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FEATURE The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
1 week ago

Hollywood measures the worth of its flicks strictly by their opening weekends; specifically, how much dust or dollars do they generate in those first three days at the box office. So, Out There where the oranges live, soothing a fretful studio executive with a hot review in The New Yorker or an Oscar buzz in the trades cuts no ice whatsoever. ‘Dammit, did the movie ‘open’?’ In La-La Land, it’s the whole kit and caboodle. 

Rugby World Cups, needless to say, tend to get judged on a slightly wider metric but, no question, an opening splash amid the flash-bulbs and the fanfare can ripple through every pool in the tournament. So while the eight-game, multiscreen premiere to France 2023 may not quite have matched the opening weekend of, say, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – it raked in an eye-watering $456,718,598 – you have to concede that selling out Le Stade de France for Australia and Georgia does rather suggest that World Rugby has a hit on its hands. 

Action, drama, suspense and a cliffhanger of a finale? Where else to start but with a full-bodied Bordeaux and a turn-up for the trousers in the Cymru/Ffiji game where the rank outsiders somehow held on for a heart-stopping win. Soul, tenacity, endurance; Wales had it all, although what Warren Gatland grimly described as ‘dumb’ game management in the last 15 minutes gifted Fiji what might yet prove to be a priceless two match points and could so easily have been – an almost fatal – five. 

But for all Wales’ endeavour – 252 tackles is some shift on a steamy, sweaty night – did the better team win? Fiji will scarcely think so given they fell just six points shy having thrice lost the ball over the Welsh line and once – at the death – bang in front of it. They’ll also feel – how can we put this tactfully – aggrieved that four successive Wales penalties under the pump and under their own posts prompted warnings but no card while moments later down the other end, Fiji copped an instant yellow for a ‘first’ offence. And they’d have a point.  

Wales v Fiji
The Wales v Fiji game was a World Cup classic and whipped up huge debate (Photo by Hans van der Valk/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Of course, you could argue that had Fiji been as sharp and as smart in Wales’ 22 as Wales were in Fiji’s, social media wouldn’t now be wearing warpaint. But teams sorely trying a referee’s patience in an artful goal-line stand has long been a carbuncle on the backside of the sport.  Personally, I’d prefer to say, right; you can ship one penalty in your own red zone but there’ll be yellow cards for every penalty you concede thereafter unless or until play moves back outside the 22. Mind you, I’d also like to see motorists who hog the middle lane on motorways summarily executed on the hard shoulder but, unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet either.

Look, even Wales would privately concede that they dodged a bullet in Bordeaux; likewise South Africa in Marseille. Two minutes into the Springboks’ key game with Scotland, Jesse Kriel appeared to do precisely what Tom Curry did two minutes into England’s key game with Argentina the night before in the very same stadium. Curry, as we know, did hard time while Kriel walked away whistling but had Kriel been Curried, might we have seen an entirely different game? Who knows? England shrugged off the inconvenience but Kriel was South Africa’s key man in a defensive channel which Scotland were targeting all afternoon. As they say in France, tant pis.

Why weren’t Scotland hanging high balls for van der Merwe – up against Arendse – and how did they blow a quite beautifully engineered, copper-bottomed three-on-one in the first half. Regrets? You’d imagine they’ll have a few.

What Gregor Townsend will be more likely to lament is how the game disappeared from his team in just four minutes; why exactly were they getting so spectacularly lost in the middle third; what happened to the six line-outs they bungled in the Springboks’ 22; why weren’t they hanging high balls for van der Merwe – up against Arendse – and how did they blow a quite beautifully engineered, copper-bottomed three-on-one in the first half. Regrets? You’d imagine they’ll have a few. 

Better news in Deadpool 2 for Ireland; Jonny still seems to work, there were no fresh faces at Sunday’s sick parade and the green machine ripped through Romania like a plague of locusts in a field of corn. And as unforgiving as the draw has been, Ireland’s fixture schedule – Romania, Tonga, South Africa, Two-Week Break, Scotland – is a very small measure of compensation. The team selection for Tonga will be absolutely fascinating. 

Taniela Tupou
Taniela Tupou showed a decent turn of pace for a big man against Georgia (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

It was also a triumphant opening night for Australia, albeit Eddie – like Emmanuel the night before – was routinely and roundly booed by the sans-culottes in the cheap seats. And there we all were thinking Paris was the City of Love. But Jones’ fledgling team are finally flying – with a try-bonus point – and while the backs were all over the scoreboard, it was the forwards who caught the eye; indeed, in Angus Bell and Taniela Tupou, scourges of a Georgian scrum and more than frisky in the loose, Australia – Australia, for crying out loud – have the finest pair of props in the tournament. I shit you not. 

Bell’s a bull – love that man – and you’d rather floss a rhinoceros than tackle Tupou. What’s more, his awareness and oopsy-do pass to Ben Donaldson for the game-swinging score against Georgia was right up there with Manie Libbok’s no-look cross-kick as one of the highlights of the opening weekend. Taniela looks to be worth his weight in – green and – gold and given there’s 140kg of him, we’re talking serious moolah.   

Steve Borthwick – finally – was able to bring a broad smile to a final whistle. And do you know what, it rather suits him.

England – by George – also found sweet redemption in a boggle of a match against Argentina where both sides were completely unrecognisable. Frankly, if Los Pumas are the sixth best team on the planet, then, on this performance, it’s time to tip the World Rankings into the nearest skip because, dismally for one of the noblest of rugby nations, they folded like wet cardboard. Samoa will have been looking on in a small pool of drool.

But, then again, the English gave Michael Cheika’s team the square root of sod all. Woefully porous against Fiji at Twickenham, they were fully waterproof against Argentina in Marseille; a timely masterclass from their defensive kahuna, Kevin Sinfield, in how to physically dominate and, in so doing, psychologically destroy an opposing team. True, England’s attack could do little more all evening than turn a gaping four on two into an Argentinian line out and, as discussed, a lost head yet again saw red but Steve Borthwick – finally – was able to bring a broad smile to a final whistle. And do you know what, it rather suits him.  

Steve Borthwick
Steve Borthwick, after a few testing months, could afford a smile after beating Argentina (Photo Michael Steele/ Getty Images)

But George Ford was just mustard; his priceless ability to read the room, extemporise and then execute was about as good as it gets at any level; battle-craft and generalship of the very, very highest order. Alongside him, Manu Tuilagi was – at last – a brutal presence rather than a wistful memory and Captain Courtney provided the signature performance to England’s four-square, backs-to-the-wall statement. Intriguingly, given the roles those three players fill, how and where does Owen Farrell fit back in? 

But given it’s their party, it’s perhaps the French who’ll be nursing the happiest of hangovers after a fabulous, festive weekend; ‘Merci à tous pour l’ambiance de folie’, was Antoine Dupont’s message to his infatuated public and, certainly, the sense of divine madness is palpable, the more so having watched their team work through their first-night nerves and, in the final act, out-Black the All Blacks. France are becoming the absolute masters of mastering a game’s denouement.

As for New Zealand, you sense they’re behind the eight-ball here, and not just because they’ve used up their mulligan on the first hole. Put simply, they have the wheels but do they have the grunt and sufficient quality spare parts?

Their defence, though, will again be a small concern. Certainly the thirty-four missed tackles and a front door twice left wide open – two tries for Mark Telea – will have furrowed Shaun Edwards’ bald brow and furred his arteries. But for those worrying whether France would ride the wave or get swept away by it, it seems they’re not only fully upright but carving some serious shapes.

As for New Zealand, you sense they’re behind the eight-ball here, and not just because they’ve used up their mulligan on the first hole. Put simply, they have the wheels but do they have the grunt and sufficient quality spare parts? And while, yes, they’ve time to regroup, they’re now fated to play the form team in Pool B in the quarter finals. Put it this way, 11/4 for the tournament last week, they’re now 4/1 this.

Ahead of The Black and The Blue last Friday night, the opening ceremony was a spectacle, or so we’re told. Alas, ITV didn’t bother to show it nor grace it with their star presences, preferring instead to pitch their studio this side of the Channel in, and I quote, ‘an interactive, augmented reality set’ which looks suspiciously like a left-over layout from Pixar’s rodent epic, Ratatouille. Each to their own, but good luck conveying l’ambience de folie when you’re two hundred miles north of the party. 

Melvyn Jaminet
Melvyn Jaminet helped give the Rugby World Cup lift-off by helping France to a thrilling win over New Zealand (Photo Warren Little/Getty Images)

Elsewhere on the opening weekend, the jury seems to be well and truly out on the decision to turn anthems into madrigals but Carter Gordon’s haircut is a definite improvement and, almost instantly, Chile appear to have become everyone’s second favourite team; the Flight of Los Cóndores will be one of the more romantic journeys of this World Cup. And while we’re handing out posies, a small bouquet for Mathieu Raynal who refereed England against Argentina in two languages, neither of which was his own. 

So what have we learnt from the opening exchanges? Arguably, nothing other than (i) the error-free execution of a power-based game-plan with key string-pullers, a laser-guided goal-kicker and genuine depth on the bench looks like being a sure-fire recipe for success (ii) Romania may struggle to reach the quarter finals and (iii) the officiating too often bears too close a resemblance to Russian roulette. But then, hey, we knew all this already, didn’t we? 

Certainly, for France – unis pour un rêve – their team has taken a significant step along the tightrope. But as much as you wish them well – neutrally speaking – you do still wonder. Every 12 years they make a World Cup Final – 1987, 1999, 2011 – and every time, they come second. And in 2023, mes amis, that is one serious hex.


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