It's less than 24 hours before England's immediate fate at the Rugby World Cup is decided, with Scotland facing the axe on Sunday and in between these games the other remaining northern hemisphere team, France facing the unenviable task of facing the All Blacks in between on Saturday evening. Even if the form book is only half right it seems likely that all of the northern hemisphere teams will be eliminated by the time Fiji face their fate in the final quarter-final against South Africa on Sunday evening.
Twelve down, eight to go
Twelve down, eight to go
If this comes to pass, Scotland, along with Fiji, can feel very pleased with their efforts once the pain of defeat has subsided. For France and England, as well as already eliminated Wales, Ireland and Italy among the Six Nations 'elite' there is much to ponder about a game that once again seems to have moved forward and left them behind.
To an extent Ireland were a bit unlucky. A magic formula that had brought year on year improvements suddenly stopped working at just the wrong time. It was a disappointing end nonetheless for an always popular team, and their supporters who bring so much to any tournament. Nothing though can be taken away from the brilliance of Argentina who beat them to face Scotland at the weekend.
Wales possibly have to take more of a close look at themselves, with continuing political undercurrents and ill-will seeming to surround the team. For reasons I've touched on before, due to a tiny minority of Welsh supporters I shall miss them less than the Irish.
England, if they go out, will face the inevitable questions of how a country with so many financial resources, and the largest playing base in the world can produce such a mediocre team. 2003 should not be an exception, not as some god given right before I get Celtic complaints, but because we have so many things that should allow us to be challenging for the top spot every time.
France probably have the best chance of bucking the trend, and if they were playing in Paris or better still Marseilles you might even put a few quid on them causing an upset. How badly their bribe to the Welsh and Scottish unions to secure the hosting rights seems to have backfired, facing the might of the Kiwis at an away venue during their own World Cup.
Enough of the pessimism though!
For the so called 'minnows' the tournament has been a resounding success. Playing in front of decent crowds each and every one of them had something to crow about, right up to the final group stage game, where the USA scored a candidate for try of the tournament against the mighty Springboks. Only Canada and Japan may feel slightly disappointed, but these are teams trying to set their sights higher than some of the others.
I remember seeing the delight of a Georgia team who won the plate competition in the IRB Sevens series at Twickenham a couple of years ago. The way they paraded their trophy, and celebrated in front of an appreciative crowd was a portent of their reaction to their first ever cup win, and the story of how close they came to beating Ireland will echo round the clubhouses after games on the country's eight rugby pitches for many years.
For some there was no win, but there were tries scored against the games elite teams, and even without those they would still epitomise the spirit of it not being winning or loosing, but taking part that matters.
Anyone in the IRB still toying with the idea of reducing the tournament to 16 teams next time on the grounds of 'irrelevant' matches should now be taken out and shot, but with the nature of Rugby's administrators I really can't be too hopeful.