Monday, 21 September 2015

Rugby World Cup: South Africa 32, Japan 34

To stay true to my vow of being insufferable about the World Cup of Rugby, I have to chime in about the South Africa-Japan game.  What an incredible display of rugby, and of character and sport, by both teams.  The two-point win by Japan is being called the most shocking result ever in rugby history.

A commenter on social media had tipped me off that I was in for a goodie, which is fine, but what a game that would have been to come into cold, with the expectation of a blowout, but the Japanese side refusing to lay down for the juggernaut.

The Japanese make up for the lack of stars on their roster, their relative lack of size and high-end speed, with ferocious dedication and team discipline, and by boundless energy.  It's refreshing that in rugby, if you're an underdog, the only way to win is to attack, to keep up the pressure on offence and defence and try to cause mistakes and breakdowns by the other side, there's no collapsing into a shell and trying to lull the game into a coma.

Gary Bettman, stop lecturing other sports about the moral superiority of your athletes, and pay attention to how rugby has a theoretically overmatched referee to police 30 overgrown louts, but somehow keeps excellent control and gets assistance from the touch judges, and, wonder of wonders, a video referee who'll stop play and tell the ref "I want you to look at a high tackle, two minutes ago, by #8 green, should be a penalty, ...", and no one gets away with anything because the ref "didn't see it."  Brad Marchand and Milan Lucic would be out of the game, out of a job.

Pay attention also Gary, to how the team on the attack, the one that is mauling or rucking or scrumming towards a try, gets to keep possession of the ball if organized play breaks down, if a maul or a scrum is collapsed.  Even if the ref can't beyond reasonable doubt point to a culprit, to who caused the maul to fall to the ground, it's plenty bloody obvious that it was the desperate defending team resorting to this tactic.  The team on the attack had nothing to gain, the defending team everything to lose.  So the defending team gets a penalty, the attacking team gets the ball, and we play on.

A point of emphasis in this World Cup is to keep the flow going, so when a player is tackled he's given latitude to post the ball for his teammates, and the tackler has to release the player and roll away.  This has been called unfailingly, and the players are getting the message, making a great show of getting out of the way when on the ground, to not spoil the ball and bog down play.  Again, it's pretty clear that the team that's defending is the one trying to slow down the game, so the onus lies on them.

Compare to those tedious cycle games in hockey, or when a player falls on the puck and freezes it, suddenly losing any control of his body, and unable to 'find' the puck or do anything to free it.  Puzzling that a superbly conditioned athlete now turns into a sack of soggy rice.  And that it's always the player in the defensive zone who does this.

Same for the pucks being frozen along the boards, in a tangle of skates and sticks.  Which team benefits from this?  Could it be that it's the defending team, having a chance to catch its breath, make a line change, send out the right personnel, and now have a 50% chance at the draw, with players properly positioned?  Wouldn't it make more sense to penalize the team that freezes the puck, blatantly, and slows down the pace of the game, to take it to OT and get a loser point?

Anyway, if you have this game stacked on your PVR, as I did, give it your first priority.  If not, try to find it online somewhere and watch it cold, without knowing the score, although you can kind of guess that it's a close one, shockingly.

Although if you're reading this now I've spoiled the ending for you.  I tried to preserve my virginal purity before the game, avoided websites and skimmed over a message enjoining me to watch this one, but then TSN's "The Reporters" panel blew the ending for me.  Yes, even they were talking rugby, and Michael Farber compared it to the Miracle On Ice at the 1980 Olympics.

This one rugby game was better than the combined action of the entire previous World Cup of Soccer Histrionics and Staged Dives.  And I should know, because I didn't watch a single game of that, would sometimes tune it in to see if it was worth the fuss, and then turn away in disgust after no more than five minutes at the shamelessness and the blow-dried-iness of the peacocks trotting around aimlessly.  And billion-dollar stadiums built in the midst of the Amazonian jungle and crushing, endemic, hierarchically-imposed poverty.

More readings:

Japan win over South Africa has given the world hope. This was rugby's game changer.

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