Quick Tap

It’s 75 minutes into the match. The score is 15-all. The team hasn’t been playing that well, truth be told.

Awarded a kickable penalty, Aaron Cruden (25 – currently starting first-five, but really second choice behind Dan Carter who is currently on sabbatical) along with Beauden Barrett (23 – up-and-coming, but on the night a replacement fullback) and Victor Vito (27, another reserve, back for his first game after last year being told he wasn’t up to the standard expected of an All Black) together spot an opportunity and decide, without even consulting Richie McCaw (33 – the captain on the field), to instead take the quick tap and go. It leads, a few minutes later, to the match winning try.

This is what Richie had to say afterwards:

“You’ve got to back the guys to have a crack. If they’re always looking to me they’ll never take an opportunity. I was ready to point at the posts but he thought better of it, and it paid off.”

And, the coach, Steve Hansen (55, for consistency):

“It was one of those games where someone had to take it by the scruff of the neck.”

We can only speculate about what might have been said all around if that decision hadn’t lead to a try and the match had ended a draw, or a loss. As it was the headline was “All Blacks lucky against inspired England” (really, that was luck?)

There is a massive organisation that exists to support the All Blacks – the NZRU board, CEO and high performance staff, the All Blacks selectors, coaching and management teams, including specialist coaches, media liaison, medical support staff etc, not to mention the many stakeholders (including all of us as fans).

But, I’m fascinated by how accountability and responsibility is delegated down to the youngest and least experienced, and the culture that is created within the team as a result. We would consider it remarkable for a 25 year old team member or 33 year old executive to be making big decisions in a large company, where the leaders tend to be much older and tenured. But, in the All Blacks, by the time you’re over 30 you’re as experienced as they get, and certainly considered old enough to handle the pressure of making decisions in the moment on the field.

How about In the organisation where you work? Do your junior staff have the freedom to respond to opportunities when they spot them? Or, do they do as they are told until they’ve done their time?

A Game of Two Halves

So, 4 weeks and 40 games later we’re left with the quarter finalists that were pretty easily predicted nearly three years ago when the draw was made. All that’s left are the 7 games that matter (+ the 3rd/4th play-off).

The top 20 ranked teams qualified for the tournament, and the top 8 ranked teams have made the quarter finals. Scotland (ranked 9) and Italy (ranked 11) are gone as are Tonga (ranked 13) who, like Samoa and Fiji in previous World Cups, managed to beat one of the top-ranked teams but unfortunately miss out after losing to Canada (ranked 12).

However, the 8 teams that progress are not in the order that we all expected. Thanks to the Ireland vs Australia result, the All Blacks (ranked 1) vs Argentina (ranked 8) match is the only quarter final game where there is a clear favourite. The other three could all go either way. History would suggest that the semi-finals will be All Blacks vs South Africa and England vs Ireland (no team who has lost a match in pool play has ever won the World Cup).

But, rather than try and predict the result of this weekend’s games I thought it would be interesting to look a couple of weeks ahead and anticipate some potential final match-ups:

All Blacks vs France

This would be a repeat of the 1987 final, also played at Eden Park.

We all thought we’d seen off the French threat after beating them earlier in the tournament, but as the 1999 All Blacks discovered the French are not beaten at a World Cup until the whistle has blown (and their fans are whistling their disapproval at the team as they walk off).

It’s not right, somehow, that France has not yet won a World Cup (especially since they’ve twice knocked us out). But I don’t think this French team is the one to change that. Indeed, were it not for the bonus point system they’d already be home and we’d be contemplating an England vs Tonga quarter final in Auckland on Saturday night (how good would that have been!)

Still, should they make it that far themselves, I think the All Blacks would probably choose the French last of the four possible opponents for the final.

– or –

Australia vs England

The worst of all possible combinations and painful to even contemplate.

I was living in the UK during the 2003 Rugby World Cup, and controversially chose to support England in the final after Australia knocked out the All Blacks in the semi-final. An old friend from New Zealand, who was staying with us at the time and watched the game with me that Sunday morning local time, struggled to understand my logic. But my preference then was that I’d rather England win their first World Cup than have Australia win their third.

If they were to meet again this time around, I don’t know that I could even bring myself to watch.

So … vive la France and go Bokke!

– or –

South Africa vs Wales

The pool match between these two teams was one of the games of the tournament so far for me. The atmosphere at the game was great – two passionate and vocal groups of supporters. To be honest, I don’t even think the Welsh in attendance expected their team to compete, but in the end they could have … should have … won.

And the Wayne Barnes fan club grows ever bigger.

The Welsh are under-rated by just about everybody – neutrals will no doubt end up supporting the Irish this weekend even though they won’t be the underdogs this time around. But, all of a sudden they find themselves in the quarter-finals, on the easy side of the draw and they might just sneak under the radar all the way to the final, where anything can happen.

– or –

All Blacks vs Ireland

I’d love to see this. I think we all would … for several reasons. Not the least because the Irish have never beaten the All Blacks!

We were in the crowd on 17 November 2001 when one Richard McCaw made his international debut vs Ireland at Lansdowne Road in Dublin. He was the man of the match. I can’t think of a more appropriate opponent for him to face in what would be the biggest game, and (hopefully) pinnacle of his career.

Hopefully he can hang in there over the next couple of weeks. It will either be a great night for us all to celebrate, or as George Greegan so eloquently put it in the closing minutes of the 2003 semi-final “four more years, boys!”.

When technology gets out of the way

I’m a sucker for sport generally and live sport especially – see previous posts here on Olympics, Football World Cup & European Championships and even previous Rugby World Cup events.

If they keep score I’ll probably watch it, and might even get up in the middle of the night to make sure I can influence the outcome.

Indeed one of the all-time top posts on this blog is Just tell them it’s sport – although that appears to have more to do with the fact that it contains the words “shower naked with a group of men” and “dress up in lycra” which are apparently both popular Google search terms!

The big downside of watching these big events live on TV is having to deal with adverts, which I otherwise mostly manage to avoid.

Here in NZ we haven’t quite descended to the depths of US sports coverage, where networks have the ability to call time-outs during the game if they are not getting enough stoppages. But, we are slowly getting closer.

The latest slippage is the insertion of a 90 second ad break between the anthems/hakas and the start of the game. It’s an annoying intrusion after all the ceremony is completed and everybody is ready to get going. Even more so at the ground, where all of the players are left standing in position waiting for the referee to get the signal from their TV overlords so they can start the match.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the ads themselves weren’t so terrible.

For example, this horrible “advertisement” for a Panasonic television, which is featuring here during the Rugby World Cup:

The first 20 seconds are a long list of irrelevant and intimidating technical jargon.

The last 10 seconds are even worse, portraying their target customer as a freak who is more than a few biscuits short of a full packet.

The number of people who care if their television has a “built in high definition SD card viewer for media playback and program recording” is infinitesimally small.

Rather than trying to impress with the advanced componetry they should focus on what the technology allows real people to do – surely the manufacturer can think of something more inspiring than barking at your dog over Skype?

The benchmark in this area continues to be set by Apple. The repeated message in the iPad adverts is “it’s going to change the way we do things everyday” – in other words: it’s not what the software/hardware does, it’s what the user does.

So, I’m agitated that Panasonic have chosen to intrude into an event I’m excited about watching and having been force fed their marketing I’m left with the impression that the Viera is a complicated overspec’d piece of technology that only propeller heads and nutbags will love.

Nice job!

Previous Rugby & World Cup Posts:

  • Are the All Blacks winning more than ever? July 2007 – yes!
  • Dark Days October 2007 – thoughts following our exit from the previous World Cup in 2007, in which I pin the blame on all of us (see also: Whatever makes you nervous) and also predict a NZ vs Australia final in 2011 based on historical patterns – before the draw was even made.
  • Re-invigorating the All Blacks December 2007 – more is less and variety is the spice of life.
  • Third Largest? September 2008 – yes, it’s exciting to have it here, but let’s not get carried away!
  • Rugby World Cup 2011 December 2008 – after the draw was made, in which I predict the semi-finalists and finalists three years out (not actually looking too bad at this point, with the exception of under-estimating Australia)
  • 31-December December 2008 – further proof that Richie McCaw is exceptional.

Cameron Brown, You Are An Ironman

Photo: Allan Lee

Today in Taupo Cameron Brown won NZ Ironman for the 10th time.

He finished this year with a 2hr 52m marathon – pretty slow by his standards if you can believe that.

He has raced in Taupo 13 times, winning 10 times and finishing second on the other three occasions. That’s an amazing record. This is the first time that anybody has won the same race 10 times, anywhere in the world. When he won last year it was the first time that anybody had won nine times.

He would probably have won 10 in a row but for a shortened course due to weather conditions in 2006.

It’s hard to think of another individual kiwi sportsperson who has totally dominated their event over the last decade like he has.

I wonder what are the odds of a swan song win at the World Championships in Kona later in the year – a la Hamish Carter at the end of his career? Here’s hoping.

Meanwhile, congratulations to everybody who completed the event today, in what sounds like pretty atrocious conditions, including some who will still be out on the course as I type this.

You are all Iron-people!

We Hate Argentina

One of my more vivid memories of our time in the UK is watching England v Denmark in the first knock-out round of the 2002 World Cup at our local pub.

The game was played in the middle of the day on a Saturday, UK time, and England went on to win 3-nil.  But, that’s not what I remember.

By the time we arrived shortly before kick-off there was already small but vocal group of keen fans who had been drinking all morning.  They were getting ready for the match by singing a song which had the simple lyrics: “We hate Argentina! We hate Argentina!”  This was all the more curious because England had already knocked Argentina out in the group stages, so this time around they weren’t going to be able to blame Argentina for their eventual exit.

Why do English fans hate Argentina?  It’s complicated, but part of the reason is that Argentina has a history of cheating and getting away with it, whereas England does not.

Cheating and getting away with it isn’t sport, yet the “art” of diving, faking injury, pushing and shoving and pulling shirts to impede opponents, handling the ball and intimidating the referee have somehow become an integral part of football.

At some stage soon FIFA [1] are going to need to decide whether to introduce technology and/or new rules into the mix for future World Cups, to assist the referees and ensure a fair result.  There are lots of options, including the status quo of leaving it all to some poor bugger to decide in real time.

I think they could do a lot worse than consider these three changes, based on some ideas proposed by my brother:

Challenges. Each team would be given one challenge per half, which they could use to challenge any decision made by the referee – e.g. if they think the referee has missed a foul, or incorrectly awarded a free kick or penalty.  They would be reviewed by a television official.  If the challenge is successful then the decision is reversed and they maintain the challenge.  If not, they lose the ability to challenge for the remainder of the half.  Because they only have one challenge they will need to be careful to use it only when they are convinced the decision was wrong.

Red Cards for Simulation. If a player is caught diving or over-acting where there is a foul then they are sent off.  Given the ability to challenge (see above) it will no longer pay to try and play the referee and could be very expensive, so this should significantly reduce this behaviour.

Penalty Goals. If a goal would have been scored but for a foul then a goal can be awarded, rather than just a penalty.  (If this rule was in place then Uruguay would have lost the match to Ghana at the 2010 World Cup).

What do you think?

[1] Some trivia: it’s not actually FIFA who will decide on these changes.  The laws are maintained by a body called the International Football Association Board which is composed of four representatives from FIFA and one each from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Any changes need to be approved by 6 out of the 8 members.  So, all that whining from England about TV replays, but they really have nobody to blame but themselves!

Like Moldova Beating England

In December last year I wrote:

“Italy are ranked #4 in the world and are defending champions.  Expectations will correctly be low when we play them.

But, I fear, by the time the matches actually start there will be a number of people who will expect to see the All Whites compete against the other two teams in our pool.”

Olé Olé Olé

And, sure enough… after the stunning win against Serbia on the weekend some journalists here are starting to dream the dream.

For example, Tony Smith, in this mornings Dominion Post:

“Serbia are a better side than Slovakia, New Zealand’s first-up opponents in South Africa on June 15, and are probably at least the equal of Paraguay.

Could Ricki Herbert’s class of 2010 become the first New Zealand team to win a game at a Fifa senior tournament and qualify for the second round?

You wouldn’t have thought so a week ago. But bookmakers around the world may be rapidly revising their odds.”

Serbian millionaires made to look like paupers

Dylan Cleaver in the NZ Herald, with tongue firmly in cheek, goes further and outlines the All Whites’ path to glory:

“The All Whites’ path to the semifinals is relatively straightforward.

A 3-0 win over Slovakia (they’re not even as good as Serbia), in the opening group game will be followed by a gritty, Ryan Nelsen-inspired, goalless draw against an Italian team resting its best players.  Paraguay will be no match for the aerial assault and are brushed aside 3-1.”

All Whites’ path to World Cup title

I think it’s usually better to have low expectations and exceed them.  And, especially when it comes to World Cups.  You’d think that sports journalists, of all people, would have learnt that lesson by now. Or, perhaps, the headlines they can write when the team falls short of those massively inflated expectations are better as a result – who knows?

Either way, comparing this result to “Russia beating the All Blacks” (as Tony Smith does in the article linked above) seems fanciful if not hyperbolic.

Is it?  Here are some facts:

FIFA ranks 202 countries – from Brazil at #1 to Papua New Guinea at #202.

IRB ranks 95 countries by comparison – from the All Blacks somehow at #1 (how?) to mighty Finland at #95.

So, the All Whites (current FIFA ranking: #78) beating Serbia (current FIFA ranking: #15) is the football equivalent of Moldova (current IRB ranking: #36) beating England (current IRB ranking: #7) in rugby.  Imagine that!

Or, if you want to consider the gap in the rankings between the two teams, then it’s the equivalent of Tunisia (current IRB ranking: #29) beating the All Blacks.  Russia by comparison has an IRB ranking of #19.

Either of those would be an outrageous result, even in a friendly game, and especially a couple of weeks prior to a big tournament, would be big news.

And yet the All Whites remain 1000-to-1 to win the World Cup. :-)

Bring on Slovakia, I say!  I’ll be watching.  You?

(*) On the outside chance that you’re interested in and/or confused by my maths… I just adjusted the FIFA rankings to take into account that there are less than half as many teams represented in the IRB rankings, so a FIFA ranking of 78 out of 202 teams corresponds to an IRB ranking of 36 out of 95 teams, and a gap of 63 places out of 202 teams on the FIFA list corresponds to a gap of 29 places out of 95 teams on the IRB list.