The quarter-finals of this enthralling Rugby World Cup have produced another weekend of drama with the Southern Hemisphere countries showing their dominance over the game.
My original plan was to watch a local Cup game then adjourn to a local pub for Wales v South Africa before going home for France v New Zealand. But on Friday afternoon I got a call inviting me to Twickenham for the first quarter-final as a guest of World Rugby as they had received a number of hand-backs from some of the original guests. Naturally I jumped at the chance.
From boarding the train at Colchester to the Overground at Stratford and at the Orange Tree at Richmond, the green shirts of South African supporters outweighed the red of Wales by four or five to one. That could be explained by the fact that the Springboks were always likely to top their pool and in the lottery of Pool A no-one could really be sure who would finish in first, second or third place. We got chatting to supporters of both teams at the Orange Tree and it was interesting to hear that away from the hyperbole and national fervour, they were genuinely sorry that England had got knocked out of the competition.
After a couple of pints we made our way to Twickenham and to The Spirit of Rugby where we were being hosted. I was there for the opening ceremony when it was very busy but the first floor bar and buffet were much quieter this time around. When I went up to the second floor bar, usually teeming with people before a game, it was deserted. If you look closely at the picture on the left you will see the counter with rows of pints of Murphys, John Smiths and Heineken, all pre-poured but covered with tea towels as the expected pre-match crowd failed to materialise.
I went back downstairs and while having a chat with Jason Leonard I asked him about the comparative lack of numbers. He said that a lot of the tickets that had been allocated by World Rugby to officials of overseas unions had been handed back because originally they may have thought that they would be able to watch both quarter finals on the same day, underestimating the time it would take to get from Twickenham to Cardiff. Once they realised that they would be unlikely to the be at both games many decided to hand back the Twickenham packages perhaps hoping to witness another upset by France over the All Blacks. I’m not sure that that fully explained the low number of guests but it is difficult to prove otherwise.
The stadium was 3,000 short of capacity with a few blocks of empty seats, but of those that were showing their colours green was still the predominant one, although it was interesting to see substantial blocks of yellow shirts belonging to Aussies that had perhaps chosen the wrong quarter final to get tickets for.
As a game this wasn’t the greatest spectacle with South Africa choosing Route One as their main tactic while Wales, after an opening spell that promised much, then suffered similar problems as they had against Australia with an inability to create an opening, relying on the crash ball too often. Dan Biggar, my man of the match, produced a wonderful chip, catch and pass to set up the Welsh try, only to be equalled as a moment of magic by Vermeulan’s back of the hand pass to Du Preez to score the decisive try.
Seeing the look on Welsh supporters’ faces reminded me of the numb shock I felt when England lost to Wales having been the better team for the first hour and were in the lead with ten minutes to go. Although I thought South Africa were probably the better side on Saturday, the Welsh defence was excellent and they must have thought that they could hang on, but it was not to be.
On the train home I got regular updates on my phone as New Zealand racked up the points over France and when I watched the highlights of Julian Savea knocking over Frenchmen as if they were tackle bags I thought that South Africa will have their work cut out in the semi-final.
But who will the winners play? Argentina’s participation in the Rugby Championship has made a big difference to their development, but it is the exuberance of their play that makes them so attractive to watch. Ireland, who probably had the best chance of loosening the Southern Hemisphere’s stranglehold on the semi-final places, had injuries to key players but I wonder if they could have contained the Pumas even at full strength.
But it was the Scots, who took the Wooden Spoon in this year’s Six Nations and who were expected to be summarily despatched by Australia, that played the best rugby of the Northern sides in the quarter finals. They attacked from everywhere refusing to be intimidated by the Australians and kept forcing mistakes that resulted in tries to keep everyone on the edge of their seats. To lose the way they did meant heartache for yet another European team but perhaps this does put all the criticism of England’s performance in to perspective.
The Six Nations may be the best annual international competition in the world, but the standard of rugby played by the countries taking part has been shown to been below that of those playing in the Rugby Championship. The question is, how can that gap be bridged?
It is difficult to see beyond a New Zealand v Australia final, but there is still hope that Argentina can cause an upset.