Tag Archive: World Cup


Englandare through to the quarter-finals of the Euros yes, but let’s not get carried away.

Their performances in Euro 2012 to date haven’t set the world alight, and have not fired the sort of signals to the rest ofEuropethat make the continent’s top players start quaking in their shiny, overly expensive football boots.

The one thing the Englandplayers have managed to do, though, is start believing in themselves, and each other, with positive football scores the inevitable consequence

England are never, ever, in a million years, going to be as good as Spain, and we don’t possess the ability that the Germans do, but we do seem to have the unity and togetherness that has previously helped lesser teams succeed against the odds.  

The Greeceteam of 2004 springs to mind as the best example of a relatively unskilled team being successful in a major tournament. The football betting at the outset suggested they would struggle to get out of their group, let alone win the whole thing. But their success inPortugal eight years ago has gone down as one of the greatest upsets in modern day football.

But before we all get excited, thisEnglandteam is very, very unlikely to repeat this feat.

If we can get close, though, this current side will be in a decent position to be viewed as a strong competitor at the next World Cup, and maybe (just maybe!) might be able to win a major tournament for the first time since 1966.

If Roy can create a scenario that allows this kind of belief to exist, he will have exceeded everything that was first expected of him, and will have bought himself precious time to prove those who doubt his ability as national team manager.

While there is plenty of time for everything to go wrong again for England, we can now at least have just a little more hope than we did before the start of the Euros!

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Six Nations Week One Preview

By Laurie Fitzgerald

This weekend the 2012 Six Nations Championship begins, and for many of the nations it is the beginning of a new era.

Memories are still fresh for everyone after mixed fortunes for the Northern Hemisphere in the Rugby World Cup.

While some sides will be looking for continuity, others will be looking for a fresh approach as the new cycle begins for the next global showpiece in 2015.   Continue reading

By Laurie Fitzgerald

Wasps’ season suffered another setback at the weekend when they suffered a surprise 6-0 defeat at home to fellow strugglers Worcester.

That win for the Warriors took them above the Wycombe outfit, leaving the two-time Heineken Cup winners second from bottom in the Aviva Premiership.

Whilst they still have a 10-point cushion over bottom-placed Newcastle Falcons, it underlined the task facing Director of Rugby Dai Young.

Continue reading

Heineken Cup Week Four Preview

By Laurie Fitzgerald

Last weekend saw another host of bruising Heineken Cup encounters, and with Christmas just around the corner rugby fans around the continent are set for another set of European crackers.

This year’s pool stages have reached the halfway mark, and all six nations will have contrasting views of the opening few weeks of the campaign.

The Irish provinces of Leinster, Munster and Ulster have flourished and are all well in contention for qualification, whilst Connacht have put up a good account of themselves in their first ever campaign in Europe’s elite competition.

As for the Welsh regions, they’ve continued the form set out by the national side at the World Cup with the Blues, the Scarlets and the Ospreys all hoping to become the first team from Wales to reach a Heineken Cup final.

Scotland have seen their two participants really make a mark, with both Glasgow and Edinburgh earning two wins from their three games so far and both hoping to push on in the second half of the pool campaign.

It has been mixed fortunes for England’s sides; Saracens are the only side currently top of their pool, but while the likes of Leicester, Harlequins and London Irish are still in contention, Bath and Gloucester have the odds stacked against them, while last year’s finalists Northampton are all but out.

Things haven’t fared much better for the French teams. While pre-tournament favourites Toulouse have been in ominous form and Clermont Auvergne continue to grow in stature, their gallic counterparts of Biarritz and Castres have it all to do, while Racing Metro and Montpellier are both set for an early exit.

As for the Italians, Aironi have been unable to shake off their tag as the tournament’s whipping boys. However, Treviso have come of age this season and are by no means out of contention to reach the knockout stages.

This week will see the second part of the double-headers, with many sides facing do or die situations and others looking to strengthen their grips on pools that have been as competitive as ever.

Week 3 Results

Friday 9th December

Ulster 31-10 Aironi; Cardiff 25-8 Edinburgh; Harlequins 10-21 Toulouse

Saturday 10th December

Connacht 10-14 Gloucester; Treviso 30-26 Biarritz; Castres 41-22 Northampton; Scarlets 14-17 Munster; Racing Metro 14-34 London Irish; Saracens 31-26 Ospreys

Sunday 11th December

Bath 13-18 Leinster; Glasgow 20-15 Montpellier; Clermont Auvergne 30-12 Leicester

 

Pool One

Munster v Scarlets; Northampton v Castres (Both Sunday)

Munster’s win in Wales last Saturday against the Scarlets means that the two-time winners have taken a stranglehold on proceedings in Pool One.

That 17-14 triumph has left them two points clear of Nigel Davies’ side, but they have home advantage on Sunday when they complete their double-header at fortress Thomond Park.

Ronan O’Gara has shown his class throughout this campaign and scored all their points last weekend, and the fly-half will be expected to control events and guide the Irish province to a crucial win.

The Scarlets will need to produce a similar display to the one that saw them win at Northampton in round two, but know that grit and determination will have to accompany their attacking prowess if they are to pull off a memorable win.

In the other game, Northampton entertain Castres as they try and restore some pride from what has been a hugely disappointing campaign.

Having been humbled in France last Saturday, the Saints will be determined to get revenge on a side that have grown in confidence as the tournament has gone on.

In years gone by Castres have had a reputation of being one of the weaker French teams, but a win at Franklins Gardens on Sunday will keep their faint hopes of qualification alive, depending on events at Thomond Park.

Pool Two

Edinburgh v Cardiff (Friday); London Irish v Racing Metro (Saturday)

Cardiff Blues kept up their 100% start to the European season by beating previously unbeaten Edinburgh at Cardiff City stadium on Friday night.

It was a win that also denied their Scottish rivals a losing bonus point, but with just three points seperating the two sides at the halfway mark, but Friday night’s game at Murrayfield could prove crucial to the outcome of this pool.

Edinburgh will feel that a win is an absolute must if they are to reach the knockout stages for only the second time, but if they were to defeat Cardiff then it could also open the qualification door for another side.

London Irish revived their hopes with a thumping win over Racing Metro in Paris last Saturday, and a repeat performance in Reading on Saturday could leave them as little as one point behind top spot.

For the big-spending Parisians it has been another woeful European campaign, and their focus will quickly turn to domestic matters for the rest of the season after their pool formalities are concluded.

But for the leading trio in this pool, results this weekend could leave them all vying for qualification in the final two rounds in the new year.

Pool Three

Montpellier v Glasgow; Leinster v Bath (Both Saturday)

Leinster’s win in Bath kept up their unbeaten start to their defence of the trophy and put them firmly in pole position in pool three.

Having wasted numerous chances at the Rec, they had to dig deep late on to avoid defeat and really open up the pool, and will now look to wrap up their place in the last eight in the next couple of matches.

Sir Ian McGeechan’s side will be frustrated that they weren’t able to see out a famous win, and now the odds of getting out of the pool is stacked against them.

In the other match, Glasgow know that they need to come up with a big away performance to keep on the tail of Leinster and maintain their hopes of winning the pool.

Montpellier have found the going tough in their debut Heineken Cup season, and the Warriors will fancy their chances of producing a big result in the Stade Yves-du-Manoir to at least keep up hopes of a best runners-up spot.

Pool Four

Aironi v Ulster; Leicester v Clermont Auvergne (Both Saturday)

With three teams still harbouring genuine hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals, this Saturday could prove pivotal to who will make it out of one of the toughest pools in this year’s competition.

Leicester will have spent this week regathering their focus after being outclassed by a Clermont side that have won their last 35 competitive games at home.

But on the road they are a very different prospect, as are the Tigers in their own backyard; Richard Cockerill’s men will know a win at Welford Road, as well as denying Clermont a bonus point, will be crucial to their chances.

As for Ulster, the other side in the pool four running, they will be expected to pick up a win away at an Aironi side that must be wishing this Heineken Cup campaign can finish as quickly as possible.

Having seen Leicester fail to take maximum points from their trip Italy, it’s a chance for the Irish province to gain an extra point on their rivals, which could be all important come the end of the pool.

Pool Five

Biarritz v Treviso; Ospreys v Saracens (Both Friday)

Without doubt the tightest pool of them all – just four points separate Saracens in first and Treviso in last, and all four sides will be full of belief when it comes to qualification for the quarters.

Sarries took a grip on top spot be defeating the Ospreys last weekend, but the losing bonus point will give the Welsh region every belief they can gain an upper hand at the Liberty stadium on Friday night.

However, a win for the English champions and they will take a giant stride towards clinching the pool. However, the two other teams in Pool five know their chances are still strong at this stage.

Treviso pulled off one of the shocks of the tournament so far by beating the Basque outfit, exploiting Biarritz’s frailties on the road.

But their home form has always been formidable, and this game will be a real mark of just how far the Italian side have come on the European stage.

Pool Six

Gloucester v Connacht (Saturday); Toulouse v Harlequins (Sunday)

Last Friday saw Toulouse take a big step to seeing off the threat of Harlequins by beating the Aviva Premiership leaders at the Stoop.

Now the conclusion of their double-header could be the end of the pool itself, as a home win for the French champions on Sunday will leave at least a seven-point gap with just two games remaining.

Quins know that if they are to maintain their hopes they have to pull out a big win in France, and will take heart that their English counterparts Gloucester came so close to beating Toulouse in their own backyard in the opening round.

As for the Cherry and Whites, their hopes are slim of acquiring a best runners-up spot, but they will know that a win at home to Connacht will set them up to finish their Heineken Cup campaign strongly.

Last Saturday’s defeat at the Sportsground was probably Connacht’s best chance of winning a game in their first campaign amongst Europe’s elite, and Eric Elwood’s men will find it tough to avoid six defeats from six with trips to Kingsholm and the Stade Ernest-Wallon.

So what do you think? How will this week’s Heineken Cup games turn out? Leave a comment and let us know your views.

By Laurie Fitzgerald

This afternoon, the 16 nations that have qualified for the 14th European Championships will find out their fates in the draw of the group stages in Kiev.

Fans of both England and the Republic of Ireland will be particularly interested in who they face after recent qualification heartache for previous tournaments.

England failed to qualify for Euro 2008, while the Republic have not participated since their only appearance back in 1988, so there will be great anticipation by both countries.

For Fabio Capello, an unbeaten qualifying campaign has helped lift spirits following a pitiful World Cup campaign in South Africa last summer.

Despite reaching the finals without defeat, Capello’s Three Lions find themselves in the second pot of seeds along with Germany, Italy and Russia.

Whilst it is a boost to avoid that particular trio, it does leave England exposed to the possibility of playing either Spain or the Netherlands in the group stage.

Last year’s World Cup finalists are joined by the joint-hosts of Poland and Ukraine, who despite being two of the weaker teams in the tournament are put into the top seeds category due to their hosting responsibilities – together.

In fact, due to the way that the rest of the seeding is based on world rankings and recent qualification results, England could find themselves in a group of death consisting of Spain, Portugal and France.

However, a kinder draw could see them draw Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic, which would give Capello’s men a great chance of making the quarter-finals, especially in the absence of star player Wayne Rooney through suspension.

For Giovanni Trapattoni‘s side, they find themselves in Pot Four along with the French, the Czechs and Denmark.

It means they can find themselves in a similar group to England’s worst case scenario, with a group of Spain, Germany and Portugal lurking in the draw.

But a more positive looking outcome could see them face Poland, Russia (who they will be familiar with from the qualifying campaign) and Greece to give them a very realistic chance of reaching the last eight.

So there is plenty of permutations that can occur from today’s events in the Ukraine Palace of Arts. But the paths chosen for both England and the Republic of Ireland will give us a greater understanding of both team’s chances in Central and Eastern Europe next summer. 

Pot 1: Ukraine, Poland, Spain, Netherlands.

Pot 2: Germany, Italy, England, Russia.

Pot 3: Croatia, Greece, Portugal, Sweden.

Pot 4: Denmark, France, Czech Republic, Republic of Ireland.

So what do you think? What will be the best outcomes for England and the Republic of Ireland? Who are the teams to avoid from the draw? Leave a comment and let us know your views.

Heineken Cup Preview

By Laurie Fitzgerald

After the conclusion of the World Cup, rugby fans everywhere now have the perfect tonic arriving this weekend – the Heineken Cup.

European rugby’s premier club competition is now in its 17th season and has come such a long way since it began way back in 1995.

Every game is played with the intensity of a test match, and the best teams from the countries of the Six Nations battle over 79 brutal encounters.

Leinster‘s triumph last season showed just how tough it is to win the Heineken Cup, and the class as well as mental strength required to become the continent’s best side.

In the pool stages they had to overcome Saracens (now English champions) Racing Metro (who have finished in the top 2 in France the last two years) and Clermont Auvergne (the French champions at the time) to even qualify for the quarter-finals.

Then Josef Schmidt’s side had to beat then-English champions Leicester and defeat Toulouse, who have won more Heineken Cup’s than any other side, before producing one of the great comebacks to defeat Northampton at the Millennium stadium to clinch their second title in three campaigns.

The great thing about the pool stage is that unlike its football counterpart of the Champions League, it’s difficult to predict who will make it to the last eight – the difficulty of both the pool and knockout stages means it’s the equivalent of having two tough campaigns rolled into one.

With some enthralling pools and a line-up that looks stronger than ever, we preview all 24 teams and rate their chances of making it through to the quarter-finals:

Pool 1

Castres – Finished 3rd in the Top 14 last season and currently 2nd this campaign, they won’t be the pushover they have been in previous seasons. Other teams will struggle going to Stade Pierre-Antoine.

Munster – After a disappointing European campaign last season by their extremely high standards, the Irish giants may struggle to get out of a very tough pool. But if there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the years, it’s to never write off Munster.

Northampton – Will be hoping to go one step better than last year when they pushed Leinster all the way in the final. Their pack is the best in Europe and now have the experience to go all the way.

Scarlets – Yes they are a young side, but when they play to their potential they are an exciting attacking outfit that can hurt any opposition. Trips to the likes of Franklins Gardens and Thomond Park may be a step too far though.

Pool Winners: Northampton

Pool 2

Cardiff Blues – Still coming to terms following the departure of Dai Young, the Blues may wish the HC wasn’t starting just yet. But with some World Cup heroes full of confidence, including the outstanding Sam Warburton, they will fancy their chances in a winnable pool.

Edinburgh – Often struggle in Europe and have yet to find any form in the Pro 12, but Michael Bradley’s side will feel they might not have a better chance to reach the last eight – if they can turn Murrayfield into a fortress.

London Irish – A hit and miss start to the Aviva Premiership despite being third, Irish know that with the attacking ability at their disposal, as well as previous HC wins over Leinster and Munster, they have the knowhow to do well. They just need to find that consistency.

Racing Metro – Often understated, but underestimate the Parisians at your peril. Full of French flair and having built a strong squad from the wealth of Jacky Lorenzetti, Racing could be the dark horses of this year’s competition.

Pool Winners: Racing Metro – London Irish to get one of best runners-up spots.

Pool 3

Bath – Sir Ian McGeechan‘s men have struggled for a cutting edge so far, and recent European campaigns have been a disappointment. Much will depend on new arrival Stephen Donald to settle quickly and provide the ammunition for a potentially explosive backline.

Glasgow – An impressive start to the Pro 12, but the Warriors look to be the weakest squad on paper in the pool. A trip to Firhill is never easy though, and if they can pull a big away performance out of the bag then a runner-up spot is not impossible.

Leinster – The defending champions couldn’t have asked for a much better draw. A pool that they are more than capable of winning and ensuring a home quarter-final in the process. Despite the loss of Brian O’Driscoll, they are the team to beat if another side wants to get their name on the trophy.

Montpellier – Last year’s surprise package in the Top 14, reaching the final and were minutes away from beating Toulouse. They have struggled this season though but could spring a surprise or two in the pool stage.

Pool winners: Leinster

Pool 4

Aironi – They have been the whipping boys in the Pro 12 and it looks like it could be the same again in a horrendous pool. A win has to be the aim, but the draw has not been kind to them one bit.

Clermont Auvergne – Immensely difficult in France and the last couple of years have seen them develop more of a toughness on their travels, they have all the makings of a squad to go far.

Leicester – A poor Premiership start in the absence of their World Cup stars, the Tigers are getting near to full-strength. They have the knowhow to go all the way and Welford Road remains one of the toughest places to go. But can they get the points on the road to qualify?

Ulster – Not many would have tipped them to make the quarters last season, but this is an underrated Ulster side. Ravenhill is a fortress and if they can pull a shock out of the bag, don’t rule the Ulstermen out of contention in arguably the toughest pool.

Pool Winners: Clermont, Leicester to get a best runners-up spot

Pool 5

Benetton Treviso – The Italians have been the surprise package of the Pro 12 this season and their improvement may be shown on the European stage. A trip to Veneto is no longer the foregone conclusion it used to be for most teams, and they will be confident of a good showing in this pool.

Biarritz – Not the team that they once were, but this is a group of players that always find a way of being there or thereabouts in the latter stages of the tournament. Their home form will intimidate anyone, but they are as unpredictable as any side; brilliant on their day, awful on another. If their complacency rears it’s ugly head then it may be the downfall of their pool favourites.

Ospreys – Big changes not only to their squad but also to their culture; fake tans have followed the likes of Gavin Henson and James Hook out of the door, and they now seem to be a more tight-knit squad under Scott Johnson. Top of the Pro 12, they are capable of progressing, but their long-term development means it may just be a year too soon for the new crop at the Liberty stadium.

Saracens – After conquering England, the next stage for Mark McCall’s men is Europe. Away trips won’t faze a side that’s won in Leicester, Northampton, Gloucester and Racing Metro in the last year. But three home fixtures at three different venues hardly allows them to build a fortress anywhere. Their seemingly unmatched determination to win though could be the difference in another tight pool.

Pool Winners: Saracens

Pool 6

Connacht – Debutants to the competition, the Irish province will be eager to finally take their chance to compete with the big boys. Seeing some of Europe’s heavyweights travel to Galway Sportsgrounds will be one of the stories of this year’s competition. However, they will struggle to compete against the more established trio in the pool.

Gloucester – Brilliant at home, poor away. It’s been a similar pattern over the past couple of years for the Cherry and Whites. Bryan Redpath’s men are capable of some wonderful running rugby and have an intensity in their game that makes them difficult to cope with. But they must resemble this form away from Kingsholm if they are to stand any chance of qualifying for the last eight.

Harlequins – Conor O’Shea’s team have been the standout side in Europe so far this season; ten wins out of ten in all competitions, including a perfect start to their first eight Aviva Premiership matches. They have found a consistency to match the squad’s potential and already have European success after last year’s Amlin Challenge Cup triumph. But competing on all fronts may be a step too far this season.

Toulouse – Save the best ’till last? Quite possibly. Having won the Heineken Cup four times, this squad is full of experience and class. Unplayable when on top of their game and a pack that can destroy even the biggest of opponents, they would be a strong bet for title number five.

Pool winners: Toulouse

Outright prediction: Very tough to call without knowing the structure of the quarter-finals as home advantage makes a huge difference, but with it being so tough to win back-to-back Heineken Cups, I think favourites Leinster may just fall short – meaning Toulouse could be set to be Kings of Europe yet again.

So what do you think? Who will win the Heineken Cup? Which teams do you think will do well this year? Leave a comment and let us know your views.

By Laurie Fitzgerald

Now that the Rugby World Cup is over, full focus returns on domestic matters and looking at an Aviva Premiership campaign that is already  a third of the way complete.

Some teams have found the going tough with many of their established stars away on international duty in New Zealand, especially the likes of Leicester and Northampton.

The Tigers have had horrendous luck not only losing more players to the World Cup than any other side, but also suffering serious injuries to the likes of Steve Mafi and Jordan Crane.

It was a combination of problems that saw Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill having to delve deep into the resources, but after six games Leicester found themselves in 11th position going into the LV Cup break.

Only now from the return of their World Cup players have Leicester started to build momentum, and Northampton know how their big rivals feel.

With the absence of the likes of Chris Ashton, Ben Foden, Soane Tonga’uiha, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood,  the Saints also struggled to build any momentum, and their return was marked with a thumping win over Newcastle last weekend.

While both teams should be in the reckoning come the end of the season, there is no doubt which team are setting the standard this season.

Harlequins have made the perfect start with seven wins from seven, playing some fantastic attacking rugby anchored by one of the world’s best fly-halves in Nick Evans.

Conor O’Shea’s side underlined their potential by winning the European Challenge Cup last season, and they have found the consistency that was missing domestically last time around.

Ominously though, just behind them with six wins from seven are the champions Saracens. They have an incredible mental resolve and have already won at Gloucester as well as putting fifty points on Leicester at Welford Road. Their ability to win whatever the situation means they will once again be there or thereabouts come May.

Steve Diamond deserves credit for the job he’s done at Sale; over 40 players either came or went from Edgeley Park in the summer, and he’s managed to gel the squad together quickly and find themselves currently in the play-off places – although their defeat to Leicester will be a wake-up call that much work still needs to be done if they are to stay there.

Sir Ian McGeechan has also settled back into the managerial hotseat well at Bath. They have been solid if unspectacular so far but are building momentum with key players coming back, such as the injured Olly Barkley, Lewis Moody and World-Cup winning fly-half Stephen Donald.

Wasps look a far better side than the one that were hugely disappointing last year. They’ve become a lot tougher to beat under Dai Young, and have one of the most dangerous back three combinations in the Premiership with Richard Haughton, Tom Varndell and the electric Christian Wade, one of the best youngsters in the game.

London Irish continue to frustrate as much as they delight. For me they are the best attacking team in England, but the other side of their game – being able to grind out results when they need to – carries on disappointing. Until they figure a way of doing that consistently they won’t be able to turn top six into top four.

Exeter got their season off to a flyer with back-to-back wins, but four defeats from five means they now find themselves in mid-table. But the aim was always to build on their brilliant first season in the top flight, and if Rob Baxter carries on getting the best from his squad then they will be an outside bet to push for a Heineken Cup spot.

Gloucester continue to be the Jekyll and Hyde team of the Premiership; phenomenal in an attacking sense as well as in their defensive intensity at Kingsholm, they are a pale imitation of the side that has made the Shed a fortress over the last two years. If they can replicate at least half of what they produce at home, they will be in play-off contention.

Newly-promoted Worcester have settled back in well to Premiership life and apart from an away thumping at London Irish they have not been overawed by anyone. But they are the only team not to break the century-point barrier and rely too much on the boot of Andy Goode. This shouldn’t be the case when you have the likes of Miles Benjamin, Marcel Garvey and Errie Claassens in the back division.

The team I fear for are Newcastle. The Falcons were viewed by many going into the season as the team favourites for relegation, and despite their weekly opposition weakened over the last couple of months, they have still stood out as a struggling outfit. Now with teams back to full strength, Alan Tait has his work cut out in keeping the squad above the trap door.

However the rest of the season pans out, all signs point to the Premiership being as tight as ever, and with the big boys all back from Down Under we should be set for a cracking several months ahead!

So what do you think? Will Harlequins continue to set the pace in the coming months? Who look set to push for the play-offs? Which teams will struggle against the drop? Leave a comment and let us know your views.

By Laurie Fitzgerald

New Zealand ended 24 years of Rugby World Cup heartache by edging France 8-7 in a tense final to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time.

After an attritional start, prop Tony Woodcock made the breakthrough when he dived through a French defence at a lineout to give the hosts a 5-0 lead.

But they couldn’t extend their lead with some wayward attempts at goal from scrum-half Piri Weepu, and another blow struck when numer 10 Aaron Cruden went off injured, meaning fourth-choice fly-half Stephen Donald came on as the All Blacks‘ resources were being tested to the limit.

However, Donald struck a penalty early in the second-half to give Graham Henry‘s men an eight-point advantage, and the supporters could sense their first triumph since 1987 was imminent.

But Marc Lievremont’s men had shown great resilience throughout and when captain Thierry Dusautoir dived in under the posts, the gap was narrowed to one and the momentum was with the underdogs.

France kept knocking at the door and the tension must have been unbearable for the four million Kiwis that would have been glued to their televisions in the hope of finally getting their hands on the holy grail once again.

However, the All Blacks showed excellent discipline and with neither side giving an inch in the dying moments, it was left to replacement scrum-half Jimmy Cowan to kick the ball into touch and spark scenes of unbridled joy in a rugby-mad nation.

It was a fitting reward for two men in particular; coach Henry and skipper Richie McCaw have put every ounce of effort to bounce back from the heartache of the 2007 World Cup and make sure that there would be no repeat of that disappointment in their own backyard.

Those two men fully deserve this accomplishment, their respective careers deserve the high point of a World Cup triumph and their names will be deservedly etched into All Black folklore forever.

Credit must go to a French team that have been heavily criticised throughout the tournament despite making it to the final.

Tensions between players and management have been clear to see, but their performance at Eden Park on Sunday was magnificent, and can feel unfortunate that they fell agonisingly short.

However, while it was an understandably nervy display by New Zealand, there’s no doubt that the best team on the planet and of this tournament have been crowned World Champions.

To conclude our World Cup coverage on SFTS, I’ve picked my team of the tournament over the past seven weeks, see what you think:

  1. Tony Woodcock – Played a major part in the All Blacks continued dominance in the pack. Scored try in final.
  2. Keven Mealamu – No outstanding hookers, but the experienced Kiwi was a figure of consistency. 
  3. Adam Jones  – Went into the tournament as a crock, came out of it as the world’s best tighthead. 
  4. Brad Thorn – His consistently tireless performances belied his 37 years. Inspirational.
  5. Paul O’Connell – Close call with Sam Whitelock, but the Irishman’s last RWC showed his greatness again.
  6. Sean O’Brien – Leinster man backed up brilliant Heineken Cup campaign on the biggest stage of all.
  7. Sam Warburton (Player of the tournament) – Controversial when considering the likes of McCaw, Dusautoir and Pocock, but the semi-final red card shouldn’t detract the brilliance of the Welsh Captain. The future Lions skipper.
  8. Toby FaletauIt’s hard to believe he’s only 20! A huge future ahead for the Newport-Gwent Dragons man.
  9. Mike Phillips – Close between him and Weepu, but the RWC saw Phillips back at his best.
  10. Rhys Priestland – Unknown before tournament, but the 24 year-old certainly isn’t anymore.
  11. George North – With Shane Williams retiring, Wales have found another potentially great winger in the 19 year-old Scarlets star.
  12. Jamie Roberts – Seemed to break the gain line every time he got the ball. Immense from the inside centre.
  13. Ma’a Nonu – I know he’s a natural 12, but you can’t leave neither he nor Roberts out of a best XV. 
  14. Vincent ClercTough on Williams and Keith Earls, but Clerc showed genuine class in unexpected run to final.
  15. Kurtley Beale – Only one of outstanding Wallabies backline to shine during tournament.

Coach: Graham Henry – A close call between another Kiwi in Warren Gatland, but Henry overcame key injuries and huge national expectations to get the All Blacks over the finishing line. A coaching great.

So what do you think? Were New Zealand worthy winners? Do you agree with the World Cup XV? Leave a comment and let us know your views.

Rugby World Cup Final Preview

By Laurie Fitzgerald

After 47 games of gruelling action fought over 45 days in the most passionate rugby nation on the planet, Sunday’s showpiece between New Zealand and France will decide who are crowned world champions.

The All Blacks go into the game as overwhelming favourites; not only does Graham Henry’s side have home advantage, but their smallest winning margin in the tournament was their 14-point victory over Australia in last weekend’s semi-finals.

That triumph against the Wallabies was based on having a cutting edge when required, control of the set pieces (especially in the pack) and outstanding leadership in their inspirational skipper Richie McCaw.

They take on a French side that have defied the odds – and logic – to earn a place in this weekend’s final at Eden Park. Marc Lievremont and his players have been at war with one another throughout the tournament.

Even after their hugely fortunate win over Wales, the coach launched a stinging attack on his squad, labelling them as ‘spoiled brats’ for ignoring his orders of going out and enjoying their achievement.

France have managed to get to this final without impresssing, yet you can never be sure of what team will turn up, and the All Blacks will be all too aware of what Les Bleus can produce when it matters, as shown in 1999 and 2007.

So we’re all set for a pulsating final, but there should be a last word on the two sides that will be contesting the curtain-raiser to that game in the third/fourth-place playoff.

Wales will be absolutely heartbroken after a controversial red card for Sam Warburton proved to be the main difference between them and France in their tight last four encounter.

Their 23 year-old captain – and my player of the tournament – was sent off following a dangerous tackle on winger Vincent Clerc.

It meant that Warren Gatland’s men had to play for almost an hour with 14 men, but they still looked the better, and with Stephen Jones and Leigh Halfpenny going agonisingly close with kicks at goal, the outcome could still have been different.

But this disappointment shouldnt detract from what has been an outstanding tournament, and seeing over 60,000 packing into Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in the early hours of Saturday morning showed just how proud the country are of their squad, and rightly so.

As for the Wallabies, they will ultimately look back on their loss to Ireland in the group stages that forced them down the tougher route to the final, and in the end the hosts were too big an obstacle to overcome.

Despite edging past South Africa in the quarters, Australia have never really got going in this tournament and Robbie Deans will be disappointed after going into the World Cup with momentum following their first Tri-Nations trophy in ten years.

While they can possibly console themselves with third place, all eyes are on Sunday and who will come out on top at Eden Park.

Semi-final results:

Saturday 15th October

France 9-8 Wales

Sunday 16th October

New Zealand 20-6 Australia

 

Key Facts

– This is the third final for both teams – New Zealand contested in 1987 and 1995, while France also played in 1987 and also 1999. Only the All Blacks triumph over the French in the inaugral tournament was the only win for either side.

– If France win, they will become the first team in RWC history to win the competition despite losing a game previously in the tournament.

– They have played each other three times in the knockout stages before, with New Zealand winning in ’87 and France winning in ’99 and ’07. However, New Zealand won their encounter earlier in the tournament, beating the French 37-17 in the Pool stages.

Key Battles

Richie McCaw v Thierry Dusatoir

Not only two world-class openside flankers, but also two world-class captains. Both men have had to show their leadership skills in different circumstances to guide their teams to the final.

While McCaw has had to deal with the potentially overwhelming pressure of a nation that view the trophy as a holy grail, Dusatoir has led a squad that has an irreparable relationship with their management.

So both should be hugely commended for their efforts so far, and their battle at 7 will go a long way to deciding who runs out winners.

Aaron Cruden v Morgan Parra

For these two men, anchoring your team from fly-half in the biggest game of your life is pressure enough. But when neither has had much experience in that position in International rugby, the thought of Sunday’s game may be frightening!

Both are 22, but both have stepped into the role either through injuries or a lack of belief in the previous incumbent in that position.

Cruden has enormous shoes to fill in Dan Carter, and the unfortunate Colin Slade lost his chance through injury, but the Canterbury Crusaders star has shown great maturity in his two matches.

Meanwhile, Parra has become a regular in the half-backs this tournament, but not in his accustomed position at scrum-half with the estranged Lievremont dropping regular 10 Francois Trinh-Duc.

Lievremont may plump for Trinh-Duc in such a big game, but all signs point to Parra maintaining his role and being the main playmaker of the team.

Therefore, there will be much emphasis on the respective number nines of Piri Weepu and Dimitri Yachvili to help guide their outside halves, and whoever deals with the pressure the best could be the inspiration for World Cup glory.  

Brad Thorn v Lionel Nallet

Set-pieces will be crucial throughout the battle between the two sides, and the lineout will be contested by two men that have been a towering presence for both nations.

It’s difficult to think of a better second-rower in the tournament than the irrepressible Thorn; despite being just a few months away from turning 37, the Crusaders lock has been immense throughout the tournament, bossing the lineout battle alongside the excellent Sam Whitelock.

The duo come up against their French counterparts of Lionel Nallet and Pascal Pape, and both have struggled for consistency in the tournament.

Nallet will be seen as the main figure to get the lineout functioning, especially in an area where France have found it tough to get good ball.

It will be up to the likes of Thorn and Nallet to get that delivery to the backs, demonstrate their ball-carrying skills and use their imposing figures to carry their teams forward.

However, whoever comes out with the majority of possession can give the platform to build pressure and points, and every point cannot be measured in a game of such magnitude.

Prediction

They are the best team in the world, and I feel they will confirm that status by lifting the Webb Ellis trophy on Sunday. The All Blacks to win by 15.

So what do you think? Who will win the final? Will the All Blacks end their long wait for the World Cup? Or will France stun New Zealand again to win the trophy for the first time? Leave a comment and let us know your views.

By Laurie Fitzgerald

So we now have our last four line-up, and what the quarter-final results demonstrated was that winning your Pool doesn’t matter if you cannot win when it matters.

Three of the Pool winners crashed out of the competition last weekend, with only the hosts New Zealand backing up their 100% record in the knockout stages.

Even that success came at a scare for the All Blacks, who had to come from behind against a wonderfully resilient Argentina to book their semi-final place.

They now face Australia, who produced a stunning defensive display against South Africa to edge a tense encounter in Wellington.

The Springboks will be wondering how the defence of their title has come to an abrupt end after dominating territory and possession against a battle-hardened Wallabies side.

But a lack of cutting edge when it matters has proved costly, and the likes of coach Peter de Villiers and captain John Smit will make way for a new era in South African rugby.

As for the home nations, it was a mixture of the good, the bad and the downright embarrassing in the other quarter-finals.

Wales clinched their first RWC semi-final appearance since 1987 when they overcame Ireland 22-10 in the first of the last-eight encounters.

For Declan Kidney’s Irish side, they will feel that they blew a golden opportunity to get to the final as they looked the strongest of the quartet on their side of the draw.

But like South Africa, the lack of a clinical attacking product in the face of a superb Welsh defence, combined with some weak defending, meant that Ireland’s hopes of a first semi-final must now wait at least for another four years.

In the other match, England rounded off a hugely disappointing campaign both on and off the field with a 19-12 loss to a revitalised France.

The French ran into a 16-0 lead at the break and despite an English resurgence in the second half it was too little, too late.

There was still time before the players went home for them to draw even more negative headlines, as Manu Tuilagi was detained by the police for jumping off a ferry 24 hours after the defeat in Auckland.

Now a review will be launched by the RFU to find out how a campaign that promised much for England turned into a disaster, and Martin Johnson will have a lot of convincing to do in English Rugby’s headquarters to get his neck off the chopping block.

An evident lack of discipline has fallen foul of the squad and Johnson will be held accountable for this. If Johnson is to maintain his job as England team manager, he needs to toe the line more with the players in future, as their conduct in New Zealand has been unacceptable.

After the furore of the quarters, we now focus on the semi’s, and just who will make it to world rugby’s showpiece event a week on Sunday.

Quarter-Final results

Saturday 8th October

Ireland 10-22 Wales

England 12-19 France

Sunday 9th October

South Africa 9-11 Australia

New Zealand 33-10 Argentina 

 

France v Wales

Having both reached the latter stages in the inaugral tournament in New Zealand 24 years ago, France and Wales are once again in contention for a place in the final.

After a campaign that has seen enigmatic coach Marc Lievremont seemingly isolate his players with some stinging criticism of in-fighting and an atmosphere that resembled their football counterparts in last year’s World Cup in South Africa, the French are just one win away from their third final.

The French finally showed the passion and hunger that had been lacking in the pool stages, and their win over England was built on a ferocious defence and a dominant pack.

If the likes of Jean-Baptiste Poux, Nicolas Mas and Fabien Barcella front up the way they did at Eden Park, then the French forwards will be a match for anyone else left in the tournament.

While many figures have been questioned, there can be no dispute that they have an inspirational skipper in Thierry Dusautoir, and along with Imanol Harinordoquy there is a wonderful blend of class and experience in the back-row.

In the backs, they have two of the best finishers in the game; If the duo of Maxime Medard and Vincent Clerc get the chances, they will take them, and the Welsh will have to defend at the same level they did in their win against Ireland.

However, out of the four teams left in the tournament, it is Wales that have shown the best form and if they play to their current standard shown, then a place in the final awaits them.

Throughout the build-up to the tournament, so much was made of the fitness of Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins, with Warren Gatland deciding to take the risk of including them despite lacking match-sharpness.

Gatland’s gamble has paid off; Jenkins and Jones are two of the best scrummagers in the game and give Wales a completely different platform for the rest of the team to build on.

They have also had the oustanding back-row of the world cup. The trio of Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau will provide the spine of this Welsh team for many years to come.

Personally, there has been no better player in the tournament than Warburton. He does the hard graft brilliantly, always seems to get through the gain line and despite having just turned 23, his tender years do not justify the brilliant leadership he has shown as captain.

Another example of how well this team has played comes in the form of James Hook on the bench. His exclusion from the starting XV against Ireland showed that Gatland doesn’t want to mess with his winning formula.

Rhys Priestland has arguably been the best fly-half at this world cup, and with the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, George North and the irreplaceable Shane Williams in their back three, there’s no room for Hook, whose versatility has come back to haunt him at the worst possible time.

Another reason for Welsh belief is that whenever the French have produced big performances at the RWC, they follow it up by not turning up for the next game.

When they stunned the All Blacks in 1999, they were outclassed by Australia in the final. When they hammered Ireland in 2003 they were bludgeoned in the rain by the English. They stunned New Zealand again four years ago, but looked like rabbits in headlights against England in the semi in front of a partisan crowd.

I have a feeling that if Wales maintain their current form, then they will have too much for France and make it to their first ever World Cup final.

 

New Zealand v Australia

Of the two semi-finals, it is safe to say that whoever wins this one will be heavy favourites to win the Webb Ellis trophy a week later.

This was many people’s tip to be the final itself (myself included) but after Australia’s loss to Ireland in the pool stages, the course of the knockout stages was dramatically altered.

It means that the two best teams in the world face each other to decide who gets a chance to win it instead of settling the destination of the cup against one another.

For New Zealand, much of the focus has been on the absence of Dan Carter, and they were dealt another blow when his replacement Colin Slade sustained a torn groin that rules him out for the rest of th campaign.

Graham Henry has called up Bath-bound Stephen Donald as Slade’s replacement in his squad, but the responsibility of the no. 10 jersey is set to fall on the shoulders of 22 year-old Aaron Cruden, who impressed after coming on for the injured Slade.

The All Blacks showed more guile and a cutting edge with Cruden in the side, and he can really come of age in the next few weeks and lead the hosts to glory.

Without Carter though, there is even more focus on the brilliant Richie McCaw to lead his troops over the finishing line, but after a straightforward route to the semis, they face a different class of opposition in the Wallabies.

Robbie Deans’ side have been unconvincing so far, but they have done what they needed to get this far having redeemed their pool stage slip-up by beating the other Tri-Nations heavyweight in South Africa.

Australia will know they rode their luck for long periods in that match, but they showed something that has been lacking in the past – grit and determination to get through close matches when it really matters.

It is set to be a more open game than against the Springboks, and if that’s the case then it can work in Wallabies’ favour, as they currently have the best backline in the game.

It’s no coincidence that this Australian team have found their winning mentality since the return of David Pocock. The openside flanker is at the heartbeat of everything good produced by the Australians, and he will once again be critical up against McCaw.

But the battle of the unpredictable Quade Cooper and Cruden at fly-half could be the difference between the Southern Hemisphere giants, and with home advantage I’m tipping New Zealand to edge a tight match and leave them one win away from ending their 24-year World Cup hoodoo.

So what do you think? Who will make it to the 2011 Rugby World Cup final? Leave a comment and let us know your views.

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