Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rugby JWC Semi-finals - June 17, 2009


After 3 rounds in pool play, the four best junior rugby teams gathered in Tokyo for the semi-finals. It was no surprise to see England, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia here; they each dominated their pool matches and are clearly the class of the tournament.


I got there a bit before 4:00 and was surprised to see a large crowd already at the gate, waiting to be let in. Japan is hoping to host a future Rugby World Cup and they need good attendance figures at the junior tournament to prove they can make it a success. Despite it being a 5:00 start and Japan not playing, there were about 6,000 people in the stands when the game began.

Tickets were again just 1,500 yen (about $15) and you were allowed to sit anywhere. I took a seat at field level on the far side of the stadium. I hadn't seen rugby from this close before, and other than occasionally being blocked by the sideline official or a medic, it was pretty cool. I don't want to get into a detailed description of each game, you can find that at the IRB site. But I'll give my thoughts on both matches along with a few pictures.

New Zealand 31 Australia 17

The first match pitted the Baby Blacks of New Zealand against the Junior Wallabies of Australia. The first half was characterized by a number of blown opportunities for both sides, including missed penalties and fumbles near the try line. It was 7-7 at the break, but the second half was much more open and entertaining. Australia scored early, but the Baby Blacks capitalized on two Wallaby errors to retake the lead 21-14. The sides swapped penalties before NZ fullback Robbie Robinson ran in the clinching try with 15 minutes left. The New Zealand defense held the rest of the way and the Baby Blacks were one step closer to defending their title.


The New Zealand Haka

This game was of much better quality than those I watched last week. Many of these players are already playing professionally in the Super 14 league, and some of them will be members of their senior teams in the next year or two. There were more extended possessions and although a number of handling errors early on, both teams settled down to play some decent rugby. I was surprised at the relative smallness of some of the Australian players, but rugby is not just a big man's game, and what they lacked in size they made up for in speed. It was good to watch both teams set up plays from the scrum or lineouts, and the tackling was solid. Sitting so close, you can hear the players yelling, and the collisions too. They are not as loud as those in the NFL, but that's because these players are not wearing equipment. As the game progressed, it became obvious that New Zealand were the better side, they made fewer errors, and deserved their win.


Catching a kick


Tackled


A tackle off a kick



A scrum

England 40 South Africa 21

The second game was similar - a low scoring first half, but a dominant performance in the second by the eventual winner. In this case, though, England were helped by a red card to South African flanker Rynhardt Elstadt for a dangerous tackle. At the time, the score was 23-21 England, but after the penalty was converted, England used their numerical advantage to score another try to increase their lead to 12. South Africa couldn't mount a real challenge and the English added one final try, the convert coming after the siren to conclude the match. The scoreline was not flattering to South Africa, but the game was much closer, being nearly tied with only 15 minutes to go. South Africa had their chances and their lack of discipline really hurt them.

Despite the similarity in the way the games progressed, the rugby on the field was quite different. In this match, there was much more kicking for position, as well as many more penalties. In fact, English fullback and kicker Tom Homer had booted 3 penalties in the first 10 minutes, a sign that South Africa was not the most disciplined team, which clearly cost them the game later. I was impressed with Homer overall, who made 8 of 9 kicks on the evening, but also showed good form in the field.

Homer watches one of his kicks


A rolling maul


South African wing Sampie Mastriet


The Finals

I'm going to be out of the country and will miss the finals between New Zealand and England. I would expect the Baby Blacks to win a tight game and defend their title, and I'll try to be watching on-line back home in Ottawa. If you are interested in watching highlights of the games already played, or trying to catch the finals on Sunday (Saturday evening in North America), you can visit the IRB video page.

In other matches, Canada defeated Uruguay to avoid battling Japan (who lost to Italy) for 15th place. I'll update everyone with the final standings next week.

For now, I'm flying to Ottawa tomorrow and will be in New York from July 2nd to the 12th. Should be lots of sports on the menu, so keep following me here!

Best,

Sean

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