Rugby world focuses on New Zealand v Australia rivalry
The topic kept returning to the historic rivalry between Australia and New Zealand which might have its most pure expression when the All Blacks and Wallabies meet on Sunday in the semifinals of the Rugby World Cup.
As critics from Britain and France sought Wednesday to better understand a competitiveness which exists almost in the DNA of Australians and New Zealanders, some of the most recognizable figures on either side of the dividing line surprised them with expressions of mutual admiration.
New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams called Australia’s Quade Cooper a mate, and Cooper described Williams as “a very special player” as the pair admitted to exchanging text messages throughout the tournament. It seemed the world’s media had come to witness the denouement of a folklore feud, and the Hatfields and McCoys had put down their guns and settled their differences with a handshake.
Appearances were deceiving. Williams and Cooper are mates off the field as are the All Blacks lock Brad Thorn and his opposite Nathan Sharpe who may make his 100th test appearance for Australia on Sunday. But all are quite emphatic that mateship doesn’t exist within the field of play.
To make that plain, players from both sides began to lift the tone of the rhetoric around Sunday’s match at packed news conferences, heightening the tension around the semifinal, and the rivalry itself, from a simmer to a slow boil.
“I’ve been in touch with him, he’s a good mate,” Williams said of Cooper. “But on the field it’s a different story. I want to win and he wants to win; I want to win for New Zealand, he wants to win for Australia.”
Cooper, after complimenting Williams, couldn’t resist a well-aimed jab at New Zealand and its record of failures at Rugby World Cups over the past 24 years. In their frequent sporting disputes, Australians like nothing better than to remind New Zealand of that long and bitter drought, and of the fact the Wallabies have won the World Cup twice in the interim.
Cooper is not a popular bloke in New Zealand. Having been born here, he chose to throw in his lot with his adopted nation and, to Kiwis, few sins are less forgivable. He was asked on Wednesday how New Zealanders might feel not only if the Wallabies win on Sunday but if he kicks the winning points.
“Yeah, well that would be a tough one for them to swallow,” he said. “I’m sure that they’ve got a lot more things to worry about than myself.” And then, with a famously sharp eye for an opening, he saw the chance to wind up the pressure on New Zealand.
“They’re supposed to have won the World Cup for the past three tournaments and this is no different,” he said. “A lot of pressure is on them to win this competition on their home soil. I’m sure they’ll be more worried about how they go about their game than myself.”
Wallabies flanker Rocky Elsom took a similar line, emphasising the pressure on the All Blacks to end their World Cup drought at home.
“Forget about us for a minute,” he said. “They’re the No. 1-ranked team in the world and they’re in a country where they expect them to win the World Cup, so regardless of what happens the public expect that. I can’t speak for them, but you get a feeling around town they won’t tolerate anything less.”
Australia’s David Pocock gave some context to the rivalry when he said “because they’re our closest neighbours in terms of rugby, it’s always a huge match and one we get excited about. You add a semifinal at the World Cup to that, and it’s extra special this week.”
Thorn, who played rugby league for Australia before switching codes and becoming an All Black, is well-placed to interpret the rivalry from both sides. He said “it’s cheeky, it’s fun and both countries love getting the wood over each other.”
As Wales and France prepared for their semifinal meeting on Saturday, there was more mutual respect than talk of historical differences. Wingers Shane Williams of Wales and Vincent Clerc of France, who will oppose each other at Eden Park, could only speak of each other in glowing terms.
“Vincent Clerc’s a lethal finisher, I’ve been impressed with him from the start,” Williams said. “He’s not a winger that stays on the wings, he goes looking for work, and they’re the kind of wingers I certainly enjoy watching, maybe not playing against so much. He deserves to get all the credit at the moment.”
Clerc was equally complimentary of Williams.
“He’s had a long and exceptional career, he’s still on the field at 34, which is impressive,” he said. “I like him as a player and as a person.”
No day at this tournament would be full without an injury scare. Injuries have been one of the constants and one of the most influential features of the seventh World Cup.
Wales held concerns over a shoulder injury to young flyhalf Rhys Priestland and were waiting for him to show improvement before confirming him in their semifinal lineup, due to be named on Thursday.
Priestland went off three minutes from the end of the quarterfinal win over Ireland last Saturday in Wellington. He carried his left arm in a sling on Sunday and Monday, and so far it has failed to respond to treatment.
Fears also arose Wednesday over the fitness of All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. The sighting in Auckland of Matt Todd, the young flanker who understudies McCaw at the Canterbury Crusaders, raised concern that a foot injury carried by McCaw throughout the tournament was more serious than first thought.
All Blacks management played down the seriousness of the injury, and the presence of Todd, but with a match against Australia pending, New Zealand fans suffered more anxious moments.