Plenty of thrills but far too few skills

The heart-stopping excitement of some of the matches cannot hide the fact that the game is heading in a worryingly sterile direction, argues Steve Bale
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Now that we are at the business end of the World Cup, with 28 matches gone and four to go, it is worth noting that the tournament has hardly been the bonanza, in playing or financial terms, it had been cracked up as being about to be.

The rugby has seldom been other than fascinating and sometimes - as in England's death-or-glory quarter-final against Australia last Sunday - unbearably exciting, the sort of thing that can turn even such a strong man as Jack Rowell lachrymose.

But as a group of matches you could not say last weekend's quarter-finals were that special as advertisements for an event which is billed here in South Africa as the greatest thing that has ever happened to rugby. Three of the weekend matches were sufficiently one-sided to blunt the hard edge of competition the World Cup would prefer but has not had often enough.

Still, we can reasonably hope for better - meaning closer - in the semi- finals about to come, though if the bookmakers are to be believed we can forget an England-France final and instead prepare ourselves for South Africa v New Zealand.

This would be the re-establishment of a rugby order as old as this century, Springboks and All Blacks restored as the outstanding international teams and the rest, even England, struggling somehere behind. Looked at dispassionately, there would be some justice in this eventuality.

It is a doleful thought that, heroically though they played to beat Australia, England had one idea in their heads: to stick the ball as high in the air as they could and wait for Wallaby mistakes. This did not make victory any less exhilarating but it was a perfect reflection of the supposedly pragmatic thinking of the home countries.

In fact you could add France as well and turn home countries into five nations, because, although the French have an instinct and vision for the game to which their Anglophone neighbours perennially aspire without achieving, they too have made their way through the World Cup by dint of honest toil, adding inspiration to perspiration only when it becomes absolutely necessary.

But when it comes to pragmatism, even this sturdy virtue was inadequate for Scotland and Ireland, though the Irish exit was tame by comparison with the Scots'. Indeed you could argue that what both sides took for pragmatism was in fact not pragmatic at all, because they lost.

But this was more especially true of the Irish. You have to be fair and say that to arrive as no-hopers and go home as quarter-finalists was splendid and could not have happened to a nicer bunch of blokes, but to think that the way to beat France was to do nothing but kick for position was the sheerest folly.

At least, it was shown to be when the passion and fervour that characterised Ireland's pool matches against New Zealand and Wales went missing against the French. Subtract these qualities and there was nothing left, not when as prime an asset like the wing Simon Geoghegan can be left isolated and utterly unused.

It is the bane of British Isles rugby, and has been reinforced in this World Cup even at times by England, that the modern game always has to be played by numbers, so that if you are in a certain part of the pitch you have to do a certain thing. Small wonder David Campese and Tim Horan, Wallabies who have given boundless pleasure down the years, have come to the conclusion that playing rugby has become boring.

No doubt they would have been less disillusioned if Australia had beaten England last Saturday but it is true that even the Wallabies have tended to kick rather than run, and apart from the All Blacks, the most vivacious rugby by far has come from the Samoans.

As far as the islanders are concerned it is as well they have gone home, because although rugby badly needs countries of the second rank to force themselves into the first rank it does not need the force to be applied as Samoa did to South Africa and which quite properly earned Mike Umaga, the full-back, a suspension for dangerous play.

Not that the Springboks were ever in danger of losing the match as opposed to their physical well-being. It is more critical than ever that they carry on winning, or at any rate reach the final, because the cash injection the South African economy was predicted to receive has proved largely illusory.

With visitors from overseas coming in considerably fewer numbers than was expected, it is largely down to the South Africans themselves to produce some sort of spin-off beyond the projected profit of pounds 20m on which Rugby World Cup Ltd has been congratulating itself.

One or two random disappointments make the point. A senior official at SABC, the host broadcaster, said this week that its losses could be "horrendous". The hotel and car-hire industries have also been grievously disappointed, not only at the amount of World Cup business but also at the deterrent effect the tournament has had on ordinary, non-rugby tourists.

Perhaps the final 10 days will make a difference; certainly they will if there is a last-minute influx of English visitors keen to bask in the reflected glory of Will Carling's team. It is a pity rugby's greatest Scot will not be here as well, because if ever a player deserved to go all the way at a World Cup it is Gavin Hastings.

Remember that missed penalty from short range that Hastings missed in the semi-final against England four years ago? Most people still do, yet Hastings has never let it become a monkey on his back and in all his years as an international he has been a figure of the most profound honour.

With Scotland's departure from the World Cup, and even then it was only after a noble battle against the All Blacks, comes Hastings' from playing rugby. Quarter-finals produce semi-finalists and we laud them for that achievement but the 1995 quarter-finals also gave us a last glimpse of big Gav, and Scotland may not see his like again.