So, this Rugby World Cup, NBC chose to show the tournament opener, New Zealand-Canada, and all the U.S. games, which was an excellent choice in that Americans should be supporting the Americans and that All Blacks vs Tonga (41-10) came with an opening ceremony, something NBC Sports has lots of practice covering. However, it meant that 99 percent of the rugby on TV has been an overmatched struggle between a heroically tough-willed underdog (Tonga, USA, Cananda) and a monster of the sport.
But after this quarterfinal round (which you can view through nefarious means here), NBC/Universal will show the semis and finals, meaning that, through no fault of its own, NBC will soon manage to show hard-fought, world-class rugby at reasonable hours. To prepare you, we're here to break down the matchups in the quarterfinals in terms American sports fans might understand: which teams to hate, which teams to drink to, and which teams remind us of which other teams in sports that people might watch.
This Celtic clash promises to be one of the games of the weekend, if not the tournament. The score will probably be close, so expect the difference in the game to come from the kicking tee. With this in mind Irish coach Declan Kidney has picked 34-year-old Ronan O'Gara to start at fly-half over 26-year-old Jonny Sexton. Sexton, a more exciting player in the field, has struggled with his kicking all tournament. O'Gara is a superb kicker, and little else. Wales's kicking duties will be shared by 24-year-old Rhys Priestland and 23-year-old Leigh Halfpenny. While both excellent, they haven't been on the biggest stage standing alone over the ball before. O'Gara has.
Roughly analogous to: Chicago Cubs (Ireland) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (Wales). The Irish have never reached the semifinals. Like the Cubs, they have great fans who know how to pour back a pint or two, and like the Cubs, they can't win the big one. Dueling fly-halves Ronan O'Gara and Jonny Sexton would be the '03 versions of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.
Rugby is by far the most popular sport in Wales. It's nearly the only game in town. And if any team knows about that, it's the OKC Thunder. Wales is also loaded with young talent who haven't quite reached their prime, but you can't take your eyes off them. Young captain No. 7 Sam Warburton would be K.D.. Little fullback Leigh Halfpenny is Russell Westbrook. Though in rugby it's harder to take away all of your best player's shots.
Players to love: No. 13 Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland's captain, is the most-capped player in Irish history. At 32, he isn't the game-breaker he may have once been, but he is the heart of the squad. As BOD does, so go the Irish. Also, World's Largest Ginger Paul O'Connell is to the forwards what BOD is to the backs. An inspiration. And a big fucking ginger.
For Wales, No. 7 Sam Warburton is 23, the youngest player to captain Wales in 40 years. He has had a fantastic tournament, including a man of the match award in a losing effort against South Africa. The fate of the back rows, so crucial to this match's result, rests on his broad shoulders. There's also Shane Williams, who looks a bit like a shaved leprechaun escaped from Ireland.
Players to hate: Ireland's Donncha O'Callaghan is like Paul O'Connell's punk little brother in the forward pack. He's always starting shit. And he got to hang out with Meghan, and we didn't.
Possible drinking games (should you somehow contrive to watch a broadcast): Drink every time someone named O'Something (or, for Wales, someone named Jones) passes to another O'Something (Jones). You will be hammered.
Desired result: It's a shame either of these teams has to lose. They've had fantastic World Cups, and they have equally fantastic support. If only because I want to keep drinking with them at bars all over New Zealand, my heart says the Irish. But my head says Wales by five. 18-13
Just as the first Auckland quarterfinal is a battle between two teams you should love, the second Auckland quarterfinal offers up two teams you are free to hate. England plays boring rugby until its opponents concede a penalty, because Jonny Wilkinson can place-kick for three from anywhere on the field, except when he's playing in a secure, wind-free environment, as he was against Argentina in his first pool match. Also, odds are that someone English once colonized, subjugated, and murdered one of your ancestors, and then had a cup of tea and felt civilized. On the other hand, the Magna Carta.
France is so fucking superior. If there's one reason to like them, it's because France is the only country in the world where the front row are celebrities—in other words, the ugliest dudes in the center of the scrum, who grunt away in anonymity and never score tries, enjoy a shower of love from the backward French people back home.
Expect a close match. Eighteen-year-old scrum-half Ben Youngs is a dash of creative brilliance in the otherwise bland stew that is English rugby. The fact that he's switching off with Richard Wigglesworth, (Wigglesworth!) while Johnny Wilkinson is trading out with Toby Flood at fly-half adds an exciting bit of confusion to the English side. A rugby team has two quarterbacks who have to communicate like the head and butt of a two-brained dinosaur, and England has yet to settle on a starting quarterback for either. (To see No. 9 and No. 10 in the rugby position guide, check here.)
The French play with incredible flair. Some games, that flair combines into a telepathic jazz equal to any backline in the world, and some games it cockblocks itself into a tumbling Gallic mess. Even France doesn't know which France will show up. The French do tend toward brilliance against the All Blacks in World Cup matches, having eliminated the All Blacks in 1999 and 2007, only to turn back into Inspector Clouseau the next time out.
Adding to their unpredictability, France coach Marc Lièvremont keeps spinning roulette with his lineup. The side he named to face the All Blacks last week included Dimitri Yachvili at scrum-half and Morgan Parra at fly-half, a halfback pairing that has never played together. Halfback pairing is like the two-brained dinosaur, remember. So England-France will be like a boring dinosaur with two brains and one trick fighting an epileptic dinosaur with two brains and a grenade it's not sure how to throw, except none of the brains cooperate, and one of the brains is named Wigglesworth. Comprenez-vous?
Roughly analogous to: We were tempted to pull out Red Sox-Yankees here, but that would give both of these teams too much credit. It's more like "The Game"—Harvard-Yale. A lot of history, a bitter rivalry, and a couple of shit institutions that everyone else in the world hates. The winning squad here will have the pleasure of getting its ass kicked by a real team a week later. At least, we hope so. For the record, England would be Harvard, and France would be Yale.
Players to love: England's Ben Youngs (for creativity) and Jonny Wilkinson (for singlehandedly winning the 2003 World Cup); France's Maxime Médard (for his sideburns) and Imanol Harinordoquy (for putting up with his coach).
Players to hate: Mike Tindall, for allegedly rubbing boobs in his face that were not boobs belonging to his wife, who happens to be the queen's granddaughter. Feel free to hate Steve Thompson, too, even though he has come back from what was thought to be a career-ending neck injury. Whatever. He's still a dick. If anyone in a French jersey is throwing punches, he's probably throwing them at Thompson. And Thompson definitely deserves them. Also, his lineout throws are an abomination to the hooker's arts.
As for France: Anyone, except for Maxime Médard. Might I suggest coach Marc Lièvremont for his mustache?
Possible drinking games: Drink for every mention of Jonny Wilkinson's drop goal vs Australia in 2003. Two drinks if there's video. Drink every time a French fan in a beret is shown on TV. Drink for every appearance of the Lièvremont 'stache. Two drinks for every French fan with a stick-on 'stache in homage.
Desired result: France. Médard's sideburns tip the balance, as does the prospect of a France-All Blacks final. This would echo the inaugural World Cup in 1987, the last time time the event was in New Zealand and the only time the All Blacks won. France is coming off a loss to Tonga (!) while England went undefeated in pool play. But I still think England is boring and rubbish. France by a converted try, 27-20.
Australia's shocking upset at the hands of Ireland made things difficult for both teams in this quarterfinal. Australia and South America—Nos. 2 and 3 in the world, respectively—didn't expect to meet this early in the tournament. That means the winner in all likelihood will get the All Blacks next week. (Though it's worth noting that both South Africa and Australia beat New Zealand the last time they played.)
Roughly analogous to: Ray Lewis-era Baltimore Ravens (South Africa) vs. Philip Rivers/LaDainian Tomlinson-era San Diego Chargers (Australia). The Springboks are huge and solid up front and ever-ready to hit you in the mouth. They're boring and pedestrian on the other side of the ball. Pierre Spies and Schalk Burger are Ray Lewis—playing the game only to hit people, get up, then hit them again. Scrum-half Fourie du Preez is the balding, wily Trent Dilfer of the Ravens of old, except good. Openside flanker Heinrich Brüssow is Ed Reed, but instead of interceptions, he steals ball at the ruck with the best in the world. Winger Bryan Habana is the veteran try scorer trying to work himself back into form, a mashup of Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin. And South Africa has maybe a touch of Brian Billick in its eminently quotable and wildly unpopular coach, Peter de Villiers.
Now, the Wallabies: Lots of talent, lots of weapons, not always lots of wins, least of all when it counts. At fly-half, Quade Cooper plays the Rivers role. Young, cocky, flashy, immensely talented, and kind of a dick. Scrum-half and captain Will Genia is vintage LT—simply better than any one else in the world at his position. However, I have yet to see him wear a helmet to a press conference. No. 8 (and former winger) Radike Samo is a strange combination of Shawne Merriman and Antonio Gates. He's huge, fast, a force on both sides of the ball from the back of the scrum.
Players to love: I know he looks a bit like a condom with his scrum-cap pulled down tight over his eyes, but South African openside flanker Heinrich Brüssow, though undersized for a forward, has the potential to influence the game as much as anyone. Brüssow is one of the best in the world at getting to a ruck or a tackle turning the ball over. This means that he is really good at cheating, and at getting away with it, and that's what rugby is all about.
Australia's Will Genia is the best No. 9 in the world right now. His vision is amazing; he kicks like a fly-half from the back of the ruck; and he makes the right decision nearly all the time, at amazing speed, with some of the scariest dudes in the world trying to tear his head off and eat it. He's a pleasure to watch, especially when linking up with Quade Cooper. I fucking love scrum-halves.
Players to hate: John Smit is a hero of South African rugby and the captain of the Springbok side that hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup in Paris four years ago. But now he's fat and slow and can't play 80 minutes anyway. And he's keeping Bismarck du Plessis, who might actually be the best hooker in the world, on the bench for 60 minutes. When his fat ass is puffing away while yelling shit at the referee in Afrikaans, blame Peter de Villiers, whom you might as well hate, too.
And Australia? This one's too easy. Quade Fucking Cooper. Cooper was born in New Zealand and grew up here until he was 14. Then he moved to Australia, stole some kid's laptop, and grew up to play fly-half for the All Blacks' archenemies. He will get booed every time he touches the ball. Free free to join the chorus.
Possible drinking games: Three drinks every time the commentators mention that 21-year old Wallaby winger James O'Connor is technically eligible to play rugby for three countries internationally: Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. Also, drink every time Schalk Burger punches/stiff arms someone in the face. You will be hammered.
Desired result: This is perhaps the hardest of the quarters to call. Kiwis wish both teams could somehow lose. But neutrals should be treated to a great night of rugby. The contrasting style of the huge South African pack and the quick Aussie backs makes this game worthy of a final. Australia by three, 33-30.
Argentina is the plucky, hard-charging underdog that scared England witless and upset Scotland in the final minutes for a 13-12 win. The Argentines also gave us the wireless password to their hotel and offered to let Benz shower in their gym.
The All Blacks are the most famous rugby team on Earth. They've won
80 percent 75 percent of their games since 1903; both of us have been All Blacks fans since we learned rugby because we had Kiwi coaches; and the ABs represent our generous host country. (Dave's note: It may be the greatest country in the history of the world after the U.S. of A.) If the All Blacks lose, New Zealand will fall into a sustained economic and psychic depression and could very well get sucked back into the sea. This will at least solve the invasive possum problem.
Roughly analogous to: Brazil in the FIFA World Cup combined with the 2007 Patriots (New Zealand) vs. San Antonio Spurs (Argentina). The former should speak for itself. As to the latter, Argentina is well-coached, vaguely exotic, still pretty good, but too old to do any real damage.
Players to love: Christ, everyone. Keven Mealamu (for good naturedness), Richie McCaw (for leadership), Kieran Read (for big hits), Israel Dagg (for avoiding big hits), Ma'a Nonu (for not minding big hits).
Dave, a former hooker, would also like to celebrate two hookers in particular: Argentina's Mario Ledesma and New Zealand's
Kevin Keven Mealamu. Two great hookers, four amazing cauliflowered ears. Super Mario, 38, will tie the record for most World Cup appearances by a hooker in what will likely be his last match in the blue and white hoops of Argentina. He's simply one of the greatest hookers in history. Have a drink for him. Mealamu, like most hookers, often goes unnoticed, but he is one of the hardest-working forwards in rugby, on both sides of the ball.
Players to hate: New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams. Yes, his name is Sonny Bill. He's the biggest thing to happen to New Zealand rugby in a while. He's electric with ball in hand and offloads better than anyone in the world. But he's a league convert. He also thinks he's a boxer. His jersey rips during the Tonga match, he tears it off, and Facebook groups sprout up immediately. He's a fantastic player. But everyone kind of hates him. You should too.
Possible drinking games: Drink every time the TV shows Dan Carter's handsomely devastated face in the crowd. Drink twice if it's after replacement No. 10 Colin Slade misses a kick. Finish your drink if the commentators say "adductor longus tendon."
Desired result: We're torn. Love them both and root for offense. Piri Weepu leading the Haka before kickoff will be spectacular. Expect a passionate game, and if passion isn't worth drinking to, then maybe you should watch rugby sober. But passion won't be enough for Los Pumas. All Blacks going away, 47-12.
Chris Benz is a Deadspin rugby correspondent. He has played rugby for several American clubs and briefly in Calcutta, where he fled the pitch in triple-overtime of the final due to a serious case of food poisoning. His team lost by a drop goal. He doesn't really have a home, but he grew up in Alaska.
Dave Shireley is also a Deadspin rugby correspondent. He arrives in New Zealand with 1.5 TBs of downloaded rugby matches on three hard drives and with zero girlfriends. During his otherwise undistinguished career at Colorado College, he was a hooker for three years. That's a rugby joke.