Tuesday, October 31, 2023

A peculiar trip down Memory Lane

Something curious popped up in my comments box recently.

It came from someone who chose to remain anonymous (now there’s a surprise) and asked, in a phony tone of mateyness, “I wonder if Karl remembers his writings on Yugoslavia and the Serbs".

This nameless troll went on to quote at length from a column I wrote in April 1999 that was subsequently the subject of a complaint to the Press Council, as it was then called. He (and I'm guessing it was a male) seemed to think I would be stung by the reference to it.

As a matter of fact I do remember the column and, perhaps contrary to my commenter’s assumption, am happy to revisit it. I suppose I should take it as a perverse compliment that it’s still weighing on some unfortunate soul’s mind after all this time.

The column was published in the Evening Post and the Nelson Mail and recorded my feelings about the civil war then raging in the Balkans.

In it, I pleaded guilty, “probably for the first time in my life,” to a feeling of antagonism toward a specific race – namely, the people of Serbia.

“I don’t take pride in this,” I wrote, “but neither do I apologise for it. Humanity demands that we are repelled by the vile acts carried out in recent years in the name of Serbian nationalism.”

I noted that since the death of the communist dictator Tito and the breakup of the old Yugoslavia, “the Serbs have embarked on one barbaric series of atrocities after another, reactivating ethnic feuds that go back centuries. They are a disgrace to 20th century civilisation.”

I reminded my readers that the Serbs had given us the chilling phrase "ethnic cleansing" and I referred to then-recent events in Kosovo, where people were butchered, raped and driven from their homes “in systematic depredations that spring direct from the Dark Ages”.

Readers of this blog may recall some of the other appalling events of that era, notably the Bosnian Serb army’s four-year siege of Sarajevo (nearly 14,000 killed, 40 percent of them civilians) and the massacre at Srebrenica, in which Serbian soldiers slaughtered more than 8000 defenceless Muslim boys and men. Some of the perpetrators – Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic – were eventually convicted of war crimes.

My column was a tirade against the hideous excesses of militant ethno-nationalism, but a reader of the Nelson Mail complained to the Press Council that it was offensive and racist. “By most normal criteria – objectivity, fairness, balance, accuracy – the piece falls abysmally below acceptable standards and represents a breach of the Race Relations Act,” the complainant wrote.

She held that the column was deeply offensive not only to Serbians but to anyone who was affronted by racism. The Mail’s editor, David Mitchell, rejected the complaint and wrote a robust and eloquent defence in which he pointed out that my column didn’t condone racism but in fact condemned it “in very strong terms”.

I followed up that column with another in which I partially (but only partially) repented. I can’t find a copy of that second column, but in it I acknowledged there were good people of Serbian ethnicity and apologised for having smeared them by association with the barbaric acts carried out in the name of Serbian nationalism. I particularly remember a phone call from a polite but reproachful woman of Serbian descent who persuaded me that I’d overstated my case.

The woman who had complained about my column regarded my partial retraction as inadequate and declined to withdraw her complaint, as was her right. She wanted an acknowledgment from the Mail that my column “fell below acceptable standards” – a concession the principled David Mitchell, to his great credit, wasn’t prepared to make.

It then fell to the Press Council, chaired by the retired High Court judge Sir John Jeffries, to adjudicate on the complaint. It was not upheld. In a decision which he wrote himself, Jeffries (who died in 2019) had this to say:

“There can be no question but that Mr du Fresne expressed his views in both columns in the strongest and most forceful terms. He used rhetoric and passion to convey to his readers his unqualified repugnance of the present Serbian government, its people and its leader Slobodan Milosevic. Part of the rhetoric was to charge himself with racism and to plead guilty. Is Mr du Fresne by using that device, and others, to attract attention and support for his views in truth indulging in racial hatred and impliedly agitating against Serbs everywhere?

“Selecting some sentences and phrases from the April column and branding those parts as fomenting racial hatred that calls for disapprobation by the Press Council does not provide the answer. The Council believes it should go past the rhetorical devices and strategies to shock and awaken people to the brutality of what is happening in this year, in the Balkans, and instead go to the substance of the column.

“The first piece is not for racial hatred, it is against it. It is not for violence, but against it. The central point of the second column is that recourse should not be had to history to explain but that the violence should be halted right now. The political message of the piece is that Nato bombing be supported for the sole purpose of stopping the killing of thousands of Kosovars and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. When ethnic cleansing is the issue, some columnists choose not to express themselves by detached analysis using language of cold objectivity but prefer to startle and shock.

“To accuse oneself of racism and to plead guilty is in truth a device for demonstrating how evil racism is because it is able to infiltrate and contaminate the columnist against his own better judgment. The illustration had sacrificial overtones.

“This was not writing of an irresponsible, reckless or promiscuous nature. It was a powerfully expressed argument laced with emotion and passion. The Council in the name of objectivity, balance and judgment should not interfere with the freedom to write and publish such material. This is highly emotive writing but it does not call for disapprobation by the Council.”

So there we are. I'm left to scratch my head in wonderment that some tragically obsessed individual has dredged up this episode nearly a quarter-century later.

It’s an example of what’s called offence archaeology: the popular woke practice of unearthing statements or actions from the distant past in the hope of embarrassing or discrediting someone. But what’s the point? Here’s a tip for my anonymous commenter: offence archaeology works only if it causes harm, and if I thought that publishing his comment was likely to hurt me or damage my reputation, I would have simply deleted it. Instead, here I am giving him the oxygen he presumably craved, for the good reason that I have nothing to be ashamed of.

I will even give him the satisfaction of quoting from his closing paragraph, in which he resorted to a childish personal insult (which I won't dignify by repeating), called me a bigot and an “admitted racist” and concluded: “You should have been reported and prosecuted under the New Zealand Race Relations Act.”

Sorry, but it’s a bit late for that now, as attractive as the idea might be to the Human Rights Commission. But I hope he feels better for having got it off his chest.

For what it's worth, the Press Council decision can be read here.

Guest post: Those crazy brave Springboks (just don't mention Wayne Barnes or the TMO)

By Spiro Zavos

On a wet Paris night of driving rain, in a match of Shakespearean drama with a slippery field and ball that made handling and running difficult, a superbly coached and motivated crazy brave Springboks side defeated a resilient but careless All Blacks team 12-11, four penalties to an unconverted try and two penalties, before a crowd of 86,085 spectators that often booed them, to win the 2023 Rugby World Cup tournament.

The Springboks have now won four RWC titles - 1995, 2007, 2019, and 2023 - in the eight tournaments they have competed in since 1995. No team is ever going to beat this record of winning half the RWC tournaments they have played in. Except themselves, perhaps, if the Springboks win the Webb Ellis trophy in the 2027 RWC tournament to be played in Australia.

Two of those finals were against the All Blacks: RWC 1995, when Nelson Mandela electrified the Ellis Park crowd and the Springboks by coming on to the field in the Springbok jersey for a pre-match greeting of both teams; and on Sunday morning (EST), when they withstood a second half fightback by the All Blacks and showed nerveless gamesmanship in running down the clock in the last scrum of the match.

Remarkably, too, the Springboks won all their finals matches in this tournament by a one-point margin: 29-28 against France, 16-15 against England, and now 12-11 against New Zealand.

The 2019-2023 Springboks, winners of two Webb Ellis trophies and a series victory over the British and Irish Lions, now stand now in Rugby's Hall of Fame as one of the greatest teams in the history of the game.

The way the Springboks defended in the second half of the final, especially after the All Blacks scored an unconverted try to take the score to 12-11 at the 55th minute, and led by Pieter-Steph du Toit whose 28 tackles for the match including two smashing efforts in the last quarter on Jordie Barrett, was a hard-shouldered reminder that tournaments like the RWC are won by defence.

This intense, generally accurate defence by the Springboks (they missed only 18 tackles out of 245 attempted) even featured a series of hard-driving tackles by smaller players like winger Cheslin Kolbe, who lifted All Blacks danger-man Will Jordan off the ground twice before dumping him like a garbage bag to the ground. Peter-Steph du Toit made 28 tackles, several of them bone-crunchers on Jordie Barrett like a tank hitting a lamp post, the equal highest-ever tackle count in a RWC final.

The Planet Rugby statistics show that every South African forward (except for the injured Bongi Mbonambi) were in double figures in their tackle count. These forwards, too, forced 18 turnovers which in turn slowed down the All Blacks ruck speed to 5.05 seconds, a second slower than the All Blacks' average for the tournament.

The Bomb Squad tactic, then, had the effective of nullifying the All Blacks' 60 percent possession by making it difficult for any consistent series of attacks to be mounted. The oldest and wisest rugby adage is this: the team that controls the advantage line wins the match.

This defensive master-class had its RWC origins in the 1995 RWC final when arguably the most potent winger of all time, Jonah Lomu, in his prime after a stupendously outrageous four tries against England in the semi-final when opponents were skittled as if they were bowling pins, was smothered and often shepherded into touch by groups of fired-up Springbok defenders.

A similar hounding pack of tacklers at Paris stopped the All Blacks' successor to Lomu, Will Jordan, from making any breaks. This aggressive tackling forced Jordan to kick unfortunately long and not kick-and-chase chips which would have been more effective. Towards the end of the game, when the All Blacks were behind by a single point, Jordan was inexplicably replaced by Anton Lienert-Brown.

Before the final a New Zealand newspaper ran this headline: "Rugby World Cup: Method against madness - All Blacks stand one step from greatness".

This was more a sub-editor's beat-up in over-egging the comments that the author of the article, Marc Hinton, had written about the challenge facing the All Blacks in "dealing with seven hulking Springboks coming their way over a second half of a World Cup final that is sure to stretch the very fibre of their being".

The hulking seven referred to were the seven forwards named on the Springboks substitute bench.

This seven forwards and one back substitute split, presumably the "madness" in the headline, was contrasted with the traditional "method" of a five forwards and three backs split announced by the All Blacks selectors.

The fact is that there is an obvious method behind the Springboks' reserves split. I call this method "crazy brave", taking this description from the title of Joy Harjo's memoir of her journey through life from a troubled childhood to becoming a poet and a musician. Harjo says that this crazy brave journey is her story of "resilience, self-discovery, and finding her voice".

This is exactly what the 7-1 split created for the Springboks. It forced the Springboks to be resilient, go to the edges and over of their reserves of energy and courage and find their voice in the common cause of winning at any cost.

The Bomb Squad tactic enabled their great traditional scrumming strength. With the 7-1 split the team knows it has two essentially separate packs available to the coaches to bring on when it is deemed necessary. Dominance in the scrums leads to penalties and the Springboks have won their RWC finals, especially the last two, through the goal-kicking accuracy of kickers like Handre Pollard.

As Simon Poidevin pointed out in an excellent match analysis for the Australian Financial Review, "history tells us that points from kicks win RWC finals - in the period from 1987 to 2019, 29 percent of points in finals came from tries and 71 per cent from kicks".

At the Stade de France, Pollard kicked all four of his penalty shots at goal. The All Blacks by comparison missed several penalties and a conversion.

The scrum, then, is the talisman for Springbok teams in must-win matches like RWC finals. There is an historical imperative behind this.

This talisman tradition started in the build-up to the last Test of the All Blacks-Springboks series at Eden Park in 1937, where the winner would win the series. Paul Roos, the captain of the famous 1906 Springboks tour to Europe, sent a telegram to his successors before the Test: "Scrum, South Africa, scrum, scrum, scrum".

At that time, teams could opt to scrum instead of throwing into a lineout. Philip Nel, the Springboks captain, after the All Blacks had kicked for touch the first time in the match, trotted up to the mark and told the All Blacks, "We'll scrum, New Zealand". The Springboks won the next four scrums in a row and from the last of these scrums, the backs scored a famous winning try.

When the Springboks go into big matches determined to scrum their opponents into the ground, they are going back to the tradition set by Paul Roos.

The other aspect of the 1937 Springboks, dubbed by New Zealanders as "the greatest side ever to leave New Zealand", was the versatility of its players and their rugby intelligence. One example is the team's halfback, Danie Craven. Craven played Tests at number eight and number 10 as well as half back.

"Doc" Craven, with his two PhDs in Anthropology, was one of the greatest rugby thinkers the game has known. He wrote books on rugby theory. He was behind the creation of the 3-4-1 scrum which he had to teach to the 1949 All Blacks in South Africa. At his university at Stellenbosch he trialled all sorts of variations to the rugby laws. He told me once in an interview that the laws of rugby are "wrong" because they can't be written on a single sheet of paper like the football laws.

These qualities of versatility and deep thinking about the possibilities of the game have been used by the current Springboks coaches in the tradition of 1937 and Danie Craven. The 7-1 split relies on a number of players being able to play, and play well, in several positions. This versatility has not been understood by many rugby writers when analysing the tactics the Springboks used to win the 2023 RWC.

Take the reserve hooker, Deon Fourie. He has had a long career as a journeyman loose forward and hooker and as an international Sevens player in 2007. Aged 37 he is the oldest new Springbok. He is small for a hooker or a modern loose forward, with a height of 1.75 cm and weighing 96 kg. But he came on as hooker in the third minute of the game. He was the centrepiece of a scrum that held its own throughout the match. And in the loose he played with energy and power at the breakdown that enabled the coaches to hold back Kwagga Smith as their cover for any injured winger.

The Springboks coaching staff explained, too, that the 7-1 split was not a risk because they had players like Kolbe who could cover halfback and probably number 10 and fullback, based on his play in the final. Handre Pollard could cover the inside centre position; Damien Willemse could play as a number 10 or winger; Willie le Roux, the only back reserve, could cover any number of positions in the backline; and Kwagga Smith could play in the loose forward positions or on the wing.

The main problem with the 7-1 split is that it forces a game plan that necessitates winning the game the hard way through not scoring tries. Despite the All Blacks playing 50 minutes of the match with 14 players, after Sam Cane was given a red card, the Springboks could not score a try and only threatened to do so late in the match when the All Blacks were running the ball from inside their 22. And if the All Blacks had kicked just one of their missed shots at goal, the Springboks would have lost.

The point here is that the All Blacks missed their crucial kicks.

The Springbok coaching staff showed mastery of their craft when their hooker Bongi Mbonambi was injured by Shannon Frizell falling on his leg in the first minutes of the game. Deon Fourie was forced to come on 50 minutes before he was scheduled to. Referee Wayne Barnes was told by the coaching staff that Fourie was a "tactical replacement".

What this meant is that Mbonambi could come back if necessary and, more importantly, his replacement was not counted as such. The relevant law states that a tactically replaced player may return when replacing an injured front-rower. The replacement was not needed. But the fact that it was there, just in case, shows how shrewdly calculated the 7-1 split has been by the Springboks' coaches.

Incidentally, while Mbonambi was walking gingerly off the field, Rassie Erasmus could be seen in the coaching box, his hand covering his mouth to prevent his lips being read, in an animated manner telling the runners on the ground something, presumably to ensure that Barnes knew that Mbonambi was a "tactical replacement".

We come now to the disappointing aspect of the match: the mistakes made, in my opinion, by referee Barnes and several others made by the TMOs.

I preface this commentary by acknowledging that Barnes is the best referee in world rugby, that the laws are unduly complex and should be overhauled along the lines of the experimental law variations (ELVs) trialled in 2008, something an obdurate and feckless World Rugby has refused to do.

Much of the information in this section, but not all of it, comes from an article on Stuff, written by Aaron Goile and titled: "Rugby World Cup 2023 referee review: Was Wayne Barnes really that bad in the final?"

■ 3rd minute: Shannon Frizell yellow card.

Frizell fell on Mbonambi's leg - an incident that Wayne Barnes did not notice, even though it was in clear view. The TMO intervened, while Mbonambi was being assessed and walked off injured, and told Barnes that Frizell did "not attempt to roll" Mbonambi out of the way and "dropped his weight onto an exposed leg".

Faced with this interpretation of what happened by the TMO, Barnes had no option but to hand out a yellow card.

The law covering this incident states that "a player may lever the tackler out of contest but must not drop their weight or target the lower limbs. Sanction: Penalty".

When the TMO informs Barnes that the yellow card is not going to be upgraded to red because "he's not targeting the lower leg, but he falls on to the lower leg as part of the clearout", the basis for the yellow card is negated.

In other words, Frizell was not targeting Mbonambi's lower leg, so not even a penalty should have been awarded.

The Springboks kicked two penalties while Frizell was in the sin bin.

■ 18th minute: the apology to Ardie Savea.

Barnes penalises Savea for not releasing a tackled Springbok player before jackling the ball. "Clear release, please, you went down on the ground," Barnes tells Savea.

Barnes clearly did not see Savea make the required release.

How do we know this? Because, before the penalty shot was taken, the Big Screen showed the incident to the crowd, the players and the referee.

Barnes reaction was to say: "Sorry mate, I didn't see the replay, I thought you stayed on him. I didn't see it come off enough."

Why didn't the TMO then contact Barnes to change his decision?

Why didn't Barnes change his decision, as he did after he awarded Aaron Smith his "try" in the second half?

Handre Pollard kicked the penalty from this infringement.

■ The Cane and Kolisi high tackles: 29th minute - Sam Cane yellow card, upgraded to red; 46th minute - Siya Kolisi yellow card, not upgraded.

Aaron Goile combines these two initial yellow cards to the captains of the two sides, correctly in my opinion, to contrast the different outcomes.

He insists that the red card to Cane was the right decision. And that the Kolisi decision could have been, if the Cane precedent was followed, a red card too.

This is a line that virtually all the rugby writers commenting on the final seem to have taken. The yellow card for "direct contact" to the head was correct. But for me, the red card part was wrong.

Cane is seen standing upright to grab Jesse Kriel in a bear hug and force a scrum inside the Springboks' 22 and near enough to the middle of the field. Kriel charges into him, using his head essentially as a fend. This is one of those awkward cases, it seems to me, when the runner is more guilty of the head contact than the tackler.

The decision to convert the yellow card was taken by a group of referees in a bunker miles away from the ground, not by the TMO.

The way this transition from yellow to red operates is that the conversion to red requires a "high degree of danger, and no mitigation" involved from the tackler.

Where was the "high degree of danger" in the Cane tackle? There was no dropped shoulder. Kriel was not smashed. Kriel did not even require a head injury assessment. When the incident happened no one on the field, including Barnes, saw what the bunker seemed to see. Kriel, in fact, was the one who dropped his shoulder into Cane.

This red card meant that the All Blacks played for 50 minutes with 14 players.

It is no comfort to the All Blacks that the bunker got the Kolisi incident right. Kolisi was bent at the hips when he smashed into the head of Savea, admittedly. But his collision was much more violent than Cane's but did not go close to a red card offence.

■ 80th minute - Springboks' scrum reset.

When the final scrum of the match was being set there was 79 minutes 31 seconds left on the clock.

By the time Barnes called "set", Aaron Goile notes, the clock was set at 79 minutes 45 seconds. "The packs were steady for a good five seconds," Goile writes. "Yet the Springboks' halfback Faf de Klerk failed to put the ball in, as the All Blacks were putting on a good scrum."

Goile states the relevant law: Law 19.15 (Scrum-Throw) When both sides are square, stable and stationary, the scrum-half throws in the ball ... Without delay. Sanction: Free kick.

Five seconds is the time allowed for a halfback to clear the ball from a ruck when he has his hands on it.

Barnes should have given a short-arm penalty to the All Blacks. We will never know, because of this Barnes decision not to make a decision, whether the All Blacks had it in them to convert this free kick, not far from the Springboks try line, into points to win the final.

When de Klerk feeds the next scrum with 79 minutes 53 seconds on the clock, he did so in two seconds.

The All Blacks' big shove forced a turnover maul from the Springboks but time was up. De Klerk's great gamble paid off.

Fortune favours the crazy brave.

There were two more incidents, both involving Eben Etzebeth, when the Springboks somehow got away with play that should have exposed Etzebeth to two yellows and, therefore, a red card.

Planet Rugby is running a photo, clearly taken early in the final, of Etzebeth with the ball in one arm using his right forearm to whack Cane's jaw directly.

Where were the TMO officials on this incident?

Etzebeth's action was clearly yellow-card material- and given the bunker's decision on Cane, probably a red.

The importance of this mistake by the TMO officials becomes monstrous when we realise that not long after this, Cane was given his red card.

In the 36th minute of play the All Blacks were mounting a series of running plays near the Springboks' 22. For once they were getting quick ruck ball and the Springbok defence was scrambling to stay intact. 

A charge is made by the All Blacks that gets behind the defensive line. The Springboks flood back to fill in the holes in their line. By the time Aaron Smith fires off the next pass to move the ball out wide, most of the defenders are back but not settled. The pass is fired off. But what's this? The pass hits the body of Etzebeth as the last straggler making his way back on side.

Etzebeth raises his hands as the ball hits his nicely placed body as if to say, "What, me preventing a quick recycled ball? No way."

And Barnes accepts this feeble excuse. He tells Savea that Etzebeth is merely "running back to get back to his defensive line".

This was a disappointing ruling, to put it mildly. Etzebeth clearly timed his run to interfere with the continuing All Blacks attack. It was a clear-cut yellow card offence, given that when a pass is deliberately slapped down in an attack that has the potential to lead to a try, a yellow card is inevitable.

The reason I have discussed these rulings, which had a massive impact on the chances of the All Blacks winning the final, is not to claim "We wuz robbed". It is to put into perspective the full-hearted, hard-shouldered, gutsy, and determined running game the All Blacks played to almost pull off a seemingly impossible victory.

Despite playing the match for 60 minutes with only 14 players, the All Blacks, according to statistics provided by Simon Poidevin, "made 143 runs to the Springboks 83, beat 36 defenders to 13, and threw a total of 217 passes to the Springboks' 83, though the Springboks won the turnovers seven to three".

Planet Rugby's James White paid this tribute to the All Blacks and to the victors, the Springboks: "The All Blacks were magnificent, playing with 14 men for much of the game, most of the ambition came from their brilliant backs, but against a defence that racked up a total of 208 tackles and missed only 12 per cent of them. Territory was their enemy, forced to play from deep positions for most of the match as the Bok line speed held them back in their own half. Perhaps with that extra man things may have been different, but South Africa have made a habit of winning the tight margins and in Paris on Sunday they won the biggest one of all - the Rugby World Cup.'

To the victor, though, goes the glory.

The last word must go the inspirational Springboks captain, Solisi, when he explained the motivations behind the intense way he and his team have played in this RWC tournament: "The kids at schools are sending us clips of them singing because they know some of us like singing. People at work are wearing their green jerseys, anything that is green. We see that and that will continuously be our motivation. The majority of the people in our country are unemployed and some have no homes. For me, giving up and not giving everything would be cheating."

The 2019-2023 RWC-winning Springboks have become the team for a Rainbow Country, a Team for the Ages.

Wellington-born Spiro Zavos is a former rugby columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and the sports website TheRoar.com.au.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Guest post: Spiro Zavos thanks the gods of rugby

By Spiro Zavos

The Rugby World Cup trophy commemorates William Webb Ellis, the Rugby School lad who was supposed to have picked up the ball and run with it during a game on the Big Field in 1823. The point of World Rugby iconising Webb Ellis is to establish the truth that rugby must be a running and passing game, not a kicking game like football.

As the wording on the commemorative stone at Rugby School reads: "William Webb Ellis with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it."

England's Bully-Boy, No-Rugby tactics against the South African Springboks in the second semi-final of RWC 2023 represents, then, a travesty of all the best qualities inherent in the running rugby game that have emerged through the play of millions of players in over 100 countries since Webb Ellis' supposed "fine disregard" for the kicking-only game.

So right now rugby lovers around the world need to rise up in protest against England's brain-dead rejection of the essential running rugby ethic. We need to demand action in terms of significant law changes from World Rugby to thwart England's shameful regression to a No-Rugby game deployed against the Springboks.

As the nuns used to tell us at convent school: "What does it profit a man who gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his immortal soul?"

In rugby terms: "What does it profit a team to sell out the soul of rugby for a RWC semi-final win?"

Playing in the white-shirt colours of Rugby School, England disgraced the Rugby School tradition, its emphasis on sportsmanship, grace under pressure, running the ball, the thrill of the fair collision, honest physical conflict, shrewd tactics, fair play, and all the many other qualities that make the rugby game such a wonderful experience to play and watch.

Rugby should be a form of chess with tackling and running. Instead, England inflicted on a worldwide audience of 8.5 million people watching the semi-final what Gregor Paul in the New Zealand Herald called "an anti-rugby version" of the game that was nothing much more than "relentless brutality".

An English (supportive) journalist, Andy Bull, writing in the Guardian, was forced to concede that England had "a gameplan that was so devolved it was not modern rugby at all. It largely involved kicking the ball as often as possible - they did this 41 times in this semi-final - chasing after it to win it back, working their socks off in defence."

There is more. Jonathan Liew, also in the Guardian, wrote this scathing indictment about the way some rugby writers (mostly English) somehow celebrated the England's No-Rugby game plan: "So what, exactly, is being celebrated here? Certainly not the rugby itself ... England kicked away 93 per cent of their possession on Saturday night and spent a total of 73 seconds in the South Africa 22. They registered the slowest ruck speed of the tournament ... It was the first time at this World Cup that a team played an entire match without registering a single line break."

Who would want to play this sort of game on a permanent basis?

Who would want to watch this England version of cage-wrestling rugby?

England kicked so many times in the match that it became a kickathon. The pace of play was slower than snail speed. After virtually every scrap of slow-motion play the match stopped as England players collapsed to the ground as if shot by machine-gun fire. Medics and bottle-runners flooded the field, lengthening the breaks in play. Even when the excellent referee, Ben O'Keefe, told the England water-carriers to leave the field and not come back, they continued to defy him. There was constant niggling to antagonise the Springboks. Scrums and lineouts took an eternity to be resolved.

To top off all this time-wasting provocation, Owen Farrell behaved like a bully-boy leading his gang on a rampage rather than the captain of England in a RWC semi-final.

He screamed out "Hit 'em!" time after time when the Springboks had the ball. His face was contorted into an angry hyena roar as he confronted O'Keefe repeatedly throughout the match. The great tradition of rugby that the referee is the final arbiter of fact was trashed by Farrell, who refused to shut up when politely told to stop by O'Keefe.

Bully-boy Farrell was disrespectful and stupid. Marne Libbock, no great goal-kicker, was able to slot the Springboks opening penalty after O'Keefe, rightly offended by an incensed Farrell yelling at him when told to stop, penalised England 10m closer to their posts, making the kick much easier to convert.

There are rugby gods, though, and they are just. The unravelling of England's No-Rugby plan in the last minutes of the match proves this.

Let us go to the action to see how this story unfolds.

58 minutes: England 15, South Africa 6.

England win a lineout near the halfway. Farrell grubber-kicks to the corner. The Springbok winger Kurt-Lee Arendse fumbles the greasy ball. Knock-on. England ball to a scrum on the Springboks' 5-metre mark.

The England coaching box breaks out into laughter. This is the scrum, they seem to suggest, that will clinch England's win. Any points now by England will probably seal the match for them. The Stan Sport commentators begin to talk nonsense about England's "master class in winning a RWC semi-final".

The scrum is reset after an England prop puts his knee on the ground before the first shove.

The second scrum sees the Springbok Bomb Squad pack demolish the England eight. Penalty relief to the Springboks. Pressure is still on England to somehow hold on to its lead, which remains slightly vulnerable.

68 minutes: England 15, South Africa 13.

The Springboks have a scrum on England's 5-metre mark thanks to a booming penalty punt by Handre Pollard from the halfway mark.

Instead of using the rolling maul, the Springboks charge around the lineout to within metres of the try line.

The substitute lock, RG Synman, a giant of a man, smashes through three England defenders, including a passive Farrell, to score a try which is converted. The try is set up from a searing run from the back of the maul by his fellow Bomb Squad substitute, Deon Fourie.

The Springbok try has cancelled out Farrell's drop goal earlier in the half and one of his penalties, with a crucial 1-point margin left. The Springboks now only need a penalty to win the game.

This is South Africa's 27th try of the tournament.

England went into this game - and ended it - with only 19 tries. The folly of relying on penalties and drop goals only to win big matches is about to be exposed.

78 minutes: England 15, South Africa 16.

The Springboks are awarded a penalty near the 50m mark. Pollard never looks like missing the kick.

Behind for the first time in the match, England show nothing resembling the magnificent last Ireland onslaught, 37 phases in all, against the All Blacks in their quarter-final. They never really breach the Springboks' half. A casual dropped ball and it is all over for England.

And let us all thank the gods of rugby for this result.

The Springboks and their coaching staff, under the extremely difficult weather circumstances of the game and faced with England's provocative Bully Boy No-Rugby game, behaved in a smart and rugby-responsible way.

To begin with, the Springboks did not try to counter the No-Rugby tactics of England with equivalent tactics. Instead, the team and the coaching staff employed different tactics and players, from early on in the game, in an attempt to pull back England's early lead.

It was only after the match that the impish Springbok fullback Willie le Roux antagonised the crestfallen England players by imitating for his team-mates their (England's) on-field hi-fives and hurrahs whenever their side made a good play.

When it was clear, for instance, to the coaching staff that their playmaker Manie Libbok was struggling to impose the Springboks' varied game plan on England, he was hooked. Pollard, a vastly experienced player in wet weather and a renowned goal-kicker, came on. This was 35 minutes into the game. His first few plays were to try to move the ball through the backs.

As Paul Cully has pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Springboks won their way into the semi-finals by playing, or trying to play, ball-in-hand modern rugby. In their losing 8-13 match against Ireland, the Springboks kicked 16 times to Ireland's 20.

But the coaches worked out by half-time that England's No-Rugby tactics and the windy and cold conditions required the Springboks to play a more restricted game plan based on dominance in the set pieces. This, in turn, meant that all 23 of the playing squad had to spend significant time on the field to make a significant impact.

With Pollard already on the field, the coaches early in the second half replaced the talismanic second-rower, Eben Etzebeth, with the try scorer Synman.

Was there a thought about keeping Etzebeth, a workhorse during the tournament, slightly fresher for the final? Probably not. Etzebeth had lacked his usual energy and power. He was replaced by a bigger and more powerful player.

To provide more energy in the backs, Cobus Reinach was replaced by the aggressive Faf de Klerk and Damian Willemse, who was finding the conditions a challenge to his dry-field skills, was replaced by the experienced Willie le Roux.

Then Vincent Koch, Ox Nche and Deon Fourie came on. By the 45th minute the Springboks' coaches had taken their big gamble and unleashed their Bomb Squad to change, they hoped, what looked like an inevitable England victory.

And the gamble worked, but with only minutes remaining in the match. It was a close-run thing and the early intervention was probably the key factor in the ultimate win.

The Springboks coaching staff provided a real-time master class in crisis management. Sir Clive Woodward reckons this staff is the best technical coaching staff currently in the world rugby.

I'm inclined to agree. They have tried to make the standard power game of the Springboks more expansive. They have been innovative with using their reserves, especially in the way they have occasionally loaded the bench with up to seven forwards and one back. Some of their set plays, too, especially in the forwards, have been imaginative.

They have in effect created two teams within their 23-man squad on match day: an expansive side to start the match and a power squad to finish it.

And just to finish, a note on the All Blacks' superlative seven-try victory over a courageous Pumas in the first semi-final.

Elements of the British media that praised England's No-Rugby effort diminished the All Blacks' victory by suggesting, for instance, that their "ruthless efficiency on both sides of the ball turned the RWC semi-final against Argentina ... into little more than a training run".

This putdown does not take notice of the spirited start the Pumas made when attack after attack, with ball in hand and hard-shouldered running, put pressure on the All Blacks' defence. And it diminishes the excellent of the All Blacks attack that saw them score a record number of tries against a historically tough Pumas defence.

Greg Gardner, the Australian referee, was accused of turning the match in favour of the All Blacks when he ruled an advantage over, which in turn led to a try by the All Blacks flanker Shannon Frizell.

According to Andy Bull in the Guardian, this was the "one last moment when it looked as though Argentina might just cling on, when New Zealand were leading 15-6 and conceded a knock-on in kicking distance, but it came and went as quickly as the advantage Gardner awarded for it".

This is a nonsense analysis.

To begin with, knock-ons result in scrums, not penalties, and the All Blacks' scrum monstered the Pumas eight throughout the match.

Second, Gardner, who had an excellent match, explained to the Pumas' captain that his team had cleared play from two rucks successfully before they knocked the ball on. Under the laws of rugby, Gardner was required to call the advantage over: "Advantage ends when the referee deems that the non-offending team has gained an advantage." This clearly was the case in the sequence under discussion.

Bull, along with a number of other British journalists, was also critical of the All Blacks' coaching staff for playing out the last six minutes of play without allowing Scott Barrett to return from his yellow card sin bin: "Apparently, they decided that it would be better preparation for next week to play a man short for the last five minutes. So the Cup semi-final ended up being treated like a practice match."

Again, this is a nonsense analysis.

The All Black coaches had cleared their bench of reserves before Barrett was sent to the sin bin. There was no player to replace him. There were six minutes of play to go and the All Blacks were leading 44-6. If Barrett went back on to the field there remained the risk of him getting another yellow card - slight, perhaps, but a risk. Two yellow cards make up a red card. And a red card would mean that he would not play in the RWC final.

The fact is that the All Blacks were the most impressive of the sides playing in the semi-finals. As the UK Telegraph writers, Daniel Schofield and Cameron Henderson, noted: "The All Blacks may have lost some of their aura in recent years, but their speed of thought and deed make them a frightful proposition heading into their fifth final."

So the All Blacks and the Springboks go into the final of RWC 2023 with the splendid record of both teams having won the Webb Ellis trophy three times. The Springboks have played in two fewer tournaments than the All Blacks, starting their participation in RWC 1995. They also defeated the All Blacks in the RWC 1995 final when President Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springboks jersey, came on to Ellis Park to shake hands with the teams. The two teams have played each other five times in RWC tournaments, with the All Blacks winning three and the Springboks two.

This match-up on Sunday morning of the two best teams in RWC history, with one of them to became a four-times Rugby World Champion, looks like being a rugby game for the ages.

Tying this essay together, then, in an effort to make sense of last weekend's RWC 2023 semi-finals, is this liturgy:

The rugby they play in Heaven was played by the All Blacks against the Pumas.

The rugby they play in Purgatory was played by the Springboks against England.

The rugby they play in Hell was played by England against the Springboks.

Wellington-born Spiro Zavos is a former rugby columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and the sports website TheRoar.com.au.

Friday, October 20, 2023

Suddenly, the media are unimportant - and it hurts

I sometimes wonder whether political reporters ever pause to think how precious and entitled their behaviour looks to outsiders.

I doubt it. They are too self-absorbed.

Right now, members of the parliamentary press gallery are feeling peevish. After feasting for years on a rich banquet of political news and sensation, they suddenly find themselves on starvation rations. And they’re not taking it well.

Post-election, everything has come to a dead halt. We are in the customary hiatus period when the leaders of the successful parties disappear from public view to conduct their horse-trading.

As an aside, this is one of the downsides of MMP that no one talks about. Ironically, an electoral system that was supposed to encourage transparency had the reverse effect.

When coalition talks begin, all bets are off. The politicians disappear behind closed doors and all the pledges and promises solemnly made on the campaign trail are up for negotiation. Voters can’t see what’s going on and have no influence over the outcome.

Inscrutability comes with the territory. It’s what we voted for in the early 1990s when we decided to punish politicians - you may permit yourself a rueful grin here - for breaking promises and not being honest about their intentions. But it frustrates the hell out of the media.

Thus we get moments of exquisite preciousness from people such as NewstalkZB’s Jason Walls, whose pride was wounded when Christopher Luxon said he wouldn’t indulge in “parlour games” with the media over the substance of coalition talks.

This, Walls pronounced with no trace of self-awareness, was “terrifically offensive … it’s actually called reporting the news to the New Zealand public.”

Er, no it’s not. You can’t report news when there is none. When the details of a formal coalition arrangement have been hammered out, we’ll be told. Until then the players are bound to play their cards close to their chests. It’s not an ideal set of circumstances, but that’s the way it is.

It's not, however, what the media are accustomed to. They’re conditioned to expect that politicians will bend over backwards to humour them (Winston Peters being a standout exception), and for once, just for a few weeks, the shoe is on the other foot.

Walls’ indignation indicates his apparent failure to accept that after being indulged by politicians for the past three years – and never more intensively than during the election campaign, when the need for favourable public exposure is greatest – the media are suddenly unimportant. The politicians don’t need them right now; in fact the media just get in the way.

It’s a tough adjustment for political journalists to make, but do I feel sorry for them? No, and I doubt there’ll be much public sympathy either. (Incidentally, where did Wells get that weird accent? It’s unlike any I’ve ever heard.)

TVNZ’s Jessica Mutch-McKay was another who pompously played the journalists-as-noble-guardians-of-the-public-interest card. Shayne Currie reports today that Mutch-McKay lectured Luxon at a media stand-up, telling him: “You talk about your negotiations and you’ve done a lot before [sic].

“This is very different because you are an elected prime minister. We are the Fourth Estate that represents the public and it feels like you’re treating us like we’re the ones that are hyped up.

“We’re not, we’re the ones asking on behalf of the public, who have [an] interest in what’s going on. Can you see where we’re coming from?”

This appeal to Luxon’s sense of public obligation might have some moral weight if (a) he had anything substantive to announce and (b) if all members of the press gallery were consistent and conscientious about fulfilling their own obligation to inform the public fully and fairly on matters of public interest. But the media have squandered whatever moral authority they might once have enjoyed through a pattern of partisan, highly selective and often embarrassingly petty political reportage.

That the election has disrupted the normal relationship between politicians and the media was evident in other ways too – almost comically in the case of veteran West Coast Labour MP and cabinet minister Damien O’Connor when he was ambushed by a media pack eager to know whether the party leadership was likely to change.

Accosted on his way to the toilet during a Labour caucus meeting, O’Connor told a reporter to fuck off. I wonder how often MPs from both sides of the House have desperately wanted to say that, or a variant thereof, when bailed up and asked asinine questions.

On this occasion the normally amiable O’Connor, doubtless feeling out of sorts after losing his seat, didn’t hold back. On RNZ’s Midweek Mediawatch, Hayden Donnell noted the irony that for once, a politician gave a heartfelt response to a question rather than rehearsing formulaic, pre-prepared lines, and copped a media backlash as a result.

If only more politicians could be so viscerally honest occasionally. I don’t think the public would think less of them. If anything, quite the reverse.

Astonishingly, O’Connor was stopped again on his way back from the dunny. This illustrates a striking characteristic of the press gallery media pack: a sort of dull, brutish insensitivity and sense of entitlement that’s manifested in oafish rudeness and a failure to recognise that continuing to ask the same questions, when a response is clearly not forthcoming, is stupid as well as pointless. The pack mentality - the excitement of the chase - takes over and common sense takes flight.

We saw the same phenomenon when reporters pursued Peters through Wellington Airport, peppering him with fatuous questions that he obviously wasn’t going to dignify with an answer.

Of course it’s often the case in such instances that reporters are far less interested in obtaining a genuinely useful morsel of information than in simply provoking a reaction. TV viewers watching the news realise this, which does nothing to lift journalists off the bottom rungs of the public respect scale. 
I don't think political journalists realise just how cynically they are regarded by the public. They are immune in their bubble.

Another testy exchange took place between Newshub’s Amelia Wade and Helen White, the new Labour MP (for the time being, at least) for Mt Albert. Wade was gratuitously provocative, asking White whether she was embarrassed by the result in her electorate (where Jacinda Ardern’s 22,000 majority in 2020 was cut to a mere 106 on election night) and more bluntly, “How did you do so badly?”

This appeared to be a classic case of a question being asked in the hope that it will goad the respondent into an injudicious (and therefore bulletin-leading) response. I suspect Newshub’s political journalists are under standing instructions to take this approach.

The confrontation between White and Wade illustrated another immutable verity of political journalism. When you’re a predator, all wounded politicians, regardless of their party affiliations, make irresistibly tempting prey. In that respect, if in no other, political reporters tend to be impeccably even-handed.

This in turn points to an even bigger truth: the media always win. They just shift their targets as circumstances dictate.

Unlike politicians who must submit themselves for re-election, journalists are not held accountable and almost invariably escape punishment when they get things wrong. They have no skin in the game and nothing personally at stake. They create their scandals-du-jour and move on, rarely pausing to look back.

Power without responsibility, the British prime minister Stanley Baldwin famously called it (although credit for the phrase is given to his cousin, Rudyard Kipling). Or to paraphrase a cynical British writer: journalists hide in the hills while the fighting rages, then come down and bayonet the wounded.

That being said, it’s important to state that not all political journalists are egotistical, feckless sensation-hunters. The harm is done by those who hunt as a pack, and more especially by those who play the alpha predator at media stand-ups and thus tend to be most in the public eye. To those more traditional political reporters who are conscientious and committed to the values and principles of good journalism, I apologise now for slurring them by association.






Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Guest post: Spiro Zavos on that torrid RWC quarter-final and the Irish curse

Ireland were not literally or even metaphorically hung or drawn by the New Zealand at Stade de France. But they were quartered, as in being booted out of the tournament by a brilliant All Blacks team 28 -24.

An enduring sequence of quarter-final failures at RWC tournaments has now become The Curse for Ireland.

Tim Horan in his comments on the match made the point that quarter-finals are the most important round of the RWC tournament because success ensures the winning teams of access to the last two weeks of play, with semi-finals and a third-place playoff possibilities, and the final for the last two teams standing.

The Stade de France result, in a RWC tournament that Ireland expected to win - a prediction supported by heavyweight rugby pundits - is now the eighth lost RWC quarter-final the men in green have experienced in all eight of their RWC quarter-final appearances: 1987, 1991, 1995, 2003, 2011, 2015, 2019 and now 2023.

To add to this misery, the last time Ireland even led its opponents in a RWC quarter-final was back in 1995.

Ireland is the only one of the so-called Home Unions (the others being Wales, Scotland and England) that has never progressed to a RWC semi-final.

Compare this record with England's. In this RWC 2023, a lacklustre England side with a newish coach, Steve Borthwick, who replaced Eddie Jones, defeated Fiji at Marseilles 30 -24, in its quarter-final match. It now faces South Africa in the semi-finals.

This is the sixth RWC quarter-final match England has won out of the nine they have played.

England, also, are the only Northern Hemisphere team that has won the Webb Ellis trophy, with their famous triumph in RWC 2003.

There are various reasons, presumably, why Ireland has been defeated in all its RWC quarter-final matches. We cannot canvas them all here. But I think I can pinpoint the reason why The Curse struck this time. Just follow me with this because it is slightly complicated.

The draw for RWC 2023 was correctly described by rugby pundits as "bizarre".

The top four teams in the world, Ireland, South Africa, France and New Zealand, were loaded into the same half of the draw, in Pool A and Pool B.

In the pool rounds Ireland played South Africa and France played New Zealand. The losers of these Big Four pool round matches played the winner in their respective quarter-finals.

The way this draw worked out meant that in the quarter-finals, Ireland, a winner of their pool round match against South Africa, played New Zealand, a loser in their quarter-final against France, with France playing South Africa in their quarter final.

This, in turn, meant that two of the four teams that had a good chance of winning the RWC 2023 tournament would be eliminated in the quarter-finals.

In effect, the quarter-finals for this 2023 RWC tournament became the semi-finals.

Now, here is the interesting part. Both of the teams defeated in the pool round, New Zealand and South Africa, went on to beat their previously undefeated pool round opponents, Ireland and France.

My take from all of this is that behind Ireland's loss to the All Blacks was the energy-sapping physical and mental effort the men in green invested in their hard-fought pool-round victory over the Springboks.

In that match Ireland played all its cards - its retaining-the-ball tactics, its energy, its will-to-win, its muscular defence and its emotional capital - to defeat the Springboks 13-8.

In terms of the way RWC tournaments work, a team can lose a pool round and still win the tournament. The Springboks did this in RWC 2019 - and with their victory over France, are in the hunt to repeat their triumph of four years ago.

By playing all its cards in its pool-round match against the Springboks, Ireland, in my opinion, won the poker-hand pool round. But this win set the team up for losing the big payout of a quarter-final triumph. It was, as the ancients would put it, a pyrrhic victory for the ages.

The Ireland that played the All Blacks at Stade de France in the knock-out quarter-final did not have the same flair and hardness, both mental and physical, as the All Blacks. They were a team that seemed to play by numbers more than passion. They were rote rather than inventive in adapting to the circumstances that unfolded during the game.

Ireland never played the ball wide in the match even though the All Blacks were operating a tight defensive line. Johnny Sexton did not try even one of his trademark and deadly effective loop plays. The team was off the pace both on attack and defence. Where were the killer plays they have routinely pulled off in Tests over the last four years?

Stephen Jones, never one to praise the All Blacks, explained Ireland's problems in trying to win the match this way: "Ireland probably had the majority of possession, and they let nobody down, but on the day they seemed to be up against a team who were tactically and probably technically superior, and Johnny Sexton at fly-half simply could not conjure up a winning score as the game went on and on."

I believe that while the All Blacks did not throw their match against France, they did not, as Ireland did against the Springboks, reveal their full arsenal of attacking and defensive plays and expend all their physical and mental energy against up pumped-up France in the opening match.

In other words, they weren't greatly worried if they lost this opening match of the 2023 RWC tournament.

They anticipated that Ireland would defeat the Springboks. This meant the All Blacks would have to play Ireland in the quarter-final, rather than the Springboks. My hunch is that the All Blacks coaching staff were more comfortable playing Ireland than they were about countering the Springboks early in the finals.

In the back of the mind of the All Blacks coaching staff (and please remember I am surmising this) was the thought that Ireland's two successive wins against New Zealand in 2022 were helped significantly by yellow cards that were dished out against the All Blacks.

In fact, in a media conference after the All Blacks' victory over Ireland at Stade de France, coach Ian Foster talked about the two yellow cards dished out to his players by referee Wayne Barnes (who also controlled the third New Zealand-Ireland Test in 2022) and how Ireland seemed to magically conjure yellow cards against their opponents from willing referees.

And on the All Blacks coaching staff was Joe Schmidt, the former Ireland coach who started that team on its road from a middle-tier rugby nation to a world power.

It was under Schmidt that Johnny Sexton became a world class number 10. Schmidt, presumably, gave the All Blacks inside knowledge of the attacking plays Sexton likes to use. And, more importantly, how to counter these plays.

Schmidt's game plan for Ireland, too, when he coached them, remained essentially Farrell's game plan, There was a slight difference in that Farrell, a former rugby league hardman, has given a toughness and abrasive quality to Ireland's defence.

To put all of this theorising into some match-play context, it is curious that against France the All Blacks invariably kicked long and played Beauden Barrett often as the first playmaker.

In my comments after this match, I argued that the All Blacks could not win the RWC tournament or indeed even get out of the quarter-finals if this pattern of using Barrett was continued.

Against Ireland, interestingly, there was an entirely different strategy. Aaron Smith and Richie Mo'unga kicked short-high balls for their forwards to regather, and Beauden Barrett and Mo'unga kicked lobs over the top of the Irish defenders for themselves to grab and carry on the attack.

Beauden Barrett was kept out of the first receiver role and Mo'unga was given the major responsibility for calling the plays. Mo'unga had the role of playmaker and Barrett the role of an attacking third winger-fullback.

Before the tournament started the South African rugby greats, Jean de Villiers and Victor Matfield, predicted that France would play the Springboks and the All Blacks would play Ireland in the quarter-finals. Did they reveal a master plan from the Springboks camp? Anyway, as President Joe Biden famously said about a different situation, "Son of a gun, what do you think happened?"

For the record, the All Blacks' loss to France was their first ever RWC pool round loss. It was noticeable that the All Blacks coaching staff seemed to accept the loss with calmness rather than any sense of panic.

As for RWC quarter-finals, the All Blacks record is now nine matches and eight wins. The one loss was in RWC 2007 when France pulled off an upset victory at Cardiff 20-18. And here we come to another part of the puzzle of the All Blacks' remarkable revival of form against Ireland.

The referee for that Cardiff match was a callow newcomer: Wayne Barnes.

A report of the match by Pro Sport noted that the All Blacks were "hammered in the penalty count by a young English referee, Wayne Barnes".

I wrote in The Roar about this upset loss by the All Blacks that "remarkably, Wayne Barnes did not give the All Blacks a single penalty in the final 60 minutes of play", even though they were camped inside the French 22 for most of that time hammering away at the try line.

I pointed out, too, that "Barnes and his assistant referee, Jonathan Kaplan, who was metres away from the incident, missed an obvious forward pass in the build-up to France's second try, the match-winner".

That loss remains deeply entrenched in the New Zealand psyche. Many New Zealanders have never forgiven Barnes for his refereeing on that day.

But, and this is the important point, the All Blacks have moved on from RWC 2007. They acknowledge - rightly - that Barnes is now one of the best referees in world rugby. He knows the names of the rugby players, he speaks French to the French players, he is accurate with his decisions and is not afraid to make tough calls.

The All Blacks showed this respect early in the quarter-final when the Man of the Match, Ardie Savea, was penalised by Barnes for a mistake in the ruck.

Savea looked up at Barnes as he clambered to his feet, got an explanation, nodded his head in agreement and got back into position for the next play. Savea then went on to make several crucial turnovers that passed the Barnes scrutiny.

At scrum-time, too, Barnes correctly ruled against the Ireland front row's boring in and wheeling the scrum tactics, decisions that gave the All Blacks some early and welcome penalties.

He was just as accurate and tough, though, on the All Blacks, giving them two yellow cards: one for collapsing a maul on their try-line and another to Aaron Smith for sticking out an arm that prevented an Ireland pass going to hand during an attacking movement. This second yellow card seemed a bit harsh but was seemingly imposed on Barnes by the TMO.

Minutes into full time, after Ireland had launched the most determined attack in RWC history with 37 or 39 phases (counts vary) to enforce a winning try, Barnes, with great integrity given the feverish Irish supporters cheering on their side's onslaught, awarded a turnover penalty to Sam Whitelock.

The decision meant that the All Blacks only had to kick the ball into touch legally, that is with an initial tap, and the match was over.

Barnes' refereeing performance, in fact, prompted the former England player Nic Easter to praise him this way: "Wayne Barnes doesn't miss a thing. He has been able to spot things that other referees might overlook, His performance played a crucial role in an incredible game."

The reaction to decisions made by Barnes from some of Ireland's supporters at the Stade de France and on social media, in the context of the superb display of the refereeing craft he gave, was disgraceful.

It was matched, unfortunately, by Johhny Sexton's verballing of Barnes throughout the match. The contrast between this behaviour by Sexton and Savea's spoke a lot about the mental strength of the two players.

Even when Barnes explained correctly, on one occasion, that Bundee Aki's head had not been hit or even touched by an All Black player, Sexton continued to badger him to give a penalty to Ireland. It was as if Sexton was blaming the referee for the way the match was turning against Ireland.

I always think that when players start blaming the referee for their own poor play they are well on the road to a defeat.

It seemed to me, too, as if Ireland's feverish fervour for a quarter-final victory was so intense for some of the team's players and supporters that the normal good grace of the Ireland team and its supporters was put on hold for the game.

It was disappointing, for instance, for anyone who has a regard for the traditions of rugby that the crowd, Ireland supporters in their tens of thousands, deliberately drowned out the chanting of the All Blacks haka, a rugby ritual that goes back to the Wales-New Zealand first Test at Cardiff Arms Park in 1905.

Irish crowds are famous for their respect for opposition sides, even to the extent of imposing a cone of silence around the ground when there are kicks at goal. So it was out of character that their enthusiasm for their side at the Stade de France saw them show such disrespect for Ireland's opponents on the day.

Where Ireland go next in the world rankings and as a major rugby power is an intriguing question. Coach Andy Farrell concedes that the great team he brought to this RWC tournament no longer exists.

Can he construct another great Ireland side in the next four years?

Will the small number of fully professional rugby players available for selection, about 160 of them, create a large enough pool of talent capable of continuing to win major tournaments?

We are told that Ireland's system of a handful of elite clubs, clear pathways for young players to learn how to play effective rugby through academies and a strong school competition should ensure strong numbers coming into the professional game.

There is also a great tradition of playing rugby in Dublin in the great Public Schools that goes back at least to pre-1914 days when James Joyce, of all people, wrote about the game in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, admittedly expressing his character's reluctance to get out of bed on chilly mornings to go to rugby practice.

And then there is a theory that can be called Rugby Darwinism.

Let me introduce Ben Darwin, a former Wallaby prop forward, now the founder of Gain Line Analytics, a sports analytics firm, and his "teamwork index" theory.

This account of Darwin's "teamwork index" is based on an article in the Australian Financial Review (17/09/23) by Jonathan Shapiro, where he explained the TWI this way:
"It is based on three measures - long-term cohesion, which is the time team members have spent playing together more than two years ago: medium term cohesion - which is time spent within two years, and finally in-season cohesion, which has the highest weighting.

'It led to the conclusion that money buys skill, but not success, that talent flourishes best in familiar environments and greatness is built carefully and methodically."

Ireland's current success at club and international rugby, according to Darwinism, is due in large part to the "cohesiveness" the national team has achieved through players having played together for years at school, club and then international level.

Paul Cully, in the Sydney Morning Herald, has pointed out that 10 of Ireland's starting XV against Scotland, for instance, play for Leinster.

Ben Darwin has touted Ireland's recent defeats of the All Blacks as proof of his TWI theory. Moreover, he has predicted that Northern Hemisphere teams will start defeating Southern Hemisphere teams on a more regular basis than in the past as they reduce the number of club sides they have in their premier competitions.

Well, perhaps or perhaps not. 

My view is that Rugby Darwinism may work from time to time with nations with a small pool of players.

But the future, it seems to me, still remains with the traditional rugby powers of South Africa and New Zealand with their deep rugby culture, their history of success, the extensive pool of players, their coaching excellence and their long pathways for players of ability to come through to their national teams.

The diversity of New Zealand rugby, with Maori and, increasingly, Pacific Island players being involved in national teams and in leadership positions, has always been its greatest strength.

South African rugby is flourishing, too, in terms of competitions won since the game and leadership positions were opened up to all races in the Republic.

This future of South African and New Zealand hegemony, of course, will always be challenged by other nations, like France, Australia, Argentina, England, Wales and Ireland (if that team can ever beat The Curse of the RWC quarter-final).

But the Rugby Darwinism theory needs to embrace the hard fact that all these teams, with the exception of the Wallabies, between them have won only one Webb Ellis trophy since Rugby World Cup tournaments started in 1987.

And as the quarter-finals of RWC 2023 seem to suggest, a continuing dominance by the top Southern Hemisphere teams is informed on results rather than spreadsheets.

Three of the four winners of last weekend's quarter-finals - New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina - are the dreaded Southern Hemisphere part of the rugby power zone.

At the beginning of the RWC 2023 tournament several British rugby writers fearlessly predicted that the semi-finals could include, for the first time, all Northern Hemisphere teams.

This brings me to my punch line to sum up RWC 2023 results so far  - a joke that is doing the rounds of rugby tragics:

"Rugby is a simple game. Thirty men chase a ball for 80 minutes, and at the end, a Southern Hemisphere team wins the World Cup."

Boom, boom.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Time for a breather

The preliminary results are in, and perhaps the best thing we can all do – me included – is take a deep breath and calm down.

New Zealand is feeling ragged and bruised. It has been a testing few years. We all need some recovery time.

The Covid pandemic had far-reaching consequences – I mean socially, politically and economically, rather than medically – that weren’t necessarily obvious at the time, but which played out in the election results.

On top of that we had catastrophic weather events of biblical proportions. These were not Labour’s fault, and to be fair, the government probably did as much as it could to mitigate the effects. But the damage and disruption caused by Cyclone Gabrielle and the Auckland Anniversary Weekend storms had an unsettling effect on the national psyche and may have contributed to a mood for change.

Now the people have spoken, and in the words of the late Mike Moore when Labour lost the election in 1990, the people are always right. It may be over-optimistic to suggest it’s a time for the country to heal, but it’s a time for the smoke to clear and the dust to settle.

Here in the Wairarapa, where I live, ousted MP Kieran McAnulty set an admirable conciliatory example by turning up at the election night celebrations of his victorious National rival, Mike Butterick, and delivering a generous and sincere speech of congratulations.

A quietening of social media would be helpful. Nothing does more to create the feeling that New Zealanders are at war with each other than feverish 24/7 online agitation by mischief-makers from across the political spectrum. But that may be a forlorn hope, judging by journalist and professional attention-seeker David Farrier’s Twitter post reported today in the Herald.

And speaking of journalists, I wonder whether the Parliamentary Press Gallery will take heed of this morning's blog post by Barrie Saunders. That too may be too much to hope for.


Friday, October 13, 2023

Australia has never looked more appealing

It came as no surprise to read that the number of New Zealanders leaving the country approached record levels in the year to August 31.

There was a net migration loss of 42,600 New Zealand citizens, not far short of the record loss of 44,400 in 2012. More than half of those leavers were bound for Australia.

Overall, migration figures show an unprecedented population increase. Annual migrant arrivals reached an all-time high of 225,400. Most of the new arrivals came from India, China, the Philippines, Fiji and South Africa.

New Zealand must seem an attractive destination to people from countries suffering from overcrowding, poverty, political repression, pollution, violence and corruption. But the migration figures also tell another, less encouraging story.

New Zealand is looking less and less hospitable to people who have grown up here. They remember what the country of their birth used to be like and they know what it’s capable of being. They have watched with dismay as a prosperous, settled, liberal democracy has been destabilised and transformed into a squabbling, sullen and ill-tempered society that they no longer recognise.

They have not only seen economic prospects – historically a key driver of emigration – diminished by an incompetent, profligate government; they have also watched with mounting disquiet as social cohesion has been undermined by extreme, officially sanctioned ideological agendas that have prevailed unchallenged since 2020.

Even more depressingly, many see little prospect of improvement post-election. Small wonder, then, that so many New Zealanders find Australia appealing. I suspect that many of those who have already left shut the door behind them, albeit regretfully, and have no intention of returning. Those of us who remain are diminished by their loss.

As is often the pattern with external migration, many of those who have gone will have been skilled, highly educated and ambitious for social and economic advancement. As Kiwibank economist Jarrod Kerr observed, “We lose trained, smart individuals. That is something that worries us.”

The leavers will no doubt have been encouraged by an Australian law change last year that eased the pathway to Australian citizenship. This was naively greeted by the media – and celebrated by the New Zealand government – as a breakthrough after years of Australian intransigence.

In fact the Australians would have been motivated less by a sudden, uncharacteristic rush of goodwill toward their neighbours across the Ditch than by the realisation that opening the doors to talented and well-trained New Zealanders made perfect sense, especially when a recovering post-Covid Australian economy was desperate for skilled, hard-working (and English-speaking) people.

In other words, what was played up by New Zealand politicians as a gain was in fact Australia cleverly taking advantage of mounting social, political and economic unease under a floundering Labour government here. To put it bluntly, we were screwed. And it worked: the Guardian reported in August that New Zealanders were applying for Australian citizenship at the rate of 375 a day.

The latest migration figures particularly resonated with me because my wife and I have just spent two weeks in Queensland. While there, I couldn’t help but be struck by the vibrant, dynamic, prosperous vibe and the general mood of positivity. It stood in striking contrast to the sulky, bitchy mood at home.

We stayed with my brother-in-law and his wife in Brisbane and our son and his family in Noosa. They enjoy a very good life, a high standard of living and didn’t give me the impression of pining for home.

I drove up to Hervey Bay to visit a cousin, I spent an enjoyable day with a former colleague from my Nelson Evening Mail days and we had a long lunch with an old friend of our son who moved to Brisbane many years ago. Our friend's parents and siblings had made the move too.

They are among the estimated 670,000-plus New Zealanders living in Australia. Two nephews and a niece have also settled there, along with several old school friends and an almost uncountable number of ex-workmates. Most are still proud to call themselves Kiwis but they are better off there.

We spent several years in Australia in the early 1970s – our first child was born there – but I had never thought about returning there to live. This time I did. The appeal of Australia historically ebbs and flows, but right now it’s running very high.

It’s not just the lure of the climate and the beaches, enticing though they are. It’s something much more elemental than that. It’s the feeling that New Zealand has become a broken, demoralised society – a perception accentuated when I made the mistake of visiting NZ news websites while in Queensland and read mostly about violent crime and failing infrastructure.

As a former news editor I have to remind myself that a lot of news is, by definition, bad. Still, stories about a massive sinkhole opening up in the centre of Auckland and the unexplained damage to the iconic Ranfurly Shield (not to mention the implication that illegal drugs were involved in the latter incident) seemed somehow symbolic of a country in decline.

This negative perception was magnified on the bus trip into Wellington from the airport on our return. The once proud capital (remember the “Absolutely Positively Wellington” campaign?) looked like Dublin in the 1980s, which is not a flattering comparison. The first people we saw on the streets were a trio of high-as-a-kite derelicts falling about in a Kilbirnie bus shelter. Vape shops and tattoo parlours lined the route and the city generally looked unkempt and unloved. It couldn't have made a more striking contrast with the shining, humming Brisbane we had left behind.

Of course Australia has its issues too. Tomorrow’s referendum on whether Aborigines should have a constitutionally enshrined “voice” in Parliament was the dominant story while we were there, and it’s an issue as divisive as co-governance (with which it has obvious parallels) here.

Australia, like New Zealand and virtually every other English-speaking democracy, is also mired in the culture wars initiated by neo-Marxists in the universities. But from the perspective of a New Zealander, these problems, as long as they occur in Australia, have the great virtue of being someone else’s. I don’t feel I have any emotional stake in them, nor any right to pronounce an opinion. Here is different; this is my country.

All of which brings us to the election. And for the first time, after a lot of thought, I’ve decided to exercise a passive protest by not casting a party vote. I will be among the hundreds of thousands of abstainers who threaten to make this the lowest turnout in New Zealand election history

It’s not just that I find the options too thoroughly depressing. Rather, I see no good whatsoever coming from this election and don’t want to feel responsible in any way for the outcome – which, however the voting plays out, will almost inevitably perpetuate the paralysing malaise gripping the country and condemn us to further decline. 

In the end, the decision came down to a relatively simple calculus. Do I desperately want to get rid of the Labour government and its Green hangers-on? Yes. But even to the extent of giving my vote to parties that I can't in conscience support? No.

I won’t join the exodus to Australia, because we have deep family attachments here. But New Zealand feels buggered, not to put too fine a point on it, and I have no confidence that whatever wretched, compromised hybrid government rises from the post-election swamp after tomorrow will have the will, the ability or the moral fibre to fix it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Guest post: Spiro Zavos on the psychic pleasures of the 2023 RWC

(A long read but worth it, even if you're not a rugby enthusiast.)

Hollywood could not have scripted the climatic last 15 minutes of Fiji v Portugal, the final match of the pool rounds of RWC 2023, much better for thrills and spills. So roll the tape.

Fiji, down 10-17 to Portugal, confront a Perils of Pauline series of episodes to avoid a bonus-point loss that will boot them out of the finals.

Portugal, playing passionately for a first RWC win that will transport the side into rugby immortality, confront their Billy Elliot moment.

We are in disaster territory for Fiji.

And glory territory for the Os Lobos players, for Portugal rugby and their passionate supporters.

Portugal now make a mistake in the ruck.

From the penalty, Fiji kick to their opponents' five-metre mark. There is a ferocious series of mauls and hard-shouldered drives, with the Fiji onslaught resembling a beach-head invasion, before Mesake Doge powers across the try line.

Frank Lomani kicks the conversion. Fiji 17, Portugal 17.

We are in the 68th minute now. There is still time for Fiji to lose the game by eight or more points.

After some frenetic play from the kick-off, Portugal are caught off-side from a defensive lineout. Lomani boots the goal.

We are in the 73rd minute and Fiji now lead 20-17.

From the next series of play, Fiji field the kick-off, win a penalty from the ensuing lineout and Lomani kicks a 43m goal.

Fiji 23, Portugal 17.

The clock shows 76 minutes of play gone. The ticking clock has become the friend of Fiji and the enemy of Portugal.

For the crux of the drama has now changed. Fiji will make the finals. There are no more threatening perils for the side to be navigated.

But Portugal can still win the match if, and it is a mighty IF, they can score a converted try. The drama of the script now hangs on whether there will be a Billy Elliot triumph for the underdogs.

The commentators tell their television audience that Portugal look "fatigued" from the pace of the game. The tough draw against Georgia the week before is taking its toll on the energy levels of the players, they opine.

Portugal field the kick-off and go through a desultory ball-in-hand series plays that move the ball more across the field than forward.

It looks like the fatigue theory is right.

Then there is a flash of brilliance from the winger Raffaele Storti, a sort of bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky.

From a ruck inside Fiji's half and near the touch-line, Storti sprints down the short side which the fatigued Fijians, ironically, have not covered.

To his astonishment and amid the bellowing cheers of the crowd, Storti races towards the Fiji try-line. He deceives the covering defence with a deft pass to his left-wing partner Rodrigo Marta, who plants the ball across the line.

Fiji 23, Portugal 22.

But there is a conversion to come to win the match.

There is indecision from the referee and touch judges about just where the try is scored. The commentators note that Portugal's goal-kicker, halfback Samuel Margues, missed a penalty to defeat Georgia from a similar position the week before.

A mark is made about 17 metres in from the touch-line.

Margues, with the ice-cold temperament of a champion, converts the try with the ball just going inside the right-hand upright.

Fiji 23, Portugal 24.

Eighty minutes of play is up but because the try is scored in the 79th minute, there is time for one more play. Can Portugal hold on to their lead?

Fiji kick long. Portugal take the ball into a ruck. The ruck is fiercely defended. The ball comes out to Margues, who boots it into the crowd behind the posts - and into rugby history.

Portugal have won their first victory at a RWC tournament. And have done so playing with the panache, resolve and skill of a top-tier side.

The stadium explodes in a riot of noise with screaming, bellowing and chanting.

The brilliant coach of Portugal, Patrice Lagisquet, a former famous French winger, talks about his players as "a team of friends" and says he "loves our fans". Tears and hugs are flowing all around the stadium.

The Guardian's Gerard Meagher at the ground writes: "Os Lobos have won hearts and minds throughout the tournament and now they have a victory to savour. The sight of the players singing their lungs out in front of their delirious supporters soon after the final whistle will be one of the abiding memories of the tournament."

Portugal's iconic hooker, Mike Tadjer, tells reporters: "Obviously I can die tomorrow. I have retired after this World Cup, to finish like that it is unbelievable for me."

Later, Fiji's coach, Simon Raiwalui, goes to Portugal's changing room and gives the players a large bag of Fiji kit.

Let us hold those memories in our heads while we consider a series of complaints from some senior rugby journalists that the RWC 2023 tournament has already been too long, that there have been too many mediocre teams playing in it and, as a consequence of these defects, there have been too many blowout scores.

All complaints, in my opinion, are against the true spirit of rugby. The game at its best embraces all shapes, sizes and nationalities. Touring and long tournaments are part of the DNA of the game.

The top six blowout scores explain in their detail how unlucky Romania were to be in a pool with Ireland, South Africa and Scotland, and Namibia in the same pool as France and New Zealand:

France 96, Namibia 0

Scotland 84, Romania 0

New Zealand 96, Namibia 17

Ireland 82, Romania 8

New Zealand 73, Italy 0

South Africa 76, Romania 0

The fact that Italy, a Six Nations team, was blown away by the All Blacks 73- 0 shows that even experienced teams can be smashed when a top side, as three of the big winners (France, New Zealand and South Africa) are, gets its game together perfectly on the day.

This argument about too many blowouts is wrong factually and wrong from the perspective of developing depth of quality in teams around the rugby world.

As Chile's coach pointed out after his side was defeated 71-0 by England, the heavy loss was to be expected. "The only way to alter that is by playing them on more occasions in the future ... We play the top team every four years and we are facing tier-one countries at the top of their form ... It's our reality and its a shame."

In other words, the minnow rugby nations have to be exposed more to the top-tier nations, not less, if World Rugby wants to grow the minnows into strong teams.

Japan was defeated 147-15 by the All Blacks in RWC 1995. Twenty years later - these things do take time - Japan defeated the winner of RWC 1995, the Springboks, 34-32 in a victory described as "the greatest RWC shock ever".

There is one further point I want to make about the need to have as many teams as possible in a tournament as prestigious as the RWC. This goes to the psychic pleasure that players, especially, but supporters and their entire nation experience when their national team is taking part in a big sporting event.

I feel very strongly about this notion of psychic pleasure that competitors and fans experience during big sports events. It is personal. For I was once, when I was a university student, one of these out-of-their-league players playing for Wellington against the touring England cricket team in 1961.

England batted on the Friday and declared after 40 minutes or so of play on Saturday, 9 down for 511. Wellington were dismissed twice that day for 127 and 173. On the scale of defeats I would rank this one, in rugby terms, on the France 96, Namibia 0 level.

My contribution to the defeat I would put on the level of Japan's 145-17 defeat at the RWC 1995 by the All Blacks.

Yet the psychic pleasure I got from those two days have thrilled me all my life: opening the batting against Freddie Trueman and Frank Tyson and scoring 3 and 5, bowling to Colin Cowdrey and being stroked through the covers for three sumptuous 4s, being at mid-on when Tom Graveney hooked a bouncer from our feared fast bowler Bob Blair for a four and hearing him tell the infuriated Blair, "that length was perfect, Bob, keep them there", were memories, as Mike Tadjer said, to die for.

The special thing about a sports tournament is not how long it is. It is the experience itself.

In medieval times, if one believes Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe, tournaments were jousting competitions where the champions and their rivals showed their true colours in a fierce competition.

This latest edition of the RWC has certainly fulfilled these tournament ideals going into the finals.

The other point that needs to be stressed is that touring by teams and their supporters is part of the DNA of the rugby game. The rugby world is an oval ball.

Dr Arnold, the famed headmaster of Rugby School and the real hero of Tom Brown's School Days, the novel that created the rugby myth, was an inveterate traveller. The day the school term ended, Dr Arnold would get into his carriage and head off to a port city to catch at boat to Europe.

This touring ethic was imbued in the Rugby School boys who created the rugby game in the 1840s. They became muscular missionaries, forcing the spread of rugby through the touring ethic. And when they toured they established the tradition of taking their colours with them on their jerseys - Rugby School's were white, later adopted by England - and encouraging their supporters and friends to travel with them to be part of the touring experience.

This touring ethic was picked up around the world wherever the game was played. In Australia, in 1882, a team from NSW toured Queensland and later embarked on the first tour of New Zealand by an overseas team. A year later, an Auckland team toured NSW and gave local rugby supporters their first experience of a pre-match haka.

The touring ethic of rugby became so entrenched in New Zealand and Australia that in 1904 a team from the famous Maori college, Te Aute, went to Sydney to play a series of matches against the GPS (Great Public Schools) and university sides. The Te Aute style of vigorous, skilful, fast and expansive play was picked up by St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill, later to become a famed rugby school, after their match against the unbeaten "Maorilanders".

That Te Aute team brought over 100 supporters with them to Sydney. This tradition lives on.

The combination of a touring team playing in a tournament and being cheered on by supporters, on and off the field, has been a sensational aspect of the 2023 RWC, the 10th edition of the tournament. And at the heart of this enthusiasm has been a charismatic Ireland side.

Early on there was the remarkable spectacle of 12,000 spectators coming to watch Ireland have their first training run in France.

My favourite rugby writer, the Guardian's Robert Kitson, described how Ireland's Green Power has lit up RWC 2023 with this description of play, on and off the field, at the end of the game against a knocked-out Scotland:

"A ruthless Ireland were 36-0 up inside the hour ... With Johnny Sexton also comfortably winning his head-to-head with Finn Russell, it was a special Saturday night for the hordes of Irish fans who gathered in Paris to roar their heroes home ...

"As the Pogues, the Cranberries and U2 blasted out after the final whistle, it was as if half of Ireland had decamped to France. There were shamrock bucket hats paying their lunchtime respects at Oscar Wilde's memorial in the Pere Lachaise cemetery, Connacht jerseys in the sunshine at Republique and pea-green berets at the Gare du Nord."

The real problem with this RWC 2023 schedule, then, is not its length. It is the draw itself. The four best teams in the tournament, Ireland, France, South Africa and New Zealand, are in the same half of the draw.

The draw was drawn up based on the World Rankings in December 2020. Those ranking then are clearly not the same ranking now, when the draw should have been made:

The 2020 World Rugby Rankings:

South Africa (94.20 points)
England (89.49)
New Zealand (88.95)
France (85.30
Ireland (83.65)
Australia (83.08)
Scotland (80.82)
Argentina (80.31)

Brian Moore, the former England hooker, writing in the Telegraph, has rightly slammed a draw that has lumped the current top four teams in the world together in the same half of the tournament:

"It is an absolute farce ... Of the seeded teams in the bottom half of the draw only Wales can legitimately claim they have got near to performing somewhere near their best, and even then only sporadically ... To their credit no country from the top half of the draw has whinged inordinately about this, but with each unfolding week their lot can be clearly seen as unfair."

This weekend's quarter-finals, especially for the teams in the top half of the draw, are in effect semi-finals and final matches.

It is most unlikely that any team outside of rugby's new Big Four - Ireland, France, South Africa and New Zealand - will win the Webb Ellis Trophy at this tournament.

Ireland have never made the semi-finals of the RWC, yet they go into the Test against the All Blacks at the weekend as the top rugby power in the world.

In RWC 2019 in Japan, the All Blacks smashed Ireland in their quarter-final match. This followed a trend of the All Blacks winning 27 and drawing one of their first 28 Tests against Ireland.

But just before 2019, Ireland started to defeat the All Blacks. And in their last six Tests, Ireland have won four times, a record that includes their last two Tests in New Zealand.

All this represents a remarkable turn of fortune for Ireland, especially as back in 1991 Ireland was a minnow rugby power that lost two successive Tests to Namibia at Windhoek. Ireland's rise from this ignominy, albeit over 30 years ago, gives a rugby context to the famous Readers' Digest headline: "New Hope For The Dead".

The modern revival of Ireland coincides with the high-performance work at Irish rugby's Dublin headquarters of the former Wallaby hooker (and the only Brumbies coach to win a Super Rugby title and succumb to an ousting by player power), David Nucifora.

In 2013 Joe Schmidt, a New Zealander, took over as Ireland's coach for a seven-year tenure. Schmidt's Ireland won the Six Nations three times and defeated the All Blacks twice. For a time, and for the first time, Ireland was ranked number one in the world.

The new coach of Ireland, Englishman Andy Farrell, had a mixed start in 2020. But by 2022 Ireland began to record big wins over Japan and Argentina, and later an historic 2-1 Test series win against the All Blacks in New Zealand.

Farrell, a hard-as-teak player in the rugby league game, has given Ireland a toughness, both mental and physical, plus a rugby league-type of attention to detail from all his players. This allows props to substitute as hookers in a crisis and players like the dynamic half-back, the New Zealand-born Jamison Gibson-Park, to successfully replace Mack Hansen on the wing during the drubbing last weekend of Scotland.

I was particularly struck by Gibson-Park's play as a winger because Ireland, it seems to me, are playing a complicated three-wingers format during this tournament. At one point late in the match he took a tackle on his wing side of the field, then got up and raced across to the far wing to make the extra man, after a 20-metre run, to set up a try.

This three-wingers format, with fullback-wing Hugo Keenan and wingers Mack Hansen and James Lowe, allows Ireland to flood the outside attacking line with two and sometimes three runners.

The format puts enormous stress on the defensive line. When the line stretches to cover the touchline, Ireland's big backs, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose, then burst through the stretched middle defence.

The format also forces Johnny Sexton to be the only play-maker, something that suits his style and bossy temperament.

Pundits like Stuart Barnes are picking Green Power Ireland to defeat the All Blacks, and even the All Blacks coach Ian Foster suggests: "This is their moment. If they're ever going to win a World Cup, it's now."

This seems too much like putting the All Blacks as a hostage to fortune for my liking.