Joining South Africa on their own flights home are the likes of England, Ireland, Scotland and Argentina. Post-mortems are already underway, but still to be decided is the little matter of who will actually win this damn thing. For neutral supporters, the next question that arises is: To which nation should we pledge our support for the remaining semi-final and the final encounters?
The first semi is a Henman if ever there was one. (In its original, literal form that is... 10 weeks ago I don't think anyone would have predicted these two contestants.) Thus, a vastly improved Welsh side, brimming with self-belief will take on the ever-mercurial French... who appear to have taken a leaf out of their national football counterparts' book by staging a player revolt mid-World Cup campaign. The only difference is that the French rugby side have managed to salvage at least one famous victory and now somehow find themselves in the last four, while Raymond Domenech's (former?) men imploded in rather spectacular fashion and were out by the group stages. Viva la Revolution, liberté, égalité, fraternité and all that, but I'm backing the Welsh for this one. I'll be happy to reward professionalism and structure over maddening inconsistency any day.
|Did they even have colour photos back then?|
In the second play-off, hosts New Zealand seek to finally recapture the title that has eluded them since they won the inaugural tournament in 1987. They've been dealt a potentially devastating blow through the loss of key playmaker, Dan Carter, while captain Richie McCaw appears to be playing on one leg. However, fate may have handed them some strange recompense through the injury of back-up flyhalf, Colin Slade. Odd as this may sound, the latter's replacement, young Aaron Cruden, would seem a much safer bet than the woefully out-of-his-depth Slade. Harsh, but fair I'm afraid. Facing New Zealand, of course, is the same Australian side that bundled South Africa out during this weekend's quarter-final. Aus have some outstanding young talent of their own, not least the players that featured most prominently in the victory against SA: David Pocock, James O'Connor and skipper James Horwill. However, they are thin on depth if injury does strike and there remain big doubts about their set-piece, and the BMT of flyhalf Quade Cooper among other things. It's a big call, but I'm still backing New Zealand for the win that will see them through to play Wales in the grand finale.
And the final itself? Well, you'd have to pick New Zealand again wouldn't you?
Okay, I hear you asking, but do you want them to win? So, with a very clear conscience, allow me to answer: "Yes".
As much as anything, I've grown tired of the ongoing tragi-comedy that sees that the planet's consistently best team dumped out of the World Cup. Bloomsboy put it rather poignantly: "Watching the spectacle of another France-NZ upset in the final would be a bit like succumbing to the morbid fascination of the World Trade Centers falling." A rugby fan first and foremost, I feel no shame in saying that the Kiwis have played most of the very top stuff I have ever watched. If there was such a thing as cosmic rugby justice, New Zealand should win this thing.
But forget speculative pleas to the rugby gods. Anyone who can tell me that Mrs. Karma cares for the game of rugby when the likes of Ben Cohen and Justin Harrison have World Cup winner medals, but Christian Cullen doesn't, is an idiot or a liar. Quite possibly both.
Suitably lame explanations for lame results.
It may provide comfort to opposition supporters, but New Zealand's failure to win a World Cup has actually become an albatross around the neck of other rugby nations. For, as long as the ABs can't get their hands on the Web Ellis trophy, we can dupe ourselves into thinking that we're actually doing pretty well... when we actually aren't.
With some important exceptions, New Zealand have clearly set the standard in modern rugby terms. I certainly believe that South Africa (and maybe even a few other nations) could overtake them, but not while the four-year mindset persists. Until the Kiwis bury their World Cup hatchet, a misplaced superiority complex will simply be doing us more harm in the long-run than good. Let order be restored and the slates be wiped clean. Because only then can we focus on consistently being the best rugby nation in world... full stop. Not just having a go every four years.
So... unless you happen to be Australian, Welsh or French... get behind the All Blacks for the Rugby World Cup 2011. Forget that they deserve it, we need it as much as they do.