We take a brief look at the bronze medal match, and ask the question if there is any importance riding on this match?
By Mark Coughlan
I’m really looking forward to the bronze medal match. Or third-placed playoff. Whatever you call it. The point is I’m excited about it. There, I said it.
I’ve heard the game described as disappointing, one the players dread, like kissing your sister and in various other derogatory guises this week, but frankly I think it could be a belter. You only have to look at history to see why.
The precedent was set in the first outing, when Wales and Australia went head to head on a Thursday back in 1987. It wasn’t meant to matter, but a red card for Aussie flanker David Codey meant it really really did. The Wallabies led going into the final throes, but the Welsh hit the flair button and one fluent move later, Adrian Hadley crossed to bring the difference to just one. Paul Thorburn stepped up, did what he did best from the touchline by drawing in a fantastic kick, and Wales won by a single point. An epic was born.
OK, there have been some duds over the years, but a 75th minute drop goal secured Australia’s victory over New Zealand in 1999, while an angry All Blacks scored six tries to crush the French 40-13 in 2003. Then there’s 2007, when Argentina hung up their kicking boots to blow France (again) away 34-10 and finish third in the world. Inspirational stuff.
The disappointment of losing a semi-final will linger on, but the pressure has somewhat dissipated. This is a chance for both teams to say thank you to their loyal fans, to entertain the global audience one last time, and to showcase what they can do. Two of the seven World Cup finals have ended without a try, but the third-placed playoff has never been tryless, and sees an average of 3.6 tries scored. Case closed.
Still not convinced? Fine, case re-opened – let’s check out this year’s contenders. For Argentina, it is a chance to match the achievements of 2007. For the Pumas to finish third at a World Cup would have taken a Hollywood script before 2000, but the rules were re-written with their kick-based run to the playoff in France. The plan this year, according to Agustin Pichot, was “to go one better” – but it certainly won’t be to finish one place further back. This team have bravery and heart in abundance, so a game like this is made for them.
Particularly if it stays dry. Consider the stats. Argentina have scored the second-most tries (26) in the World Cup behind only New Zealand (36), while they lead the way in runs made (800), metres made (3,854), clean breaks (71) and offloads (62). They have a backline who can create from anywhere, and they showed against Ireland and Australia how far they have come. This side do not want to settle for fourth.
The South Africans, though, are as proud a rugby nation as there is. Defeat to New Zealand was met with dignified resignation. Defeat to Argentina – a second defeat in the space of three months, after the 37-25 loss in Durban back in August – will not be. Heyneke Meyer came under a fair bit of stick for the Japan loss at the start of the tournament, so he will be determined to end the trip to England with a victory. A team combining youth, who have a chance to prove a point, with experienced heads who are here to bid adieu, will be in no mood to settle for second best.
Speaking of bidding adieu, the plethora of huge talents saying farewell to the international stage on Friday night should have you excited enough on its own. Horacio Agulla, Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Juan Fernandez Lobbe are just some of the heroes who could be making their final World Cup bow for the Pumas, while the Du Plessis duo, Tendai Mtawarira, Willem Alberts, Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Ruan Pienaar and Bryan Habana are likely all playing their final World Cup games for South Africa, if not their last internationals.
Oh yeah, Bryan Habana. We haven’t even talked about that. The man can break the Rugby World Cup try-scoring record (he’s currently tied with Jonah Lomu on 15) if he dots down against Argentina. In his final ever World Cup game. Come on – how can you not want to watch history in the making? Saturday is going to see a huge game, a tense encounter, a massive clash – but Friday, for me, could be where the real entertainment lies this weekend. Don’t miss it!