Saturday, December 26, 2015

Biggar's Backup

Despite the anger of Welsh football fans who took to social media last Monday (if only they had taken to the telephones with the same enthusiasm), Mr Daniel Biggar was indeed a worthy winner Welsh Sports Personality of the Year. 

In recent years Biggar has shaken off any doubts about his suitability for international rugby to become a sure starter for Wales and a lynchpin in the team. He has grown and matured to earn a kind of stability in his position that is almost unique; arguably, only Ospreys teammate Alun Wyn Jones as the same kind of hold on his red jersey.

However, modern rugby is longer a fifteen man sport. Often the difference between victory in defeat is the eight men waiting on the bench. Now with Rhys Priestland's sabbatical - a conspiracy theory of which is another conversation for another time - the role of Dan Biggar's replacement is far from as certain.

Gareth Anscombe is a likely candidate for the Six Nations, as something of a pet project for Warren Gatland.  Meanwhile, Anscombe's Blues teammate Rhys Patchell has impressed at times, but the regions' inconsistency in his selection has slightly hampered his development. A move to the Scarlets - with a regular 10 spot and a firing back division - could seriously boost his international ambitions, but that isn’t happening until next season.

Across the border James Hook and Matthew Morgan continue to impress for Gloucester and Bristol respectively. However, international rugby is a different beast; in a world where one mistake can cost you everything, flair and cavalier attitudes seldom overcome the solid and consistent. 

There is though, one man who has shown the consistent AND the verve in the past twelve months. Whilst Dan Biggar has been making the legendary Wales 10 jersey his own, his Ospreys jersey has been kept warm by a talent whose rise could be as meteoric.

In Biggar's absence, Sam Davies has been majestic. Though the Ospreys may have struggled without their big names during the World Cup period, Davies rose to the challenge with a maturity and consistency beyond his 22 years. He has been solid and dependable, but remained creative.

Davies’ rise to prominence will come as a shock to nobody aware of his pedigree. The son of former Wales centre and coach Nigel Davies, who carved out his career at Llanelli, Sam has become a firm favourite with fans at their rivals Swansea RFC and the Ospreys. 

It was his performances in the red of Wales that really caught the eye, however. As the Wales Under 20s team marched to the Junior World Cup final in 2013, Davies was integral to the team. His performance in France earned him the IRB Junior Player of the Year award and plaudits from around the globe.

However, all too often we have seen potential unfulfilled and talent wasted. Young players often find the step up, a step too far; Davies has taken it in his stride. It’s too soon for the inevitable bombastic comparisons from some of the media - “The next Neil Jenkins/Dan Carter/Barry John” – but Davies is certainly good enough to do for his country what he has for his region and offer cover for Dan Biggar. His laser left boot and 

Davies did look uncomfortable against Bordeaux, switched to the unfamiliar outside centre channel more suited to his father. However, when given the 10 berth, Davies has given the Ospreys a creative spark not previously aggregated with the region. There can be no better example than the torrid Welsh derby against the Blues. Davies replaced Biggar at half time to open up the game and turn the dreadful into the entertaining. Despite only playing one half, Davies was awarded Man of the Match… and nobody could argue with the decision.

So, come the first Sunday in February, should Wales be chasing the game against Ireland and in need of a little inspiration, Davies is the man I would want on my bench.

The Killers - When You Were Young

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

England v Wales

On Saturday afternoon, Springboks flanker Schalk Burger made the most remarkable comeback in rugby history. In 2013, Burger was in hospital suffering from bacterial meningitis; so bad was the illness, Burger’s family were called to say their goodbyes. Just two years later the Stormers man touched down for a Springboks try against Samoa.
Wales’ comeback the same day will surely feature highly upon that list of great rugby comebacks; alongside the French defeat of the All Blacks at Twickenham in ’99 and Munster’s Miracle Match victory against Gloucester.
Wales already had their credentials tested before a ball was kicked. Injuries befell Welsh players like Spinal Tap drummers. But, with every injury Wales pulled harder, bound tighter, believed more; any more injuries and they'll win the World Cup.
Not that you would have believed it at quarter to nine GMT on Saturday. After the players had trudged off at half time, it was very much the England in the ascendancy. Their scrum rumbled unrelenting, with Jerome Garces penalising the Welsh front row so often the blood must have run from his left arm.
And while the scrum marched Wales back, Ben Youngs ran England forward. Each time the old rivals meet, the scrum half rises to the occasion; on the previous two meetings he was a man of the match contender. When he set Jonny May away to cross down the left wing, it was clear this game would be no different.
At 10 points down and with a creaking scrum, Wales looked down if not yet out.  Not helped by losing Scott Williams to a Brad Barritt tackle, then Liam Williams and Hallam Amos together in one passage of play. Wales went to Twickenham on a coach, but could have brought fit players back on a minibus.
The back division was patched up like a second hand lilo, with a winger at centre, fly half at fullback and a scrumhalf on the wing. However, this is Gatland's Wales and adversity is just fuel for fire in the belly. What was to follow would make a Hollywood film franchise look understated; on this occasion Dan Biggar would take the leading role.
Faultless goal kicking and exemplary under the high ball; Biggar provided everything people feared had been cruelly snatched away, along with Leigh Halfpenny. But those who have watched Biggar knew, they had seen the commanding performances he had put in for region and country.
As the pressure grew, so did Toby Faletau. By the time Jerome Garces blew his whistle for full time, Faletau's stature was positively colossal. England’s advertising campaign in the build up to tournament features some of their biggest names as giants wandering the streets; On Saturday it was Faletau who stood head and shoulders above his opponents.
The whole squad dug deep. Forget the old sporting adage of digging the well; Wales could have excavated the whole of South London with the effort they put in. England meanwhile became ill disciplined, giving away penalties cheaply.
Wales needed a moment of magic if they were to take anything from the game and Lloyd Williams can expect an invitation from the secret circle, such was his conjuring trick with just minutes remaining.
Brynmor's boy did well enough with a break down the left wing, however, it was the deft kick which split the defence in a manner that would have done Gareth Bale proud. That allowed Gareth Davies to race on to the ball and score under the sticks. 
Biggar added the conversion to draw Wales level, before punishing further English indiscretions to put Wales into a slender lead.
England hit back immediately to try and get over the Welsh line and earned themselves a penalty on the 20 metre line. However, England shunned the chance to level the scores instead deciding to go for the corner and glory. Brave? Stupid? The English press have certainly had their say on the decision.
England failed where Japan succeeded seven days before. There would be no late winning try, the heroics would belong solely to Wales as they dismantled England rolling maul to drive it into touch. 
Driven on by the thin air of Switzerland, the sweltering heat of Doha and the gigantic freezers of Hensol at 3am; Wales battled until the final second when the final say was fittingly had by Dan Biggar, who hoofed the ball into a deflated Twickenham crowd.
It leaves England teetering on the brink of crashing out of their own World Cup, as questions linger around Stuart Lancaster and his captain Chris Robshaw.
For Wales, it's Fiji up next and victory would be a big leap towards qualification. However that task has been made all that more difficult with less than five days between games and an injury list now stretching into double figures.
But there’s no time for either team to dwell, this is the world stage and the show must go on.
Queen - The Show Must Go On

Saturday, September 26, 2015

England v Wales Preview

With one game a piece gone at the World Cup England and Wales meet at Twickenham on Saturday in the Pool of Death. The winners will sleep a little easier this weekend with the losers knowing anything less then victory against Australia would all bar end their participation.

Here’s the low down on everything you need to know as they prepare to do battle.

Very similar form from the two sides in the build up to this one. Both ended the Six Nations with four victories from five games – along with Ireland – to take the tournament to the wire in the history “Super Saturday.”

They then entered the warm matches with one win and one defeat – Wales’ against Ireland and England’s against France – before rounding off with victories in their final games.

The World Cup has started wins for both, but big score lines have masked mediocre performances.

Wales fans look away now. The Welsh list of ailments looks like the most far fetched episode of Holby City to date. Centre Jonathan Davies – the man who took Brian O’Driscoll’s Lions jersey – was ruled out some months ago. Then in the final warm up game, the world’s deadliest kicker Leigh Halfpenny was ruled just minutes after Player of the Year Rhys Webb.

Then in the first game Cory Allen scored a hat trick before limping off with a thigh injury. Samson Lee, Paul James and Aaron Jarvis from the front row left with question marks hanging over their head; whilst explosive fullback Liam Williams has a dead leg that needs assessing (it’s not like when we were in school).

For England, Jonathan Joseph and Ben Morgan will face a late fitness test. However, with big Billy Vunipola on form and rumours abounding that Slammin' Sam Burgess was due to start anyway to nullify Jamie Roberts, they may not feel the hit too much.

They will feel the pinch on players missing through ill discipline though. Manu Tuilagi's incident with two police officers and Dylan Hartley's Glasgow Kiss on Jamie George could be costly.

The Set Piece
England's perceived weakness. Their own scrums had just a 63% percent return against Fiji and none came against the head. Meanwhile, the line out has been far from impressive - though Geoff Parling's involvement will help that.

Wales aren't traditionally a team that relies on it's set piece, but in recent months their rolling maul has become one of their most potent weapons.

England have become masters of the cross field kick; though George Ford is usually the lynchpin and he finds himself, surprisingly discarded. Farrell is no mug when it comes to kicking out of hand though and, with Anthony Watson playing like an NFL wide receiver, England may still employ the tactic.

If they do England would have wished for Alex Cuthbert to occupy the 14 jersey as his ability under the kick is hardly the best in the world. It isn't George North's strongest attribute either, but Hallam Amos is adept at fullback and shouldn't have too much trouble.

Beware any team that dates kick loose though. Both sets of back threes are strong runners and, in particular, both fullbacks are clinical counter attacks who will eat up ground as Mike Brown as already shown in this tournament.

All the media will focus on Burgess v Roberts. Two juggernauts ready collide in a battle for the gain line. Everyone knows what to expect from Dr Roberts, but Slammin' Sam is a relative noob to the 15 man code.

From his league days we know Burgess is a strong runner with a hit that could derail a train (you don't get that nickname for nothing). There are plenty of questions over some parts of his game, especially his positioning. However, there can be no doubt that Burgess was a catalyst in England's strong finish against Fiji and will hope to carry that into the Wales game.

However, attention could shift to the man on Roberts outside come game time. With Burgess enjoying an offload or two and running straight lines, Scott Williams may fancy the odd steal. Williams has previous for the rip tackle - just ask Courtney Lawes - and this may be something that Burgess hasn't truly come across yet.

Often in modern rugby, the ruck is king; win the ruck, win the game. It's not just the basis for possession, the turnover is the biggest source of tries. Four years ago Sam Warburton set the World Cup alight by producing more turnovers than an overworked baker; while Gethin Jenkins and Alun Wyn Jones are more than capable in this area too.

England don't have a breakdown specialist, but as a unit they can compete with the world's best. Chris Robshaw is better than most would suggest but isn't in the same talents for the jackal as the opensides for other top tier nations.

Wales will feel confident. And if Warburton can't do the job alone, Justin Tipuric will be chomping at the bit on the sidelines.

Home Advantage
Twickenham, Twickers, HQ. To some it's all bankers on corporates, inherited quiffs and picnics in Range Rovers. Don't expect anything less than a cauldron of noise this weekend.

If England play well, the fans will become the sixteenth man to "carry them home" on a booming chorus of 'Swing Low.' However, that could also boost Wales; the best players find a way of turning that negativity into fuel for victory.

The game is so close in so many facets that we may look back and see the difference between victory and defeat was one; One score, one error, one moment of magic, one missed tackle, one big push... One team victorious. Won!

U2 - One

Thursday, September 17, 2015

World Cup Pools Preview

Find our World Cup previews here. Click on which pool to wish to view.

Pool A  -  Pool B  -  Pool C  -  Pool D

Pool A: Preview

The Group of Death has never been more fitting than with Pool A. Three out of the World's Top 5 teams appear alongside Fiji who are ranked 9th. 

It's a lottery as to which two of the big three will qualify. A top two finish is probably beyond Fiji, but taking a scalp certainly isn't. Uruguay, meanwhile, will do well be fortunate to pick up a single point.
Australia, England and Wales have the ability to lift the title on October 31st... Or to crash out at the pool stages.

Coach:                  Stuart Lancaster
Captain:                Chris Robshaw
Most Valuable Player: Without Dylan Hartley England's set piece has struggled. However, the return of Geoff Parling has at least restored their lineout prowess. Add his incredible work rate and guile and Parling will be a vital cog in the boiler house.
Most Exciting: Whilst Johnny May and Mike Brown are electrifying runners, George Ford has all the ability and flair to make England play exciting attack rugby.
Coach:                  Michael Cheika
Captain:                Michael Hooper
Most Valuable Player: The Australian's are blessed in the openside department with two of the world's best. Captain Michael Hooper has been favoured, but recently David Pocock has returned to the team alongside him and has again proven his class as a player and person.
Most Exciting: One of the best strike runners in the competition, Israel Folau will punish any loose kicks or sloppy defences. His past in Aussie rules football has given him the edge under the high ball and he has international caps in rugby league.
Coach:                  Warren Gatland
Captain:                Sam Warburton
Most Valuable Player:  In Pool A the battle at the breakdown and the set pieces will be vital. In Alun Wyn Jones, Wales have a master of both. A strong line out jumper, a battler at the ruck and a leader of men; Jones will be vital.
Most Exciting: Whilst some of the nation fell into mourning with the injury of Leigh Halfpenny, the rest remembered that Liam Williams was waiting in the wings. A counter attacker of the highest order, Williams will be chomping at the bit to test himself against the likes of Brown and Folau.
Coach:                  John McKee
Captain:                Akapusi Qera
Most Valuable Player: It's easy to say Nemani Nadolo is a player to keep your eye on, but at 6'5" and 19 stone 12, he is pretty difficult to miss on the wing. Don't let his size deceive you though, this lad can shift. He has 15 tries to his names in just 20 caps. Oh, and he's not adverse to place kicking either.
Most Exciting: A scrum half with pace to burn and energy by the buckets, Nikola Matawalu has terrified Pro 12 defences scoring 9 tries in his first season at Glasgow. He'll be at Bath on his return from World Cup duty.
Coach:                  Pablo Lemoine
Captain:                Santiago Vilaseca
Most Valuable Player: Uruguay's powerful pack have created plenty of penalties and fly half Felipe Berchesi is adept at dispatching them. His kicking is a huge part of why they have qualified.
Most Exciting: Agustin Ormaechea is a scrum half with the ability to snipe around the fringes and an eye for the try line. He is also the son of Diego Ormaechea, Uruguay's greatest player and the oldest man to feature at the World Cup.

Pool B: Preview

Two time champions South Africa will enter as the pool favourites despite a poor showing at the Rugby Championship.  Samoa aren't to be underestimated though -  they pushed the All Blacks close two months - and could push the Springboks and Scotland very hard for a top two spot.
Scotland haven't been playing to their full potential and not everyone agrees with Vern Cotter's selection. However, they finished off in a good fashion with a narrow, gutsy defeat to France.
Also, in the pool, Japan are no longer the whipping boys they once were. "The Brave Blossoms" continually improve and will target at least two wins in the pool. Whilst the USA Eagles have plenty of stars in their squad but lack experience in some key areas.

South Africa
Coach:                  Heyneke Meyer
Captain:                Jean de Villiers 
Most Valuable Player:   Number 8 Duane Vermeulen was a contender for player of the year and hits like truck. However, Eben Eztebeth is a second row in the same mould as Bakkies Botha and the Springboks have the ability to devastate teams with their set piece.
Most Exciting: Willie Le Roux is amongst the new breed of exciting fullbacks with an eye for the try line, but Jesse Kriel has impressed in a limited appearances for South Africa. If he plays, he could be the star of the tournament.
Coach:                  Vern Cotter
Captain:                Greg Laidlaw
Most Valuable Player: Richie's little brother Jonny Gray has burst onto the international scenes with some very impressive performances; not only running the line out, but running his heart out on the field.
Most Exciting: Finn Russell can create from 10 and Stuart Hogg sometimes from nowhere. However, it is centre Mark Bennett that has given the Scottish attack a potency it lacked for too long.
Coach:                  Stephen Betham
Captain:                Ofisa Treviranus
Most Valuable Player: Northampton's former Osprey Kahn Fotuali’i does a good job of marshalling his team and is a enough danger to defences to keep opposition flankers on their toes. 
Most Exciting: incredible pace and hands softer than mild, green Fairy Liquid could ever take credit for, Northampton fans will already know what to expect from Ken Pisi.
Coach:                  Eddie Jones
Captain:                Michael Leitch
Most Valuable Player: Captain Michael Leitch was Japan's best player last time out and is likely to be again. He played 13 matches for the Chiefs last season and was voted Rookie of the Year by his peers... High praise indeed.
Most Exciting: His collision with Elliott Dixon and his line busting run to set up a try against Georgia has already made Amanaki Lelei Mafi an internet icon. He is now fully fit after injury, so opposition defence beware.
Coach:                  Mike Tolkin
Captain:                Chris Wyles
Most Valuable Player: Big, strong, aggressive and surprisingly quick, Samu Manoa's ball carrying will be invaluable to USA's campaign. And, though he may be American, this isn't NFL and attack and defence are expected from all. Luckily, Manoa's tackles are bone crunching.
Most Exciting: A man who already wrote himself into World Cup folklore when he stood up and Bryan Habana to score an incredible try in 2007, Takudzwa "Zee" Ngwenya will meet the Springboks' flyer again this time around.

Pool D: Preview

The cliche surrounding the dual personality France is one of the truest in rugby. Capable of beating anyone on their day, they can also look incredibly incompetent at times. World Cup moments swing between fantastic wins against the All Blacks and a defeat against Tonga. However, they are perpetually contenders for the Webb Ellis Cup and only a fool would write them off this time.
Expect a straight shoot out between them and Ireland for the top spot with whoever finishes second likely to have to play New Zealand in the quarters. Ireland have won back to back Six Nations championships but lost their last two games to England and Wales.
Italy will believe they could have a say in this pool and if they play to the beat of their ability they may do. Canada and Romania are unlikely to have any such impact as Canada's struggling scrum and Romania's lack of quality will leave them battling it out for fourth place.
Coach:                  Joe Schmidt
Captain:                Paul O’Connell
Most Valuable Player:  Ireland will pray they can keep Johnny Sexton fit if they are to compete as we know they can. Sexton control and understanding of the game is among the best in the world and he will be vital to the Irish cause.
Most Exciting: Irish winger Tommy Bowe as far from his usually faultless self against England. Expect this to drive him on during the tournament and tries to not be far behind.
Coach:                  Phillipe Saint-Andre
Captain:                Thierry Dusatoir
Most Valuable Player:   Captain Thierry Dusatoir is the kind of player coaches dream of. Equally as happy doing the donkey work as he is running with thoroughbreds. He set a world record in 2007 with the 38 tackles a made against the All Blacks; a game he also scored s try in. He was also man of the match in the final 4 years ago.
Most Exciting: Clermont centre Wesley Fofana has become a favourite for many rugby fans even if he is lacking a little a little form. If Fofana can find his touch again, he is able to produce the kind of magic that would impress Penn and Teller.
Coach:                  Jacques Brunel
Captain:                Sergio Parisse
Most Valuable Player: When Sergio Parisse plays for Italy, it is akin to Bugs Bunny playing baseball. Parisse covers every blade of grass and has more influence than anyone on the pitch. The Italians will be praying he is fit.
Most Exciting: If given ball in space, Michele Campagnaro has the ability to be devastating. He's also a solid defender which Italy may need.
Coach:                  Kieran Crowley
Captain:                Tyler Ardron
Most Valuable Player: If Jamie Cudmore is not the most valuable, then certainly the toughest. His tangle with Paul O'Connell is infamous.
Most Exciting: The pace of DTH van der Merwe could cause defences a few problems and he seems to have a knack of being on the right place and the right time.
Coach:                  Lynn Howells
Captain:                Mihai Macovei
Most Valuable Player: Big running backrow Ovidiu Tonita is at his fifth World Cup and will be expected to lead from the front for the Mighty Oaks.
Most Exciting: Still a teenager when he earned his first cap, Catalin Fercu was the nation's top try scorer by 26. Fercu would likely have been an household name were it not for his fear of flying. If Romania can get the ball to him, he can do damage.

Pool C: Preview

The only worry for New Zealand is still being a little soft by the time they hit the knockout stages. Still the world's best, only Argentina should present something close to a challenge for the All Blacks and that is only likely to end one way.
Argentina-Georgia should present an intriguing forward battle, but Los Pumas have a little too much class for Georgia. Tonga will hope to build on the 2011 World Cup where they beat Japan and eventual finalists France.
Namibia look unlikely to break their World Cup duck this year.
New Zealand
Coach:                  Steve Hansen
Captain:                Richie McCaw
Most Valuable Player: There isn't really any weaknesses in the All Blacks team and by that token it's difficult to pick a best player too. However, Brodie Retallick was World Rugby Player of the Year last year and with his work rate, skill and size it is hard to argue with.
Most Exciting: Whilst there can be no doubt the try scoring record of Julian "The Bus" Savea, Nehe Milner-Skudder is a joy to watch dancing is way to the try line with moves better than 'Footloose.'
Coach:                  Daniel Hourcade
Captain:                Augustin Creevy
Most Valuable Player: Argentina's set piece is at the heart of all they do and Augustin Creevy is at the heart of the set piece. However, Creevy is also as good in open play as any forward at the tournament.
Most Exciting: Winger Juan Imhoff offers class behind the pack and should just how good he has become by grabbing three tries against the Springboks.
Coach:                  Milton Haig
Captain:                Levan Datunaahvilli
Most Valuable Player: Mamuka Gorgodze - the man they nicknamed Gorgodzilla - is Georgia's talisman. Coach Milton Haig said of the Toulon forward, "when he plays well, we play well."
Most Exciting: Centre Merab Sharikadze is a former player for Hartpury College now plying is trade in France. A fine prospect who will get is chance to grow his already burgeoning reputation.
Coach:                  Mana 'Otai
Captain:                Nili Latu
Most Valuable Player: Newcastle Falcons' Sonatane Takulua is a nippy scrum half with a history at Auckland Blues and with Tonga's 7s team. If he can get the backs working they could get two wins and possibly challenge Argentina.
Most Exciting: Explosive winger Fetu'u Vainikolo's will hope to add to the two World Cup tries he scored in 2011. He has played for Highlanders, Connacht and Exeter and heads to France after the World Cup.
Coach:                  Phil Davies
Captain:                Jacques Burger
Most Valuable Player:  Saracens backrow Jacques Burger plays like a man with three lungs and an extra pair of legs. I was voted among the best players of 2011 despite having injections to his injured knees.
Most Exciting: Keep an eye on Chrysander Botha. Performances in the Currie Cup and Super Rugby attracted Exeter's eye, but a leg break as stalled his career at Sandy Park.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Rugby World Cup: 1995

The 1995 World Cup would be one of firsts. It was the first time the tournament was held in a single country, the first time South Africa were allowed to take part and the first major sporting event held in the country after the end of apartheid. 

There was also a last; it would be the last World Cup to be played in the amateur era with the IRFB allowing professionalism in the sport by the end of the year.

Again, eight of the sixteen teams taking part qualified by reaching the quarter finals four years previously. South Africa were afforded the ninth place as a result of being hosts for the competition. The remaining seven places were decided by way of regional qualifiers with one from each of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas progressing and three teams from Europe – including Wales who had failed to reach the quarter finals in 1991.
Oasis - Roll With It

Mandela, The Springboks and the Rainbow Nation
Though apartheid had officially ended in South Africa, it’s problems were far from over. After Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, many of the nation’s blacks wanted retribution. Mandela was lobbied for the right to bear arms and the nation was on the brink of civil war. Mandela continued to preach tolerance, despite his 27 years in incarceration; he was proving to be far from the evil and violent man the newspapers had portrayed.

With the Rugby World Cup due to land on South African shores, Mandela decided on his biggest attempt at uniting the nation. The Springboks were a sign of South African white privilege. The non-whites in the country had grown to despise all that they represented; British Lions players who toured the country in 1974 recall how the South African blacks in the stadium supported them in their battle with the ferocious Springboks. However, Mandela planned to bridge the gap between races and cultures using the Springboks as the foundations.

South African captain Francois Pienaar said Mandela’s name was linked, almost umbilically, with phrases like “bad man” or “terrorist” whilst he was growing up. However, when Pienaar reached college he began to challenge this notion, rejecting the conventional ideas of the white Afrikaners and opening as his eyes to the wider picture. Before the World Cup Mandela asked Pienaar to meet him to discuss his plans and the vital role the Springboks would play. This would be the first meeting in an incredible friendship.

First up the host would take on the World Champions in the tournament’s curtain raiser. Australia had gone 12 months without defeat and many of the players who had been victorious four years previous remained. Few fancied the chances of the Springboks, even on home turf. However, an inspired Joel Stransky performance saw the fly half score 22 points in a 27-18 victory over The Wallabies and set them on their way.

Victories against Romania, Canada and Western Samoa followed as the Springboks began to hit their stride. With France waiting in the semi final, it appeared the Gods had conspired to stop South Africa’s charge. Rain came in biblical proportions at Durban and water pooled on the pitch. Welsh referee Derek Bevan stood in a field of mud so bad that even Glastonbury festival goers would have been put off. Things didn’t look good and news filtered through that, if the game was cancelled, the Springboks’ dream was over – on account of France’s superior disciplinary record. 

Lightening cracked and thunder rumbled as union officials gathered on the pitch. The match was delayed for an hour and just when all seemed lost, old women in head scarves, brandishing brooms appeared. With much determination and buckets of elbow grease, they cleared the surface of water and the game began. South Africa won the game 19-15 and set up a final with the fearsome All Blacks and their newly famous prodigy.
Ocean Colour Scene - Riverboat Song
At just 20 years of age Jonah Lomu entered the World Cup as a relative unknown. His two previous appearances had come against France; when neither he nor the All Blacks had performed, as Les Bleus twice claimed scalps. 

Before the tournament began the 16 squads gathered at an event on top of Table Mountain. Welsh lock Derwyn Jones pointed out a giant All Black to his team mates saying, "I'm not looking forward to facing that second row." That 'second row' turned out to be Mr Lomu himself.
If people didn't know who Lomu was, they would quickly find out. His World Cup started with a bang against Ireland in Johannesburg. Lomu bagged two tries in a 34-9 demolition of the Irish. Lomu would struggle against Wales and be rested for the Japan game, before grabbing his third try of the tournament against Scotland. Next up was England in the semi finals and what came next, changed the winger's life - and the sport - forever.

England for their part had played well. Wins against Italy and Argentina were followed by a convincing victory against Western Samoa to top their pool. However, it was a tense victory against The Wallabies that really boosted their confidence and belief that they could beat the All Blacks. After 20 minutes it was clear there task would be huge. Tony Underwood, Will Carling, Mike Catt and Rob Andrews were made to look like school boys playing senior rugby as the giant Lomu run around and through players, barely breaking stride. Such was New Zealand's dominance, even number 8 Zinzan Brooke kicked a drop goal. Lomu would bag another three tries before the final whistle sounded and write himself into history as he decimated England. 
Lomu would become the sport’s biggest ever star. For the first time in rugby's history Lomu appeared to capture the imagination of the whole world. Sponsorship deals, NFL offers and video games followed and a rugby superstar was born. It would be eight years before the details of Lomu's energy sapping nephrotic syndrome would be revealed and many would ponder just how strong the man could have been.
For the second time in three tournaments, the All Blacks would play in the final.
Presidents of the USA - Lump
The Final
The 1995 final is one that has fallen into the realm of mythology. Rumours abound of the All Blacks struggling with food poisoning and conspiracy theories surrounded a hotel waitress named Suzie. The All Blacks and Mr Lomu wouldn’t be at their best and fingers pointed at dickie tummies and dodgy dinners.

Before the game the weight of a nation weighed on the shoulders of the Springboks. In the changing room, captain Francois Pienaar readied his troops when a knock on the door was followed by the appearance of Nelson Mandela. Mandela wore the green jersey of South Africa and there “on his heart” was the Springboks badge that had divided so many for so long. Pienaar moved to speak to the president but was moved to silence by the emotion of realising Mandela wore a number 6 on his back; Pienaar’s number 6.

In the crowd there was no such silence. An already excited South African support was further whipped up when a Boeing 747 flew over Ellis Park, almost within touching distance of stadium’s roof and with “Good luck, Bokke” written underneath.

The game itself was ferociously contested and the truth is it was to be a last ditch tackle on Lomu - by Joost van der Westhuizen that would deny the All Blacks - not any bout of listeria.

At the end of 80 minutes there was nothing to separate the teams and extra time would be needed. Tired aching bodies battled on; Francois Pienaar continued through a calf strain, pushing back the pain in search of glory and history. With time ticking away it was Stransky again who would become the hero; dropping a goal to seal a famous victory. South Africa had won the World Cup at the first time of asking.

Nelson Mandela presented the Webb Ellis Trophy to Pienaar, still wearing his Springboks jersey and hat. The rapturous crowd chanted his name – “Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son!” – despite over 60,000 of the 63,000 present being white. As he quietly thanked Pienaar for what he had “done for the country.” Pienaar fought back his emotions as he replied, “no, sir, thank you for what you have done for this country.”

People sang and danced and hugged and cried in the streets around South Africa, the pair stood together in the perfect metaphor for the nation. The blonde haired, white Afrikaner and the black president, together in triumph with the green of their jersey the only colour that mattered. The nation would never be the same again.
U2 - Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Rugby World Cup: 1991

After the success of the first World Cup, all roads led north with the Five Nations teams jointly hosting the event and England hosting the final at Twickenham.

Again, South Africa would miss out due to the sports boycott in response to apartheid in the country. However, this time the invitation process would be replaced by a qualification. The eight quarter finalists from the 1987 competition qualified automatically, but 25 teams had to fight it out for the remaining eight places.

Despite, the new qualification process there would be only one change from the teams that competed four years previously, as Western Samoa – who were controversially ignored in 1987 – qualified in place of Tonga. Once again Zimbabwe were the only African nation to appear.
Manic Street Preachers - You Love Us

Two Sides of the Pacific Islands
Western Samoa came into the World Cup with a point to prove after their snub four years previous, but they would have their work cut out. Their pool contained two semi finalists from the previous tournament – Wales and Australia – with all the games being played in Wales. 

Their task seemed a huge one when turned up at the National Stadium on the 6th October 1991, but the big tackling Samoans cared not for reputation nor expectations. 

Whilst at the time many had never heard of some of the boys in blue that day, many would go on to become some of the biggest names in rugby. Apollo Perelini, Brian Lima, Pat Lam, Stephen Bashop and, the mercurial, Frank Brunce all took to the field on a day they would never forget. 

The 16-13 Samoan victory effectively ended Wales’ World Cup before it began, as they dropped from the third placed nation in 1987 to third in their pool. Samoa would lose to Scotland in the quarter finals.

Meanwhile, Fiji had been the surprise package at the first World Cup and earned themselves automatic qualification. Things unravelled quickly for them, however. An opening defeat against Canada left them with a mountain to climb and a heavy defeat to France quickly followed. They would reach their low with a 17-15 defeat to Romania in Brive to head home early and winless.
Nirvana - Come As You Are

Gold and Green
Having lost to Wales in a third place playoff in ’87, Australia were in no mood to watch the Welsh repeat the score in the pool. The Wallabies ran in six tries in a in a 38-3 demolition of Wales in front of a packed National Stadium in Cardiff and set themselves up for a quarter final against Ireland in Dublin; the game would prove to be the best in the tournament and fine example of the spirit of the game. 

Before kick off nobody gave Ireland a chance. Many thought the Irish could put up a fight, but few thought they could win. However, with 5 minutes remaining Irish flanker Gordon Hamilton some how managed to outstrip Aussie flyer David Campese to cross for a try and – with the conversion that followed – give the Irish a three point lead. Lansdowne Road erupted into raptures, but they wouldn't be able to celebrate for long.

Almost instantly Australia were awarded a penalty, but Michael Lynagh was in no mood for extra time and shunned the three points in favour of a final assault on Ireland's line. A quick tap put the Wallabies on the front foot and inspired centres Jason Little and Tim Horan advanced Australia forward. The ball found it's way to Campese - the Australian already had five tries to his name in the tournament and was on a hat trick- but a last ditched Irish defence prevented a sixth. However, they couldn't stop Lynagh crossing to keep the Australian dream alive and break Irish hearts.
Metallica - Enter Sandman

Aussies Dream
After success against Ireland, Australia again found themselves on the brink of a final. This time, their biggest rivals would stand in their way. The All Blacks were favourites, but far from the invincible team they looked in '87. 

They had already lost to the Wallabies in Sydney earlier in the year before toiling to a 6-3 win in Auckland. John Hart had been brought in to work alongside Grizz Wyllie, with mixed results. The All Blacks started well with a win against the English hosts but laboured to victories against Italy and Canada. 

The All Blacks were four years old than when they lifted the Webb Ellis trophy and, for the most part, the looked it. Some legs looked tired and cohesion was missed. Though still a formidable team, this wasn’t the unstoppable machine we knew.

Australia meanwhile, were on the up. Playing an exciting, attacking brand of rugby - with Lynagh, Campese, Horan and Little at it’s heart – the Wallabies were winning fans outside of Australia. With the semi final taking place in Dublin, the Australians suddenly found themselves backed by the home crowd out of admiration of their performance at Lansdowne Road the round before.

The Wallabies eased into the final as their back division took charge. Their part in the 16-6 victory was highlighted by fantastic tries by Campese and Lynagh, while the All Blacks could only muster two penalties from the boot of Grant Fox.

England awaited in the final and though the game never really got going, Australia proved too strong. England - and the rest of the Nothern Hemisphere - would have to wait 12 years to extract revenge. The Wallabies had matched the achievements of the All Blacks and taken the World Cup back to the Southern Hemisphere with relative ease, but soon the Bledsoe teams would have a third southern hemisphere nation desperate for World Cup gold.
Queen - Show Must Go On