloody Aussie Rules. Their points difference is an insane +274. The results? 76-14 over Italy, 108-13 over Portugal, 40-0 over Scotland, and 85-8 over Romania. And let's be honest, despite the fact that Portugal game was the highest score (both in NZ's total and margin of victory) in the Cup so far, we were going pretty easy on them and were just out to have some fun and throw the ball around a bit. The Scotland game was more telling, though more in the sense of Scottish rugby's decline than anything about New Zealand. As far as Scotland were concerned, New Zealand's tryline might as well have been on the moon. They were frankly a disgrace and didn't deserve to make the quarter-finals; sure, they beat Italy 18-16, but that was only thanks to Italy's kicker having a shocker of a day with the boot. Bortolussi, you embarrassed your country, you really did.
So, uh ... well done for trying? to Romania and Portugal. Please come again when you have a wee bit more skill. I suppose the one thing the All Blacks have gained is a stronger sense of cohesion. Certainly the basic skills seemed to have improved by the final game. Let's hope we've got enough momentum to overcome the French tomorrow morning.
Hey, Ireland? There really is no nice way to say this. YOU FUCKING SUCK. There is no excuse for one of the most exciting and promising teams of the last two years turning into a completely unimaginative, boring, dull, pathetic team that couldn't even beat Namibia by as big a margin as the bloody Georgians did. Ireland deserved to get eliminated early. In comparison, however ...
Hey, Argentina? There really is no nasty way to say this. YOU FUCKING RULE. Just like I kept trying to tell people before the World Cup began, Argentine rugby has come of age. The upset over France in the opening game of the Cup at the bloody Stade de France really told the story. This is an exciting, hungry, and passionate team who play a style of rugby that's clearly influenced by soccer and has been bamboozling opponents through its originality. Hernandez in particular is one of the players of the future; that guy is a freak. I'm so relieved the All Blacks don't have to take on the Argentines in the quarters; Scotland are going to get their arses handed to them on a platter. France ... they look good, but the loss to Argentina showed chinks in their armour and I don't think they really are what they were 7, 8 years ago. They're definitely a threat for the All Blacks, and I'm honestly feeling a bit nervous. The game's going to be monumentally close. I'm not buying into the hype of all the sports journalists touting a clear All Blacks victory.
So, my picks for the quarter-finals:
- Australia by roughly 15 over England.
- New Zealand by about 7-10 over France.
- South Africa by ... well, if they field their best team, 50+ over Fiji, but if they don't play some of their best players, maybe only 30 or 40.
- Argentina by 20-30 over Scotland.
Which means the semi-finals would be an all Southern Hemisphere affair, New Zealand vs Australia and South Africa vs Argentina. That would be competitive as hell, and prove that we really do play a far more exciting and superior form of rugby down here. I think New Zealand would beat Australia by a small margin, say 5 or so, while the South Africa vs Argentina game would be almost impossible to pick. The Springboks are rampaging, but the Argentines have originality and could capitalise on it if the Boks are overconfident. Either way, New Zealand to win the World Cup in a grand final thriller. Tonight's the first serious step on the way there. Come on, All Blacks, come on!