Murray Kinsella reports from London
THE GOOD THING about Ireland being out of the World Cup is that we’ve had far more scope to head out and visit the other competing nations.
The Irish dream ended in Cardiff last weekend of course, and the party moved swiftly on. On Monday morning, the World Cup banners were coming down around the Millennium Stadium, and we were reminded less than politely that Ireland were heading home.
“I thought you lot would have cleared off home by now, you’re out,” remarked a nosy local gentleman who spotted us setting up to provide an update to those who were indeed back home. Message understood, onwards we went.
Tuesday morning brought us back to Guildford, where Ireland spent the days before their Italy clash and would have been situated this week. The Boks have filled the Radisson Hotel instead, and mightily so. Heyneke Meyer’s men are even more gigantic up close.
Bryan Habana spoke poignantly about an horrific pair of murders in Johannesburg that had affected the squad, putting Ireland’s disappointment into perspective. Meanwhile, up the train track in Teddington, Michael Cheika was defending a referee. Yep, Michael Cheika.
A first visit to New Zealand’s camp was interesting, although we once again encountered a questioning of our presence. After a rather dull press conference ended, we set up in the lobby to get to work, but were swiftly told that this was an All Blacks-only zone.
Glancing around at Steve Hansen huddled in a meeting with Wayne Smith – what a brains trust that is – Kieran Read playing a game of backgammon with Ian Foster, Sonny Bill Williams joking around with a barefooted Ma’a Nonu, and Nehe Milner-Skudder sidling by with a towel around his waist, we begrudgingly got the message.
The Wallabies have perhaps the best set-up of all for recreational purposes, with the Lensbury Hotel in Teddington providing them a nice base from which to explore London this week.
Like the Kiwis, many of the Australians have their families over in England with them at this tournament, allowing down time to be exactly that. No extra analysis, no rugby chat. Drew Mitchell and the family were comfortably set up in the same Richmond bar as us this afternoon, kick chase and defensive shape far from the wing’s mind.
Out in Bagshot, the Pumas – Ireland slayers – are ensconced where England had hoped to be this week, their purpose-built, world-class training facility at Pennyhill Park. Possibly the most likeable group of players remaining, the Argentinians have been firing up barbecues and building on their already-deep bond.
Two enthralling games await this weekend, all four of these teams clearly deserving their status as the best in the competition. It’s almost a shame that London is so vast, so sprawling. It doesn’t truly lend itself to building the anticipation.
A fanzone opens in Trafalgar Square from tomorrow onwards, providing a place for rugby people to gather, though Londoners have their own priorities. Still, Twickenham hasn’t witnessed a poor atmosphere even once during this tournament, and the quality of rugby on offer this weekend will mean that record remains.
As alluded to earlier, press events with rugby teams can sometimes veer towards monotony, but two masters of the art have been at their very best this week.
First, the passionate Meyer proclaimed the Kiwis as possibly the greatest team of all time, praised them glowingly, lauded his good friend Steve Hansen. ‘Shag’ read it all like a picture book, deflecting the kind words from ‘H’ and setting a tone for his team.
All hugely entertaining if arguably meaningless at the end of the day, and yet one almost wishes all head coaches were of similarly good value.
It’s fascinating seeing it all unfold up close and, despite the fact that Ireland aren’t around anymore, the weekend promises to be the best yet.