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FEATURE Threads, twists and objets trouvés

Threads, twists and objets trouvés
9 months ago

So many games, so many highlights and so much to savour as the Pool Stages of the 2023 Rugby World Cup were rounded off with Portugal famously upending Fiji and, at the same time, Fiji finally knocking out Australia.

Herewith, then, some of the threads, themes, twists, talking points and objets trouvés from a tumultuous last round of matches, all in strictly alphabetical order.

A IS FOR AWKWARD … The only way to describe the moment in the ITV studio post England/Samoa when The White Knight insisted that Steve Borthwick had ‘too many players out of position’ and then, in the very next breath, said Marcus Smith should start at full-back against Fiji with Freddie Steward on the wing. It was the kind of moment where Granny says something bonkers at her 90th birthday party but everyone at the table generously pretends not to have heard it because, well; it’s Granny and she’s 90.

A IS ALSO FOR AMATO … Amato Fakavata, who scored the individual try of the tournament so far for Japan against Argentina in nutty Nantes; from his own half, out in the tramlines, a bolt of lightning acceleration, a left-foot hoof and hope, a bugger-me bounce and a gleeful gallop for the try-line. If a Jordan or a Kolbe had pulled off something similar, we’d have been swooning in the aisles but Fakavata is a second row who’s the size of a church door. It was drop-your-chips stuff.

B IS FOR BARNES … The Wayne Man – who else – who came into this tournament as England’s best chance of making a World Cup Final and, five weeks in – pinch me, somebody – absolutely nothing’s changed.

B IS FOR BACKSIDE … The one belonging to Portugal’s Rafael Simões which flopped onto the Fijian side of a ruck in Toulouse and was soundly slapped twice by the Islanders’ scrum-half, Frank Lomani. Hopefully, all he was doing was trying to get Luke Pearce’s attention and, if he was, it worked. ‘Nine, don’t do that,’ said the referee.

C is for CATHODE RAY TUBE … Technically, ‘a vacuum tube that produces images when its phosphorescent surface is struck by electron beams’ but, practically, a total waste of an invention given ITV’s preference for talking heads rather than pictures in their big-match build-ups. Essentially, it’s just radio; mind you, it does mean that you can do the ironing in the half-hour ahead of a kick-off and not miss a beat.

C IS ALSO FOR CLOBBER … As in what was that clobber Los Pumas were wearing against the Japanese in Nantes? Blue shirts, flat white diagonal stripes, red trimmings and yellow numbers? Busy would be the polite word for it but there are others.

D IS FOR DALLAGLIO … ITV’s famously plain-speaking Englishman, who seems to be finding England’s frayed performances tough to sum up, certainly before the nine o’clock watershed. Post Samoa, a testy Lawrence confined himself to: ‘Sloppy … poor … basics missing … Samoa should’ve won by 10-15 … the whole bench should start next week’, when you sensed there was so much more he wanted to say and in somewhat pithier terms. Indeed, much as I’d have sorely missed my Mullins, a live audio feed from an unsuspecting ITV studio as Lawrence watched England/Samoa unfold would – you suspect – have made for a memorable evening.

Amato Fakatawa
Big Amato Fakatawa of Japan scored one of the tries of the tournament against Argentina (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

D IS ALSO FOR DAMIAN … Penaud, McKenzie or Willemse; your call.

E IS FOR EXPECTATIONS … Or more accurately misplaced expectations, which is why Scotland’s performance against Ireland is being variously decried by fans and former players as a ‘humiliation’, a ‘humbling’ and a ‘rout’; this from a team who were ‘predictable’, ‘lacklustre’ and a bunch of ‘one-trick ponies’ talking ‘bluster and bravado’ in the run-up to the game. Interestingly, neutrals weighing up the fixture beforehand might well have felt that a 20 point cuffing was probably par for the course given where the two teams are right now. That’s no disrespect to a good Scotland side but kudos to an Irish team who are almost unplayable.

E IS ALSO FOR EMBARRASSMENT … Specifically, the embarrassment of riches available to New Zealand out wide if they can get enough front foot/turnover ball against Ireland in their mouth-watering, upcoming Paris quarter final; Smith, Roigard, Mo’unga, MacKenzie, Barrett J, Ioane, Jordan, Telea, Clarke, Fainga’anuku, Barrett B are ballers all as they proved in spades against the hapless Uruguay. The biggest word in this paragraph, of course, is the smallest; ‘if’.

F IS FOR FALETAU … Sadly, now no longer a part of this World Cup but an immense, iconic athlete whom Wales will miss mightily. Tempting as it might be to think of Taulupe as some sort of Superman, it’s actually more accurate to think of Superman as some sort of Faletau.

F IS ALSO FOR FIJI … Who, like England, appear to have staggered into the quarter finals like a drunk reeling home from the pub. The loosehead Eroni Mawi and the full-back Sireli Maqala book-end the side beautifully and Levani Botia’s a beast in the middle of the team-sheet but everything else right now looks like organised chaos. Do they run better as underdogs than they do as favourites? Is that what it is? We’ll find out in Marseille.

G IS FOR GAINLINE … Which is where England have been – fatally – coming up short for months now dating back to the shellacking from France in the Six Nations; with or without ball, they simply cannot impose themselves in the contact areas. As Ugo Monye bemoaned during ITV’s match commentary from Lille: ‘Samoa are winning the Alpha Test here’. And so they were.

Taulupe Faletau
The iconic Taulupe Faletau will be a huge miss for Wales in the quarter-finals (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

G IS ALSO FOR G’BYE … As in ‘G’bye, Straya’. The good news is that, by finishing third in Pool ‘C’, the Wallabies have at least qualified for their own World Cup four years hence. The bad news? Eddie, where do we start …?

H IS FOR HORIE … Japan’s excellent hooker, Shota Horie, who tends to play each match – deliberately or not, it’s hard to tell – with his shorts scrunched up on either side of his jockstrap. Each to their own but, bless him, it does look as though he’s turned up for the game wearing a nappy.

H IS ALSO FOR HEX … Namely, Ireland’s infuriating, galling, chafing, demoralising 36-year inability to navigate their way through a World Cup quarter final. This time, surely; it’s got to be. Must be. Sorry, who are they playing again? Ah …

I IS FOR IMPROVEMENT … What you get when you’re a Tier Two team which finally spends quality time together in inspirational surroundings; Portugal, Chile, Samoa, Tonga all grew into the tournament and made huge contributions. As Samoa’s Seilala Mapusua plaintively put it; ‘Time and exposure; that’s what we need.’

I IS ALSO FOR ITALY … Who opened their World Cup campaign with two ruthless, rigorous, try bonus point wins against Namibia and Uruguay only to be gutted by New Zealand and filleted by France. Kieran Crowley – poor sod – looked almost ashen up in the coaches’ box; both beatings were record-breaking and heartbreaking in equal measure and – together with the margin of Ireland’s win over Scotland – showed just how much of a chasm there now is between the Fab Four and the rest.

J IS FOR JAUNTY … This being the Samoan National Anthem – ‘Samoa Arise’ – which bounced along cheerfully enough in Lille yet still felt a little like three tunes fighting over one brass band. Mind you, far rather that – far rather anything – than the English anthem which is (a) not even English (b) a tough one to sing if you’re an atheist and/or a republican and (c) a dirge.

J IS ALSO FOR JAPAN … Who, despite getting scuppered by Covid and having none of the preparation they’d have wanted or needed these past four years, were thisclose to another quarter final. Indeed, in the tackle charts at the end of the pool stages, there are four Japanese in the top 11 led by, who else, the incomparable Michael Leitch. Please; get both them and Fiji into the Rugby Championship as soon as possible.

Italy crumbled against New Zealand and France leaving them shellshocked (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

K IS FOR KREMER … Argentina’s Marcos Kremer who, in Nantes, charged down a Japanese drop goal with his beard and didn’t even stop to count his teeth. The man is made of metal.

K IS ALSO FOR KICKERS … Specifically, the battery of place kickers who, at the sharp end of the tightest of tournaments, might just be the deciding factor for France. Ramos, Jaminet, Jalibert? Each could kick you stone dead at 500 paces wearing flip-flops.

L IS FOR LOUIS … Two, hyphenated boy-racers for the price of one here; Louis Rees-Zammit who switches off the bedroom light and is underneath the duvet before the room’s gone dark and Louis Bielle-Biarrey who’s faster than a five-legged greyhound and, ball in hand, deadlier than death. Both are box office.

L IS ALSO FOR LECTERNS … These being the ones the guests stand behind in the ITV studio. Don’t ask. I have absolutely no idea.

M IS FOR MATCH OF THE TOURNAMENT … Which, so far, was Japan against Argentina in Nantes; out on the pitch, a barnstorming display of ambition and agility where each of the eight tries was a belter and up in the sun-soaked stands, an exuberant, vibrant, fancy-dress festival where every man, woman and child got to their feet and danced deliriously all afternoon. It was a carnival of rugby and fair play to the French TV Director, VT OPs and Cameras; rarely will you have watched so joyous a game of rugby and smiled quite so often.

M IS ALSO FOR MAROON … This being the colour of England’s socks in Lille; frankly, a bit burlesque for my liking. Whatever happened to the black ones with the white tops? Apart from the fact that Jason Robinson used to look as though he was standing in two pints of Guinness.

N IS FOR NORTHERN HEMISPHERE … Could we – I mean, could we – be looking at Our Friends in the North snatching all four semi final spots? Dare we dream? It’s on, people; indeed, the higher half of the globe may never get a better chance.

N IS ALSO FOR NINIASHVILIDavit Niniashvili who heads home to Tbilisi at the end of Georgia’s – somewhat disappointing – World Cup journey sitting second on the list of runs made (52) fourth on the list of off-loads (7) and fifth on the list of clean breaks (8). You’ll have seen more meat on a matchstick but his parting try against Wales at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes was a corker.

Italy crumbled against New Zealand and France leaving them shellshocked (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

O IS FOR OS LOBOS … Perhaps now better known as Off Lodos given the amount of ball they’ve shifted out of the tackle these past five weeks. Captained by a dentist, Portugal have been the revelation of this World Cup, not least wingers Raffaele Storti and Rodrigo Marta and the hooker, Mike Tadjer, who is Portuguese to his very boots; the right one being green and the left one being red. Inspirational.

O IS ALSO FOR O’PARIS … Which is what the City of Lights is beginning to look and sound like on any given Saturday evening now the Irish are in town. If we get a semi final between Ireland and Argentina – and we just might – Miles Harrison’s TV commentary will end up being strictly subtitles.

P IS FOR PIFFLE AND PLATITUDES … Otherwise known at this World Cup as post-match interviews.

P IS ALSO FOR PUNCHES … These being the shots – in fairness, the air-shots – thrown in the Irish coaches’ box by a pumped Undy Furrill whenever his team scores. Look, we all love a little unbridled gusto; I’m just worried he’s going to clock Simon Easterby and lose his Defence Coach to an HIA. (Punch-wise, a quick shout-out here, too, to Richie Mo’unga for the three swift uppercuts he throws before each pop at the poles. I’m thinking of borrowing this tic for my short-range putting.)

Q IS FOR (WHAT ELSE) QUARTER FINALS … Although it’s worth reminding ourselves that any resemblance between the two games in Paris and the two games in Marseille will be purely coincidental.

Q IS ALSO FOR QUIZ QUESTION … The question being – and this’ll depend on how this weekend’s game turns out – which Kiwi lost to the Kiwis in one World Cup quarter final and won/lost with the Kiwis in the very same World Cup quarter final four years later?

R IS FOR REFEREES … Who, under the most inquisitive scrutiny and pressure, have had a bloody good tournament so far. And if you disagree, by all means buy yourself a whistle and give it a go; you’ll never look at Ben O’Keeffe in quite the same way again. The Bunker System? Not sure. It’s a Curate’s Egg, isn’t it?

R IS ALSO FOR RED CARD … By my calculations, 15 matches now since we’ve seen one in this World Cup. Is the penny dropping?

Mike Tadjer
Portugal’s Mike Tadjer was overwhelmed at full-time having secured their first ever World Cup win against Fiji (Photo by Julian Finney/ Getty Images)

S IS FOR SMIRK … The lengthy one offered by Owen Farrell to the Samoans – that and the sideways small-talk with referee, Andy Brace – as he was lining up a crucial 64th minute penalty in Lille. Except that, of course …


T IS FOR TWENTY … Supposedly, the number of permutations in Pool ‘B’ ahead of the last game between Ireland and Scotland, although quite why anyone bothered working out the other 19, I’ve no idea. One was always going to be plenty.

T IS ALSO FOR THREESOME … Specifically, the French back row of Anthony, Charles and Gregory, musketeers all save for the ostrich plumes. Of course, if the three of them were as Anglo-Saxon as their first names suggest, England wouldn’t have needed to field twenty-one different back row combinations in their last 25 matches. But – alas – they are not and – alas – England have.

U IS FOR UNAPOLOGETICALLY … Or, more accurately, ‘Unapologetically Samoan’, this being the description of the Manu Samoa game-plan ahead of the England game. Suffice to say, it needed no elaboration.

U IS ALSO FOR UNDERDOGS … Which is how New Zealand will glibly label themselves heading into their quarter final against Ireland. What they won’t mention is that they’re snarling, stoked up, fully-loaded, bang-in-form underdogs scrapping for their very survival. Hmmm.

V IS FOR VUNIPOLA … What would England give right now for a fit, feisty, free-wheeling Billy Vunipola? No disrespect whatsoever to Ben Earl who’s giving it tout but he ain’t no eight and without Billy Big Boots, England are seriously struggling to impose themselves on the gain-line. Or indeed, anywhere else.

Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell reacts after overrunning the shot clock against Samoa(Photo by David Ramos/ Getty Images)

V IS ALSO FOR VEXED … The politest word to describe Pierre Schoeman as he grasped a bemused Dan Sheehan by his lapels and jammed him against – and then over – the advertising hoardings in Paris. If Schoeman had stood up in Sheehan’s soup at the post-match buffet and bit him on the nose, the Irishman could scarcely have looked more surprised.

W IS FOR WHEN … When was the last time a bloke called Nigel scored two tries against England? Or even for England? Mind you, Nigel Ah Wong’s second finish for Samoa in Lille was an astonishment; hand, eye, ball and boot have rarely been better co-ordinated in so tight a space.

W IS ALSO FOR WHERE … As in, where’s your money as the Hosts and the Holders square up in Paris? In your pocket? Smart decision.

X IS FOR X-FACTOR … Which is what Saracens and Samoa’s Theo McFarland has in spades. What. A. Player.

X IS ALSO FOR XPLAIN … As in, explain to me, please, why it is that when ITV chuck up those Tarot Cards heading in and out of yet more bloody adverts, Argentina are ‘The Agitators’ and England are ‘The Resurrected’? Hello?

Y IS FOR YELLOW CARD … Specifically, the one copped by Tumua Manu in the England/Samoa game which, effectively, decided the match …

… AND Y IS ALSO FOR YORKSHIRE TERRIERDanny Care, who, after Manu’s yellow card, scampered through a mile-wide hole to give England the game-winning score and then scampered back to make the try-saving tackle on Neria Fomai which protected said game-winning score. End-to-end excellence from a man who, next January, will be 47 years of age.

Z is for ZONE … The Red Zone where Ireland were in control of the ball eight times against Scotland and averaged just over four points per visit. Scotland, by contrast, had a ten-minute opening blitz with 78% territory and 68% possession and came away with nothing. Statistics like this aren’t the whole kit and caboodle but they’re a sizeable part of it.

Z IS ALSO FOR ZOMBIE … Hopefully, you like your cranberries but whether you do or you don’t, get used to Dolores O’Riordan’s grunge classic. Given its subject matter, it’s not the most obvious Irish rugby anthem – unlike, for example, the nineteenth century African-American spiritual, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which is a glove fit for a team of English public schoolboys – but either way, you suspect we’ll be hearing an awful lot more of Zombie in the next three weeks.


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