‘During the World Cup, things get fuzzy, the lines of logic get blurred’

Ireland’s Paul O’Connell in the thick of it during the clash with Australia in 2003. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THE WORLD CUP dominates the rugby landscape, far more so than the football equivalent which has European Championships, qualifying tournaments and Champions League finals ticking along in the background.

The Rugby World Cup shapes how we judge countries, personalities and whole careers. It’s an eight-week spin, a snippet of form, but the memories last a lifetime.

Just ask Eddie O’Sullivan.

In the professional game everything now works in four-year cycles. From contracts to conditioning to injury management to retirements, every elite player has the World Cup in the back of his head when making big decisions. For all that, when it does come around, most of what’s gone on in the previous four years gets usurped by happenstance.

Coaches and unions like to think they can control things and that good planning gets rewarded with positive results. The truth is that serendipity plays a bigger part in the World Cup than in any other rugby tournament.

The 2011 final is the most recent and best example of this. As Clive Woodward said this week: “If that final had been refereed properly, France would have won”. Anyone who watched Setanta Sports’ analysis afterwards could only conclude that the most influential person on the pitch was referee Craig Joubert.

This was a final of course in which New Zealand had to use their fourth choice out-half, and if you ask most of their fans, Stephen Donald shouldn’t even have been that high in the ratings.

At the start of the tournament Donald was enjoying a fishing expedition on the Waikato River, as far away from the hype and the build-up as it was possible to get. At the end of it he was the man standing in the middle of a frenzied Eden Park, kicking the penalty that secured the Webb Ellis trophy.

Not that things had gone smoothly in the build-up for France either, who endured a loss to Tonga in the pool stages, and only made it to the quarter finals because Canada somehow beat Tonga.

Source: Alastair Grant

A full mutiny ensued, and midway through the tournament coach Marc Lievremont was a head coach in name only. Naturally, they immediately hit top form, beating England and Wales and outplaying New Zealand. Not the template for success the French union imagined as they rolled out their four-year plan back in 2007.

The 2011 final was all karma for 2007 anyway, because in that year’s last-eight, France got all the tight calls, and the officials missed a forward pass the during the build up to Yannick Jauzion’s late try.

Every World Cup has had some unforeseen event influence the result. In 1995 the whole New Zealand squad fell ill on the eve of the final. Players and management struggled with diarrhoea, vomiting and loss of energy. Jeff Wilson got sick during the game, Steve McDowall was pale and sweaty before kick off and the team lacked their usual intensity.

The investigator discovered ‘Suzie’ had been hired by the hotel two days before the final, and left her job soon after suspicions were raised. They traced it back to a tea urn, and allegedly found evidence an English betting firm was behind it, but no real evidence was uncovered. Mains let it be a few months afterwards because it was apparently eating him up inside.

Source: PA Wire/PA Images

As predictable as most results are, there is always a shock in the World Cup. In 1999 (again France V New Zealand) Christophe Lamaison, above, became the best player in the world, for 80 minutes, scoring 28 points in a scarcely believable display of creativity, intelligence and courage. In typical French style, the selectors couldn’t decide on their best outhalf, and Lamaison only started because Thomas Castaignede pulled out with an injury on the morning of the game.

In 1991 Scotland would have made the final but for the otherwise rock solid Gavin Hastings missing a penalty inside the 22 metre line, straight in front of the posts. In 2007 England had the most expensively prepared side in rugby history, but lost 36-0 to South Africa in the group stages. Coach Brian Ashton was the subject of a player revolt (a watery version of the French mutiny in 2011). The team continued to play badly, yet almost won the final.

There are no lessons to be taken from past World Cups. Coaches, administrators and players need to believe that there is a direct correlation between hard work and success, between cause and effect. It’s why teams study a referee’s mannerisms and pore over weather forecasts and select the steady fullback over the fitful genius.

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During the World Cup, however, things get fuzzy, the lines of logic get blurred. New Zealand’s 87% win record becomes an irrelevant statistic, Argentina get even more patriotic, Fiji and Samoa are allowed play the top nations, English rugby players become tabloid fodder, Wales peak and trough more violently than ever, and Ireland…. we obsess over past failures.

Simon Hick is the man behind the rugby on Second Captains, you can follow them on Twitter here.

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