Tuesday, 21 June 2011

French Rugby Omens Mixed for Waratahs, Bad for France

Rolling Maul contributor and Vienna resident The Michelin Man has been pondering if the finals series of the Top14 (the French domestic Rugby competition) can provide any clues to tipsters and punters on the likely results of the Super Rugby finals and the Rugby World Cup. After attending the final and partaking in the local customs (particularly of the beer and food varieties) he has this to say:

Consider this: The final of the Top 14 on 4 June was between Toulouse (which finished first on the table after the regular season) and Montpellier (which finished fifth). Does this mean that the Waratahs will make the final but lose it to the Reds?

If I have understood the workings of the finals system correctly, this could happen if both the Sharks and the Waratahs win this weekend, and then the Reds beat the Sharks and the Warathas beat the Stormers the following week. How unlikely is such a scenario?

There was a certain novelty in the Top14 final, since Montpellier had fought its way there from fifth place by winning two tight elimination games (think Tahs vs Highlanders and then Brumbies). Most people I talked to before the game said they wanted to see Montpellier win presumably as a reward for this feat and for the fact that they were in the finals for the first time in their history, but nevertheless thought that Toulouse would be too strong. Another possible link to the Super Rugby and the Waratahs? Perhaps not. Seems the Reds are the sentimental favourites in Australia.

Oddly there were still tickets available up to the start of the game. Someone suggested that this was because the Toulouse fans, so accustomed to their team playing in and winning big matches, were weary of travelling from their home base to other cities when, at least for them, the result was not seriously in doubt (particularly in this case when their team had easily beaten Clermont Ferrand (the champion in 2010) in the semi final).

There was a party atmosphere around the game, particularly on the kilometre and a half long walk from the railway station to the Stade de France – stalls selling beer, food and the usual team paraphernalia. Your correspondent got so caught up in the atmosphere that he cracked and bought an overpriced Montpellier cap. The merguez-frites sandwich is particularly recommended.

Your correspondent was struck by the number of groups having a ‘picknick’ around the stadium before the start of the game, including drinking lots of beer. This may have had something to do with the fact that beer is so expensive in Parisian bars/cafes. Anyway, not something I recall seeing in Australia.

The non-violent reputation of rugby fans was reconfirmed. No brawls, no riots, no juvenile stoushes between the supporters of the two teams. Unlike for football (socccer) matches, there was a minimal police presence. Your correspondent found himself in the middle of a group of Toulouse fans, but never felt threatened enough that he felt he had to take off his Montpellier cap.

There was a good atmosphere in the Stade de France, a lot of flag waving and chanting from both sides, a few failed Mexican waves. No cheerleaders, but at least some fireworks after the game (including a bizarre, almost apocalyptic, vision I had of some pyrotechnician running onto the field during the fireworks to fix a launcher – I thought I was going to witness a human barbeque).

As for the game itself, it wasn’t the most exciting of finals. Only one try was scored (a good one at least), by Montpellier in the first half, who were leading for most of the match but were gradually overhauled by the pressure and penalty kicking of Toulouse, who eventuially won 15-10. The cliché of the advantage of big match experience was mentioned.

So if the Top14 final provides mixed messages to the chances of the Waratahs in the Super rugby finals, what about France in the World Cup? Again, interpret it how you will. Whether it doesn’t provide any clues or France doesn’t have a chance, it's not looking good for France, but in the interests of domestic harmony (my wife is French), I will refrain from further comment. I just hope they play a more exciting type of rugby than what was on display at the Stade de France.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

A Sydney Uni Fan Discovers The Force - and likes it (almost)

The view from the not-so-cheap seats in Perth
Sydney University Rugby fan and Rolling Maul contributor Cricket Blogger ventured out from his new Perth residence to watch the Western Force at the old East Perth Ground last weekend for the first time. He was in turn shocked and pleasantly surprised by what he found, especially when it came to food (and Tom Carter).

As a rugby tragic it is a tough life in this "tight shorts and singlet" dominated town. Blogger and a visiting Sydney Uni Rugby Club fan warmed up by trying to find a pub that was showing the Waratahs vs Highlanders game. After a 4 pub search success of sorts was found. Around one small TV in a corner of the Inglewood Hotel were clustered a group of rugby tragics trying to satisfy their addiction. The big screen seemed to be focused on a strange game between two teams called cats and hawks.

“After recovering from the hour long trek in search of Perth’s version of rugby heaven by consuming glasses of liquid expelled by native birdlife (Swans, Emus) we watched that legend of centres score a hat trick of tries.  Watching ‘a forward in backs clothing’ score a hat trick is a very rare occurrence, a bit like the Waratahs playing and winning pretty!  Last time I saw a similar performance was the occasion when Tom Carter scored his 500th point for Sydney Uni in a game against Eastwood that had the scoreline at one time of 74-7!  After the game we quizzed Tommie and he confirmed that the 500 points constituted 100 tries and no goals!

“Meanwhile back at the Super Rugby, we quickly walked the streets of Perth after the Waratahs wrapped up another win in front of a rapidly diminishing crowd at the SFS.  The differences between the SFS and the NIB Stadium were quickly apparent.

“Firstly, the food choices are excellent and generally edible (for a footy ground) and the ground is a suburban ground that consists of one very small stand and the rest comprises temporary corporate boxes on stilts (quite comfortable and offer a unique view down the ground) and temporary seating over the rest of the ground.  The joy of this ground is that you are very close to the action and you can almost feel the tackles.  It is probably the closest you will get to Club Rugby at a Super Rugby ground.

“The ground capacity is not high but I would suggest that they probably had a larger crowd in Perth than at the SFS.  They are unlike Waratahs fans in that the locals wear their Force colours with pride and they seem to actually like their local team.  Admitting that you are from the "Eastern states" is not something that you mention in polite company over here; apparently we don't understand the Western Australians.  On that note they are completely correct. AFL is everything bad about Rugby (fumbling, bumbling, weak tackles and too much kicking), ‘losing’ ugly and still supporting your team is acceptable, and coffee is more than $4 so when you buy a beer too and get change from a tenner you feel like you have won the lottery! But at least in the confines of NIB stadium the enthusiasm for rugby is real.

But back to the food - there are a plethora of stalls around the outside of the stands. You can choose from the usual stadium fare of burgers and chips, but they also offer pizzas (a Franchise Boys pizza - we made a bad choice all crust, tomato and little else), baked potatoes, doner kebabs (bit strange selling these before pub closing time but tasty all the same), strange African pastry stuffed dishes (fantastic), traditional South African BBQ and Bratwurst (excellent).  As a watching and dining experience the NIB Stadium wins hands down.

Oh the Reds won on the bell with a try right in front of us. I guess they like the stadium too!

Monday, 6 June 2011

Injuries Ensuring Rugby is More Super Than Ever

Who needs a salary cap or a player draft when you have injuries?

2011 has seen more upsets than any previous Super Rugby season and not just because there are more games. All the teams at the bottom of the ladder have won their fair share of games and all the teams at the top have lost plenty too and often to those at the bottom. Those in the middle are there for a good reason - they aren't consistent and struggle with limited superstars to shoulder the load (O'Connor, Giteau etc).

It's also no coincidence that this season has seen more injuries than any other season, and good ones too. Knees, elbows and ankles have all been seen pointing in directions they aren't intended to go. There have been more weak knees than are found at a Justin Bieber concert and more blurred vision than a weekend's full of bucks parties in Kings Cross.

A whole butcher shop diagram's worth or muscles, tendons, bones and joints have frequented medical rooms, hospital wards and ambulances. Physios and other rehab specialists have been kept gainfully employed, the world-wide supply of moon-boots is running low and any Australian, Kiwi or South African Rugby player capable of spending 10 minutes on the field without falling over is waiting for a phone call from their local Super Rugby coach to spend time on the bench.

Everyone loves a good upset (except when it's their team being upset) and the more upsets or potential for upsets the more interest generally. Crowds at Rebels, Cheetahs, Force, Highlanders and Lions matches have been excellent, while any supporter of a team playing the Waratahs, Blues, Crusaders or Bulls pays great attention knowing their team is in with a real chance.

As long as players of the calibre of Phil Waugh, Drew Mitchell, Cliffy Palu, Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Cameron Shephard and a slew of South Africans contribute most to their teams performance by carrying water bottles and warming plastic bucket seats while wearing a suit, Super Rugby will continue to surprise. If your team isn't winning much then just wait for nature to take its course.

Survival of the fittest is fine if you're a Galapagos Tortoise but when it comes to Super Rugby the struggles of the best ensure chances for the rest.