Finals fever, or just fever

My semi final experience was like this, only without the company or the joy.
My semi final experience was like this, only without the company or joy.

Do you ever really enjoy an All Blacks RWC cup semi final? In fairness, alone in the dark of night is no way to enjoy a match of this magnitude. “What did you do at half-time?” asked partner-of-sportreview, when daylight emerged. “Just sat there and worried.”

The match had a touch of the 2011 final about it, with  pleading ‘this isn’t how it’s supposed to end’ thoughts hard up against the reality of a one or two point cushion.

Twitter didn’t help. Basically everyone that was up was having a meltdown of one form or another on their phones, the little kicks in behind mystifying armchair Steve Hansens up and down the land.

I watched it again when the family got up. Second time around was much, much more enjoyable, without the furious brainstorming about all the ways we’d lose. There was no nice-guy-Heyneke about the Boks’ tactics and they showed less enthusiasm for playing actual rugby than a house cat, but still pushed us right to the brink. It would have been a bloody travesty if they’d won it, but.

Diego Maradona reacts to Argentina's tournament exit.
Diego Maradona reacts to Argentina’s tournament exit.

Those crazy Aussies
Anyway. Here we are in Big Week, lining up against the jandal lickers. They got a black mark from the neutrals by making Argentina’s magnificent coach Daniel Hourcade shed tears all over his fetching knitwear at full time. Us taking on the Aussies  at Twickenham is a dream final, with the added bonus of offering an Antipodean up-yours to the Brit establishment, the rugby equivalent of Crowded House doing a jug skull at a Buckingham Palace cocktail function.

So, what have they got? Not many Australians would make the All Blacks’ run-on side, and the AB bench would probably make an actual bench of the Ocker’s substitutes without even having to duck into Bunnings. But – they’re the last ones to beat us, and they’ll cost New Zealand a lot of sleep this week.

Michael Cheika is being talked up as a combination of a chess grand master and  Bobby Heenan. This year’s Sydney defeat and the Eden Park wasting have been analysed to death, with mind games and conspiracy theories dominating talk back like a Grant Dalton interview. But it will be David Pocock with his Popeye biceps and willingness to put his head where it will be kicked off that’s the big worry. All the talk is of taking him out of the breakdown, but no-one’s talking up the sportreview method of sneaking a vodka into his Guinness when he’s in the bogs. Leave no stone un-turned fellas.

It’s like this – we should beat them. Ex-players and pundits alike are lining up to award us the cup already, but knockout rugby, kind of like inviting the First XV over to your parents place for a few quiets, never turns out how you expect.

The All Black training base, as reported by NZ media.

All Black fan panic levels
Pretty bad. This isn’t a white-light-France-level panic, but a more nuanced panic, one you can savour like a Wellington craft beer fan taking on a steak and kidney and coriander stout. Superstitions and deals with the devil are being consummated around the land. We may have the Greatest Team Of All Time on our hands here, but no-one’s allowed to say it, lest Pocock and Cheika come storming up the Waitemata Harbour on the back of a winged Peter FitzSimons to break New Zealand hearts.

At least the build up will be over soon – the nature of a rugby tournament means there’s a whole lot of time to fill between the big matches. Craig Dowd, who broke the sacred ex-player fawning code  to predict an Australian win. Let’s hope that goes as well as Zinzan’s prediction. Much has been made of the Australians’ apparent refusal to mention the words ‘All Blacks’, while our policy of referring to the Wallabies only as ‘those fuckwits’ got nothing.

Roll on 7am Sunday morning, when we might actually start to enjoy this tournament.

Welcome to Worry Week, brought to you by France


Now we have an angst main to go with a selection of angsty sides for the table. If  the All Blacks’ form being shakier than Clive Woodward’s grasp on reality wasn’t bad enough, now we’ve got you-know-who, you-know-where in the first knockout.

New Zealanders are jittery enough during rugby world cups without this kind of shit. Otherwise fully functional adults, many with gainful employment in the news media, cranked into talk of ‘omens’ and ‘Utu’ even before Ireland and France actually played each other. As if we needed more excuses to go on and on about our 2007 tournament exit, the action replay will send the not-getting-over-it into over-aroused overdrive with no-one likely to emerge from this week’s build up with much credit.

Meanwhile, France will sleep like babies. They know that someone has to play the villain, and will spend the week twirling their mustaches, shrugging and listening to Daft Punk. Probably. They’re happy for all the pressure to be with us, while masterminding putting us through torture for 80 minutes.

All Black mood board

We probably didn’t need the panic button just yet, but it’s been firmly pushed none the less.

We appear to have the talent and experience to win it, but the question is, do we have the form? Take the BLACKCAPS, who didn’t have the strongest squad in CWC15, but had everyone firing before the tournament and through the pool matches. Painful as it is, remember who took that trophy home, the experienced old Aussies.

We have to hope this is a similar scenario, all those centurions and the coaching panel dream team have the know-how to get themselves through. I don’t buy the ‘holding back’ thingo, I reckon the chips just aren’t down yet. It’s inexplicable that this great team has simply forgotten how to play between wasting the Aussies at Eden Park and this tournament. Gregor Paul reckons we should just chill, and I largely agree.

Anyway team, Sunday morning, it won’t matter who kept the faith, who wrote who off, who pointed out you can never tell which French team will turn up on the day the most or who said ‘bring it on!’ in the most chipper manner. We’ll either be still in the tournament, or impatiently waiting to get through to Tony Veitch to demand Robbie Deans gets the top job.

Fuck. Fuck! I can’t handle it already.

Your quarter final predictions, bearing in mind is a notoriously poor tipster

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Welsh injury toll mounts by the hour.

South Africa v Wales – South Africa. They’ve sorted themselves out from being on the receiving end of a Japanese fairy tale to be among the favourites, while Wales are being forced to play Charlotte Church in the front row.

Ireland v Argentina – Argentina. Too big and too strong for the Irish, who have similar injury issues to Wales along with a long history of world cup quarter final heartbreak.

Australia v Scotland – Scotland. Just jokes! Australia’s challenge will be maintaining their momentum. There’s the odd chink, like their discipline, and their coach, who is overdue to do something flaky.

New Zealand v France – Us. I think we’re going to waste them.

Enduring images of the World Cup thus far
Teams desperately defending their lines. Australia did it for about three quarters of an hour against Wales, while the All Blacks did well to repel Tonga on a St James surface that was parting like the Red Sea. There’s been bugger all free-flowing back play to speak of.

Reporters haranguing fans outside stadiums. My favourite was the really, really shitfaced young New Zealander struggling manfully to articulate all the ways his national team had disappointed him by beating Namibia by only 44 points. People with cameras thrust in their faces are unlikely to offer much in the way of useable insight or even joined up sentences, so instead we get ‘colour’ by way of yelling, outlandish wigs and borderline xenophobic banter. It’s rubbish and I would like to see less of it please.

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Dead set priceless banter™.

The royal bloody family. You can’t turn on the telly without seeing Wills looking smug, Harry looking sick as a parrot and the Queen having everyone over for a pimms and a backslap when the national team should be in a Cardiff hotel room shitting their pants.

Rugby’s coming home, and potentially leaving again quite quickly

RWC15 is a mass of contradictions so far – we passed a law allowing the nation to chop piss in front of the rugby, then everyone went to the pub to drink flat whites. Man Of Few Words Steve Hansen is suddenly lighting up a press conferences with more one-liners than a night out with Stevie Nicks in the ’70s. The hosts have rolled out the welcome mat, then rolled over.

Everyone can enjoy this.
Everyone can enjoy this.

The early weeks of a world cup are like a Monkees album. There’s some classics all right, but plenty of filler too. Before it gets better, here’s what’s happened in the first fortnight:

Best game I
Wales v England. This was a six nations epic that had blood, guts, seventeen half backs on the field, and it will actually affect the outcome of the tournament. The hosts are as tentative as an Englishman trying to get a French waiters’ attention and have been about as successful. Wales had Gaelic fire and brimstone up their backsides and got the lollies – they will do well to repeat the trick with all their injuries, but having taken down their nemesis, they probably won’t care.

Hazza regretting bringing a security camera on a double date.
Hazza regretting bringing a security camera on a double date.

Best game II
Japan v South Africa, obviously. Eddie Jones is as popular in South Africa as Braai made of toejam, and his team’s late winner is one of the world cup’s greatest moments ever, obviously. The cherry blossoms performed a pretty credible Brumbies-circa-2004 impression to get home while South Africa, who looked as organised as Alan Donald running a quick single. They need to de-shambles themselves and fast.

Japan are proof that the top tier isn’t impregnable, and any country with massive corporations willing to chuck shedloads of wonga at a coach, foreign player dominated professional league and a world cup hosting gig coming up can play with the big boys. Those Pacific islands should get into that.

'Just promise me Eddie you won't come back and beat us with Japan one day.' 'Sure.'
‘Promise me Eddie you won’t come back and beat us with Japan one day.’ ‘Sure.’

Pool of Death update

England have a distinct whiff of dead meat about them, but I would keep an eye on Australia. They come into their big games looking as competent as Kevin Rudd, but have the chance to knock England out this weekend, promoting all those entertaining ‘who do you least like’ debates up and down NZ. Here’s a quick guide:

England – would be pretty funny if the hosts went out, their fans are unbearable, they’re tough at home so could hurt the All Blacks chances later in the tournament

Australia – they’re Australian

Wales are top, but Warren Gatland’s squad is so bare he’s is sizing up getting out the ear tape and running on himself, if he ever gets over his voice back after his post-England karaoke bender. With all the Big Clashes to come, there’s more late drama than an Earthquake Recovery minister trying to make a flight and a bigger fall out to come, team.

All Black panic level
Ooooooookay. So far. Beating Argentina comfortably in a tight-ish, physical world cup opener was a great result, but measured against our propensity to PANIC whenever we don’t WASTE TEAMS BY FIFTY POINTS, it was an utter failure.

When you play against minnows Namibia with a team with 13 changes in it, you shouldn’t read too much into it. So of course we all read too much into it. With  talk of injuries in the camp, the nation is lovingly running their finger all around the panic button, but hasn’t *quite* pushed it. Yet.

The Official Panic Button of the All Blacks.
The Official Panic Button of the All Blacks.

There’s some bright points – Sonny Bill is all of a sudden our form back, and Waisake Naholo is down to play Georgia, and could provide some much-needed X factor, among a back three that’s worryingly quiet. Even that’s OK, as long as they can start catching high balls at knockout time.

Richie and Dan, who we’ve put a lot of chips on, look the goods so far and our strength in depth looks, erm, deeper than most as long as everyone gets and stays fit. Playing this weird group with Argentina and not a lot else makes it harder to gauge where we’re at than plugging in a phone charger in the dark.

Can we win it, though? Shit yes. Even if NZ isn’t relaxed, the All Blacks seem to be. We should learn from those guys.

Top five rejected All Black RWC arrival promos

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The road to Twickenham is paved with sponsor enforced fan engagement sessions, pop-up promotional pain and selfie / signing session sleepiness, and AIG’s ABs have done nothing but since getting off the plane.

A back of the envelope calculation (researched off the news on the telly) has the All Blacks attending at least eight official functions or sponsors events in the two days since touching down, including an official welcome ceremony, a weird Q+A with JK at a pub, something to do with luxury goods outfit Bvulgari  and a haka™ thing launch.

Yes, it’s all part of the deal nowadays – commercial partners who write the cheques have compulsary-fun-athlete-time written into contracts, while World Rugby have a tournament to promote, what, using their top All Black talent. We can only hope the team will be largely left alone to play rugby after getting this carry on over with at the start of the trip. Pray we won’t be blaming this ‘welcome’ for the unthinkable in six week’s time.

Still, it could have been worse. A dossier of rejected sponsors’ proposals for still more promos has been implausibly slipped under’s hotel room door. They’ve thankfully been left on the drawing board. For now.

  1. Dan and Richie and Ant and Dec – two of our greatest ever take on their toughest opponent in Simon Cowell. Can they bag an ambitious X Factor / World Cup double, or will Simon’s tight tees and uncompromising feedback make him England’s 16th man?
  2. Leadership and Loving with Steve Hansen – the All Black head coach brings you a dawn Bikram Yoga session and motivational team talk in Hyde Park, followed by gluten-free breakfast and natural healing with Waisake Naholo. Brought to you by Sanitarium, except for the non-Christian bits.
  3. Bro, You’ve Been Punked – Sonny Bill Williams and Liam Messam dress as Dickensian urchins and pick-pocket tourists in Charing Cross for a Mastercard viral. Anyone who gives chase and succeeds in catching the two professional athlete-scallywags get to keep their valuables.
  4. Heineken Highway To Hell – Competition winners pit their drinking game against a panel of angry ex-All Blacks in an aggressive and uncompromising all day pub crawl. Participants *must* chop their piss for the duration and comply with all of Richard Loe’s instructions or face 1970s-style back of the bus hazing. Kiwi rules on the pool table.
  5. Selfie Stick Survivor – the ultimate in fan engagement. Competition winner and All Black of their choice have 24 hours to commit a Clockwork Orange-style crime spree without being caught on CCTV. It’s a money can’t buy experience, and forever more, that fan and All Black will ‘have something on each other’.