World Cup Rugby 2007 - France

World Cup Diary

Final day is here, and what a prospect. Since their meeting in the group phase when England were whitewashed 36 - 0 by South Africa, their fortunes have been contrasting. The Springbok machine has kept moving relentlessly towards this fixture without a serious threat to their dominance. Meanwhile, England have stuttered, but dug deep to get out of the pool and then squeeze past Australia and France. Had they gained enough self-belief to challenge South Africa this time around?

In the end, it was defence that ruled the day. Disappointingly neither side managed to cross the whitewash in a highly tactical game, with little to dazzle the crowds. In the end it was the English indiscipline which cost them with South Africa winning by 5 penalties to 2. In scenes reminiscent of the 1995 final, it was the victory which mattered to South Africa rather than the performance as the Webb-Ellis trophy heads southwards once again.

Time for the match that nobody wants to play in - the third-place play-off (officially known in this competition as the Bronze Final, although that's only sugaring the pill a little). Sometimes these matches can be dour, lifeless affairs where neither team turns up. Occasionally, one team does turn up and shows to the world what they really can do. Today, that team was Argentina.

With stereotypical Gallic indifference to their situation, having narrowly lost out on the chance to appear in the final on home soil, the French did not seem overly fussed about this match. Given that it was in effect a rematch and the chance for revenge for their defeat in the tournament's opening fixture, this was a little surprising. Their opponents however, took to the pitch with a focussed intent to show the world what might have been.

More than anyone else, it was Felipe Contepomi's day, scoring two tries himself, converting three and adding a penalty before the final whistle when the Southern Hemisphere side ran out clear winners. The pumas have arrived.

In contrast, the all-southern semi-final looked much more promising as a spectacle with the strong, fast, well-drilled Springboks against the skill and guile of the Pumas.

And so it proved, with a relatively cagey start as both sides sought for a chink in their opponents' armour, but once Du Preez charged over from an interception the match sprang into life. Penalties were traded, including a massive boot from Contepomi from all of 60 metres until South Africa extended their lead through the touch and speed of Habana who chipped and chased for the second try.

More was to follow in the second half as Argentina fought back to try to close the gap and scored a try of their own through Manuel Contepomi. For a long period afterwards neither side could make a decisive move that would turn the match in their favour and it was only in the last 10 minutes that South Africa finally pulled away with two late tries to end up as convincing winners.

The northern-hemisphere semi-final was going to depend heavily on how France fared in the opening quarter of the match. If they cut loose and stretched to a decent lead, England might never catch up. Contrarily, if there was no great lead to speak of, the contest could quickly turn into a war of attrition. Unfortunately for fans of the fast-flowing games which we have by now come to expect from this tournament, it was the latter scenario which was played out.

Josh Lewsey managed to cross the line in the first minute of a low-scoring affair to put a massive dent in French confidence. The difficult conversion was missed to give France a glimmer of hope and they duly pulled ahead through a couple of penalties by Beauxis before half time. Only some wayward drop goal attempts prevented them extending this lead.

In the second half a further three points by Beauxis allowed a little breathing space for the hosts, but it was a false dawn as England in the familiar guise of Jonny Wilkinson added 9 unanswered points to win by 5.

The surprise package of the last eight - Fiji - were first up today against a South Africa side who thus far have not shown any obvious weaknesses in their game. It was very unfortunate for the islanders that their playmaker Nicky Little, who was injured at the end of their previous match, remained unfit and unavailable for selection. This seemed to be a telling factor in the game such that despite all of their endeavour and clear skill both on and off the ball, Fiji were lacking a little of the inventiveness which had thus far made the difference to their performances.

They were not, however, outclassed. While the final score suggests that this was an easy victory for South Africa this was far from the case, and they found time and again that the Fijian defensive line was very difficult to cross as the heavy hits came in. Their relentless attacking drives managed to see them through and Fiji, whose always spirited performances have lit up this world cup return home from the competition with their heads held high.

Argentina clearly had no thoughts of such an early departure as they took on a confident Scotland in the last of the quarter-final encounters. It was a very close-fought contest and neither team looked likely to run away with it. Scotland seemed very wary of their opponents and played much more of a territorial game than they had so far. For their part, the Argentinians looked a little tired and bereft of imagination, playing a much more one-dimensional game than usual. In the end it was the Southern Hemisphere side who edged it, with Hernandez slotting another drop goal to add to his collection. For Scotland, it is time to return home and consider how to improve on this performance. The ever-dependable Paterson leaves the world cup with his 100% kicking record intact.

It's always a crunch match whenever Australia play England, and this one was no different. As heavy favourites, and with Mortlock back in the team, the Aussies looked to exact some revenge for their defeat in the previous final. England, on the other hand, without the injured Barkley and Farrell, but with Robinson back, hoped to score a memorable upset. It started edgily with the usually safe-as-houses Mortlock missing his first penalty attempt and Wilkinson missing a drop goal, but as things calmed down, it turned into a battle of the forwards - a battle in which England appeared to have the upper hand. It was the Australians who managed to cross the try-line, though, with Tuqiri slipping a tackle and crawling over from two yards out. This gave the Southern Hemisphere side a 10-6 lead at half time.

It wasn't enough though and the relentless kicking of Jonny Wilkinson edged England into a 2 point lead with 12 minutes to go. The resulting Aussie onslaught was not effective due to a succession of turnovers and England managed to hold on as the clock ran out. Not a classic performance by any means, but one that showed that the English are not just here to make up the numbers.

Thomas Castignede says about Michalak "Yeah, he's a massive genius"

So, following such a major upset, could we expect a more by-the-numbers result from New Zealand against France? Certainly the All Blacks (in their change "silver" strip) started the more brightly of the two and raced into a ten point lead. It was only Beauxis landing a penalty on his second attempt who gave the French any hope by half-time

In the second half, however, injuries and a shocking refereeing dscision weighed heavily against the Kiwis. Both Carter and his replacement, Evans, limped out of the match and then Referee Barnes inexplicably sent McAlister to the bin because a Frenchman ran into him. In the end it came down to one missed conversion and yet once again New Zealand have flattered to deceive. France must surely now think that their name is almost on the trophy already. The first day of the quarter finals has been all northern hemisphere. Can Scotland keep up the pace tomorrow?

The last three group matches were settled today, including the four-way fight for qualification in Pool D. Admittedly Georgia required a mathematical miracle in order to progress and a resurgent France proved not to be in a generous mood as they took apart their valiant, but ultimately inferior, opponents. The Georgians did manage a converted try which was hailed by the crowd and served as a fitting end-piece to their tournament. With the bonus point secure, France just had to wait to see if they would be winners or runners-up in the group.

That little matter would be decided by the seemingly ever-present fixture of recent world cups between Ireland and Argentina. This time around, Ireland required the bonus point to progress and that was always going to be tricky against an Argentine defence who were yet to concede a try in this year's competition. Captain O'Driscoll certainly did all he could, including scoring Ireland's opening try, but the consistency was sadly absent from the set pieces, the kicking too wayward and the sparkling invention dulled beyond recognition. Argentina played to their strengths with Hernandez collecting a hat-trick of drop goals to send them through as group winners and to send Ireland's so-called "Golden Generation" home in utter deflation.

Finally South Africa looked to put down a marker in their evening fixture, and the U.S.A. were playing purely for pride. Strangely enough it seemed by the end that both of these goals had been accomplished. With nine tries (eight converted) the Springboks certainly showed that they had not let up in recent matches and let Fiji know that they would be a force to be reckoned with. As for the Americans, well Hercus played out of his skin and the fleet-footed winger Ngwenya scored one of the most memorable tries of the tournament when, in a one-on-one situation with the much vaunted Byran Habana, he dummied to the inside and then beat him for pace on the outside to cap a terrific move. It was a fantastic spectacle of a match with which to finish this stage of the competition and the eight remaining teams now have a week to recover until the knockout phase begins.

Another day, another New Zealand masterclass. The unfortunate students today were Romania. Despite ringing the changes, the All Blacks were hardly tested and it wasn't until the second half through a try finished by their star player, Tincu, that Romania showed any real attacking intent. The margin of victory was 77 points and it was unfortunately a typical display from the Europeans who will have to improve the variety and inspiration of their attacking play in the future.

The day's other lambs to the slaughter were marked to be Canada, but they fared rather better, perhaps due to the fact that some of Australia's stars were rested. Latham and Mitchell were present, however and they proceeded to tear some large holes in the Canadian defence. It was a valid riposte against New Zealand's change side against Scotland and if both sides make it to the semi-finals there will be a very hotly anticipated clash.

The third match out of the four today proved to be the highlight (unless one's idea of rugby nirvana is watching some dark-shirted antipodeans run in a hatful of tries). Again this was effectively a knockout match between the hot-and-cold Wales and the dogged, heavy-hitting Union-is-really-just-sevens-with-more-players Fiji. It was a great match to watch and had everything to delight the spectators. Nine tries in all, and an upset for the northern hemisphere as Fiji held on to win by just 4 points. Apparently Gareth Jenkins's job is now in peril, although it's hard to see why on this performance. Fiji were just the better team on the day and so it is they who will play South Africa in the quarter final.

Last, but not least we had the all-six-nations match-up between Scotland and Italy. Despite their promising showing against the other European nations earlier in the year, Italy have so far flattered to deceive in this World Cup. In this final pool match, however, they finally came out of their shells and gave Scotland a really good game. They scored the only try (through the veteran Troncon who has kept Griffen out of the side) and for the most part looked the most dangerous. However it was all to be in vain, since Scotland played their ace in Chris Paterson, who is yet to miss a kick in the tournament, who went on to slot six penalties and earn them a 2-point victory, and with it qualification to the quarter-finals.

Crunch time for England and Tonga. The knockout phase unofficially starts here since the loser goes home. With so much at stake it could have turned into a war of attrition, but that is not how Tonga play the game. Right from the whistle they were adventurous, always looking to run the ball. Some of this attack-minded play even rubbed off on their opponents and despite Johnny Wilkinson kicking a brace each of drop goals and penalties, England more often than not kicked for position rather than points. Once they established a lead, however there seemed little chance that Tonga would pull them back, despite their endeavour and spirit. So, it is England who march on to the quarter-finals, but Tonga have made a lot of friends and admirers during this tournament, and we can expect them to be back in a similar fashion in four years.

One last rest day before the final round of group matches. 3 teams are through and another 10 have everything still to play for.

It was a wooden spoon decider between Georgia and Namibia in Pool D and seemed to be a game too far for the Namibians. It might have been a different story if this had been the opening fixture of the group, but Namibia looked a little tired at the start and positively battle-weary at the end. Georgia ran in three tries to seal a 30-0 victory and as a result actually kept alive their very slim hopes of qualification to the quarter finals.

In Pool A it was a similar story, and although it was their last match in this year's competition, Samoa still could not find the spark to light up a game which could have been an enthralling display. Thankfully for the neutral observer, the U.S.A. kept it alive as a contest with skipper Hercus pulling the strings at out half. Samoa just managed to secure their victory, however, and again it was Loki Crichton who was easily the best of them. He, at least, can leave this tournament with his head held high and his reputation enhanced.

A mouthwatering prospect today as the Canadians (who led Wales at half-time, remember) took on the exciting Japanese, who so very nearly upset Fiji. Both teams must have targeted this as their best chance for a victory and it was great to see them giving this match their all despite there being nothing other than pride to play for.

It started as great edge-of-the-seat stuff with both sides making attacking runs and the play switching well from one end to the other, but it was Japan who made the breakthrough and who went in at half time with just the one score as their lead. The second half was even more nail-biting than the first. Canada began it more assuredly and managed to score two tries (one converted) to lead 12-5. Then, in a finale highly reminiscent of their match against Fiji, Japan threw everything into the final move after the 80 minutes were up. They launched a cross-field kick into the corner of the try area which the Canadian skipper, Williams, could only push dead. It took an age for the TMO to decide this, but Japan took the resulting penalty and scored right out by the touchline. In an incredible victory over his nerves, Onishi slotted home the conversion to finish the match 12-12. It was only the second draw in the history of the world cup and was a fitting result to a highly entertaining match between these two enthusiastic sides. If we get a better match than this in the remainder of the tournament we can count ourselves lucky.

The next match was an equally close affair, but this was much more dominated by the forwards. To be fair, neither Romania nor Portugal had looked particularly incisive in any of their previous matches and even though the Portuguese had better variety and perhaps a little more flair in their approach, they could not beat the well-drilled Romanians as tries by Corodeanu and the tireless Tincu sealed their first victory in this year's world cup.

No matches today, and all the talk is still about the confusion between the strips yesterday.

Australia continued their winning way today with a convincing victory over Fiji to cement their place at the top of Pool B. In a highly entertaining game it was the backs who dominated with some fantastic running. Even the absence of Larkham and Mortlock did not seem to hold them back much. The Fijians, in contrast, seemed devoid of ideas and the Aussie defence was too strong for their one-dimensional approach.

It was an almost entirely reserve Scotland side which took to the field against New Zealand and despite having several dubious refereeing decisions go their way and an amazing number of Kiwi passes going astray, they still succumbed to a 40-0 whitewash. That, however, was not the main talking point. Instead it was the fact that the two sides wore strips that were very nearly indistinguishable (at least to the television audience - spectators at the match claimed it was easier to tell them apart). Why the New Zealand team were forced to change from their famous, traditional all-black strip is unfathomable, since it would have been far more distinctive than the kit which they eventually wore.

The first rule of professional sport is "Never underestimate your opponent". Yet that is precisely what South Africa did today against Tonga and it very nearly cost them the match. With a largely second-string side on the park for the first half the Springboks were outplayed at the breakdown and were having serious trouble blocking the Tongan attack. In the second half the introduction of several first teamers started to put them back on track, but it was an edgy finish, with just five points in it at the death. It will be a real fillip for Tonga in advance of their final pool match next week.

Their opponents on that day will be England who hoped to put behind them a woeful performance against South Africa in their previous game. Against them today were a Samoa side who had yet to really fire in this tournament. After a jittery start, England started to find their form, relying heavily as usual on the boot of Wilkinson to keep the scoreboard ticking over. While Samoa did manage one try, they never looked like posing a serious threat after the first ten minutes. They will just be playing for pride from now on.

The evening fixture offered us a glimpse of what Argentina could really do. Against a demoralised Namibia they took no prisoners and powered their way to a 60-point victory, even managing to bring on the recovering Todeschini for a try near the end. The Pumas look like they mean business in this competition whereas for once the Namibians really did not look happy to be here.

The focus switched back onto Pool D today - the group of death. This really was crunch time for Ireland and France - a loss for France would mean elimination from the tournament, whereas a loss for Ireland without any bonus would require an almost impossible result in the final match to progress. All or nothing, then.

The first half was nervy. In France's favour was the fact that they did not self-destruct and that O'Gara failed to punish them for some mistakes. On the other hand, Ireland kept Chabal very quiet indeed and were still very much in touch at 12 - 3 down at the break.

The second half, however, was all France, the highlight being a deft chip into the corner by Michalak for Clerc to run onto and score a try. Ireland rarely threatened and seemed relieved when the final whistle blew that the scoreline was not any worse. If France can get a win and a bonus point from their last match, then they will qualify whatever happens to the rest. For Ireland, however it will be a very uphill struggle.

Where has it gone wrong for the Irish? The team selection today has been much criticised - no Murphy or Stringer in the 22, Boss and Neil Best on the bench, Hickie dropped. With the exception of Reddan at scrum-half it was unadventurous to say the least and the 15 on the pitch struggled to find any inspiration. The line-out was woeful and only O'Driscoll showed any consistent initiative. D'arcy seems particularly caught in the headlights. Is this really the same team who were 5 minutes away from a Six Nations title earlier this year? They'll have to sort it out in a very major fashion if next weekend is to see them progress.

Wales looked to rebound today from their defeat at the weekend and it was going to take something very special from Japan to stop them. Once the Welsh got going, however, there was only ever going to be one winner and only the margin of victory was in doubt. In what was nonetheless a highly entertaining match, they managed to run in 11 tries to Japan's 2, thus earning the bonus point and consolidating their claim on second place in the pool behind Australia.

Italy took on the unfancied Portugal in Paris this evening and never looked to be in trouble. Bortolussi's kicking was assured and Italy showed a determination to succeed coupled with plenty of ability. With Scotland's win yesterday it looks certain that the second slot from Pool C will go right to the wire.

The next three days look like they could see three rather one-sided matches. Certainly the Scots managed to fulfil their potential against the Romanians. Having done well against Italy, the Eastern Europeans could not find their form at all today and it was really quite easy in the end for Scotland. They'll doubtless find New Zealand a tougher prospect on Sunday.

Another rest day. Top story: Jonny Wilkinson may be fit for England's next match. They'll certainly need him if they want to beat Samoa, that's for sure.

Having just scraped past Japan in their first match (see below), Fiji must have wanted a more definite result against the Canadians. This they duly did, by virtue of a much more solid defence than they showed in the opener, conceding just the one try, but scoring four themselves to earn the bonus point.

The other islanders had a belter of a match in Montpellier as Samoa looked to recover from their heavy defeat by South Africa while Tonga hoped to make it two wins out of two. Since they play each other so often, there was no fear or undue respect shown by either side and it was Tonga who were better able to exploit their knowledge of their opponents' weaknesses. Neither side looked like running away with it, but every time Samoa posed a question, Tonga had the answer.

In the last ten minutes, however, it was all up in the air as, despite having the lead, Tonga managed to get one player sent off and another sent to the bin and so were destined to finish the match with just 13 tiring men. How they managed to hold on for the win was remarkable. A special mention is due to Maka, who was absolutely outstanding. He was in the thick of almost every move, including the one which led to the try and was constantly seen urging his teammates forwards. While South Africa look to have Pool A sewn up, the other qualifier could be either of these two or England. It could get very tense indeed.

France featured in the final match of the weekend against a Namibia side who must have gained as much in confidence from their first pool match as the French had lost. It could have been a nail-biting day for the hosts had not two very important things happened. Firstly, they scored early on which always seems to settle French nerves, and secondly, it was not long before Namibia were down to 14 players for a red-card offence. The sending off completely killed the match as a contest and it just became a question of how many France would manage to score. Their eventual huge margin of victory sets up a mouth-watering clash against a thus far lacklustre Ireland next Friday in what is almost a winner-takes-all showdown.

If any one match in the entire schedule looked like it might throw up a three-figure score it was New Zealand against Portugal. While the Portuguese were full of passion and commitment, the gulf in class was evident. To their credit they managed a full house of scores and their try prompted one of the biggest cheers of the day, but with 16 tries and 14 conversions, the All Blacks just broke the 100-point barrier. Scotland and Romania be warned!

The crunch match of the day saw Wales take on Australia for what was being billed as the Pool B decider. It certainly started in a fiery manner as Gareth Thomas, in his 99th appearance for Wales, took out Berrick Barnes late and high as Giteau crossed for the first try. Not long afterwards Mortlock had his revenge with a thumping hit on Thomas which was barely legal. That ended the Welsh skipper's game - hopefully not his tournament.

The Aussies started to pull away before the break and Wales were not able to pull back the deficit, despite the best efforts of Shane Williams, who was their best player by some margin. Hook came on and was impressive with the boot, but Wales will need to be more incisive if they are to make a large impression on this tournament.

There was almost a huge upset in the final match which saw the strong, if slightly one-dimensional, Georgians take the lead against Ireland in the second half. Despite holding on for the win by a mere 4 points, Ireland seemed entirely out of sorts. Stringer threw a woeful interception, the line-out was very shaky and D'arcy didn't seem to have any ideas (and certainly none that involved passing). If the Namibia match was a blip, this was a full scale quake and with the must-win match against France on Friday, they are really going to have to sort things out quickly.

It looks like England surprised everybody by playing both Catt and Farrell and having them swap between out half and inside centre throughout the match. The only trouble is that they also seemed to surprise themselves. South Africa certainly didn't seem fazed as they rattled in 36 unanswered points as England became the first team to suffer a whitewash at this world cup.

The other bad news involves the injuries to key personnel such as Jason Robinson and Jamie Noon, both of whom look highly unlikely to take part in the now crucial fixture against Samoa next weekend. The current holders are looking shaky. How exciting might it turn out to be if neither the defending champions nor the host nation make it past the group stage?

Another rest day. The media in the UK are not letting that stop them, however. There is feverish speculation on whether Mike Catt or Andy Farrell is going to be given the out half slot against South Africa tomorrow in the absence of both Wilkinson and Barkley. It would seem that Brian Ashton is between a rock and a hard place.

Three matches took place today and all three were close affairs. U.S.A. were the opponents for Tonga's first match and they gave them as tough a work-out as they did to England last week. Tonga, not being the most urgent team in the world cup, nevertheless worked their opportunities well and were able to exploit what holes became apparent in the American defence. Ten points the margin of victory, so no bonus points to either side - a fair reflection.

Over in Toulouse it was an even tighter contest as Japan adopted a never-say-die attitude following their humbling at the hands of Australia. It certainly looked as though Fiji had the edge going into the last ten minutes, but the Japanese never gave up and pressed them all the way. They stretched the final play out for about four minutes after the eighty and made it all the way from their own try line up to the opponents 22 before the ball finally went dead. This will give them heart and they will probably now go on to fancy their chances against Canada in their final group match.

The last match of the day saw Romania play for the first time and take on Italy, who were impressive against the All Blacks, despite the scoreline. Another close encounter eventually was decided by the Italians' superior kicking, with their two extra penalties making the margin of victory. Romania were good value for their bonus point, however, and Scotland must be wary of them when the two sides meet at Murrayfield next Tuesday.

Today was Georgia's turn to enter the fray as they took on an Argentina side clearly buoyant after their opening-day victory. Perceived as one of the teams who might struggle in the group stage, Georgia started brightly enough and held their higher-ranked opponents for large parts of the first half, but the class of Argentina started to tell as the match went on. It was their defence which proved the strongest asset, holding the brave but less experienced Europeans to just one penalty score while they themselves ran in four tries for what could turn out to be a very valuable bonus point.

No rugby at all today. We all anticipate the next Pool D match tomorrow.

Four matches today. What are the organisers thinking? We do have some other things to do, you know. Shock of the day has to go to the plucky Canadians who stunned everybody by leading Wales at half time. It took the introduction of Stephen Jones and Gareth Thomas to turn it around for the men from the valleys, but this raised the obvious question - why were they not played from the start? Were they being rested?

Otherwise the day went to plan with comfortable victories for South Africa over Samoa and Scotland over Portugal. Ireland struggled against a very spirited Namibia, but eventually prevailed. A performance which will surely give Georgia heart for their next match.

For that history-making moment, however, none could beat the introduction of that old warhorse Brian Lima. He graced the field in his fifth world cup for about 5 minutes before a trademark suicidal tackle rendered him too injured to continue. I have no doubt that he will be patched up and ready for the next Samoa match.

Now it's all started to get busy, if only in a slightly predictable manner. The Kiwis blew aside the Italians, Australia put Japan to the sword and England were thoroughly underwhelming against the U.S.A.. The pattern so far seems to have been that the so-called "minnows" (which is a highly disrespectful term, and I promise not to use it again in this diary) have been much improved over past tournaments. Nobody has managed to reach triple figures so far (although the Wallabies came pretty close), and nobody has really disgraced themselves.

The boys from Japan have certainly improved since the All Blacks put 145 past them, and the New Zealand - Italy match-up was much less of an exhibition than it was in 1999. Having said that, there has not yet been a moment close to rivalling Jeff Wilson's outstanding one-handed tap pass from that game. Plenty of rugby still to go, however.

Finally, the tournament has started and we've witnessed a cracking match to set us on the path. Everyone was wondering which France team would turn up. Unluckily for them it turned out to be the nervy, inconsistent, wasteful one, and Argentina made the most of it. From their opening penalty via Corleto's stunning breakaway try and their many interceptions, they looked a cut above and could easily have posted a wider margin of victory. Yet, at the end they almost contrived to throw it away when Contepomi's unsuccessful penalty after 80 minutes failed to find touch. The French could not make it count, however, and the Pumas won an unlikely opening victory.

This defeat leaves the hosts struggling already. What would it mean for the competition if they were not to make it out of the group stage?

Flags courtesy of ITA's Flags of All Countries used with permission.