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Nearly a World Cup Rugby upset

Yes it’s the Rugby World Cup, and in the early hours of this morning London time, the mighty Fijians came within a point of suffering a shock defeat at the hands of plucky little USA.

USA captain Dave Hodges paid tribute to his players after coming within a kick of beating Fiji.

“No-one in the world of rugby gave us a chance, but we came out with a good game,” said Hodges, whose team lost 19-18, having spurned a chance to win.

Fly-half Mike Hercus kicked for glory after Kort Schubert’s try, but narrowly missed with the last action of the match.

“It was a good effort from all the players. We were very, very disappointed,” said Hodges.

This rugby tournament still hasn’t had a decent surprise result, having instead suffered an abundance of one sided results along the lines of Goliath 70 David 10, the most extreme of which so far has been England 84 Georgia (the one next to Russia – every name except one ending either in -dze or -vili) 10. Rugby is that sort of game. If one team is well on top the points will accumulate. Running over a line with a rugby ball in your hand and planting it down on the ground (in rugby touching down actually does mean touching down) is relatively easy. So, in rugby, upsets are rare, and it only gets really exciting when the teams are pretty evenly matched, as Fiji and USA turned out to be today, and as will be the case in the later rounds of this tournament, but has has tended not to be the case in the early round games now being played. So this Fiji USA game was very refreshing, and I eagerly await the recorded highlights of the game this evening.

In soccer, by contrast, a team can have all the possession and a string of chances, and have nothing to show for it. And then the other guys can run up the other end and score a goal with their one attack. Converting a solid chance into a soccer goal still takes some doing. Even open goals are appallingly easy to miss, as you will know if you’ve ever played this game, and when chances are missed the sturdiest shoulders can drop and underdog spirits can soar.

The Soccer World Cup not so long ago contained many upsets, with France (sensationally beaten by their own ex-colony Senegal) and Argentina, to name two famously strong and fancied teams, both going home after the first round of games. This is one of the many reasons why soccer is now the great World Game, while rugby is not. Soccer minnows can (sometimes) take great bites out of soccer sharks, so the fans of the lowliest soccer nations can still dream of fantasy results with their heroes winning.

Samizdata readers in particular will surely never forget how the mighty Portuguese – sporting no less a person than Luis Figo of Real Madrid – were humbled 3-2 by … plucky little USA.

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18 comments to Nearly a World Cup Rugby upset

  • england actually beat georgia 84-6.

    (just to make it that little bit more david/goliath).

    i agree, the close-ish scorelines of most football matches is one thing that helps. of course, if you narrowed the scoring area in a rugby pitch to one equivalent to that of a Fifa-approved football goal, I imagine the scorelines would be equally pedestrian.

    i think the real difference is in the physicality of the games; i would say that rugby relies much more on speed, force and fitness than football does. you’ve also got nearly half as many players again, so individual error doesn’t probably doesn’t count as much – therefore the overall quality of your team is a huge indication of potential results.

    of course, the equality between nations reaching the finals of the football world cup is probably a lot closer than those of rugby – after all, it’s a more popular game, more easily played and more widely professional (remember, english rugby was amateur until just eight years ago).

  • As I was actually saying to Brian yesterday, one big thing about rugby is the extent to which it depends on brute strength. In a genuine mismatch, one side’s scrum is a lot more powerful than the other side’s, and pushover tries (in which the scrum is pushed over the line by the attacking side, a try is scored, and the defending side is not able to defend through tackling as you do in non-scrum situations) are common. One seems these all the time in low level rugby, but they are uncommon in international matches between good sides (in which both sides have extremely strong and powerful scrums). I have seen a few in this World Cup, however. England v South Africa on Saturday is the first decent game of the tournament. If England wins then we are even more likely heading for the England v New Zealand final a lot of people expect. If we get an upset in this one, then England, New Zealand and Australia will all be on the same side of the draw once we get to the quarter finals, and the tournament will be wide open on the other side.

  • Dave O'Neill

    I’m still expecting an England NZ final.

    The Eagles were very impressive, albeit against a rather shabby looking Fiji. They still did some excellent plays and generally its the best match I’ve watched so far.

    I spent yesterday evening trying to find a place in Seattle to watch the Semi’s as I’m going to be on a buisness trip there over the Semi weekend. Fortunately there’s an Aussie pub which is showing all the matches live. (1am) – I’m currently predicting an Oz v NZ semi on the Saturday and an England v France semi on the Sunday.

    That is assuming things don’t go the way my wife hopes they will on Saturday.

  • England’s scrum nearly was able to do a pushover try against the Australian pack in their Test match win this year. As Michael says, this is quite rare between strong Test nations, and it is part of the reason why I expect England to win the tournament.

    England have a clear advantage over all their rivals in this department; and only New Zealand can match them for skill IMHO.

  • Dave O'Neill

    It’s not just the ability to push. Watching after match analysis of the Georgia game, it was pointed out that the England pack could turn the scum, then push forward and set up the backs for a set piece.

    That is frightening.

    Australia looked weak against Fiji, I haven’t seen the Kiwi’s yet but they were hardly a pushover early in the year.

  • Sturm

    The attraction of football is that, despite the incredible dullness of the game, goals are sufficiently rare that the moment of climax is more intense when it finally comes.

    Rugby is generally much more interesting, but those moments of intensity may not be as strong unless the game is particularly close.

    Anyway, here’s hoping for an England – NZ final and for the mighty AB’s to smash the Poms into the dust!

  • Dave: Australia played Argentina in their one game so far, which is a considerably stronger team than Fiji. Still, not a terrific performance.

    I will likely be in Tokyo for the semi-finals. I am sure finding a bar of expatriate Australians there will be easy enough, but I am not quite sure where. (Somewhere in Roppongi?)

  • Dave O'Neill

    Sorry, yes, Australia did play Argentina. (shakes head). Do’oh.

    The Puma’s played a very physical game which seemed to cause the Australian pack some problems there.

    I am afraid that my knowledge of Tokyo is limited to Narita airport. OTOH I have a friend I could ask who lives there if you’re interested.

  • Oh what is all this nonsense? The most important sporting fixture of the year takes place this Saturday when Chelsea take on Arsenal at Highbury.

  • Hugh

    I read your comparison of the relative merits of football compared to rugby with great interest. The assertion that crossing the line and touching the ball down is easy is made by someone I suspect has not played the game all that much!

    But your point really does have merit. The pool games highlight the pundits’ predictions that only five teams have any hope of winning the competition. To be able to write off three-quarters of the entrants before the opening ceremony is very sad, and it is to those nations credit that they play with all the panache of a team determined to make it to the final anyway.

    When bidding to host the next World Cup, England suggested dividing the competition further by keeping the Webb Ellis trophy for the Wallabies of this world, and creating a Plate competition for the “second tier” nations. This would, no doubt, have seen matches become more competitive as nations face only those of similar rugby ability; the mismatched encounter between England and Georgia would never happen.

    Also bear in mind that Rugby is not completely professional. The rugby “minnows” have some players who hold contracts to play for European clubs, but rely on amateurs to complete the squad. Among the Georgian players that faced England were two lawyers and a doctor. Can anyone imagine an England fooball team having to take to the field with Michael Owen, David Beckham and the other players drawn from the bottom divisions?

    This amateur Georgian team played with pride, and succeeded in stopping the infamous England “rolling maul” – something Australia could not do earlier this year. Who says that there are no surprises?

  • The only thing more surprising to me than learning that the USA nearly defeated Fiji in rugby was learning that the USA had a rugby team.

    And I’m an American.

  • Gasky

    I would not like to call the world cup. I’m not a big Rugby fan, and have always favoured football (soccer). One thing I will say though, if the Final is NZ v England then I think it will be one of the greatest sporting events in history, and I would urge all people to watch it.

  • Omnibus Bill

    As for brute force being necessary to winning at rugby… that isn’t always true. Brute force helps -you can always beat a hammer using a bigger hammer – but the game has evolved to be more about attacking and defense patterns, and striving to make a break to exploit tiny defensive lapses. The French have traditionally made do with with very savvy and colorful attacking, much like the Welsh do every decade or so when a great scrum half / fly half combination wanders out of the mines and valleys. Ireland’s team plays in this way, attacking with flair and playing in a rousing, complex attacking style that should look familiar to hockey fans – Ireland’s unique feature in the Keith Wood era being attacking front row players. The Kiwis are suprisingly small and not particularly physical at times, winning their games by playing in more unified fashion than their opponents. The South Africans tend to win by bludgeoning their opponents with hard tackling, and stellar kicking. England – well, England is a bit like Oz, sort of a total package. England is stronger in the scrums than Oz, but Oz probably has a better back row. Otherwise, the teams are quite equal. Unlike “football”, which really has only two or three real styles of play, there are a lot of ways to win on the rugby pitch, and that makes the World Cup very interesting.

    Regarding the Oz/Argie battle – the slog doesn’t come as a surprise to dedicated fans of the game. The Argies are known to be brutal scrummagers, moreover they hate the Ozzies. They have had some classic throwdowns over the years. As a result, the great battles between the two teams usually occur where the real men work, in the front row. Oz always wins, but the Pumas always bloody the Ozzies really badly.

    And as for you Randall… not only do we have a national team in the U.S., but we have a national league that launched 7 or 8 years ago. Google “USA Rugby Superleague” to find out more about the league and the clubs. Games are played in the spring. And yes, it’s become a feeder league for overseas clubs. You ought to check it out – it’s a pretty decent level of competition, and the sport is slowly but surely growing.

  • xander from honduras

    I seriously didnt know people played rugby outside of England… And now i found out that there are rugby world cups.

  • Cydonia


    “i think the real difference is in the physicality of the games; i would say that rugby relies much more on speed, force and fitness than football does”

    I read somewhere that David Beckham averages 8.5 miles of running per game for Real Madrid – and presumably a lot of that is sprinting.

  • Biased Observer


    To channel McEnroe- You can’t be serious about the “physicality” of soccer (football).

    Watching so-called adult “men” thrash around on the grass if their legs were broken just because an opposing player brushed up against them is not exactly a shining endorsement of Soccer’s “physicality”. I find such antics leave me thinking soccer players are actually a bunch of pampered crybabies.

    I say put it to the test. Put a rugby tream up against a soccer team. One game with soccer rules, the other with Rugby rules. Then we can talk about “physicality”.

    P.s. Go Canucks! Stomp the Kiwi’s! (I can dream can’t I?)

  • Just to bring in a point about the ‘plucky little USA’, I’m glad they did so well, and it goes a little farther towards a hypothesis of mine. As Christopher pointed out in that soccer (yeah, soccer) post about the US, it seems there are quite a few folks who like to find the sports that the US is bad at, and hype them up, in what I see as an effort to do a little ‘nyah nyah, we’re better than you at X’. Well, it’s looked to me like that’s not the best move, if they want to keep their superiority in said sport. The big example recently is curling. The US effort was rather pathetic at the 2002 Olympics, yet a year later, the US Women win the World Championship. It’s seemed this has happened in quite a few sports, mostly obscure (in the US) like Water Polo.

    Maybe rugby will get more coverage in the US. I’d love to see it (along with other sports like cricket and Australian Football, or even something like Handball, but not that stupid wall banging one), but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Dave

    Historically Rugby Union was all about size not fitness. League, on the other hand, was about speed, fitness and agility. Which is why some nay sayers will always tell you its the better game.

    However, since Union went pro, and a number of league players came back to Union, the level of fitness required in Rugby has increased astonishingly.

    Franlkly, I would put the backs of any Union team up against a soccer team now on Fitness and, to be honest, some of the Forwards.

    I’d also pitch Beckham and Wilkinson in a kicking contest – penalties of both types. I reckon Wilkonson would win hands down.