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Sunday, May 17, 2009

World Cup: Slaughter and sensation in Sweden

The first day of the European World Cup qualifier saw three massive miss-matches - and one sensational result.

In Enköping spectators saw 184 points scored in two games as Scotland and the Netherlands destroyed Russia and Belgium respectively. The massacre began with Netherlands running up a 100-0 win over Belgium. Remarkably this is nothing new for the Dutch - it is the fourth time they have passed the century mark in an international, a record that no other nation can match.

Netherlands were 43-0 ahead at half-time - and in the second match in Group A Scotland rattled up 55 unanswered points against Russia in their opening 40 minutes. The Scots slowed down a little in the second half, but their eventual 84-0 win is their best ever international result against opponents generally seen as one of the fastest improving nations in Europe.

Group B in Stockholm also saw a massively one-sided result, Spain also recording a new record win - 74-0 over Germany, again not a surprising result but a far wider margin of victory than anyone predicted before the game. 

However the biggest headlines came from the fourth game of the day - a match about as different from the other three as it is possible to imagine. Hosts Sweden, ranked 10th in Europe, took on Italy - a Six Nations team and so, in theory, significantly more powerful. But Sweden have spared no expense over the past two months preparing for this tournament, including a successful tour to England and Wales a few weeks ago, while Italy have played no rugby together since their Six Nations whitewash earlier in the year. 

Sweden therefore burst out of the blocks going 11-0 up in the first 20 minutes before the Italians began to claw their way back into the game. 11-6 down at half-time, they finally pulled 14-11 ahead with 13 minutes to go. 

But the Swedes were not not finished and with seconds left Jennifer Lindholm beat three defenders to score the winning try for the hosts - cue wild celebrations, tears, and emotional radio interviews!

While Sweden celebrate, quite where this leaves Italy is an interesting question. Their place in the Six Nations has been a matter of debate in some circles since they were promoted (at Spain's expense) three years ago - allegedly only because their men's team are in the men's Six Nations. Since then they have only won one game in 18 so far  - a significantly worse performance than Spain achieved in their Six Nations years. Next Saturday's game between Italy and Spain already looked a difficult game for the Azzurri - now the risk is that they could finish with European ranking of 10th or below. Given these repeated failures, how much longer can the privilege of Six Nations place be justified?
  • The next round of games in on Wednesday. In Group A Belgium take on Scotland, with the prospect of another cricket score, and Netherlands play Russia. Group B seems Italy desparate to get their World Cup campaign back in gear with a game against Germany. The match of the day, however, will be the meeting of today's winners - Sweden and Spain. A win for either will see them all but on the plane for London next year.

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