Northern lights expose southern frailty
By Evan Sieff
PARIS, 9 October - The quarter-finals demise of New Zealand and Australia at the hands of northern hemisphere teams came as a surprise to many but perhaps undeservedly so.
The speed of the England pack to the breakdown was the key to their victory over Australia, whose forwards were made to look laborious by comparison, forcing coach John Connolly to admit his team was well beaten in the rucks.
By the same token, France's comeback from a 10-point half-time deficit and ability to hold New Zealand out for 27 consecutive phases in the final minutes indicates they finished the stronger of the two sides.
France prop Pieter de Villiers says he has the answer; the timing of the world cup gives the northern hemisphere teams a fitness advantage over their southern rivals.
"It's the beginning of the season in the northern hemisphere and the end of the southern hemisphere season, so there could be something in that," he said.
The All Blacks attempted to counter this disadvantage by employing a rest-and-reconditioning regime for their squad members during the 2007 Super 14 season.
"Coming into this world cup everyone agreed it was the right strategy," said New Zealand coach Graham Henry.
However, there might have been other fitness forces at work. Both Australia and New Zealand cruised through their pool games undefeated, with the latter setting a points record of 309 for the stage. Henry was prepared to admit this might have had a detrimental effect.
The fear factor
The past failures of the All Blacks at the world cup might have bred a certain fear within the 2007 ranks, especially when they were put under pressure during the spirited France comeback.
Their hesitancy to spread the ball in the second half forced wings Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu to come infield, negating the superior pace of their backline.
By comparison, France were a team that played without fear, perfectly captured in their aggressive face-to-face confrontation with New Zealand's haka prior to kick-off.
Australia, on the other hand, refused to play the ball in their own half for fear of being caught within range of Jonny Wilkinson's deadly boot. This tactic, perhaps inspired by dark memories of the 2003 RWC final, saw them kick away valuable possession and deny the counter-attacking power of Chris Latham and Lote Tuqiri.
With two teams from each hemisphere into the semi-finals, despite predictions that RWC 2007 would be one of southern hemisphere domination, a northern hemisphere team will contest the final.
England captain Phil Vickery, in the wake of his side's 12-10 victory, gave an ominous warning to anyone planning to make further predictions.
"You write us off at your own peril."