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?!

Choke-ometer

Well, maybe Graham Henry has felt the noose loosen around his neck, because as far as I can see, the major chokers so far at the World Cup are the goal kickers… Let’s have a wee look at the pattern of play so far.

Dan Carter, Jonny Wilkinson, and Jonny Sexton all had miserable starts with the boot in this World Cup (and it looks like James Hook is about to join the club too). None of them have pulled out what you would exactly describe as glittering performances, and all of them could easily have put the game far beyond doubt for their sides had they landed their penalty attempts. But the prize for biggest choker(s) so far goes to…

*drumroll*

That’s right… Martín Rodríguez and Felipe Contepomi of Argentina. Between them they managed to fluff 6 penalties against England in their opening game, costing the Pumas what would have been a valuable win and leaving them an uphill struggle if they lose in any of their remaining games. Had the pair landed those 6 penalties, they would have won the game for Argentina, but alas, that wasn’t to be and England pipped them to the post.

It’s certainly been an odd start for the goal kickers this year and conspiracy theories are flying about left, right, and centre as to why this is. We’ll get a fuller picture over the next couple of days, but at the minute I’m bamboozled (in the style of that old teletext quiz on Channel 4)