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Are the favourites cranking up their acts?
Sean Fitzpatrick thinks the last few days has shown that the favourites are beginning to crank up their acts.
Posted Sep 26, 2011 by Sean Fitzpatrick
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If the first part of the Rugby World Cup was marked by a few surprises and some questions being asked about the top teams, I think the last few days has shown that the favourites - New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and Ireland- are beginning to crank up their acts.
Obviously as a Kiwi, I was delighted to see the All Blacks beat France 37-17 and to do it in some style. It's been a long, four-year wait since that French victory over the All Blacks in Cardiff in the last World Cup. Now hopefully we can stop talking about that and move on.
I believe that was the best starting All Black XV available. The only missing piece of the jigsaw is injured Kieran Read, who is crucial for the team. Captain Richie McCaw was brilliant again and you could see in his eyes that there was unfinished business here from four years ago.
Full marks to coach Graham Henry and his fellow selectors for getting the team right. It required a strong man to leave out Mils Muliaina, who has 98 caps, and go for a young man in Israel Dagg. And we saw the result. Dagg could become one of the stars of this World Cup.
France looked good for the first ten minutes, but I never had any doubt that we would come through and win. I also had to smile at the people who floated the idea that New Zealand should lose so they went through to the other side of the draw, avoiding Australia and South Africa until the final.
If you are an All Black, you just don't go out to lose matches. It's important for the All Blacks to keep the momentum going. Winning becomes a habit.
If New Zealand had lost, it would have created speculation which would have distracted the team from the job in hand.
Actually I don't think the other side of the draw is going to be easier. You have in-form Wales, Ireland, who have shown they can beat anyone on their day, and England, whose 67-3 victory over Romania showed they are getting stronger and stronger.
England looked to have put their wobbles behind them after playing indifferently against Georgia last week. I thought Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto, who both got a hat-trick of tries, played well and it was important for England that the captain Lewis Moody was able to play for 50 minutes. He is a crucial player and I would have been tempted to keep him on longer to give him more game time. I think Jonny Wilkinson did enough in the time he was on to secure the No 10 position. Toby Flood did well too, but I think the vote will go to Jonny. England are certainly moving in the right direction.
So are South Africa, who had a fantastic 87-0 win against Namibia, and Australia who bounced back after their Irish defeat with a 67-5 win over the USA, though their big concern is the number of injuries they are collecting with Rob Horne, Anthony Fainga'a and Pat McCabe the latest on the list.
One of the big stories is the likely exit of Scotland, who now have to beat England to make it to the quarter-finals, after their 13-12 defeat by Argentina. Scotland will say they were unlucky when the referee did not see an Argentine player offside as Dan Parks missed what would have been a winning drop goal. But we should not underestimate Argentina. Ledesma, the hooker, and Contepomi looked terrific, and of course Argentina reached the semi-finals in the last World Cup.
Ireland continued in the same vein with a good 62-12 win over Russia, but we should congratulate the Russians on scoring two tries. And Tonga beat Japan 31-18 and Samoa beat Fiji 27-07 in what is becoming a fascinating World Cup within a World Cup.
This week, as I have said, we have England v Scotland to look forward to. Samoa v South Africa will be interesting too, but I expect the Springboks to win. And then the final match of the pool games, Ireland v Italy.
I don't think the Irish will slip up, but no doubt the two teams will be remembering how Ireland only beat Italy in the Six Nations by a Ronan O'Gara drop goal three minutes from time last February.
As they say, with Ireland everything is possible.