New Zealand may be wrong to fret about having to rely on its third and fourth-choice fly-halves in the Rugby World Cup semifinals, with performances showing that players in other positions are having more influence.
Of the 44 official man-of-the-match awards at the tournament, only four have gone to fly-halves, who typically navigate their team in games. That’s about half the number who’d won the award at this stage in the 2007 event. Scrum-halves and back-row forwards swept the honors in this year’s quarterfinals.
The All Blacks, seeking their first World Cup title in 24 years, enter the Oct. 16 semifinal against Australia having lost fly-half Dan Carter, the leading points scorer in elite Tests, and his backup to groin injuries. The play-making onus in the quarterfinals fell to scrum-half Piri Weepu, who responded with 21 points and the man-of-the-match award against Argentina.
“Piri’s been steering us pretty well from nine,” All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith said this week at the team’s Auckland hotel. “It would be a big call to change that.”
Of the three other semifinalists, France is playing a scrum-half at fly-half, Wales has relied on rookie No. 10 Rhys Priestland ahead of British and Irish Lions Stephen Jones and James Hook, and Australia’s first-choice playmaker Quade Cooper is having a “confidence crisis,” according to former New Zealand captain Taine Randell. Priestland was today ruled out of the Oct. 15 game against France because of a shoulder injury.
Wales also benefited from a man-of-the-match performance from scrum-half Mike Phillips in its quarterfinal win over Ireland. France coach Marc Lievremont selected Morgan Parra, who plays his club rugby at scrum-half, in the fly-half position for its victory over England in the last eight. No. 8 Imanol Harinordoquy was voted the game’s best player.
Parra hadn’t started a Test match at No. 10 until this World Cup and will continue in the role against Wales ahead of specialist pivot Francois Trinh-Duc. Scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili is the fifth-highest points scorer at the tournament and he and Parra account for almost half of France’s 143 points.
“This is undoubtedly the best team,” Lievremont told reporters in announcing an unchanged 22-man squad.
Australia earned its semifinal berth by ousting defending champion South Africa 11-9 on the back of a man-of-the-match display from open-side flanker David Pocock that some former players and commentators rated as the best so far by any player at the 20-nation event.
“The individual performance of this tournament, by a country mile,” former England and British & Irish Lions fly- half Stuart Barnes said while analyzing the game for tournament host broadcaster Sky Sport.
Pocock, who was injured when the Wallabies were upset by Ireland in the pool stage, said his duel with the All Blacks back row for possession around the tackle area would be crucial in deciding who reaches the Oct. 23 final at Eden Park.
“Both teams know in the past it has been a big part of the winning team, the way they’ve dominated the breakdown,” Pocock, who made 26 tackles and took nine turnovers against the Springboks, told reporters yesterday.
The award is determined by votes by fans and a panel of judges. The decision by the judging panel accounts for two- thirds of the voting.
After 44 of the 48 games in the 2007 tournament, fly-halves were man of the match on 7 occasions. In that year’s quarterfinals, the man of match awards went to 2 backrowers, a prop and a center.
Open-side flankers, whose main function is to scavenge for the ball to try to generate continuity for their team, head the man-of-the-match tally with eight awards, two more than their blindside counterparts on the opposite side of the scrum.
With No. 8s claiming seven awards, loose forwards have taken almost half of the man of the match honors.
Wales captain Sam Warburton was a losing man of the match in the one-point defeat to South Africa in its tournament opener.
The open-side has since led his country to four straight wins and a place in the final four for the first time since 1987. The Welsh are the only team other than New Zealand to have scored at least 200 points at this World Cup.
Ryan Jones, Warburton’s fellow back-rower, said his captain had set the benchmark for the rest of the squad.
“Sam has done nothing but lead by example,” Jones told reporters at the team’s Auckland hotel. “He is inspirational in the way he conducts himself on the field, the manner in which he has been playing.”
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