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Archives for October 2011

A-Z of the 2011 World Cup

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Tom Fordyce | 19:27 UK time, Monday, 24 October 2011

Auckland, North Island
And so, after seven weeks, 48 matches and 360 tries, the 2011 Rugby World Cup is over.

The final ended up as simple as ABC - All Blacks champions - so it seems fitting that we should follow suit. I'll start us off, you fill in your own suggestions.

A is for
Altitude Bar, the Queenstown drinking-hole where Mike Tindall and several other England players enjoyed themselves a little too much for the tabloids' tastes. See also Adductor Longus Tendon, the body-part that obsessed a nation after Dan Carter's injury robbed them of their fly-half phenomenon.

B is for
Beards. Not since the hirsute heroics of the 1970s has so much facial fuzz been seen on a rugby pitch. Canada's Adam Kleeberger and Jebb Sinclair led the way, but honourable mentions must also go to England's Dan Cole, Australia's Tatafu Polota-Nau and Italy's Martin Castrogiovanni. Chin up, boys.

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Perfect symmetry of All Blacks success sparks NZ party

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Tom Fordyce | 14:14 UK time, Sunday, 23 October 2011

Eden Park, Auckland

Whichever bright spark decided to make the Monday after the World Cup final a public holiday in New Zealand deserves 4.4 million pats on the back.

After 24 years of false dawns and ghastly upsets, there will be no holding back. The All Blacks' nerve-shredding 8-7 win over France meant many things - palpitations from Whangarei to Wanaka, the noisiest party in Auckland's 170-year-old history, countless hungover headaches across the land - but as you looked around Eden Park late on Sunday night, camera-flashes twinkling among the black-clad thousands in the stands like stars in the night sky, one emotion dominated all others: an enormous, unmistakable sense of relief.

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Why are New Zealand so good at rugby?

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Tom Fordyce | 09:45 UK time, Friday, 21 October 2011

Auckland, North Island

On Sunday night, New Zealand will run out at Eden Park as clear favourites to be crowned world champions for the second time.

Many rational judges cannot see them failing. Even if France do pull off one of the great upsets and deny them the Webb Ellis Cup, the All Blacks can still lay claim to being - historically, consistently - the best team in world rugby by a country mile.

Controversial stuff? Not really. Since the start of Test rugby, the All Blacks have a win percentage of almost 75%. No-one else gets close. Not South Africa at 62%, nor France at 55%. Certainly not England, Australia or Wales with 53%, 52% and 51% respectively.

How has one small nation dominated the sport for so long? What makes New Zealanders so good at rugby? And why, World Cup wins aside, is that supremacy actually growing? Since Graham Henry took charge of the national team in 2004, New Zealand's win percentage has climbed to a staggering 85%.

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The madness of coach Marc

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Tom Fordyce | 11:35 UK time, Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Auckland, North Island

They say there's a thin line between genius and madness. If that's true, France coach Marc Lievremont has spent this World Cup tip-toeing along it like his compatriot Philippe Petit in Man On Wire.

On one hand he has steered an underperforming French side to their first World Cup final in 12 years. On the other he has done so while spitting out the sort of insults that normally start wars.

In a moment, the question of whether the latter has made the former possible. Before then, a little reminder of Marc's most barking bon mots.

To French journalist after pool stage loss to All Blacks: "Go to hell with your question. I really regret the detestable atmosphere that we have at these press conferences."

After pool stage defeat by Tonga: "I thought I had experienced everything in terms of shame. But this time around, it's been an extremely violent feeling again. Each missed pass, each missed tackle, I took them as a deep personal failure."

On his attempts at team-building: "I would have liked for us to gather around a few drinks yesterday, to talk, to share thoughts, to tell each other that it's a beautiful adventure, all things considered. And I was disappointed.

"At the end of the press conference, I got us some beers to release the pressure - and we all split in different directions. I saw players with their agent on the eve [of the match] and after the game instead of regrouping as a team. It's a kind of disappointment."

After defeat by Italy in the Six Nations: "I'm at a bit of a dead end. I feel like I'm responsible for this, but the players lack courage. There is a certain cowardice. When I talk to them, nothing happens.

"They betrayed us, they have betrayed me and they have betrayed the French national team shirt. Do you really think I told them to play like that? They weren't asked to walk on the moon."

On former England hooker Mark Regan: "He was ridiculous and grotesque. His behaviour is offensive and against the rules. He is a clown."

After beating England in the quarter-finals: "Yesterday we had the same players out there as in Wellington against Tonga, except that they grew a big pair of balls."

After some players went out drinking following their win over Wales: "I told them they are a bunch of spoiled brats. Undisciplined, disobedient, sometimes selfish. Always complaining, always moaning. It has been like this for four years."

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The rugby outlaw who never came back

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Tom Fordyce | 14:13 UK time, Tuesday, 18 October 2011

When New Zealand run out on Sunday for their first World Cup final in 16 years, the posher seats in the Eden Park grandstands will be packed with All Black greats from down the years - Colin Meads, David Kirk, Wayne Shelford, Tana Umaga and so on.

But there is one legendary figure in New Zealand rugby folklore who has not been invited. Even if he had been, he wouldn't have come.

The story of Keith Murdoch is one of sport's more extraordinary epics: the hard-drinking, hard-punching loner who, hours after scoring a match-winning try for his country, was involved in an incident that resulted in him becoming the only All Black to ever be expelled from a tour. He then ran away in disgrace into the Australian Outback, never to see his team-mates again.

It is also, with New Zealand on the brink of equalling the greatest moment in their rugby history, a cautionary tale of what sporting fame can do to ordinary men caught up in the whirl of media hoopla and public expectation.

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All Blacks give themselves chance to bury ghosts

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Tom Fordyce | 14:55 UK time, Sunday, 16 October 2011

Eden Park, Auckland

"Four more years!" roared the black-shirted celebrants around the stadium as the final whistle blew on New Zealand's semi-final steamrollering, revelling in the chance to ram George Gregan's famous taunt back down the throats of the vanquished Australia team.

You can understand the Kiwi delight, but other numbers made more sense - the 16 years they have waited to reach a World Cup final, the 24-year gap since their only victory and now, after this clinical, crushing win, the seven days that surely separate them from their second.

For all the talk of a trans-Tasman tussle to match the Wallabies' wins of 2003 and 1999, this was a lesson in controlled rugby, the 20-6 margin 17 points shy of what it could have been had the All Blacks landed all their eminently kickable opportunities (four penalties, one conversion, one drop-goal attempt, all missed).

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Heartbroken Wales left with haunting feeling

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Tom Fordyce | 15:27 UK time, Saturday, 15 October 2011

Eden Park, Auckland

There are hard-luck stories in sport, and then there are the real hauntings.

Wales' one-point defeat by France in this tumultuous World Cup semi-final was the sort of horrible heartbreaker that could leave Welshmen sleepless at night until the Severn flows uphill and Cardiff crumbles into the sea.

Most close-fought contests have their fair share of almosts and nearlys. This 9-8 loss had all of those, and enough whys, if onlys and what ifs to drive a man to madness and back before breakfast.

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Nervous times for Kiwis as fearless Wales relish semi

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Tom Fordyce | 08:16 UK time, Friday, 14 October 2011

Auckland, North Island

We can quantify so many of the key variables in rugby - points, tackles, turnovers, possession, penalties. But in these last few frantic hours before this weekend's World Cup semi-finals, the great rogue factor is suddenly alive in the Auckland air: confidence.

Supporters of all four nations have been pouring into town since Wednesday, almost all of them with beaming smiles on their chops to go with the pint pots in their hands. The exceptions are those wearing black shirts, the ones who, by those statistics that can be stacked up, should be the happiest of all.

New Zealand is nervous. New Zealand is worried. New Zealand is starting to think the whole horrible World Cup nightmare might be about to happen all over again.

The knock-out stages are traditionally a bad time for All Blacks fans, the point where four years of world domination come crashing down in a flurry of intercepted passes, dramatic injuries to key men and moments of heart-breaking brilliance from opposition backs.

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The jackal at the tackle

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Tom Fordyce | 11:58 UK time, Thursday, 13 October 2011

Takapuna, North Island

For all the hoopla and headlines about Dan Carter, Jonny Wilkinson and Quade Cooper, this has been a World Cup defined not by perfect 10s but heavenly sevens.

Those big-name fly-halves might still have the modeling contracts and skincare endorsements but they can keep them. The open-side flankers are on the rumble - and the message is clear: run away, glamourpuss, the jackal in the tackle is here.

Each of this weekend's four semi-finalists have a number seven in their side that strike fear deep into opposition hearts. Wales have Sam Warburton, France the unyielding Thierry Dusautoir (who actually wears six in the French style); New Zealand the relentless Richie McCaw and Australia the man they call 'Bam Bam', Queenslander David Pocock, 23.

That three of the four are also their country's skipper is no coincidence. That Pocock is not - yet - shouldn't fool you for a minute into thinking that he is anything less than their equal.

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Meeting the mighty Meads

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Tom Fordyce | 10:44 UK time, Tuesday, 11 October 2011

King Country, North Island

The roadside sign just outside the tiny town of Te Kuiti spells it out for you in foot-high letters: "Welcome to MEADSVILLE. Please leave soccer balls in the bins provided."

With the whole of New Zealand apparently knee-knockingly nervous about the prospect of taking on arch-rivals Australia in this weekend's World Cup semi-finals, I have driven four hours deep into its rugby heartlands to seek counsel from a man who, more than any other in history, represents everything it means to be an All Black.

Voted his country's player of the century, described by former All Black coach Fred Allen as "the greatest ever, anywhere", Sir Colin Meads is to New Zealand what Bobby Charlton is to England or Don Bradman was to Australia.

He is also, as any rugby scholar will tell you, infamously - frighteningly - hard. Which is why, when he lumbers into the old wooden Waitete clubhouse and fixes you with an unblinking stare, all you can think is how much his handshake is going to hurt.

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Where England went so wrong - and Wales went so right

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Tom Fordyce | 06:29 UK time, Monday, 10 October 2011

Auckland, North Island

Perhaps it was fitting that England's ill-fated stay in New Zealand ended with their best player throwing himself off a ferry into Auckland harbour.

Plenty of their supporters felt like doing the same after a month which began with such optimism and anticipation finished in dismal disappointment and defeat.

If the headlines should write themselves - Manu Overboard seems as good a place to start as any - the jokes were almost as obvious: the first time England had a man over all tournament; Tuilagi's team-mates attempting to grab him a life-jacket only to fumble it under pressure; Jonny Wilkinson throwing a lifeline three metres behind him.

The fun masks a rather more serious truth. England's quarter-final exit at the hands of France capped a campaign as sobering as any they have endured since the inaugural World Cup 24 years ago.

Wales, by contrast, have reached their first semi-final since those heady days of 1987 playing the sort of thrilling rugby that has made them every Kiwi's favourite second team. In their progression, like that of the other three nations left in the competition, can be found the key reasons why England went so badly wrong.

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England exposed as France are reborn

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Tom Fordyce | 13:26 UK time, Saturday, 8 October 2011

Eden Park, Auckland

No heroic escapades this time, no backs-to-wall brilliance nor ground-out glory, no third World Cup final on the bounce.

After spluttering sporadically for four games, England's Kiwi campaign ended as it probably deserved to: in defeat, to a team that was more dynamic, more clinical and far more composed when it mattered most.

The 19-12 scoreline might give future generations the impression of a close-fought game that England could have won. Those watching know different.

This was supposed to be the usual nerve-jangler, another cross-Channel classic to join the legendary English victories of Parc des Princes 1991, Sydney 2003 and Marseille 2007.

Instead it fell flat long before the end, France's blue army camped around the Eden Park stands celebrating with a deafening, gleeful confidence that England's late two-try rally could never shake.

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'Pretty Boy' Johnson and his All Blacks double-life

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Tom Fordyce | 05:19 UK time, Friday, 7 October 2011

Taupo, North Island

On Saturday evening, Martin Johnson will walk out onto the Eden Park pitch as England rugby's dominant figure of the past two decades: brutal enforcer, stalwart skipper, World Cup winner and now manager and sole selector.

The idea of him leading the All Blacks out the following night, cheered to the top of the huge temporary stands as a New Zealand legend, seems the stuff of English nightmares. But, thanks to a dream held by a Maori coach 21 years ago, it almost came true.

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Revamped England ready to blitz France

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Tom Fordyce | 09:31 UK time, Thursday, 6 October 2011

Auckland, North Island

An old yarn about Ian Botham has been much in mind as one soaks up the atmosphere in town during the final few days before England's World Cup quarter-final battle with France.

In the tale, Botham is in his dotage, saggy of rump and multiple of chin. He is bowling to Australia during the Ashes of 1989, trundling in, all with crimson-faced effort but delivering nothing more than a succession of docile dibbly-dobblers miles wide of off stump.

At tea, the Aussie batsmen return to the dressing-room, shaking their heads in disbelief.

"What's Botham doing?" asks one of their team-mates.

"It's even worse than we thought," replies the batsman. "He's bowling these unbelievable mystery balls. They look just like slow wide ones, but we all know they can't be. It's terrifying..."

Something similar seems to be happening with the England rugby team here in New Zealand.

A succession of uninspired, ugly performances so far in this World Cup should have the locals sniggering their socks off, dismissing both England's ponderous style and their chances of winning back the William Webb-Ellis trophy they claimed over the Tasman eight years ago.

Instead, the exact opposite is happening.

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The making of Wales coach Warren Gatland

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Tom Fordyce | 10:40 UK time, Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Hamilton, North Island

It is a dank, stormy morning in a quiet part of one of New Zealand's quieter cities. Muddy puddles ripple on the playing-fields all around. A solitary, disconsolate figure trudges across the playground, sent out on litter duty while his class-mates eat their lunch.

If it looks and feels about as far from the glamour and excitement of a World Cup quarter-final as one could possibly get, there is a sporting logic to my visit.

This is Hamilton Boys' High, the school where Wales coach Warren Gatland was first taught rugby as a young boy and then excelled as a teenager. Five minutes drive away is the Waikato ground where he became a front-row folk hero and later began a coaching career that would take him to the top of world rugby.

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Who will make England's XV for France?

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Tom Fordyce | 10:24 UK time, Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Auckland, North Island

Enough of stolen walkie-talkies, dissident mouthguards and grainy CCTV footage. With England's World Cup quarter-final closing in fast, let's clear away the side dishes and tuck into the beef: a XV that can beat France at Eden Park on Saturday night.

Marc Lievremont, he of the strange selections and brutally honest barbs ("We don't like the English - this insular country who always drape themselves in the national flag, their hymns, their chants, their traditions...") revealed his hand early on Tuesday.

By his maverick standards it's a relatively safe one, with Nicolas Mas back in the front row and the old warrior Imanol Harinordoquy restored at eight. If he's persisting with Morgan Parra at fly-half, well, that's almost consistency by his standards, particularly considering the mental torment France's haphazard qualification has inflicted on him ("I thought I had experienced everything in terms of shame. But this time round, it's been an extremely violent feeling...")

Lievremont's opposite number is keeping his cards a little closer to his chest. Martin Johnson will not unveil his XV until early Thursday morning UK time, which has only added to the angst and argument about who deserves the nod and who the old heave-ho.

If the narrow, nervous win over Scotland last Saturday told us anything, it was that there are question marks over almost every position in the England team, bar full-back and wings.

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New Zealand's nightmare comes true

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Tom Fordyce | 08:55 UK time, Sunday, 2 October 2011

Auckland, North Island

Having gone to bed in a state of panic - or in the case of England and Scotland supporters, a state of inebriation - New Zealand awoke on Sunday to the sporting news it had been dreading: Dan Carter's World Cup was over.

This was the doomsday scenario for home fans, the unspoken nightmare that's been haunting them for the past four years.

As soon as the photo of a stricken Carter, prone in pain on the training pitch, had circulated on television channels and websites late on Saturday, the shakes had set in. When a statement from All Blacks doctor Deb Robinson confirmed the worst, the mourning began.

"It's bloody awful, really," lamented ex All Blacks skipper Todd Blackadder.

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