Sunday, September 30, 2007

Springboks Outmuscle The Eagles

Everything was going pretty much to form, with the Springboks able to score three converted tries and a penalty, until the 39th minute. Then Todd Clever made a lovely intercept from close to the Eagles' try line - it passed through Alec Parker and Mike Hercus [left] in midfield before finding the explosive legs of Takudzwa Ngwenya wide on the wing. He ran a one-on-one against Bryan Habana - and outstripped Habana convincingly, to cross for a fantastic try. Hercus converted and the scores stood at 24-10 at the break.

In the second half, and still smarting from being outrun earlier, Bryan Habana was the last man in the line as the ball passed through hands, and crossed over for the Springboks in the 42nd minute.

In the 51st minute, the Eagles turned territory into points when Chris Wyles [right] made it over the whitewash in the left corner. Just as play was getting going again, the two wingers Ngwenga and Habana clashed again - this time accidentally crashing heads as they tried to catch a high ball. Lots of blood in evidence, but they were both patched up OK. Once play was restarted, it wasn't long before Springbok Scrum Half Fourie du Preez spotted a gap and dotted down just to the left of the posts.

In the 58th minute, the Eagles made another great break upfield, but when the Springboks infringed, the US chose to kick for the corner for a pushover try. Unfortunately, South Africa stole the lineout and cleared with a massive kick towards the centre line. The Eagles lost the next lineout too, and the Boks gained more ground. South Africa were able to score another four converted tries, two for Centre Jaque Fourie.

Around 68 minutes, the States put another great passage of play together, and worked their way up into the Boks' half, but they botched the scrum and the Boks cleared. The Eagles worked it back up field, from side to side. There was some lovely passing, moving the ball quickly, but couldn't put together another score.

It was a great shame the scoreline ended as it did (64-15) - the Eagles played much better than the scoreboard would suggest. But in the end, the Springboks' class told it's tale, and the boys in green scored nine tries, only one of which they failed to convert.

Perfect Pumas!

Ireland came out with all guns blazing, the first couple of minutes saw some ferocious tackling. Ireland won a penalty close to the Argentinian line and O'Gara immediately went for the corner. Jerry Flannery [right] threw to Paul O'Connell but it went straight through his fingers, into Argentinian hands at the back of the lineout.

Argentina had a punt at goal in the 9th minute, but Felipe Contepomi couldn't manage to score. They nearly had a try shortly after with a chip and chase, but the Irish defence held firm.

The first 10 minutes saw Irland in charge, but the next twenty seemed to belong to Argentina. In the 14th minute, Argentina had a great drive to the line, the forwards rumbling along, eventually winning a put-in at the scrum on 5m from the Irish line. From the back, it swung out to the right wing and Lucas Borges [left] went over for a vital first score. The conversion went wide, so it was only 5-0 up for Argentina.

Ireland won a penalty in the 19th minute, this time Ronan O'Gara chose to take 3 sure points to make it 5-3. At the restart, Argentina were on the attack, and the try wasn't quite on, so Juan Martín Hernández [right] dropped a lovely goal from midfield to nullify the Ireland penalty.

In the 23rd minute, Hernández took a fantastic high ball like a pro fullback, and the resulting chip ahead from Agustin Pichot saw O'Gara have to clear to touch in panic. Phases from the lineout and resulting scrum saw Argentina push right up to the line, only coming up short with a knock-on.

The Ireland scrum was won but they had to clear quickly from the in-goal area, giving Argentina a couple of attacking lineouts in the Irish half. Eventually, Argentina were done for not releasing the ball, and O'Gara finally found a good kick into the opponents' half. Ireland were making headway, but some hard tackles saw Ireland driven 20m back into their own half.

Soon after, Ignacio Corleto gave away a penalty by shouldering Geordan Murphy. From the penalty, Brian O'Driscoll [left] ran through the Argentine defence to score next to the posts, the first try Argentina have conceded so far, and the conversion came easily to bring Ireland into the lead, 8-10.

The pendulum seemed to swing back again, with the Irish bossing things around. Argentina won a scrum on the half way line, and they were back into attack mode in the Irish half. The defence held the try at bay, but Hernández took another pop at goal to bring the lead back to the Pumas, 11-10.

It was another fantastic piece of play in the Irish half, which started with Hernández again taking a high kick of his own, some great passing out of the tackle and winger Horacio Agulla scores a try in the corner! Contepomi converted with a bounce off the woodwork. Ireland looked in trouble, going in at the break 18-10.

After the restart, Argentina mauled their way into the Irish half, won a penalty and Contepomi did the honours - 21-10. Another nail in the Irish coffin...

The men in green worked their way patiently upfield from a lineout, but Argentina turned it over. They cleared, but Ireland had another lineout, worked it across field and Geordan Murphy [right] was the last man in the line to dive over in the right corner. O'Gara's kick went wide, so it was 21-15.

At 50 minutes, Ireland won a scrum in their own half, kicked high, but it was a 22m dropout. Just after, Argentina lost their lineout, but turned over Ireland's attack, and drilled the ball back into the Irish 10m zone. Argentina's turnover abilities seemed prolific - how often did we see green go to ground with the ball, only for it to emerge in the hands of a blue and white jersey?

Just when Ireland seemed to be putting a few phases of play together, they have a shocking forward pass and give Argentina the scrum 40m out. In the 61st minute, Argentina forced another penalty and Contepomi added another three to take them 24-16 in front. Donncha O'Callaghan [left] made a high tackle on Contepomi in the 64th minute, and gave away another penalty - 27-16 ahead. The Irish hill seemed insurmountable - time to bring on some subs.

In the 67th minute, Ireland nearly touched down but for a massive defensive catch from Ignacio Corleto, taking the ball out of his hands. Argentina camped in the Irish half again, going through the phases and waiting patiently for points any way they can - drop goal, penalty or try. Pichot passed but the drop goal attempt was wide.

The Pumas pack had the game by the scruff of the neck, rucking for their lives, turning over possession and making massive hits. Ireland had a late renaissance during the last ten minutes. Roncero gave away a penalty in his own half, and Ireland went for the corner. The lineout was taken well, the Irish supporters were singing away, the forwards rumbled on, possession was kicked away and Argentina's scrambled defence took off the heat.

The final nail in the coffin came in the 79th minute when Juan Martín Hernández slotted a left-footed drop goal, his hatrick, taking their final tally to 30-15.

Every time Ireland came at them, the Pumas seemed to have an answer. They looked by far the sharper team, and can now look forward to a quarter final against Scotland in Paris, sending the French to Cardiff to face the All Blacks for their quarterfinal. Not at all what the host nation had hoped for, and those pesky Pumas have done them no favours. And with the way Scotland have played so far, they must be seen as underdogs for the match - so who knows how far the Pumas can go? Good for them!

A month ago, who would have put money on England and Scotland being the only two home nations to make it into the quarters? And I'm not betting my mortgage on how long Eddie O'Sullivan can remain in his job, after such a promising Irish team (at least on paper) have failed to deliver. Funny old game, eh?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Scots Chip Away At Italy

The rain lashed down in St Etienne, so it was never going to be a wide, expansive game. Kicking and a forward grunt were on the cards - not pretty, but effective in those conditions.

The Scots got the early advantage when Italy gave away two penalties - Chris Patterson's metronomic boot punishing the Italians all evening. The Azzurri didn't do themselves any favours when Mauro Bergamasco, Italy's Openside, was sent to the bin for preventing a try. Scotland went for the lineout, but Sergio Parisse bundled them into touch.

A few minutes later, the Italians made up for their man disadvantage from a scrum; the ball worked upfield via a huge kick from Ramiro Pez, a ruck formed on the line and Captain Alessandro Troncon [right] snuck over the line for a converted try. The points fired up the Azzurri, who forced a long range penalty which was wonderfully struck by David Bortolussi to take them 6-10 up.

Rory Lamont [left] had a nasty clash with Andrea Masi, but they both recovered after some medical attention. However, Lamont was substituted by Hugo Southwell a few minutes later. The next two chances for points fell to the Italians, but they were unable to make them count. First, Ramiro Pez missed a drop goal, which went wide. A few minutes later, Bortolussi missed a penalty from just inside the halfway line.

Scotland's control of the game was not going to plan, although Dan Parks [right] had put in some immense kicks for territory. At 31minutes, he was felled by a high tackle from Troncon, and Paterson slotted the penaltyy from 40m out. So Scotland were only trailing by one point. Three minutes later, Paterson did it again, to take a 12-10 lead. The Scots in the crowd went wild. Just before the break, Parks missed a long range drop goal, but Scotland were still able to go into the dressing room with the psychological advantage.

Italy came out in the second half looking the more determined. Bortolussi had a chance at a penalty from out wide in the 43rd minute - it was good for accuracy but just fell short. The Scottish lineout was functioning well, with Jim Hamilton taking securely and disrupting the Azzurri from time to time. The Scots won another penalty in the Italian half, which Chris Paterson could have kicked in his sleep, to take them 15-10 up. The Italians indiscipline continued to trouble them, and Paterson added yet another penalty in the 53rd minute to keep his kicking record at 100% - not just for this game, but for the whole tournament.

Then Nathan Hines was binned for taking out an Italian with a high tackle. David Bortolussi clawed back another three point from the deficit to take the score to 18-13. Saracens' Fabio Ongaro [right] came on for the Azzurri at 54, in place of Carlo Festuccia. He made an immediate impact at the set piece and in the loose. Pez's kicking was also improving, and Italy began to dominate. At 61 minutes, the Scots collapsed a maul, and Bortolussi took the points from out wide.

The last twenty-odd minutes saw plenty of endeavour from both sides, but no more points. The scoreboard stuck at 18-16 to Scotland. Italy had an opportunity at goal in the 77th minute, after the Scots came in from the side of a ruck. Crucially, Bortolussi was unable to take the points - something that coach Pierre Berbizier will no doubt rue for a long time.

So the Scots make it through to the quarterfinals, to face either Ireland or Argentina, neither of whom will be a pushover.

Fantastic Fiji!

Another do-or-die fixture for the home nations. Gareth Thomas [right] was taking the field for his 100th cap for Wales. Fiji were out to spoil his party.

Wales had an opportunity after less than 2 minutes, but Shane Williams was brought up just short. Then they won a penalty and Stephen Jones popped over the three points for the lead. Wales just missed another opportunity for a try at 10 minutes, which was saved by Fijian Winger Vilimoni Delasau just behind the try line.

Fiji made a great try for Flanker Akapusi Qera after several phases of play worked themselves upfield. Nicky Little added the extras for a 7-3 lead. A matter of minutes later, Fiji set themselves up for another score when Delasau chipped ahead, took the bounce high with one hand and grounded it for a fabulous try, to take them 12-3 up. Wales were in more trouble two minutes later when Little scored a great penalty from close to the half way line. And again, a few minutes after that, this time slightly closer to the goal! Wales were in trouble on the wrong end of an 18-3 scoreline.

Just to put another nail in the coffin, Fiji broke again, from their own half. After a couple of rucks and passing across the field, and Lock Kele Leawere went over in the corner. Little's boot did the honours and put them 25-3 up!

Wales at last got some possession in the Fijian half, winning two penalties. They failed to take the points but instead opted for a scrum and lineout. Despite their best efforts, Fiji managed to defend. Wales had a couple of strong scrums, but again the points failed to materialise. Eventually after another scrum in front of the posts, the forwards managed to rumble away, up to 1m from the line. But it wasn't coming out of the ruck, so another scrum was set. Finally, Alix Popham [left] grounded it from the back of the driving maul. James Hook added the conversion to inch the Welsh back to 25-10 behind. A vital score in the dying minutes of the half.

Qera was sent to the bin just before the break, giving Wales the chance of some scores early in the second half against 14 men. Fiji initially took their chances and camped in the Welsh half for the first thrre or four minutes. Then Wales broke away, Shane Williams running in a fantasic try, sidestepping two takles and diving theatrically under the posts. Jones converted. They got themselves back into the game with another try from centurian cap Gareth Thomas, sneaking over in the corner. It was becoming a nailbiter, even for neutrals like me! Fiji were only leading by 3 points, at 25-22.

Qera was back on the field, but Wales hit back again with a lineout move, swinging it all the way across the field for Winger Mark Jones [right] to cross the line. Stephen Jones added the extras ans Wales were in the lead 25-29 for the first time.

The see-sawing of dominance continued, with Nicky Little slotting two penalties and missing a third in the space of ten minutes. Fiji were leading again 31-29.

There followed a non-scoring 15 minutes or so, despite plenty of action and endeavour from both sides. Fiji nearly had another try from Seremaia Bai, but he was dragged into touch by Gareth Thomas just before touching the ball down.

The deadlock was finally broken by Martyn Williams' [left] fantastic run for an interception try in the 73rd minute. Despite failing to convert, Wales must have thought they had done enough to save their bacon with a 31-34 lead.

But there was still a sting in the Fijian's tail when Prop Graham Dewes took his chance and five points from an amazing passage of play. Fiji kept up the pressure and eventually they were rewarded when the TMO agreed the grounding was good. When Nicky Little added the conversion in the 78th minute, Welsh hearts must have felt like lead. And when Referee Dickinson blew for full time, Fijian hearts must have been soaring.

What a contest! Quite simply, a brilliant game. The only down side for Fiji was the injury to Nicky Little in the very last minute of the game. Wales could not believe it. They are on the plane home, Fiji heading for a quarterfinal with South Africa next weekend. And it would seem that their coach Gareth Jenkins can't now survive in his tenure.

Allblack Machine Rumbles On

No real surprises with the result this time round. Even though the Allblacks managed to score ten times the number of points as the Romanians, it was still an entertaining match to watch.

New Zealand managed 13 tries. The first was from Sitiveni Sivivatu after 38 seconds! Another five came before the half-time whistle, the last one of the half from Aaron Mauger [right]. In the meantime, Marius Tincu, Romania's Hooker, had managed to grab a try for himself, and good for him!

After the break, the try-fest continued. Isaia Toeava grabbed himself two tries - the first and last of the innings. Joe Rokocoko [left] also grabbed another pair, giving him a hatrick in the game.

Romania's substitute Florin Vlaicu managed to pot another three points after 72 minutes - at least they weren't nulled by the Allblack steamroller.

New Zealand's Fullback Nick Evans was on good form with the boot, potting six conversions. Luke McAlister managed four - both two excellent backups for Dan Carter.

So yet again, the Allblacks have proved they have strength in depth. Now they head to Cardiff for their quarterfinal having scored a maximum 20 points in their pool, with a wapping points difference of 274! Australia also topped their group with 20 points, but their PD was only 174 - a marked difference from the Allblacks.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Le Big Crunch

I was amazed just how close England fronted up to the Tongan Haka before kickoff - virtually nose to nose. Clearly, both sides meant business! At least the Tongan's green hair never materialised.

Kickoff was collected by England, who put immediate pressure on Tonga - Lewis Moody [right], typically chasing anything, took an accidental knee in the face while charging down a kick within the first two minutes. He wasn't down for long.

Tonga turned over an England break at six minutes, and came rampaging down the wing - eventually being pushed into touch. England seemed to be chasing high balls much better than last match. But they then gave away a penalty for holding on, just into their own half. Pierre Hola stepped up for the kick which just went over, giving Tonga the initial lead, 0-3.

The forwards went for a nice rumble up the pitch, with George Chuter driving from the rear. Paul Sackey took it further upfield and Tonga couldn't resist hands in the ensuing ruck. Jonny Wilkinson redressed the balance for a 3-3 score.

Olly Barkley made a great break in midfield taking a high ball, but England were turned over when Barkley was isolated in the tackle. On 16 minutes, Sukanaivalu Hufanga broke through Jonny Wilkinson's poor tackle and slid under the posts, with Hola converting for a 3-10 lead. But seconds later, Tonga gave away a penalty in their half, and were caught napping when Wilko booted a high ball for Paul Sackey to ground before sliding over the dead ball line - just! Jonny couldn't convert from out wide, so it was 8-10. Perhaps as a result of those tournament balls?

England had a decent lineout in the Tongan half, and the forwards drove up the wing. Spinning out side and switching from side to side, the England boys kept pushing up, forwards and backs. The Tongan defence held firm, and George Chuter knocked on with 5m to go. England gave a huge shove at the scrum, but Tonga's Finau Maka [left] still came out the back of the pack with it.

Then England had the put in for a 5m attacking scrum. Andy Gomarsall broke but was flattened by Maka, then the forwards had a go at making progress. Barkley was in the pocket, but failed to pop a drop goal. Opportunity missed - I'm sure Jonny would have scored from the same position.

The 22m dropout kick was very flat, and won by England who pushed into Tongan teeritory again - Jonny punting a lovely kick up the left wing for a 5m defensive lineout for Tonga. A chance for the forwards to do their disruptive best at the lineout - Steve Borthwick [right] making his presence known. The Tongans knocked on - for an England put in at the scrum. It went wide across the pitch, the attack was slowing down, and Wilko was in the right place - neatly slotting over 3 points for an 11-10 lead.

At 34 minutes, Tonga gave away another penatly, just in their own half, so Jonny stepped up for the 3 points to make it 14-10. Tonga were then looking dangerous in the England half, when Tonga spilled the ball, Sackey took the scraps and flew 83m down the right wing for another try. Wilko's conversion floated slightly wide, but a 19-10 lead was a bit more comfortable.

England needed to score first in the second half to push home their advantage. Two minutes in, Lewis Moody again collided heavily, this time with his No. 7 counterpart Nili Latu. The penalty incurred was missed by Jonny. It was now raining heavily, so perhaps he slightly missed his footing.

Matthew Tait [left] made a decent break at 44 minutes, to push England into Tongan territory. But England were unable to capitalise on it. At 47 minutes, Tonga had an attacking lineout but the England defence kept resisting. Eventually Tonga chased Andy Gomarsall into the in-goal area, and he was forced to put it down. So, a 5m scrum for Tonga. Gomarsall made a nuisance of himself and disrupted for a clearance back to the England 22.

Barkley was replaced by Andy Farrell at 51 minutes. England were lacking shape and Easter was pinged for hands in the ruck in our half - Hola was close enough for the 3 points to bring it back to 19-13.

Paul Sackey took a great clearance kick which failed to go into touch, it went through the hands and Mark Cueto [left] made a super break, eventually Matthew Tait took the ball over the line. And Wilko added the extras for a 26-13 lead.

At the restart, it was taken well by Nick Easter who offloaded beautifully to Martin Corry. England pushed up again but Andy Farrell crashed into his own man, so it was a Tongan scrum. The clearance was picked up by Josh Lewsey but England didn't make much more headway.

Matt Stevens was subbed for Phil Vickery and his first scrum was a good one. For 2-3 minutes, England pushed hard into Tongan territory, looking more promising. Lawrence Dallaglio came on at 64 minutes for Corry. The England scrum was good, and the ball passed through hands until Mark Cueto got within inches of the line. Tonga turned over but immediately knocked on, so the whites had 5m attacking scrum. It was swung into midfield and Andy Farrell [above] bounced over for a cruicial try under the sticks. And his first international try for England. Jonny added the extras for a 33-13 lead.

Around 70 minutes, Tonga were attacking up the wing when a long pass was intercepted by Andrew Sheridan, who thought it was a gift! Then England were on the attack again, going through the phases. Lee Mears took it upfield, but it wasn't going very far, so Jonny popped over another drop goal for 36-13 lead.

Tonga made a great break with their winger Tevita Tu'ifua, and ended up with a scrum about 10m out in England territory. They spun it wide and eventually England gave away a penalty inches from the line. Eventually they were able to clear, but Tonga kept pushing up from their lineout. They never gave up, but knocked on after a tackle from Phil Vickery, for an England put in around 77 minutes. It was botched at the back, so this time Tonga had a put in. They worked it across the field to put Hale T Pole over in the far corner, despite Josh Lewsey's best attempts. The conversion was good, and the final score was 36-20. They really deserved their final try, having played very creditably.

I think England's performance was an improvement from the Samoa game last week. Sackey's second try in the first half, and Farrell's first in the second half were both cruicial for morale and turning the game. There was a sticky 15 minutes in the second half, but they scrummaged well, won their lineouts, turned over a few opposition lineouts and defended well in the main. Jonny's points from the match means he's just five points behind Gavin Hastings' record of 227 World Cup points. He's back!

The Tongans have had a great World Cup, and I've really enjoyed watching them play over the last month. They have really acquitted themselves well, and looked the strongest of the three Island nations. Samoa have been disappointing, and Fiji have been ok if not outstanding so far.

So now we have a quarterfinal with Australia! Bring it on...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Samoa's Revenge

Still smarting from their loss to England, Samoa were in no mood to lose, they pushed the USA hard right from the start, with Lome Fa'atau [left] running in at one corner in the first five minutes. It went unconverted, but big bruiser Alesana Tuilagi liked the look of the opposite corner five minutes later. This time Loki Crichton was able to add the extra two points.

Shortly after, Samoa were pinged for wheeling their scrum, but Mike Hercus was unable to take the points. The scoreboard remained static for 20-odd minutes. Samoa had a chance when they pushed up into US territory; Prop Census Johnston spotted a gap and went for it, but it was knocked on by Crichton and the move came to nothing. Samoa were dominating the scrum and generally looked to have more shape.

Around the half hour, the US gave away a penalty and Samoa were able to take the score up to 15-0. A couple of minutes later, Samoa infringed and Hercus managed to put some points on the board, 15-3.

Things slowed down a bit for five minutes, until Somoan Lock Kane Thompson made it over the line right under the posts. It was an easy conversion for Crichton, taking the Samoans up to 22-3 at half time.

Both teams showed determination when they came out after the break, but it wasn't until the 51st minute when Eagle Fifita Mounga was sent to the sinbin. The team with a man down would normally expect to struggle and give away points, but the US managed to score themselves from a lineout in the Samoan 22, the ball made it's way to Takudzwa Ngwenya's hands and he scored in the corner, with Hercus adding the extra points, to bring the score up to 22-10.

Shortly after coming back from the sinbin, Fifita Mounga was flattened in a big tackle. Play stopped so the doctors could assess him and he was stretchered off. Hercus scored another 3 points from the penalty. Less than ten minutes later, Crichton replied with a penalty of his own at the other end of the field, bringin the score up to 25-13. Three minutes later, it was Hercus again to reduce the gap to 25-16.

After the restart, Samoan replacement Vaisola Sefo was sent off for taking a man off the ball; this time, Hercus chose to kick for the corner. The lineout was taken well, and the US pushed up to the 10m line, but their attack was eventually cleared by Tuilangi. The the Eagles were awarded a scrum five; it was reset twice, and eventually Flanker Louis Stanfill [left] crashed over in the corner in the 79th minute. Mike Hercus was unable to add the conversion, so the final score ended up 25-21 to Samoa. It was a close game, which neither side really deserved to lose; certainly the USA never gave up and gave Samoa a run for their money right up to the last minute.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

England Improving

England started as they meant to go on, with Captain Martin Corry [left] rumbling over in the corner within 2 minutes! Jonny did the honours and the Red Rose boys were 7-0 up immediately. Jonny struck a drop goal shortly after. Samoa's Loki Crichton kept them in the running with a couple of penalties in the first quarter, but Wilkinson punted two of his own to redress the balance.

At the half hour, England were looking a bit flat, until great interplay between Simon Shaw and Mark Cueto pushed England upfield, then a chip ahead from Jonny Wilkinson put Paul Sackey over in the corner. Jonny added the two points to take England to 23-6. In the last couple of minutes of the half, Loki Crichton slotted two penalties to leave Samoa trailing by 23-12.

Samoa continued to claw back the deficit with another penalty kick just after the break, but it was cancelled out three minutes later when Jonny Wilkinson added three points of his own, having been felled by a high tackle from Brian Lima, to take the score to 26-15.

However, Samoa were far from giving up the ghost, and in the 47th minute, Junior Polu scored (it was close, the TMO had to be consulted) and Crichton converted - Samoa were back in the game, only 4 points behind at 26-22.

For the next twenty minutes, the score was stuck right there, although England came close around 55 minutes from a catch and drive manoeuvre, the forwards rumbled along, Samoa were penalised and Wilko missed a drop goal attempt while playing the advantage. Uncharacteristically, he also missed the resulting kick at goal.

Around 60 minutes, Samoa had a chance, camped deep in English territory, with forwards and backs involved, but England defended furiously and eventually turned over for a counter-atack.

A few substitutions for England followed, and they were beginning to look a little nervous. Crichton chipped ahead for Samoa, Andy Gomarsall [left] covered well. England scrapped on the floor, turned the ball over, and Nick Easter crashed his way upfield. Wilkinson could see that the try wasn't on, and calmly popped a nerve-steadying drop goal, to take the score up to 29-22.

Samoa botched the restart kick, giving England a scrun in the centre of the field. Samoa infringed, so Jonny decided to kick for goal. He struck a beautiful, sweet kick straight through the middle of the posts, and England were 10 points ahead at 32-22.

As if the hammer home the advantage, Martin Corry went over in the 76th minute, for his second try, from a pass from Paul Sackey [right]. Jonny converted, but not to be out-done, Sackey snuck up the right wing for his second score in the 80th minute. This time, Jonny didn't add the extra points, but England were home and dry with a 44-22 win.

Thank heavens for that! England showed some promising improvements after the South Africa debacle. Let's hope they continue on their upward path for their game against Tonga next weekend.

Tonga Didn't Read The Script

With two wins under their belts already, Tonga were up for their clash with South Africa and played a fantastic game, nearly giving the Springboks a fright.

First blood went to the South Sea Islanders with Fly Half Pierre Hola slotting a penalty in the 9th minute; his South African counterpart Andre Pretorious missed two attempts at the posts. The Springboks passing was a bit sloppy, and the Tongan defence held firm until the 17th minute, when Ruan Pienaar snuck over the line after a quick tap and go penalty. Pretorious finally found the posts with the conversion. The score was 7-3 at half time, much tighter than most commentators would have guessed before the game.

There were no more points until the 44th minute, although both sides had opportuniities in the meantime. Tonga's Kisi Pulu scored, driven over the line, and Hola converted, to take the Tongans into the lead 10-7!

Springbok coach Jake White brought on 5 heavies from the replacements bench at this point - damage limitation in mind. Pretorious missed another penalty chance at 47 minutes - his fourth wayward attempt. A couple of minutes later, Danie Rossouw [left] took a very heavy hit from the Tongan defence. Play stopped and he was stretchered off the field in a neck brace. Let's hope the medical team were just being cautious.

The Tongans were caught offside a few minutes later, and this time Francois Steyn took the penalty and added 3 points. Then the floodgates opened and the Boks scored three tries in seven minutes. Juan Smit was the first to score at the end of a move which saw the South Africans run the whole length of the field. Next up was veteran Bobby Skinstad, making a record-breaking 90th appearance for the Springboks. The third was by Pienaar, taking the score to 27-10. Not exactly runaway, but the Boks thought they had done enough.

Tonga were having none of it, and still faught valiantly. Around 70 minutes, they managed two scores in two minutes, and kept pushing the South African defence. They came within a whisker of scoring again right at the end, but for a bad bounce which saw the ball go into touch.

The game finished up at 30-25 to South Africa, but it was a great fight all the way, and one of the most exciting of the tournament so far. Tonga are England's last opponents in the pool stage next weekend, and they will underestimate them at their peril!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ireland Fall Apart

England aren't the only Home Nation to have disappointed in their performances, and Ireland had a shocker against France, who were out to prove a point to themselves and the French press. Ronan O'Gara [left] had seen the bad side of publicity too, during the build up to the game.

The first half didn't see any tries - but France got four penalties out of five; O'Gara scored a drop goal but missed an early penalty attempt.

It took Freddy Michalak's [right] crossfield kick in the 59th minute to put Vincent Clerc over in the corner for the first try of the game. He matched it ten minutes later in the same corner, but again, Elissalde could not add the extra two points.

So, at 25-3 as the final score, France will be pleased with their performance. Ireland were let down by poor discipline and sloppy play, gifting their opponents the chance of 7 kicks at goal, and 15 of their points. For Ireland to go through to the Quarter Finals, they have to beat Argentina convincingly in their last pool game, something I really can't see happening on the evidence so far. Eddie O'Sullivan must be a worried man right now.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

France Steamroller Namibia

After their opening game humiliation, there was always going to be a French backlash. Unfortunately for Namibia, they were the next opponents, and the mismatch was obvious.

The French made a good start, but Namibia weren't afraid of putting in some big hits. The first try wasn't long coming - 7 minutes in, winger Cédric Heymans [left] crossed over in the corner, his 10th in French colours, but Elissalde failed to convert. Just a few minutes later, Namibia's Emile Wessels struck a penalty. France attacked immediately from the restart, going through two phases, for David Marty to score again in the opposite corner to Heymans. This time Elissalde's boot was true.

But there were still some handling errors from the French. And big hits from the Africans - Sebastian Chabal took a huge tackle from the Namibian No. 8 Jacques Nieuwenhuis who was red carded for the offence. Seabass wasn't too phased by the event, and after the break, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde made a great cross-kick for Chabal to bounce over the line and take the score to 54-3. Five minutes later, Chabal broke and ran 55m up the pitch to score a second. Elissalide converted again and the score marched on to 61-3.

France kept turning the screw - Elissalde [left] scored a try of his own a minute after Chabal's; Vincent Clerc bagged another two and Raphael Ibanez added one too - taking the French tally to 13.

There was a small consolation right at the death for Namibia, when their Centre, Bratley Langenhoven touched down in the 79th minute. Fullback Tertius Losper took the extras, to bring up ten points for the underdogs. The final whistle blew, and the result was confirmed at 87-10.

Cardiff Cracker

Pool B's game of Fiji against Canada proved to be quite compelling. For much of the game, Fiji looked the most inventive, while Canada proved more disciplined at the set piece. Despite their wayward lineouts, Fiji went in at half time 15-6 up.

Sarries Boys

As well as supplying Andy Farrell for England, Saracens current and former players in World Cup action included three Fijians. Centre Kameli Ratouvu [left] scored a try in each half of the game. His second was from a blistering run the length of the field, which left Canadians clutching at air in his wake.

Fly Half Nicky Little [left] is a former Saracen, who left the club in 2004. Against Canada, he kicked one penalty and three conversions, while Scrum Half Mosese Rauluni [right] is in the current Sarries squad and has been playing well for the Men In Black.

Canada almost scored a try in the 53rd minute, after a catch and drive manoeuvre in the Fijian half inched towards the line. Unfortunately for the Canucks, it was held up and Fiji turned over the resulting 5m scrum. A few minutes later, Candian Fly Half Ryan Smith [left] managed to do the deed, following another drive by the forwards. Winger James Pritchard converted to take the score to 22-13 to Fiji.

In the 71st minute, Pritchard [right] went over the line but it was judged to have been a double movement, after the TMO had a long look at the angles.

The last few minutes were nailbiting, with penalties, missed drop goals and forward drives, before Ratouvu finally broke free for the Fijian's bonus-scoring 4th try. Nicky Little converted to leave the final score at 29-16.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Georgia Stun Ireland

Ireland were expected to cruise through their match against Georgia, at least on paper. How different the reality turned out to be!

They made a nervous start, with Ireland making unforced errors, while Georgia held their own in defence. A missed penalty opportunity only made things worse for the men in green, but they calmed down a little when Hooker Rory Best [left] crossed the line in the 16th minute, with Ronan O'Gara adding the extras. 7-0 looked respectable at last. But it was another 20 minutes before more points were scored.

This time, Georgia turned over possession, made a great break and won a penalty, David Wallace [right] being sent to the bin for 10 minutes for cynical play. Merab Kvirikashvili took the points and they went in 7-3 at half time.

You would have thought that Eddie O'Sullivan would have given his side a rocket during the break, but the Irish came out in the second half still looking sluggish.

Things went from bad to worse for the men in green, when Giorgi Shkinin scored a fantastic intercept try, running two thirds of the pitch. It was an easy conversion, and suddenly Georgia were in the lead, 7-10, with only their second try in a Rugby World Cup game.

Around 49 minutes, Ireland seemed to wake up when they took a lineout and pushed hard. Georgia had some great defence, and the Irish knocked on! Kvirikashvili made an immense clearance kick a little later, pushing deep into Irish territory. Ireland conceded a 5m lineout, but it was overthrown and Ireland were out of trouble.

After 55 minutes, Ireland went on the counter-attack, when Girvan Dempsey [left] went over the whitewash with O'Gara taking the extras to make it 14-10.

The last quarter was pretty furious - Georgia never gave up and pushed up to the line several times, only for them to knock on or be turned over at the last minute. Sadly, a couple of drop goal attempts also went wide. The were camped in Irish territory for a good while too. At 77 minutes, Georgia did manage to get across the try line, but it was judged to have been held up by Ireland, truely a lucky escape for them.

In the end, Georgia, a country with only 8 rugby pitches and 300 registered players, so very nearly turned over a big scalp, only the luck of the Irish keeping them safe from World Cup ignomony.

It seems that 2007 is the year when the smaller nations give some of the big boys a fright, and it's been brilliantly entertaining to watch.

Missing The Action

The start of the Premiership season is always something to look forward to, and especially the London Double Header at Twickenham. I had tickets for the game but was forced to miss it because I had an accident on Thursday, bashing up my knee and breaking my elbow! Sadly, travelling to HQ wasn't an option, so I had to forgo the fun this year. The accident has given me the excuse to put my feet up and watch lots of World Cup rugby on the telly, but I would much rather be fit to attend games and take photos. No picture-taking for at least a month, since my left arm is in a sling for 4 weeks and I can't drive.

Quins Beat Up Irish
The first game was 7-try fest for fans of Harlequins and London Irish. Full match details here. Below, Quins' Ollie Kohn and Hal Luscombe, and Irish's David Paice all crossed the whitewash.

Sarries Outmuscle Wasps
The second match of the day saw Saracens beat Wasps by 29-19. The three try scorers for Sarries were Hugh Vyvyan, Adam Powell and Neil de Kock [below]

I was also looking forward to seeing Sarries play Gloucester next weekend, but I'll have to make do with reading about it online instead.