Aidan Smith: Who should Scots support in Rugby World Cup semi-finals?
Rugby teams with serious World Cup aspirations have a line they like to use as a way of confirming that ambition. “We don’t want to hit the beach just yet,” they’ll say.
So, as we Scots shiver behind metaphorical windcheaters, very definitely out of the tournament and most assuredly back home if not actually crunching on gritty sandwiches in Portobello and Dunoon, who do we want to win?
This is a familiar parlour game when the sport is football and we’re required to choose a favourite other team. And if we’re being realistic about our rugby prospects, we probably didn’t expect to be involved in this weekend’s semi-final power struggles.
Let’s face it, few outside Scotland wanted us to get to knockout at the expense of Japan, and some inside Scotland were sufficiently embarrassed by that “collateral damage” remark to think it best that the would-be fastest side in the world are now watching figurative donkeys amble across the sands.
But even if we’d managed to party-poop the hosts it is more than likely we would have been throttled by South Africa, just as the Brave Blossoms were, and that Greig Laidlaw would have suffered a torrid evening up against firecracker scrum-half Faf de Klerk.
And if we had usurped Ireland how could we really say we would have fared any better than the Irish who were steamrolled by New Zealand in what former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick lauded as one of their greatest performances of recent times?
I wouldn’t call rugby and its World Cup predictable but this is what England head coach Eddie Jones says of Saturday’s showdown with the reigning champs and red-hot favourites: “We’ve prepared for this game for two and a half years. I can remember being in Kyoto [when the draw was made] and quickly you could do the mathematics – even an Australian could do the mathematics – that we were going to play New Zealand in a semi-final.”
When it comes to the business end of this competition, the big boys invariably prevail. Thus alongside England vs the All Blacks it’s the Springboks and Wales who will contest the other semi. The Scots have been beached, so too the Irish, their top ranking in tatters. But the romantics are gone, too.
Japan’s verve could only take them so far. French flair has previously taken them further, streaking past Jonah Lomu to reach the 1999 final in the World Cup’s greatest-ever match and all the way to the 2011 final as well. Not this year, though.
How mirth-packed must it be as a Frenchman to watch us make total derrieres of ourselves over Brexit? Yes, but how maddening must it be as a Frenchman to watch their team throw away a quarter-final in the manner of le grande coq-up against Wales?
France would have won, even with 14 men, if only one of the two kicks which cannoned off uprights had gone over, or if Romain Ntamack hadn’t fluffed another straightforward opportunity. Owen Farrell could have taken them into the last four, even though he has revealed himself to be human with the boot over the past year, which makes you wonder how vital he might be to England’s chances of repeating their triumph of 2003, achieved of course with a kick.
England boring? That’s what the United States claimed in the World Cup’s early days, a remark which although provocative was promptly blown away by “collateral damage”, the tournament’s outstanding moment of PR nincompoopery, and possibly the sporting year’s as well.
It’s true that England haven’t produced running lines as bewitching as France’s against the Welsh but then no one has. Wales are extremely fortunate to be in the semis. If New Zealand scaled majestic Mount Cook against Ireland, then Warren Gatland’s side scuttled across the scrubbiest Welsh valley floor in the win over France, their poorest performance in a while. They surely won’t be as bad again, and can’t be, against the brutishness of the Boks who always tackle with extreme prejudice.
I think Wales can beat South Africa and hope they make the final. Do the ultimate winners, though, come from the other semi and could it be England’s year again for a rugby-and-cricket double? Of course Farrell winds up Scots as only a forceful fellow in a white shirt with a Bond villain sneer can, but he’s no slouch at the dark arts of which Eddie Jones insists the All Black are masters, and the current Scotland team lack someone like him.
Jones, of course, is no slouch at the wind-ups. He may acknowledge our nation’s existence even more sparingly than some in the Westminster government but he’s sly and clever and funny. Utilising all three at once, he claims all the pressure is on New Zealand, defending a World Cup being the hardest thing. Of course they’re defending two World Cups and going for the hat-trick. You may be starting to suffer from Barcelona-esque boredom regarding the All Blacks but I’m not.