Grant Harding's Rugby World Cup Blog #4


There were no upsets during Rugby World Cup 2011's opening weekend - other than transport, space and behaviour problems in Auckland which I avoided by driving to within walking distance of Eden Park.

Of the eight matches played, the Pool D clash between the 2007 World Cup winner, South Africa, and Wales was the ace in a pack which ignited RWC fever across the country. Much debate has followed this nailbiter in Wellington on Sunday which the Springboks won 17-16. Especially about an unsuccessful first half penalty goal attempt by Welsh fullback James Hook.

The International Rugby Board are standing by their match officials decision to not only rule that the kick missed by the narrowest of margins, but to also not have that decision ratified by the Television Match Official.

Not good enough at the highest level of the sport. If it was so close that Springbok fullback Francois Steyn thought it was over, according to Wales coach Warren Gatland, then reviewed it should have been. Hook signalled for the TMO, and intuitive match officials would have felt uncomfortable.

That said Wales had ample opportunities to win the match.

Unfortunately they now face the possibility of an early exit, with tough matches against Samoa (on Sunday) and Fiji to come.

While in other matches the minnows threatened to a point, it was only the clash between 2007 finalist England and semi-finalist Argentina which went to the wire. With both teams unable to goalkick the skin off a rice pudding in Dunedin's superb indoor stadium, Martin Johnson's men won ugly.

The next round of Rugby World Cup games kick into action tomorrow with the much- anticipated debut of Samoa who will hammer Namibia in Rotorua, followed by more competitive games between Tonga and Canada in Whangarei, then Scotland and Georgia in Invercargill. After Russia play the USA in New Plymouth on Thursday all 20 teams will have been on show.

There will be much local interest in Hawke's Bay's Samoan connections, and the performance of Canada who arrive in the province on Thursday evening ahead of their Sunday match against France.

But the major talking point tomorrow will be the selection of the All Blacks side to play Japan in Hamilton on Friday night.

We New Zealanders are funny beasts. If we applied the stringent standards by which we judge the All Blacks to all the other top contenders over the weekend we wouldn't have a care in the world. Nobody really stood out as the contender of contenders.

But, of course, we are waiting for a sign. And that sign is, just which 22 will Messrs Henry, Hansen and Smith trust with bringing home the World Cup?

Will we be any closer to knowing that tomorrow morning, or will they ensure all fit players get a run before the important Pool A clash against France? Of the eight squad members not used against Tonga in the competition's opening game last Friday night, two are injured - loose forwards Kieran Read and Adam Thomson, although the Highlander is said to be making pleasing progress from his Brisbane arm injury.

Hamilton however must be another opportunity to hone the Vito-McCaw-Kaino partnership in the event of Read not returning to fitness.

Others yet to gain a start are fullback Mils Muliaina, Magpies winger Zac Guildford, centre Conrad Smith, halfback Andrew Ellis, hooker Keven Mealamu and prop John Afoa, and then there is the substitutes bench from the first match of whom Ben Franks, Sam Whitelock, Piri Weepu and Cory Jane would have their supporters. Smith is First XV alongside Ma'a Nonu, Mealamu is either a starter or on the bench, but around others there still swirls debate.

There is growing opinion that Magpies fullback Israel Dagg is simply too sharp to leave out. It will be a big call for the selectors to turn their backs on Muliaina after 98 Tests, but his form has not been compelling. He is however reliable and proven in the white hot atmosphere of big test matches - and the selectors may still have concerns over Dagg's consistency.

Richard Kahui's performance on the right wing against Tonga has also added complexity, as Cory Jane has played on that wing in his test career. Does that mean the talented but often flawed Isaia Toeava has the left wing, or will Jane, Guildford or even Dagg be given an opportunity there.

At halfback does Jimmy Cowan still have the inside running to partner ``Dan the Man'', or is Piri Weepu the best starter, or should Andrew Ellis be given a go? I think Ellis is worth a look. Whitelock could challenge Ali Williams at lock, although the Aucklander might have the edge in aerial skills. Brad Thorn appears to be struggling but his grunting style is not emulated by anyone else in the squad.

In the front-row it's a waiting game. A fit and firing Tony Woodcock is world class but he doesn't appear to be either at the moment. If he can't get on the pace, the Franks brothers will probably go forward, although Afoa offers real mobility. I suspect the announcement of Friday's lineup will offer a few clues, rather than a total picture of who the top 22 is.

And another prediction: a few more people will be driving to the Australia-Ireland game at Eden Park on Saturday, than did to the New Zealand-Tonga clash last Friday.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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