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Portugal puffery glosses over the real points

Lindsay Knight18/9/07

As rugby's World Cup enters its second week of what might be termed its "phoney war", a sober, dispassionate observer must wonder whether some, especially in the television media, have suspended any public obligation to be responsible critics.

To suggest, as some commentators in television and others in the media have done, that Portugal's performance against the All Blacks justifies the places of "minnow" nations in the tournament and that it rebutted any argument for streamlining the format, defies all that is logical and rational.

Sure, the Portuguese brought plenty of spirit and endeavour to the game, they sung their national anthem with passion and they celebrated with gusto their scoring achievements. But the reality remained that this was a hopeless mismatch which did as much to advance rugby as a global sport as the All Blacks' 1995 145-17 win over Japan.

Portugal was still slaughtered by a century of points by an All Black team which, by its lofty standards, did not play all that well and which, with so many players either out of practice or out of position, was somewhat disjointed.

It was yet another gross distortion of what a test match is supposed to be about and in a sense an effrontery to those who have gone before when an international cap and jersey were something precious.

Think of those outstanding players of the past who, through circumstances, ill luck and the tighter criteria which applied in their time, never had as much as a second on the field as an All Black the likes of the fine Auckland captain of the 1960s Bob Graham or the Waikato loose forward of the 1980s and early-90s, Duane Monkley.

And what might that stalwart of Auckland and North Auckland sides of the 1960s and '70s, Frank Colthurst, have thought when in the frolic against Portugal no fewer than three hookers Andrew Hore, Anton Oliver and Keven Mealamu all took the field.

It is incongruous, too, to reflect on the worth of an All Black jersey now if an old team photo of the 1950s is studied. Then, players who were in the squad as reserves were included in the photo but without the silver fern on their jerseys. Now any Tom, Dick and Harry can go to the nearest sports store and run around in jerseys which we are told are replicas but which look very much like the real thing.

You can only wonder again how invaluable a soft exercise against a side like Portugal will be when suddenly the All Blacks find themselves in a quarter-final which is looking increasingly like being France. It's a scary thought, but in the now infamous semifinal in 1999 France went into that game also having struggled in all previous matches and, indeed, being lucky to escape with a win over Fiji.

Some essential questions arise: what value has there been in taking Keith Robinson and Reuben Thorne to the tournament when clearly even before the team left New Zealand they were far from 100%? What must Alex Wyllie and John Hart be thinking? About the only thing they agreed on in 1991 was that they needed Mike Brewer in their squad, only to have him ruled out through a late fitness test.

And, given the ease with which the All Blacks have cruised through their pool games, has the disruption the rest of the New Zealand season has suffered for the sake of winning the World Cup been worth it?

At this stage, even though there is still a long way to go in the tournament, it seems a safe bet that it will be an all-southern hemisphere final and, dare it be suggested, in view of the way Argentina has performed, it may even be all-southern semis, with the Pumas meeting the impressive Springboks.

Which leaves a few more questions lingering for apologists for northern hemisphere rugby, mainly those who have had their bank accounts inflated by wealthy club owners, and myopic southern hemisphere knockers such as exist in the UK press.

One would have thought the message would have penetrated after the misfortunes in New Zealand of Clive Woodward's Lions in 2005. That side failed miserably because the players could not adjust to the greater pace and tempo with which the game is played in this country.

The power of the pound, the Euro, and even the yen may be damaging to rugby in South Africa, Australia and especially New Zealand. But for every Luke McAlister who is lost there is a Stephen Brett or Stephen Donald coming on to take their place. Instead of gloating about raiding southern hemisphere stocks, British journalists should be more concerned that their own national interests are being seriously compromised, much like has already happened with their soccer and cricket.  

LINDSAY KNIGHT | RugbyHeaven | Tuesday, 18 September 2007 | Comment on this article

Articles
Lindsay Knight

The malaise runs deep in NZ rugby 18/9/07
Portugal puffery glosses over 18/9/07
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Rugby's chance for rightful place 28/8/07
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