Pause... and engage!
John Taylor
October 5, 2011
Wales No.8 Toby Faletau is hit by two Namibia defenders, Namibia v Wales, Rugby World Cup, Stadium Taranaki, New Plymouth, New Zealand, September 26, 2011
Wales' Toby Faletau has been one of the players of the tournament so far © Getty Images

Forty games gone - first stage over and time to take a breath before the 'no second chance' knockout phase begins.

That is one of the wonderful things about commentating on a World Cup. In the first three weeks or so there is scarcely time to catch breath - another day, another flight, another hotel, another two teams with all the recognition let alone pronunciation challenges they present.

Ten games in 23 days is a challenge even if you know all the players but it becomes an Everest if you are trying to identify and name the Georgians, Romanians, Fijians and Tongans when you have not even seen them train because you only arrive on match-day. Hence the occasional 'and he offloads to the big No.8' - please excuse us!

Even if you do get the chance to see the 'Captain's Run' you are not much better off since it has become standard practice to eject the press after the first 15 minutes - a ludicrous development because any secret new moves will have been honed and perfected much earlier.

But then it all slows down and we have a week before the quarter-finals - time for a proper meal instead of fast food on the run and maybe even a game of golf - absolute bliss. Brian Moore and I are even going to learn something about how to cook New Zealand haut cuisine this evening.

The problem with Rugby World Cups has always been the gap between the top ten and the rest but the bonus this time is that we have seen some very competitive performances from the minnows. The IRB has always been guilty of over-egging the performances of the smaller nations but now there is real evidence of improvement.

There is an argument for going back to a 16 team format with only four teams in each pool because Japan, Romania, Russia and Namibia who finished last in their respective pools were a little out of their depth. As IRB CEO Mike Miller has pointed out that would solve the scheduling problems but, if rugby really wants to become a global game and you want to stage the future tournaments in countries such as Japan, there is a more compelling case for keeping the status quo.

Now we are down to the last eight and Ireland's victory over Australia has produced the marketing men's dream quarter-finals line-up. With the Wallabies pushed into the other side of the expected draw a northern hemisphere v southern hemisphere final is guaranteed.

Everybody down here feels sorry for Dan Carter but, secretly, quite a few people are rubbing their hands together because New Zealand are no longer odds-on to take the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time. They are still favourites but it is not the shoe-in it appeared a year ago. This is not about the All Blacks choking - it's about other sides stepping up and them losing their most influential player.

Suddenly, all the pundits down here have changed tack. They had been unanimous in writing off Colin Slade but now (with the exception of Scrum's Huw Turner) they are desperately trying to build him up whilst playing down Carter's importance to the team - there is a touch of desperation about it all that has not gone unnoticed.

As for the home nations - absolutely riveting. I can honestly see Wales getting to their first ever World Cup Final and I never thought I would be saying that six weeks ago let alone six months ago.

To temper that I could also make a case for Ireland getting there and you can never write-off England. I even have a sneaking worry about France. If it were any other country I would say they could not possibly recover from the turmoil that is evident within the camp but we know they have the talent and if the players take charge they could still surprise us.

But talk about everything to play for! Wales' performance against South Africa was good but it was the same old story - they failed to convert - or was it? They actually finished stronger than the Springboks and I have never seen that before.

They also took huge confidence from the game especially when it became obvious that losing was a blessing in disguise. I had nagging doubts about Gethin Jenkins' fitness and worried that we would not be competitive up front without him but, for once, everything has come right.

Add in the bonus of Toby Faletau emerging as a fully-fledged international class No.8 - I thought this tournament was year too early for him - and the power, pace and confidence of the young Welsh backs and I am genuinely excited.

No, I do not believe Wales are suddenly the best side in the world - they are by no means the finished article - but they can certainly beat Ireland and England if they play well and they have improved with every game so far.

There - I've persuaded myself. It has to be a Wales - New Zealand final!

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh

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