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Sean Fitzpatrick views on the Quarter Finals

Sean's Blog 7

Posted Oct 10, 2011 by Sean Fitzpatrick

I have just arrived in New Zealand for the second phase of the Rugby World Cup and I have never experienced anything like it. The country has gone RUGBY crazy! The atmosphere is just unbelievable. I didn't know there were so many flags in the world.

People here generally don't show their emotions, they get quietly on with their business, but the country seems to have lost its shyness.
After the quarter-final weekend, we are now down to the last four teams, any one of whom could win the Rugby World Cup.

I must start with France's 19-12 win over England. The French players have taken plenty of criticism over the last few weeks, especially with that defeat by Tonga, but I take my hat off to Marc Lievremont for lifting his players to produce a world class performance.

Being an All Black, I know better than most that if you give the French a chance, they will exploit it. That was obviously a lesson England had not learned. They never got their game going, they gave away penalties, they made handling mistakes, they lacked a game plan and leadership. Quite simply, they didn't turn up. Yet again, after three years planning, we had an England team full of potential, but not able to deliver.

In saying all that I thought the French were all class from 1 to 22 and showed that if they are able to express themselves they can beat anyone.

On the flip side of the English performance you have to admire Wales. They did have a game plan, produced by an outstanding coach in Warren Gatland.

They are fast and strong and have youth and experience. Their talent just oozed out of the side.
I could not help thinking how their captain Sam Warburton, just 23 last week, when he talks, sounds a lot like the All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw - and Richie has played 100 Test matches. Warburton is calm, collected and intelligent off the field and a natural leader on it. Youth and maturity - it's a winning combination.

The Welsh overshadowed a hugely experienced Irish team and great players like Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara will admit they were beaten by a better side. Wales have ability and a real belief that they can win the Rugby World Cup. And they are definitely in with a chance.

Australia were the other big winners of the weekend. Everyone was questioning their ability to beat a resurgent Springboks team, but they produced a defensive performance of strength and resilience. Australia had to make 135 tackles to South Africa's 54 and the Springboks had 75% of possession in the match and should have won, but they didn't.

And that is a vitally important lesson about knockout rugby. You have to make the most of your opportunities, take your chances and be able to defend.
If Wales have Sam Warburton, then Australia have David Pocock, who again and again dominated when the play broke down and stopped the Springboks getting a hold on the game. He wasn't alone, of course. The whole team fought tenaciously to keep their hopes alive.

And when they needed a hero to give them the win, there was 21-year-old James O'Connor to knock over the decisive penalty with seven minutes to go to secure the 11-9 win. That's another of the messages of the World Cup. These days the young kids have no problem stepping up and delivering.

I think the scary thing for the All Blacks, who now play Australia in the semi-final, is that Quade Cooper, the much vaunted fly-half, did not play well, but still Australia won. That will be giving All Blacks coach Graham Henry something to think about.

For the Springboks, their defence is over and, as defending champions, not reaching the quarter-finals will be seen as failure. Coach Peter de Villiers has already announced his possible resignation. International coaches are now dependent on success at the World Cup if they are to keep their jobs.

The All Blacks successfully negotiated their second match post-Dan Carter injury. Argentina looked good for 40 minutes and gave the All Blacks the physical game we expected.

Carter's replacement Colin Slade was also injured, which saw 22-year-old Aaron Cruden unexpectedly finding himself playing in a World Cup quarter-final. I thought he played pretty well for 50 minutes. Another example of a young man stepping up to deliver.
Now we can look forward to next weekend's semi-finals. I will go for Wales to beat France, because they have a game plan which they know how to execute and their confidence is sky high.

I was sure the All Blacks would beat Argentina, but the semi-final against Australia is really tough to call.

As a Kiwi, I am hoping that the tough, physical match against the Springboks may have taken a lot out of the Wallabies. How well will they recover?
And I know that the last time Australia beat the All Blacks in Eden Park was in 1986, so it is not a happy ground for them.

All will be revealed next weekend.

Srums & Refereeing

We've already seen at this World Cup that when the scrum is refereed properly, there is absolutely no problem with the IRB's existing, yet controversial 'crouch, touch, pause, engage' sequence. Only when it's not refereed well do you get in trouble.

My biggest issue with scrummaging worldwide is not the Laws that govern how the two packs engage, but the consistency of refereeing. The Laws are fine. All the players, coaches, and fans want to see is consistent refereeing. That's what's crucial for me.

The players know more about what's going on at scrum time than the referees, especially what's happening in the front-row, and the best refs are the ones who understand that and work with the players.

The 'crouch, touch, pause engage' sequence was introduced in a bid to limit injuries, by stopping opposition packs from crashing into each other like rutting stags, and reducing the likelihood of the scrum collapsing. I know that the IRB has commissioned a study into injuries caused in scrums, so I would be interested to learn if there are any stats available that show whether reducing the 'hit' has limited spinal injuries.

Referees are so heavily scrutinised, but a lot of them take the easy option and penalise one of the teams at the very first scrum. Obviously, they are trying to stamp their authority, while the better referees try to work their way through it.
Even the best refs in the world, still regularly get it wrong, however. Before leaving for New Zealand, I saw an official who is rated in the world's top five have an absolute shocker at scrum time in an Aviva Premiership match.

The quality of scrums at this World Cup has been excellent, though, particularly the performances of the tier two nations. They aren't getting pounded on the scoreboard or in the scrums. I've watched every game and not one of them has been blighted by collapsed scrums, which shows that the current Laws can work.

Teams don't collapse scrums on purpose, but hookers do pop their heads out as a release valve to get out of there when they are going backwards at a rate of knots, or if there's too much pressure on them. When I played, I always did my best to keep my opposite hooker's head down, otherwise the scrum is over – and he's escaped.

Refs don't seem to understand that it's the hooker who can dominate the front row. Take big strong hookers like Bismarck du Plessis of South Africa and Argentina's Mario Ledesma. They can work with their props to really put pressure on their opponents.

The hooker is meant to scrummage straight, but he can double up with his own loosehead prop to really pressurise the opposition's tighthead. It's not legal, but it goes on. Just one of the dark arts that fans in the stand and television viewers don't see. It's what I'd do on the opposition put-in. On my own ball, I'd work with my props to make the scrum as stable as possible.

That's one of the reasons why Scotland were able to put England under so much pressure last week. Matt Stevens and Dan Cole, the England props, were both struggling, so Euan Murray, and Allan Jacobsen got away with not driving straight to help Ross Ford, their big, strong hooker, to target Steve Thompson, the England hooker.

Watch du Plessis (when he comes on for John Smit) and Tendai Mtawarira, aka the Beast, having a go at Sekope Kepu, Australia's prop in this morning's quarter-final. They'll double-team him to put as much pressure on the Aussie scrum as possible.

Talking about refereeing consistently, why don't they make scrum-halves put the ball in straight? Two World Cups ago, that was one of the directives, yet it seems to have been forgotten now. Or perhaps they allow crooked feeds and merely see the scrum as a way of re-starting the game, almost going down the Rugby League route, rather than making it a contest.

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