10 things we’ve learnt at the World Cup

Hugh Godwin considers the lessons of an absorbing first week in New Zealand

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The Independent Online

1. Black jokes are funny

New Zealanders do have a sense of humour about their long wait to regain the Webb Ellis Cup. The radio broadcaster Miles Davis has re-written the 1970s Smokie hit "Living Next Door to Alice" and has re-recorded the song that rather handily features the same agonising period of time, as in: "Because for 24 years we've been trying to get our hands on Webb Ellis / Ellis, where the f***'s Webb Ellis?" Oh, hang on. It's not really Kiwi humour: Davis is a West Ham-supporting Londoner who came out here in 1984.



2. North v South must go West

The former All Black wing Marc Ellis – known to most as the answer to a quiz question, by dint of his World Cup record six tries against Japan in 1995 – appeared on TV to quote 1.8 tries per match scored by northern-hemisphere teams in their first games, compared to 4.2 each by southern hemisphere sides. Rugby remains obsessed with this north-south divide, to no useful advantage. There must be more to a team's patterns and style than which side of the equator they happen to be on, yet we happily lump Argentina and South Africa in with New Zealand and Australia, while Canada, USA, Russia and Romania are presumably clones of Wales, France, Ireland and others. It is about time the equator was erased from the analysis.



3. Television calls the tune

While you snuggle under your duvets or sit on the sofa watching advertisements for beer in ITV's 90-second break between the anthems and the kick-off, the players are having to pace themselves. Breaking away from the line-ups after singing their anthem, they have been caught adopting their starting positions only to have to wait, statue-like, for a minute or more before the referee gets the nod from a TV director. The filler for the crowds here has been a burst of "I Gotta Feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas. So it could be that Will.I.Am and friends are making more out of performing-rights royalties than some of the impoverished players listening to their thumping bassline when all they want to do is play.



4. Balls worries are... balls

Thanks to Jonny Wilkinson's first-night woes we found out more about the World Cup ball than we ever planned. Rubber-compound panels here; co-polymer bladder there. But the Scotland fly-half Dan Parks booted the subject dead, despite missing three penalties against Georgia in the rain of Invercargill on Wednesday. "The balls certainly aren't to blame," Parks told the IoS. "I missed two from long range because I hit them too hard. The next two were really sweet." Parks was however forced to endure an ear-bashing from his coach, Andy Robinson, after slicing a kick to touch for half-time and seeing it rebound into his hands off Nathan Hines's back, almost producing a try-scoring position for the Georgians. "The boys gave me all sorts of ribbing afterwards," said Parks. We can add it to the Scottish collection of howlers, alongside Chris Paterson's scuffed goal-kick along the ground, against Romania. Meanwhile here's a novel thought: it's a World Cup – maybe the kickers are just plain nervous.



5. Feeding frenzy is unchecked

Before the tournament the referees' manager, Paddy O'Brien, re-affirmed the "five key areas" of officiating, including players arriving through "the gate" at the breakdown, which caused problems to England among many others. The cadence of the scrum engagement call was re-emphasised too, as well as ensuring loosehead props have their head and shoulders above the hips. But the crooked feed is a different matter; it appears a matter of whim as to when a chuck into the second row is whistled up. You wonder whether someone is keeping count and each time they reach 100, the referee blows.



6. Safety still comes first

Staying with the breakdown but giving the referees a break, the contrasting halves of Australia v Italy last Sunday told a story. When the Wallabies were busy diving over rucks, sealing the ball off and generally killing Italian ball, there was little that was free-flowing. When both sides became committed to rucking and counter-rucking at the expense of losing their safety-first structure, the match opened up. Players who are prepared to play without fear take the onus off the referee. Don't hold your breath for much of it later in the competition.



7. Complaining is a global pursuit

You travel 12,000 miles from the Olympic city of London to New Zealand and guess what? They are all moaning about dodgy transport and the cost of the stadiums. Aucklanders stuck on trains on opening night have been given a hotline to ring, to claim compensation, and Dunedin residents will bend your ear on the lack of consultation over the building of the £100 million indoor stadium that has put a few quid a week on everyone's rates.



8. The eye in the sky is not infallible

James Hook's missed penalty against South Africa – and that is what it was, according to the blokes with the best view under the posts, the assistant referees – highlighted the fallacy that television pictures can always prove marginal decisions one way or the other. It would require Hawkeye-style technology, with cameras or sensors on the posts, to be certain whether a kick had gone through. One view from a television camera that may be placed up to 50 metres away cannot possibly be definitive.



9. Minnows are still minnows

Pundits had rushed to proclaim this World Cup as the one in which the smaller nations closed the gap. But none of the bottom 10 teams have defeated any of the top 10 to date, and since Friday we have had Japan, Romania and Fiji thrashed by New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa. Much has been made of some sides' quick turnaround between matches, as with Georgia playing Scotland last Wednesday and England today. "I don't disagree with a lot of the comment," said Martin Johnson, "but the Georgians will have no sympathy for us and we'll have none for them."



10. Style could be hosts' undoing

The suspicion that the All Blacks took one look at Japan's mostly second-string line-up and pulled Richie McCaw out of the firing line is unconfirmed. Graham Henry's squad rotation is under intense criticism – many would like to see the best XV or most of them running out every week – but another prevailing conviction among locals and visitors alike is that the All Blacks' style of play, as much as any injuries that might befall McCaw or Dan Carter, could be their undoing. It is a kind of union-league hybrid – always going wide, with no great set-piece structure – and it could be vulnerable against the forward-dominated sides, even if New Zealand's skill and organisation in the back line has no equal.

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