State of the game: Romance of Cup alive and well

A sensational weekend brought the tournament to life and, by accident or design, the IRB have a great product on their hands
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The All Blacks, who only have another four years to get it right for the next World Cup, put themselves under phenomenal pressure in France, their preparation even extending to a ban on wives and girlfriends staying in the players' hotel rooms. If there was a lack of romance in New Zealand's campaign, the same cannot be said for the tournament, which on a sensational quarter-final weekend came of age.

By accident or design, more probably a bit of both, the International Rugby Board have a great product on their hands. If anything, England's heroic victory over Australia was superseded in the superhuman stakes by the French effort in breaking New Zealand hearts and minds.

One of the most extraordinary statistics of the tournament is that France made 178 tackles to the All Blacks' 36. Unpreced-ented. And New Zealand – they will not want to play another big match in silver-grey jerseys rather than all black – enjoyed 72 per cent of possession, although enjoyed is not the right word. Graham Henry, the former coach of Wales, still cannot win at the Millennium Stadium.

Everything the World Cup hoped for came together on that Super Saturday, with mesmerising matches of almost unbearable intensity. In marketing terms, any other sport would have given its eyeteeth for such a brand.

After an epic victory over Australia, who had made no contingency plans for flying home, the England dressing room looked like the fallout from a battlefield. There were bodies lying all over the place, medics working overtime. It would have been no different elsewhere. Whatever these players earn, they earn every penny. The internationals of the future can expect to be far more handsomely rewarded.

Phil Vickery, the England captain, said before the meeting with the Wallabies that he had received a call from Trevor Woodman, a member of England's World Cup winning side of 2003 who was subsequently forced to retire with a neck injury.Woodman was an old-fashioned prop of the kind that Australia seem incapable of producing. He can help to solve their problem. Woodman is currently working at Sydney University, where he is demonstrating to prospective Wallaby props the finer arts of front-row play.

"For some reason there is a big difference between the countries on matters of strength and technique," Nick Farr-Jones, the former captain of Australia, said. "The weights being bench-pressed by the England players are significantly more than the Wallabies'. Another factor is that we want to produce props who are versatile, who can get around the park and do things other than scrummage. If England have shown us anything in the last two World Cups, it is that first and foremost we have to concentrate on strength and technique. We shouldn't give a rat's arse about anything else."

Last weekend, of course, was not confined to the double triumph of the northern hemisphere. In their loss to South Africa, Fiji were fantastic, the second half one of the great 40 minutes of Test rugby. After they lost Seru Rabeni to thesin-bin, the Fijians conjuredtwo magical tries, and for the second day in succession the Stade Vélodrome in Marseilles was converted into a cauldron.

Long before the end, on another boiling afternoon in Provence, some of the big Springbok forwards could barely put one foot in front of the other. The water carriers were working overtime. Thousands of neutral observers, many of them English and Welsh, some of them wearing grass skirts and garlands, were supporting Fiji, who responded magnificently. The half-backs, Mosese Rauluni and Seremaia Bai, were responsible for some of the most sublime rugby played in any tournament.

Bai would not have been there but for the injury to Nicky Little,the stand-off who had played a major role in knocking out Wales in the pool stage. The Welsh scored five tries before losing 38-34, and suddenly that defeat did not look half as damning as it did at the time.

Wales overreacted in sacking their coach, Gareth Jenkins, before their executives set off, once again, to find a replacement in New Zealand. None of it makes much sense. If there is nobody in Wales suitable for the post they would have been better off flying to Fiji.

Their coach, Ilie Tabua, did a job and a half, not only in getting the Fijians into the quarter-finals but in frightening the life out of the Springboks. And all on a budget that would not have covered the grand cocktail party that New Zealand were planning to host in Paris last night to extol the virtues of the 2011 World Cup, which will now be held in the land of the long dark cloud.

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