Sunday, 11 September 2011

Spanish lesson: why Poms and Boks have no need to panic. Yet.

Remember how Spain bulldozed everyone standing in their way during the World Cup in South Africa last year? How their particular blend of Barcelona brilliance and Real Madrid magic made them impossible to beat?

Not quite. You’ve already forgotten the shocking Swiss rollover. For those holding their heads in their hands after the opening shots of the 2007 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, Spain’s path to glory at South Africa 2010 offers a unique perspective, no matter what shape your balls are.

England were absolutely awful in their opening Pool B game, Jonny Wilkinson missing a record four penalties in a bottom-clenching 13-9 win over Argentina on Saturday. And holders South Africa were a line-judge’s flag away from losing their first match against Wales in Wellington on Sunday. One game in, and those proudly sporting Red Roses or Springboks have all but given up hope of seeing their emblem feature at Eden Park on October 23 when the Webb-Ellis trophy is handed over.

Here beginneth the lesson. On June 16 last year, Spain entered the fray as reigning European champions and joint favourites for the World Cup. Beaten just once in 41 games, the football-speaking world reeled when Switzerland, unfancied but hard-working, produced the only goal of the game from a now-forgotten striker called Gelson Fernandes.

But the Spanish, undaunted, bounced back from a worst-possible start in Durban to lift their first ever World Cup, dispatching Portugal, Paraguay, Germany and Holland in the knock-out phases. They knew they had the quality, that one bad result could be overcome. The likes of Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Iker Casillas don’t become ordinary players overnight. That’s what cricket, rugby and football World Cup tournaments are all about.

Just last week in the athletics World Championships, Usain Bolt overcame an absurd disqualification in the 100m to surge to glittering gold in the 200m. A lesson for all professionals in the sporting sphere.

There are numerous examples of world-beaters starting tournaments with a hiccup rather than a hurrah. But surely none better than Spain’s opening defeat in South Africa last year.

That’s why nation-quaking panic in South Africa and England is not necessary after those epic struggles over the weekend. England should remember the Falklands – and the fact that Argentina are ranked the ninth-best rugby side in the world. South Africa must realise the Welsh live and breathe rugby and are currently ranked sixth.

Much-derided Springbok coach Pieter de Villiers, judged a clown by those who dislike moustaches and high-pitched defiance, said after his side’s 17-16 win over the gallant Welsh, said: "We came to win the first game and we achieved that goal. Our bench went on and made the difference, that's why they were there.

"It wasn't a rugby test. I call it a test of character. At the start, Wales flooded the breakdowns and never allowed us to get going."

Div may not be the best coach in the world, but his decision to throw on match-clincher Francois Hougaard for the great Bryan Habana cannot be overlooked.

England boss Martin Johnson, with no track record as a club coach and eyebrows which join in the middle, said: " World Cup games are about finding a way to win in difficult circumstances against difficult teams. You charge down a kick, you think you're going to counterattack and it spins back 15 yards to their possession you think, 'Christ, it's going to be one of those days.' Clearly, while we could have been a lot better, we found a way to win.”

Again, it was Johnson who put Ben Youngs on as a replacement scrumhalf... and saw him score the only try of the match in Dunedin.

And really both Div and Johnno are adopting the Spanish philosophy: the World Cup in any format, no matter what size or shape your balls, is a marathon not a sprint. South Africa have Fiji (ranked 15 in the world) next while England must take on Georgia (16).

Both have already edged out the next best teams in their group. Though the favourites and hosts New Zealand looked impressive in the first half of their 41-10 win over Tonga (12) and Australia had few problems crushing world No11 Italy 32-6, both the All Blacks and the Wallabies have yet to play their most difficult group rivals, France (4) and Ireland (8).

Until they have, let’s reserve judgement. There’s no denying South Africa and England both started with a wobbly win rather than a vibrant victory. Hair has been duly pulled out, nails have been bitten.

But we’ve got six weeks of crouch-touch-pause-engage to come. And for worried Bok fans, a few points worth noting.

Events in Wellington will ensure past-it captain John Smit won’t over-shadow in-form hooker Bismarck Du Plessis at this World Cup. You don't have to worry about the living legend Jonny Wilkinson's mental state. And imagine how James Hook at the Welsh fans must feel have been denied a perfectly good three points by the errant flags of the touch-judges in the first half.

Still, it all means Wales – if they make it – will now avoid New Zealand in the semi-finals as probable runners-up in Pool D. Perhaps that’s why Rhys Priestland duffed his late drop goal attempt from right in front of the posts.

In essence, after the opening weekend, nothing has changed. There were no Senegal v France 2002 or Cameroon v Argentina 1990 type opening shocks. Remember when Turkey and South Korea reached the semi-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup?

It doesn’t happen in rugby, not with your set-plays, huge forwards and incredible fitness levels. As things stand, you have to back New Zealand, France, England, Argentina, Australia, Ireland, South Africa and Wales to reach the last eight. And then – and only then - the real World Cup begins. Just ask Carles Puyol or Andres Iniesta.

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