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AllBlacks look to win back-to-back World Cups, let legends take final bows

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When the Rugby World Cup kicked off last month in England, the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the world were New Zealand and Australia. Forty-four days and 47 matches later, the rest of the world has reshuffled in the world rankings, but the Kiwis and Aussies are still at the top, and will now battle in the Cup Final for a fitting end to a sensational tournament.

The AllBlacks, which seemed unbeatable throughout the event, finally got a close shave last week in the semis by South Africa, just sneaking by the Springboks, 20-18.  A steady west London rain saturated the pitch and slowed down the game, hampering New Zealand’s breakneck attacking speed and forced them to rely on a tactical kicking game.  The imposing Springboks, which normally look to grind their opponents physically, were instead forced to turn and chase the oval all afternoon.  Good teams win tight battles, and the prudent execution of Plan B revealed the multi-dimensional prowess of the AllBlacks.

Meanwhile, Australia closed out its semifinal against Argentina with a comfortable 14-point margin on the scoreboard.  In contrast to the weather at Twickenham on Saturday, Sunday brought sunshine, and with it, a wide open game that allowed the Wallabies to cross the Argentinian goal line on four occasions.  However, at the final whistle, the faces of the victorious Aussies showed less joy than relief.  Images of gold jerseys stained red were punctuated by the countenance of No. 8 David Pocock, who started the contest with a bloody nose and ended it with two swollen black eyes.  By luck of the draw, they will have fewer days to recover before facing a healthier opponent.

Keys to the Cup Final:

There will be a frenzied back row contest at the breakdown, pitting the aforementioned raccoon-eyed Pocock against New Zealand’s ageless captain, Richie McCaw in his last match as an AllBlack.  Pocock is currently the best ball stealer in the game, and will literally stick his face into any tackle, but McCaw is the best ever and will turn into a rabid dog to defend his legacy.  However, the real back row battle will be between opposing No. 6s, Kiwi blindside flanker Jerome Kaino and Wallaby Scott Fardy, who lead their respective teams in tackles.  The very reason that Pocock and McCaw can feed at the breakdown is because Fardy and Kaino have put so much chum in the water.  Want to see two people put their bodies on the line? Keep an eye on Kaino and Fardy.

This will also be the curtain call for AllBlack Dan Carter.  Good things just seem to emanate from his hands and feet, and having missed the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final due to injury, he also dreams of closing out his international career by doing a few overhead trophy presses.  His opposite, Aussie Bernard Foley, has gone from understudy a few months ago to the man expected to bring home a third world championship for the Wallabies. Is that too much pressure?

The truth is that there are intriguing individual battles in this match at every position, and they continue all the way down the bench.  Because there is such parity in the talent pool, the intangibles take over.  New Zealand seems to have the edge, if nothing else, because of its collective experience, and well, they’re the AllBlacks. But no team has ever won back-to-back Rugby World Cups and Australia is relishing it’s underdog status.  From the shadow of its opponent’s expectations, the Wallabies might just emerge holding a trophy.

Guinness Six Nations: Wales equals wins record after Italy scare in Rome

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ROME (AP) — Wales equaled its all-time record for consecutive wins after overcoming a plucky Italy 26-15 in Six Nations rugby on Saturday.

Italy scored the only try of the first half to trail by 12-7 at halftime. Wales didn’t score a try until the 53rd minute and finished with only two. Italy scored a second try, too, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Wales from an 11th successive victory, tying the Welsh record set 109 years ago.

Italy extended its own record streak with a 19th straight defeat in the Six Nations since 2015. The 99-year-old tournament record became theirs outright last weekend in Edinburgh.

Wales’ winning streak started against Italy in the 2018 Six Nations.

Coach Warren Gatland made 11 changes after the fortuitous win over France in Paris last weekend, trying to build experience in a Rugby World Cup year.

That Wales finished with its least points and tries in Rome in six years didn’t worry Gatland, who was far more satisfied with starting the championship with two wins away from home before returning to Cardiff to face title rival England in two weeks.

But he warned, “If we play like that against England it could be embarrassing.”

Stand-in captain Jonathan Davies was frustrated.

“I can’t fault the boys’ effort,” he said. “That accuracy in the final quarter was probably what we lacked. But we came to a difficult place to play rugby and got the result. Italy made things tough for us.”

But a comfortable win at Stadio Olimpico was on the cards as Dan Biggar kicked Wales to a 12-point lead in the first half hour.

Then Italy struck from an attacking lineout as Dean Budd and captain Sergio Parisse surged. Sebastian Negri and David Sisi helped in getting flanker Braam Steyn over the line, and the game descended into the tight contest the Welsh feared.

Tommaso Allan converted Steyn’s try but hit the post with a penalty just before halftime. He nailed a penalty after the break to cut the deficit to two.

Wales sent on regular captain Alun Wyn Jones and finally hit back and pulled away with converted tries by Josh Adams and Owen Watkin to make the result safe with 10 minutes to go.

Italy coach Conor O’Shea rued what he believed to be a missed opportunity.

“We were very close in points for 50 minutes where we were fully in the match,” O’Shea said. “We had an opportunity in the second half but the energy at that time went in their favor.”

Wales flew down the right touch then attacked down the left, where fullback Liam Williams drew the last man to send Adams into the corner for their first try.

Wales thought it scored another 10 minutes later, but Jonathan Davies was adjudged by the TMO to have knocked on.

The second try came from a delicate chip by replacement flyhalf Gareth Anscombe for Watkin to pounce on.

Italy made the scoreline more respectable when Allan exploited a gap and teed up Edoardo Padovani into the right corner.

Right at the end, Wales flanker Thomas Young was denied a try on debut when a forward pass was caught in the buildup.

Italy already looks consigned to a fourth consecutive wooden spoon. Defending champion Ireland arrives in two weeks. But Steyn, who was a standout for Italy, believes any home match is winnable.

“The hardest challenges,” Steyn added, “are the best.”

Guinness Six Nations: England switch from underdog to favorite against France

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Praise can make you weak. Eddie Jones threw that comment at Ireland last week as a warning about living up to expectations.

Those expectations were then shattered by Jones’ England side as they smashed the Irish in Dublin to kick off the Six Nations.

Naturally, praise has been showered on England for producing its best rugby performance since 2012 when it thrashed New Zealand 38-21 at Twickenham.

Having been hailed far and wide for the remarkable all-round triumph, its England’s turn to cope with all of the pats on the back, to switch from underdog to favorite before France turns up on Sunday at Twickenham.

“By Sunday we’ll be at our best,” Jones promises.

To prove all the praise has had no effect won’t be easy, especially when England isn’t in hostile territory but back in the cozy comforts of home. Its victory has enlarged the target on its back, with four rounds to go.

“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” hooker Jamie George says. “We must realize that we can’t just rest on that win, believing that because we’ve produced one good performance we’ll be winning the World Cup. We need to build on this.”

The good news — and bad news — is the next opponent is France.

France should have sunk Wales last week in the rain in Paris, but Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez missed 13 points off the tee, and Yoann Huget and Sebastian Vahaamahina gave away two converted tries. Wales, without really firing a shot, won by five points.

Instead of just replacing injured backs Wesley Fofana and Maxime Medard, and prop Uini Atonio, and showing some faith, coach Jacques Brunel has prolonged the turmoil the team can’t escape by tearing it apart and asking new combinations to hit the ground running in a stadium where France hasn’t won in 12 years.

He’s brought Geoffrey Daymourou and Mathieu Bastareaud into the centers, apparently to counter the considerable threat of Manu Tuilagi. They are the only survivors of the backline which beat England last year in Paris. But two more centers are on the wings in Gael Fickou and Damian Penaud. Meanwhile, Huget has been moved to fullback, where the wing hasn’t started for France in almost six years.

Center Romain Ntamack and lock Paul Willemse, who made their debuts against Wales, have been demoted to the reserves.

The French pack was huge and surprisingly mobile against Wales but flanker Yacouba Camara has been given his first cap since the 2018 Six Nations, and lock Felix Lambey and tighthead prop Demba Bamba will make their first starts. Bamba will be marking Mako Vunipola. Of Bamba, Brunel says, “He’s come up against a few good players.” But not Vunipola, who almost subdued the Ireland pack on his own.

If any rescuing is required, France’s reserves offer 25 caps of experience in total. Toulouse prop Dorian Aldegheri and fullback Thomas Ramos are uncapped, and four others have one cap each. Brunel says, “I expect them to bring their enthusiasm late in the game.”

England winger Chris Ashton, who has lost twice to France and never scored against them, expects the Tricolors to be desperate after blowing the Wales game.

“It will be an angry French team,” he says. “They love a reaction.”

Ashton set the Top 14 try-scoring record in his lone season with Toulon in 2016-17, and believes the Top 14 doesn’t prepare the French for test rugby.

“The Top 14 is a slow stop-start game. It’s not anywhere near (test level),” he says. “Maybe that step up shocks them in that first couple of games, but they will get up to speed very quickly.”

If praise can make you weak, then criticism can make you strong. Ashton better hope “very quickly” isn’t on Sunday.