Alan Watkins: Strength of character will not win semi-final

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The Independent Online

Just before the Rugby World Cup started, I placed the top four as 1, New Zealand; 2, France; 3, Australia and 4, England. This prediction seems to be holding up quite well, but we shall know better in five days time. Several other commentators made New Zealand No. 1 but I was, I think, alone in placing France so high. I wish I had backed them at 10-1 but it is too late now.

Just before the Rugby World Cup started, I placed the top four as 1, New Zealand; 2, France; 3, Australia and 4, England. This prediction seems to be holding up quite well, but we shall know better in five days time. Several other commentators made New Zealand No. 1 but I was, I think, alone in placing France so high. I wish I had backed them at 10-1 but it is too late now.

Against Ireland they were so overpowering that we tend to forget that they outscored them by only four tries to three and that in the second half Ireland actually scored more points. If England had been in Ireland's position, they might even have managed to win. By this I mean no more than Clive Woodward, the England coach, means when he speaks of his side's performances.

All right, he says - this has become virtually a formula at his press conferences - we played badly. I shall be having a few words with one or two of the boys later on. But we won, didn't we? And if a side can still win when they're playing badly, that means they're a good side.

It is a maxim which has clearly proved of some comfort to Woodward in the last few weeks, necessarily so. There is undoubtedly something in it. Good sides do often manage to scrape through somehow. But, like patriotism, it is not enough. It will not be enough to beat France. Nor is it enough to explain England's defeat of Wales, which came about not through English character but through Welsh error.

Leave aside Robert Sidoli's loss of control of the ball as he went over the line. This was not a "mistake'' by the admirable Sidoli but the result of a tenacious English defence. But there were at least two other tries that went begging through failure to give a crucial pass.

Then there was the extraordinary disposition to kick the ball straight at Jason Robinson. Wales tackled well throughout, but were lucky nevertheless that Robinson did not score himself and set up only the one England try, Will Greenwood's.

If Wales had kicked their goals, and England had kicked theirs, the two sides would have gone into the tunnel at half-time with Wales leading 17-6. If the same immaculate pattern had been maintained in the second half, England would still have won 31-27. But if Wales had taken all their try-scoring chances, they could have won.

One reason why Mike Catt was as effective as he was in the second-half was that we was clearly enjoying himself. It is many months since Jonny Wilkinson was in that happy condition. And no wonder. The claims that had been made for him have been absurd, as they still are.

Thus: he is the best place kicker who has ever played for England. What about Bob Hiller, Dusty Hare and Rob Andrew, to name but a few? Again: he is the best place kicker in the world. What about Frédéric Michalak? Or again: he is the best outside-half who has ever played for England. What about Richard Sharp, Bev Risman and Andrew? Or finally: he is the best outside-half in the world. But what, in that case about Michalak and Carlos Spencer? The time may be coming when, having been thrust up by the papers, Wilkinson may now, with equal injustice, be dragged down.

Here is a postscript. For the last few weeks, though it seems an age, I have had to explain to friends and relations who want me to do something on a Saturday or Sunday morning that, happily or alas, I shall be watching the Rugby World Cup at that time of the day. Almost without exception, they then reply: "Of course, I forgot, you've got Sky'' - as, indeed, I have. I then explained that the World Cup is being broadcast exclusively on ITV, when they nod politely, but I can see they are not really taking it in.

It is, obviously, a tribute to Sky television that people who are not interested in rugby or, for that matter, in sport generally should assume that the company holds a monopoly on major sporting events. In these circumstances, Sky could surely afford to be a little more generous towards the World Cup.

Last Saturday, for instance, the Sky News showed a wealth of football and some clips of the Zurich Premiership which would have been tedious even if you had been at the matches concerned. The results of the two World Cup quarter-finals played that day were flashed up, so that you would have missed them if you had even got out of your armchair.

I cannot believe that Sky is, for a reasonable fee, unable to obtain footage of the matches. It looks extraordinarily like pique to me. It is certainly a betrayal of Sky's normally high standards on news coverage.

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