USA Captain Todd Clever led from the front

I really enjoyed the pool stage of the World Cup, despite a few early alarm calls! If I’d been watching as a fan I’d have dipped in and out of it, but working for ITV I’ve seen just about every game and it’s been fascinating.

There’s no doubt the smaller countries are closing the gap. Italy have made great strides in the last decade, so too Georgia and Romania, and even Russia have scored tries and played good rugby in their first World Cup.

In terms of individuals, I’ve been impressed by Louis Picamoles, the France No 8, and Adam Kleeberger, the Canadian blindside with that great beard. USA captain Todd Clever has led from the front and Israel Dagg and Richard Kahui have caught the eye for the All Blacks.

But the standout pool performance was Ireland’s Sean O’Brien against Australia. Sean has been one of the best players in Europe for a while now and against the Wallabies he was sensational. That game was fantastic, and showed the confidence that Brian O’Driscoll brings to Ireland.

In contrast, Wales will kick themselves for losing to South Africa. They seem to lack that self-belief necessary to beat New Zealand and South Africa.

I can sympathise because England used to be the same before the Clive Woodward era. Then we beat South Africa in 2000 to kick-start a run of 11 wins against the Tri-Nations sides. But it’s getting that first win that is so hard.

As for England, the most worrying aspect of their opening performances has been indiscipline. You just can’t give away that many penalties and expect to win a World Cup. You have to be smart and react to how the ref is playing the game.

My other worry concerns England’s chopping and changing in selection. Martin Johnson has had his hands tied to an extent because Ben Youngs and Lewis Moody were injured and Courtney Lawes was banned for two matches. But I’d like to have seen a more settled look, especially at centre and half-back.

I don’t subscribe to the theory that players need to be rested during a World Cup. They’re professional athletes and should be able to play what is a maximum of seven games in six weeks. The more games you play, the more your confidence builds and you get into a rhythm. James Haskell is one player who is benefiting from such momentum.

I was interested to read Simon Shaw’s comments in the wake of the Mike Tindall incident, saying he fears rugby will end up like football with players keeping a distance from the fans because of the risk of some scandal.

I don’t agree. We should put the Tindall incident in context: it happened during a RWC in New Zealand, a country where rugby is a religion and it’s hard to be anonymous. In 2003 and 2007, players mingled a lot with fans and there was no problem. But players also have a responsibility to behave in a certain manner if they go out on the town.

This article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.

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