Rugby World Cup France 2007

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Cup rookies are gaining experience and supporters

Imagine that former Wallaby winger David Campese had his way. In that case, the likes of countries like Georgia, Namibia and Portugal wouldn't be at the Rugby World Cup.

In fact, before the 20-country tournament got under way in France, Campese championed calls for the number of teams to be cut to 16 to avoid blowout scores that do little for rugby beyond rewriting its record books.

Yet the underdogs have shamed their critics by scaring some of the fancied teams and proving they do deserve places at the game's biggest tournament.

"Everybody who's here has earned the right to be here," New Zealand flanker Jerry Collins admitted. "Who's to say they shouldn't be here? They should get credit for getting this far and we should get behind them. They're only going to get better if they come here."

While rookie Portugal, Namibia and Japan have been on the wrong end of thumpings - 13 All Blacks crossed for tries as New Zealand crushed Portugal 108-13, France also scored 13 in an 87-10 beating of Namibia and Australia routed Japan 91-3 in its opening game - rugby's developing world also has turned in some inspirational performances and drawn some of the biggest roars from crowds in France.

No team has impressed more than Georgia, playing in only its second World Cup and still searching for its first victory. Rugby is in its infancy in the former Soviet republic, which boasts just eight rugby fields.

As weknow, the eastern Europeans battled hard in the first half against Argentina before losing 33-3 and then came tantalizingly close to pulling off the greatest shock in World Cup history. It just failed to beat Six Nations powerhouse Ireland, losing 14-10 in Bordeaux on Saturday.

Playing against the most-capped Irish starting line of all time, the Georgians camped close to Ireland's try line for much of the second half and only frantic defence by Eddie O'Sullivan's men kept them out.

"We did not up our performance as we would have liked to have. Despite that, credit goes to the Georgians. They were really rough," Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll said after the game. "I've played in 77 Tests and this one was as hard as any of the top sides."

Actually, Georgia coach Malkhaz Cheishvili was left ruing what might have been.

"We tried to organize our defence and play as tightly as possible. The boys achieved this 80 per cent. There were still errors, but they did very well," he said.

The four point margin of defeat was Georgia's smallest ever at a World Cup and earned the team a bonus point. Giorgi Shkinin's second half try also meant that, as of Saturday night, host France was the only team at the tournament not to have scored a five-pointer.

Of course, the French put that right Sunday night by running in 13 tries in thrashing Namibia in Toulouse. But even in that encounter one of the biggest roars from the Partisan crowd came when outside centre Bratley Langenhoven grabbed an interception and sprinted the length of the field for a consolation try in the final minute.

It's important to notice that while it was reduced to 14 men early against France and was never in contention, Namibia earlier shocked the Irish by scoring two second half tries in a 32-17 loss. It was Namibia's 105-13 thrashing by South Africa in a warmup game that fuelled calls for second-tier nations to be excluded from the World Cup.

Tonga has a long and proud rugby history. But, as a nation of only 115,000 people with about 5,000 registered players, it consistently punches about its weight. At this World Cup it has strung together back-to-back victories for the first time, overcoming the United States and then beating Samoa after nine losses to its neighbour in a row - a result that set church bells ringing before dawn across the islands nation.

After New Zealand's 13-try romp against his side, Portugal coach Tomaz Morais rejected the argument often put forward by those who want a smaller World Cup that such lopsided defeats damage rugby development in smaller nations.

"It was an excellent day for our rugby and the world's rugby," he expressed. "Playing against the best teams, we can always learn. The whole press is talking about rugby in our nation and that will help it grow."

And all those tiny nations beating expectations but not opponents can take heart from one stat: The only team shutout so far in France is defending champion England, beaten 36-0 by South Africa on Friday.

England's Jamie Noon out of the Cup

Unfortunately for the british team, their outside center Jamie Noon was ruled out of the Rugby World Cup on Sunday with knee ligament damage.

According to official sources, the player was carried off as England lost 36-0 to South Africa at the Stade de France on Friday, the team's largest-ever World Cup defeat. A scan confirmed that he has a grade 2 medial strain to his left knee, an injury that typically has a six-week recovery period but doesn't require surgery.

"He is really disappointed not to be able to take any further part in this tournament," England team doctor Simon Kemp said of Noon.

In fact, no decision has yet been taken whether to call for a replacement.

Dan Hipkiss, who had been quarantined earlier this week with a mild case of tonsillitis, is fit again and could replace Noon for Saturday's must-win Group A game with Samoa at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes.

However, there was better news for England on injured flyhalves Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley, plus Jason Robinson.

Robinson, who will retire after the World Cup, strained his left hamstring in the match versus South Africa, but is not thought to have played his last game after recovering well in the 36 hours following the match.

Although unlikely to be named for the Samoa match when England coach Brian Ashton announces his team Monday, Robinson may come back Tonga at the Parc des Princes in Paris on Sept. 28.

Kemp said that Wilkinson, who has an ankle injury, and Barkley, who strained his left hip, were recovering at the expected rate.

"Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley continue to make very good progress," he stated. "We've always anticipated that they'll be available for selection this weekend and nothing has changed for us to change our minds."

ACtually, Wilkinson is expected to replace Mike Catt at No. 10 against Samoa, with Ashton to decide between Catt, Barkley and Andy Farrell to take the position of inside center. Farrell played at No. 12 against South Africa.

England, which struggled to beat United States 28-10 last week, could become the first reigning world champions to fail to reach the quarterfinals if it doesn't defeat Samoa and Tonga.

In the end, England captain Phil Vickery will sit out the final match of his two-game suspension against Samoa.