Nervous? Hell, I know I was, walking down the hill to the ground last night. And I know I wasn’t the only one.
Wearing the same tear-stained All Blacks jersey I’d worn to our 1991 semi-final loss to Australia in Dublin (not jinxed, I hoped!) it seemed to me that night and others like it in Cardiff, at Twickenham, in Sydney, had demonstrated to every AB fan, to all of us, how difficult it is even just to get the right to play off for the big prize. And the short and stupid game the night before had shown how easy it is to have your hopes overturned in one stupid rush-of-blood-to-the-head moment.
There were one and a quarter great semi-finals to enjoy over the weekend. Sadly, rugby’s destructive obsession with command and control* killed off the first one after seventeen minutes, but there were at least 97 minutes in all that were a great advertisement for the game.
And didn’t the boys in black step up in that second game! Apart from the two Williams boys (one of whom was a passenger, the other who was ejected from what could have been his biggest stage looking like an even bigger muppet than his mate Quade Blooper) every single player stepped up to the plate and hit a home run. Even Weepu, playing with flu and the memories of his late grandfather, could be forgiven for missing the kicks that could have put Australia away much earlier. He could be forgiven because the Australian pack were being monstered, destroyed, and finally just blown apart. (Who didn’t feel as thrilled as Brad Thorn when right on cue the black pack blew them apart utterly to deliver the penalty that finally confirmed the victory.)
But think of those great moments; those great “one-percenters.” Cory Jane’s marking of the high ball. Israel Dagg’s line breaks. Cruden’s coolness. Kieran Read’s superbly dashing tackle, backing himself to come off of his man at full speed to snuff out an attack. McCaw’s driving tackle to push Genia back ten, fifteen, nearly twenty metres and then steal the ball. (Is that how it happened? In the stands around me, we were were all starting to get a bit messy by this late stage of the game.)
The pressure of the black machine was just immense. Only one try in it at the death, but in the end there was only one team in it.
Not because Australia played badly. But because they just weren’t allowed to play well. (“Four more years, boys,” every Australian in the crowd was being told over and over.)
Roll on next weekend. **
And yes, I’m already starting to feel nervous again.
But at least I know it isn’t my jersey that has the hoodoo.
* * * * *
* I blame soccer: The rolling on the ground by the felled French winger; the whole ridiculous read card/yellow card nonsense—both entirely inappropriate imports from a game where they do play tiddlywinks.
Rugby is a man-on-man physical battle needing all fifteen players to make it a contest. Yes, referee Alain Rolland followed the letter of the IRB’s rules in sending Warbuton off for his adrenalin-fuelled spear tackle (so stop your whingeing about the ref), but they’re bloody stupid rules he was enjoined to follow.
Tens of thousands of people travelled many hundreds of miles for a match that was four years in the making, and many months in the anticipating. Millions of dollars, pounds, euros and zlotis have been spent getting these teams and all their fans to this point of the tournament. Millions tune in to watch the drama, and the hopes of whole nations rest on the outcome. So to kill it off as a contest after just seventeen minutes—tokill it stone dead—suggests to me that rugby still needs to sort out its house.
My suggestion: abandon the sending 0ff rule altogether. It doesn’t protect players; it only destroys the game. It destroyed this one-and with it, for many, the credibility of the tournament. Instead, do what AFL does in contests of equivalent tension and physicality: instead of sending players off for egregious offences (which is what Warburton’s was, make no mistake) in an AFL semi-final he would have gone on report and his team been marched back fifty metres—earning the French the appropriate outcome from the offence (probably, on the much shorter rugby field, it would have been a five-metre scrum or some equivalent), and earning the Welsh captain the well-deserved ire of his fans and team-mates, instead of (as he has been now) being elevated into the ranks of sainthood for having lost his head when all around him his team-mates were keeping theirs.
** There’s only one game next weekend: the World Cup Final! Who cares about the joke game that is the third and fourth play-off, a game unlived even by those playing in it. Put it to bed, please—or better yet, set it up as a Battle of the Hemispheres, with selected players and coaches from north and south shoulder-tapped to take part as their teams exit the tournament.
It’s not like they have anything else booked for the week.
And wouldn’t it be great to see Victor Matfield and David Pocock pack down next to each other against Sam Warburton and whatever other northerners could be found worthy of the contest. (Even throw Bryce Lawrence the whistle, to redeem himself in a much more good-natured contest than his last outing.)
Like the classic barbarian games of old, it really would be World in Union—and unlike the dreary third-fourth Battle of the Sad Sacks, it’d be a fantastic curtain-raiser for the Big Game!
UPDATE: Best line this morning from an Australian:
Was a week that started with endless [Australian] huffing and puffing over [Gillard’s] carbon tax ever going to end in anything other than a blackout?
Read the rest of Anthony Sharwood’s piece on the All Black Sabbath. I guarantee you’ll love it.