Rugby World Cup Dream XV

So… the World Cup is over for another 4 years. Congratulations to New Zealand on a great tournament, and a well deserved win in the end. Most commentators, pundits, and bloggers thoughts now start to turn towards who should be included in the best XV of the World Cup, so I thought I’d put mine together… There were some tough decisions for certain positions, and there might be a few surprises in there, but that’s the great thing about these tournaments, rarely would anyone agree on someone elses best XV. So why not have a look at my carefully considered side, including the subs, and see what you make of it. Think you can do a better job? Bring it on…

1 – Cian Healy (Ireland)
‘Church’ had a fantastic World Cup. He almost single handedly took apart the Australian scrum in the pool match, and generally did an all round cracking job at the back and going forward. He makes big tackles and hard yards look easy, and him ending Quade Cooper was easily one of my favourite moments of the whole tournament (see the video of the monster hit here). What a guy to have in your front row, in my humble opinion he was the best loosehead at this year’s tournament.

2 – Kevin Mealamu (New Zealand)
Hooker was one of the positions I agonised over most, mostly because I didn’t think there were many standout performances besides a couple of notable exceptions (Mealamu and Bismarck Du Plessis – I’m not sure why Smit still started most of SA’s games). That actually made the selection harder, but Mealamu was so consistent in the lineout, always eager to get involved, and never shirked from making a few hard yards taking the ball forward. A good solid, consistent tournament from the AB’s number 2, with a few try line threats thrown in for good measure, saw him into my best XV of the tournament.

3 – Adam Jones (Wales)
‘Hairbear’ is fast building a reputation as one of the most feared tightheads in world rugby. He had a great tournament, but his standout performance in my opinion was against Ireland in the quarter finals. He managed to pretty much take Cian Healy out of the game altogether, and given Healy’s current form that took a massive performance from the hairy prop. A big scrummager, always at the breakdown, super lineout play, and a really consistent tournament is why I picked Jones as my number 3.

4 – Sam Whitelock (New Zealand)
Whitelock grew as the tournament went on I thought. He didn’t have the most confidence building start for the Blacks, but by the final he was an absolute rock alongside Brad Thorn in the second row. The Canterbury lock was solid in taking his own ball at lineouts, and seemed to be at every breakdown in play, wherever it was on the field. He’s athletic, and quick for a guy of his size, and although he wouldn’t be an obvious choice in any RWC best XV, I thought he had a fine tournament and deserves a bit of recognition. If the game is won and lost in the front 5, then Whitelock is a man who can definitely win you the big games, as he proved this year.

5 – Victor Matfield (South Africa)
What can you say about the Boks’ talismanic lock that hasn’t been said before? He really is one of the greats of the modern game. 110 test caps for the Springboks, and as recently as Saturday was nominated for South African Player of the Year, the man once dubbed “The Lineout King”, announced his retirement from international rugby with effect from the end of South Africa’s tournament in the defeat against Australia in the Quarter Finals, leading to a gushing tribute from his captain John Smit who said, “He’s a huge player. In my opinion, the greatest Springbok that’s ever been.” High, but worthy praise from Smit, for a man who dominates lineouts, puts himself on the line week in week out, and uses his leadership skills to inspire his team every time he takes to the field… how could there be no place for Matfield in a team like this?

6 – Sean O’Brien (Ireland)
The European Player of the Year, nicknamed “The Tullow Tank”, absolutely beasted the RWC this year. He lead the charge for Ireland against Australia, turned the back row attention away from David Pocock, and had an absolute blinder of a game against Italy (for which he was voted man of the match). He formed a formidable back row partnership with Stephen Ferris after David Wallace was ruled out of the tournament, and he’s pretty handy going forward too. O’Brien’s “never say die” attitude, and his sheer physical bulk always make him a force to be reckoned with in any game. A finer blindside, I would suggest, it is hard to find at the minute.

7 – Jerome Kaino (New Zealand)
Kaino was pretty much an automatic selection for this team. He played almost every minute of the tournament for the AB’s, made some massive hits, and scored a couple of really good tries into the bargain. If anybody had any doubts about his ability before this World Cup (can’t see why they would have to be honest, but for argument’s sake…) then Kaino really will have blown them all away with his performances this year. An absolute monster of a man, Kaino plays hard, runs fast, has amazing vision, and his support play is second to none. For me, he would command a place in any starting XV in the world.

8 – Imanol Harinordoquy (France)
This was another position I was agonising over until the final 4 matches of the tournament. Harinordoquy didn’t have the greatest of starts to the World Cup, but then again I’m not sure anyone in a French jersey did. As the tournament went on though, the real leaders in the French team came to the fore, and thankfully, Harinordoquy was amongst them. In the semi final against Wales, and particularly in the final against New Zealand, he was a brick wall in defence, and a tower in the lineout. If France hadn’t had Harinordoquy or Dusatoir (who really narrowly missed out on selection for this team) in their back row, their challenge for the Webb Ellis Cup would have ended long ago. His form in the final really sealed his place in my best XV, 8 lineout takes and arguably a man of the match performance handed him the no. 8 jersey for my team.

9 – Piri Weepu (New Zealand)
Ok, so he didn’t kick well at all in the final, and he even struggled in the semi final, but Weepu was the real hero of New Zealand’s World Cup for me. A nation in panic at the demise of Dan Carter had their fragile nerves shattered when Colin Slade limped off against Argentina… Step forward Piri Weepu. He nailed his kicks to land 23 of the All Black’s 33 points against the Pumas, was awarded man of the match, set up a semi final against the Aussies, and eased the collective tension of 4.5 million Kiwis. No pressure then. Weepu successfully averted a crisis in the New Zealand camp with that performance, and went on to guide them home right through to the final. His link up play with Aaron Cruden was great, and he covered for the relative inexperience of the third choice fly half with some intelligent play at times. Taking all of that into consideration, Piri Weepu easily deserves the starting scrum half position in the team of the tournament. As the t-shirts selling in droves after the quarter final reminded New Zealanders everywhere, “Keep calm, Piri’s On”.

10 – Aaron Cruden (New Zealand)
In a tournament where out halves noticeably struggled for form, Aaron Cruden was a surprise package. Drafted into the new Zealand squad following a tournament ending injury to Dan Carter, Cruden got his chance a lot sooner than he would have expected when Colin Slade hobbled off in the quarter final against Argentina. Cruden was composed, showed great vision and a good head for the game, and coped immensely well with the pressure put on him by panicking All Black fans. It’s a shame that we didn’t get to see more of his goal kicking abilities given Weepu’s poor form in from of the sticks in their last 2 games, but New Zealand players and fans have a lot to thank Cruden for, given his composed and intelligent play in the quarter and semi finals which calmed nerves and showed what a great player he really is. It was a massive shame that a hyper extension in the final ended his tournament prematurely as the “curse of All Black fly halves” struck again, but what a brilliant couple of games he had. I think even given the way he coped with the weight of expectation placed on him, and how he passed every test anyone threw his way with flying colours, means that he deserves the number 10 spot in a tournament which was otherwise unremarkable for the men in this pivotal position.

11 – Cory Jane (New Zealand)
At the risk of just letting Graham Henry pick my team for me, Here’s another All Black for the lineup. Cory Jane had a barnstorming tournament. He was brilliant both in attack and defence throughout his appearances, even when Australia decided to bombard him for the entire match with high balls, Jane took almost every one with bravery and confidence, and was one of the key players in a solid performance for the All Black defensive line. Cory Jane possesses pace, power, vision, and bravery in abundance, and he played a vital role in bringing the World Cup back to New Zealand again. I’m not sure I could have picked another winger from this whole tournament over him.

12 – Jamie Roberts (Wales)
Some would argue that Nonu was the logical choice for 12, but given the volume of All Blacks in this team, I decided to look elsewhere. Nonu did have a great tournament, and was great going forward, proving almost impossible to stop. I plumped for Roberts though, because he was just so good. Wales came into the tournament not really fancied to do much damage. Runner up in the group and then out against Australia in the quarter finals it was thought. Super performances in their own pool, and Ireland managing to win pool C opened up the tournament for Wales though, and Jamie Roberts was one of their key players in their run to the semis. Roberts is the classic 12, like a tank going forward, he can punch holes in almost any defence due to his sheer power, and in defence he’s not slow to empty anybody stupid enough to run straight at him, or anywhere near him for that matter. Roberts’ defence in the quarter final against Ireland was immense, and to be honest he was hard done by in the semi final against France. It was painful watching him holding the tears back on TV after that game, but what a cracking tournament he had. Dangerous against Fiji, immovable against Ireland. Roberts takes my number 12 jersey.

13 – Sonny Bill Williams (New Zealand)
Ok, so he didn’t play all the games, and he didn’t score as many as Nonu, but Williams was brilliant this World Cup. I know Nonu and Conrad Smith have a record breaking partnership for the All Blacks, but for me, I would have started Sonny Bill at 13. He is such a threat with ball in hand, and is probably one of the most dangerous players to be caught short against, because even if you bring him down, chances are you won’t stop him offloading the ball to a waiting team mate. Sonny Bill had a brilliant tournament, and I think it’s a shame that we didn’t see more of him at the business end of the World Cup. He always gets the crowd going when he’s barging upfield, he’s always exciting to watch, and he’s always keeping the opposition defence guessing. I would have liked to have seen more of him against the French in the final, but Graham Henry seems to still have the jury out on him. I, on the other hand, am all in. Sonny Bill Williams is one of the most exciting and entertaining players I’ve watched for a long time. He’s always dangerous going forward, and he isn’t shy to put in big hits at the back… Just what you need from a good 13. I think him and Roberts would be a terrifying pairing in the middle.

14. James O’Connor (Australia)
Left out early on after being a naughty boy back in August (he missed the Walabies’ World Cup squad announcement after a heavy night out), James O’Connor really proved his worth to Australia in this World Cup. Pace, power, a cool head for a 21 year old, and accuracy with the boot when it was needed most meant that O’Connor slowly won back over his coach Robbie Deans, and won a lot of respect from across the world in the process. His consistency on the wing allowed Adam Ashley-Cooper to move into the centre, where he had a great few games, and O’Connor proved that he isn’t just useful with the boot, showing his try scoring prowess as early on as the first game against Italy, after he had come off the bench. He’s one to watch for the future, but he’s also dragged a largely unimpressive Australia side to a third place playoff win, and could now be in line to take the number 10 spot off the injured Quade Cooper. O’Connor has had a fine few weeks in the gold shirt, and rightly takes his place on the wing for my best XV of the tournament.

15. Israel Dagg (New Zealand)
Ok, I couldn’t finish without including one more All Black, but let’s face it, Israel Dagg has been utterly immense in this tournament. He had a flying start, scoring 2 tries against Tonga in the opener for New Zealand, and he never looked back since. He always seemed to just be in the right place at the right time in defence, and he popped up frequently in the All Blacks attacking lines, Dagg is a fullback who has it all. It seemed that Graham Henry was going to revert back to Mils Muliaina when he named the veteran fullback for his 100th test cap against Argentina in the quarter final, but injury ruined Muliaina’s night, and Dagg was recalled to the starting lineup in the semi final. If anyone still doubted that he was up to the job he soon put them right with solid performances in that game, and Sunday’s final, to help the All Blacks to their first World Cup win in 24 years. Dagg was one of the revelations of the tournament for me, and will need to keep up his good form in the All Black shirt, as Muliaina retires from the New Zealand side to go and play his club rugby in Japan. Big shoes to fill, but Dagg is the man to do it.

Replacements
16 – Martin Castrogiovanni (Italy)
17 – Bismarck Du Plessis (South Africa)
18 – Brad Thorn (New Zealand)
19 – David Pocock (Australia)
20 – Sergio Parisse (Italy)
21 – Mike Philipps (Wales)
22 – Rhys Priestland (Wales)
23 – Ma’a Nonu (New Zealand)
24 – George North (Wales)
25 – Vasily Artemyev (Russia)

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6 things we’ve learnt so far from WRC 2011

This morning as my alarm went off at 6am so I could get up to watch the early kick off game between Tonga and Canada, I made the decision that my bed was more important on this occasion, and the game could wait til later when I’d watch the highlights. I’m glad I made that choice, because that game doesn’t kick off for another 48 hours, which would have been a long wait.

So, with the realisation that there are no games for the next 2 days, and withdrawal symptoms sure to set in soon, it’s maybe time to have a look back on what we’ve learned so far during this World Cup…

1 – Graham Henry is the man under most pressure in the world at the minute

The fact that (1) the World Cup is on home soil (2) that the All Blacks are perennial favourites to win, and perennial chokers in the latter stages (3) that the New Zealand Herald have begun to run a “choke-o-meter” every day targeting a different All Black, and (4) that Henry was voted #6 in an enemies on New Zealand poll, hasn’t added up to a great week for the New Zealand coach. In fact, if I was him I’d be tempted just to hide under a rock until this whole nasty World Cup thing just goes away. He is the man who can’t please anyone in New Zealand at the minute. Every decision he makes will be under intense scrutiny, every mistake amplified, every wrong call taken apart and analysed and corrected, and put back together. I just hope he doesn’t take the noose on the choke-o-meter too seriously if he fails to deliver the Webb Ellis Cup at the end of these 2 months… Ah well, there’ll always be Wales again if things don’t work out Graham.

2 – Goal kickers are having a tough time this year

RWC 2011 official ball... is it to blame?

There hasn’t been one single goal kicker who has looked impervious to the pressure of the World Cup this year. Jonny Wilkinson was immense in 2003, but this year he’s been so bad it looks like fat Andy Goode would have been a better selection. That’s really saying something. He wasn’t the only one though, almost all of the names you’d expect to perform haven’t. Is it the ball? Is it nerves? Nobody seems to know, but Wilkinson himself seems to have ruled out the ball, and no goal kickers have come straight out and said that the ball is to blame. I think we can take from that that there is no issue with the new ball, and why would there be? Gilbert have been ball suppliers to the highest level of rugby for years, they know what they’re doing. So the mystery remains, but lets hope we see an improvement over the next few games.

3 – The big teams haven’t really burst out of the blocks

The Springboks lift the trophy in 2007... Can they pick up form and do it again this year?

New Zealand, South Africa, France, England, and Ireland might have all won their opening games, but none of them exactly set the world alight with their performances. The All Blacks looked average after a while, Wales arguably should have beaten the Boks, France struggled, England were lucky to scrape past Argentina, and Ireland looked lacklustre and scrappy against the USA. Nobody really did themselves any favours, with the exception the Aussies that is. After a quiet enough first half against Italy they came out for the second half all guns blazing and managed to run in 4 tries in just 17 minutes (49, 54, 57, 66). That was a dangerous looking Wallabies side, and Digby Ioane was particularly impressive, although he may now miss some games after having had surgery on a fractured thumb.) OK, so Australia were playing Italy, and everyone expected a win from them, but to run in a try every 4 minutes takes a big effort and a lot of talent, or a total collapse from the opposition. This time I’d probably lean to the former, as it didn’t look to me that Italy did a whole lot wrong. Yes they were scrappy in parts and made a few mistakes, but Australia were clinical and ruthless in taking their chances. Bish, bash, bosh, and the game was over. Maybe the rest of us should be worried.

4 – Scotland might struggle to make it out of their group

Will Scotland manage to progress from their "group of death"?

Before the tournament started, I thought Scotland would emerge from their group in second place, behind England, and make it to the quarter finals. Actually, I’m now starting to doubt that prediction. Their next game against Georgia will be a major test against a side who have won 7 of their last 8 games, including a win over a Romania side who gave Scotland a fairly stern test in the opening fixture. Couple that with the fact that Andy Robinson has had the brilliant idea to make 11 changes to his first choice side (including totally dropping Simon Danielli, whose try secured Scotland the bonus point against Romania) and I think we might well see an upset on Wednesday morning if Scotland aren’t careful. At any rate, even if they do win on Wednesday, Scotland have to beat either Argentina or the auld enemy  in their last game to stand any chance of making it out of the group. If they lose either, or both, of those games then they’re going to struggle big time. Anything but a win against Georgia would be the first nail in the coffin of Scotland’s World Cup dream. Scottish friends, you have been warned.

5 – Rotorua international stadium is my new favourite rugby venue

The most amazing international sports stadium in the world... Rotorua

I mean, just look at the place… It has a capacity of 34,000 and yet only 4,000 covered seats. And it’s got 2 massive grassy banks at either end of the pitch. And it’s a World Cup venue. This is one of the many advantages rugby has over football. What a cool, cool venue, and it’s one you’d never get in a football World Cup. If only I was going to the Ireland vs. Russia game there…

6 – Vereniki Goneva shouldn’t be playing his club rugby in Fiji for much longer

A 4 try haul in one game is no mean feat. It might have been against Namibia, but if Goneva can pull off 4 tries in a World Cup game then there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be playing in a bigger and better league that the Fijian domestic league. Maybe he’s happy there, and if he is more power to him, fire away chief, but surely bigger teams across the world will be keeping a close eye on him after that impressive start. He’s already scored against the All Blacks in a World Cup warm up game in July, has been part of a Hong Kong 7’s winning team for Fiji in 2009, and played club rugby in England and France (for Rotherham Titans and French Pro D2 side US Colomiers) so he’s got the experience he needs to kick it in a big league. What’s more, he could still pull out big performances in Fiji’s other group games, especially against Samoa, and if he does then you should expect him to be moving on to bigger and better things in the near future.

I feel so much more knowledgeable after just one week of World Cup rugby, don’t you?!

Ones to watch #1: Sonny Bill Williams

 Name: Sonny Bill WIlliams

Position: Centre

Height: 6’3″

Weight: 106kg

Club: Canterbury/Crusaders

International Caps/Tries: 4/0

Sonny Bill Williams is a bit of a risk for the All Blacks management at this World Cup. The former Rugby League pro, and sometime professional Heavyweight boxer, hasn’t had a lot of game time in the famous black shirt, putting in a total of 231 minutes, including the full 80 at the first match of this World Cup. Williams is a rock star figure in New Zealand. He’s walked away from the Canterbury rugby league side, turned down the biggest contract offer ever in professional rugby at Toulon (a reported $6million), and even managed to get legendary All Black Jonah Lomu so worked up that he’s called him out for a public fight. Add to that his massive Maori sleeve tattoo, and the fact that he’s a devout Muslim (the first to represent the All Blacks), and you’ll see for yourself that you’ve got a bit of a character on your hands. Everyone seems to have their own opinion of him, and you certainly don’t find too many neutrals when it comes to Sonny.

That having been said, Williams is, without doubt, an absolute beast. At 6’3″ and 106kg he’s certainly a big lad, and along with Ma’a Nonu (who weighs in at an eye watering 110kg, or 17st. 5lbs.) forms the heaviest centre pairing to ever line up for the All Blacks. He’s got super quick hands in the offload, hits you like an articulated juggernaut, and has pace to burn. He’s difficult to bring down, and even harder to dispossess, because he always looks to offload the ball quickly from the tackle. Tonga found that out, ultimately to their undoing today. That kind of quick ball forms the basis of all that’s dangerous about the All Blacks in full flow, and there’s something magic about watching Williams smashing through opposition centres and throwing a back hand pass to a waiting, frothing at the mouth team mate, and to boot he rarely fails to cross the gain line anytime he makes a forage forward. That’s exactly what you’re looking for in a big centre like Sonny, and you can expect to see plenty more of that style of play if he gets more game time For New Zealand at this tournament.

Williams got the nod to start at 12 ahead of Kahui today, although Kahui still got a starting spot on the wing and had a good solid game. Even if the All Blacks didn’t racvk up as many points as they would have liked, Graham Henry will be pleased with his selection in the backs today. Tonga didn’t look like coping with Williams and co. for the whole game, and I’d be hard pushed to see how the back line could have performed any better, so he’ll feel pretty justified in shifting Nonu out to 13 to make space for Williams. Whether he chooses to stick with that lineup is another question. Henry won’t want to unsettle the squad by doing too much juggling, but the rumours are circulating that Sonny Bill won’t sign up again for a new All Blacks contract after the World Cup, and might head off in search of a bigger money contract somewhere. If he has a good tournament there will be plenty of big offers for him to mull over, but the debate is to be had over whether Henry will be willing to risk him for the whole tournament only to have him walk away from the All Blacks setup at the end. It’s a big risk in anybody’s books.

As far as I see it, Sonny Bill Williams is the wild card in the All Blacks pack (not their pack of forwards obviously… I hate when turns of phrase overlap with rugby terms). He’s definitely marked as The High Tackle’s One to Watch for the All Blacks at the World Cup, but beyond that, who can tell…

We’re off…

So, we’re off… today saw the first day of the Rugby World Cup 2011, as the mighty All Blacks, hosts and perennial favourites for the Webb Ellis trophy, took on a surprisingly sheepish Tonga side full of big guys who, at times, looked so overawed with the occasion that I’m surprised they all made it through the game without swooning and faintingat the sheer majesty of the All Blacks. On top of that, the “choke-ometer” made its international TV debut (Dan Carter looked like he was feeling the pinch already), and the noose might be feeling slightly tighter around Graham Henry’s neck, who apparently was voted at #6 in an “Enemies of New Zealand” poll in a national paper. What a bizarre statistic for a coach who’s won 89% of his games in charge. The All Blacks coaching job might be the only one in world sport with higher pressure and expectations than the England football team. At least the All Blacks have the talent to back up the expectations…

Not only did the 2011 World Cup kick off today, but The High Tackle blog also swung into action for the first time ever. We’re going to be blogging throughout the World Cup, and afterwards, looking at the latest news from across the tournament, and the rest of the rugby world.

Over the next few days we’ll be kicking things off (hohoho!) by having a look at some of the players who could be a bit of a surprise package and wow the watching world over the course of the tournament. Some of them you might expect and some you might not, but as always we’ll welcome your views and constructive criticism on the choices we’ve made. We’ll also be keeping up with the games by predicting the results, putting up some post match feedback, and even live tweeting during matches. Let’s hope we can keep up with it all! We might even convince some lovely friends to guest blog for us over the next few weeks to help us out.

So bring it on… early morning starts, late night rugby, red bull, pro plus, a few beers here and there, and clicking keyboards galore as we try to keep up with the action.

Kia waimarie to one and all, and may the best team win. (Or failing that, Ireland)