The Rugby World Cup heads into the semi-finals with just New Zealand, Australia, Wales and France left in pursuit of the Webb Ellis Trophy.
Sky Sports commentator Miles Harrison has enjoyed the great hospitality in New Zealand as he has followed the competition from start to finish.
In Part VIII of his World Cup diary, Miles writes about the fallout from the quarter-finals and catching up with Stuart Barnes over a curry and a beer...
Day Twenty-nine - October 3rd
The Dan Carter story is here to stay and New Zealand has a severe case of the Monday morning blues. It is a big deal here and we should be talking about it - this is not the media setting the agenda; rather, it is a reflection of what is being said all around us. However, I am surprised and disappointed about some of the language being used. These are words that should be saved for real tragedies; something, sadly, that New Zealand knows too much about recently.
Partly to get away from the rugby for a little and partly because our roles at this World Cup have kept us away from each other (Stuart Barnes being based in the Auckland Viaduct Studio and me being at the games themselves), we decide to have a catch-up, aka, a curry. 'Oh Calcutta' in Parnell does the job nicely and even has 'Kingfisher Lager'. You see, you can take the Brit abroad but you can't take the curry away from the Brit! In fact, the words 'take' and 'away' are ones that will be in fairly frequent use over the next few weeks. We ponder as to which team names will make up the final four at the Rugby World Cup. New Zealand, that is for certain, but I can't split three of the quarter-finals and we debate long into the evening about the outcomes. The rugby chat was never going to be shelved for too long.
Day Thirty - October 4th
Today is what you would loosely call a planning day. You can imagine the amount of jobs that stack up on a trip like this and it is high time to plough through some of them again. It's also high time to do a bit of exercise. I like to keep reasonably fit (as I write this, I can hear friends and family having a chuckle) ....although, I suppose, these days, it depends on how you interpret 'reasonable'. Being on tour, when a gym is on your doorstep in the hotel, gives you every opportunity but at the house in Auckland it is self-motivation only - oh dear!
It's great banter and, of course, I get plenty of stick for England's exit - thanks goodness for the Ashes!
Quotes of the week
Anyway, France have named their side for Saturday's clash with England. So, there is that news to digest along with another biscuit. It looks a strong side - it is a strong side, regardless of what happened against Tonga. Stories abound about trouble within the camp but everybody should know that, if France can channel their emotions and even their anger into their performance, then the men in white from across the Channel could be in trouble on Saturday. I'm off to see France tomorrow and it will be a fascinating news conference.
Day Thirty-one - October 5th'Fascinating', though, is not first word to spring to mind on my arrival at the French team hotel. The room chosen to house the news conference has to be one of the smallest I have ever been in for a conference of this magnitude. Is this the French management's revenge on the media for all those the stories that have been circulating? During proceedings, Dimitri Yachvili talks with steely eyes about the forthcoming battle with the English. After his answers, I am left in no doubt that the French will be up for this.
I sit down with the French defence coach, Dave Ellis, for an interview for Sky. Dave has always been an honest and direct answerer of questions - it must be the Castleford in him. He offers a word of warning to England when he says that he doesn't feel that the English defence has been genuinely tested in this World Cup and that young Manu Tuilagi might be a point of defensive weakness, given his relative inexperience when it comes to positioning at this level. After our piece, Dave's off to play indoor cricket with some of the French management which seems like a rather surreal way to spend the afternoon. I'm off back home to host a dinner party for some of the Sky NZ crew. Don't be too impressed though, the food is being prepared by others - however, the wine list is sorted!
Day Thirty-two - October 6th
It's England's turn to announce today and it's a team with a difference. Toby Flood will play at 12 with Jonny Wilkinson staying at 10. I'm down to talk to Simon Shaw and Ben Youngs for a preview piece which has as its theme 'experience', with both men at different ends of that particular scale but, inevitably, when talking with Youngs, the subject of the Flood/Wilkinson combination crops up. The Leicester scrum-half indicates that having Flood, his Leicester fly-half partner, in the English midfield is yes, about another kicking option, but is also about helping with the distribution to the England back three. We simply have not seen enough of Ashton and Foden yet.
Our cameraman, Jon, sets up a temporary café outside the England hotel, in the middle of an Auckland street, to provide a setting for Stuart and I to chew over the quarter-finals. It must seem strange to passers-by as these two Brits talk rugby at a table a long way from the real café but the view behind us is much better apparently. The consensus on the inclusion of Flood is that it is a massive change of direction by Martin Johnson. The England manager has always batted back the suggestion of playing both Wilkinson and Flood and has only previously done so once during his reign when forced to by injuries. Now he is doing it in the biggest game of his England managerial career. Yes, Mike Tindall is injured but Shontayne Hape has been overlooked.
Day Thirty-three - October 7th
It's a flight to Wellington today as I've been assigned the two quarter-finals there and, I must say, I feel rather lucky the way things have turned out. First up, it will be Ireland v Wales on Saturday and then Australia against South Africa on Sunday - not bad then! I go to the Australian team announcement news conference, during which, the Chief Executive of the ARU, John O'Neill, delivers some pretty firm criticisms of the way in which the game is being run. We've already had O'Neill's New Zealand equivalent, Steve Tew, adopt a similar line earlier in the tournament, and, as I listen, I know that the Aussie boss needs to be added to the interview list. I arrange to speak to him in the morning which will be easy because we are actually staying in the Australian team hotel.
The Aussie team looks relaxed and they happily sign autographs and pose for photographs in the lobby. Familiar faces are flying in from all around the world now as the tournament is taking that leap onto a higher level. I actually flew in on the same plane as the referees and officials and they were clearly excited by the prospect of the weekend too. They will need to be in the right space tomorrow and I'm sure they will be. So will I; so it's an early night, I think.
Day Thirty-Four - October 8th
The day starts with the John O'Neill interview and he outlines why he thinks World Cups are becoming unaffordable for the bigger unions who lose domestic Test Match revenue in those years. I put it to him that the so-called 'smaller' unions would love to have that problem. He replies by stressing this is not about making the rich richer. It is his opinion that the IRB need to look more closely at how they divvy up their funds. This story is going to run well after the World Cup finishes. We finish on a lighter note as we talk about the game, he is bullish about Australia's chances tomorrow but my mind must now turn to today and Ireland versus Wales.
It's a pretty hectic morning of filming, with the Welsh great, Gerald Davies, providing a most listenable preview of the match. Is there a better voice in rugby? There's the obligatory camper van story with three lads from Donegal who have painted the whole of their van in the colours of the Irish flag and the Ireland squad have taken time to sign it in paint. We then head to the Wales team hotel and I bump into coach, Warren Gatland, who is delighted with the way his young team are playing - with no fear. His bold selection policy is paying back handsomely - can they go one step further today? The clientele at the Dragon Bar certainly think so. It is packed in there.... one of those moments that make you wish you were not working.
At the ground, the windy Wellington weather dominates pre-match thoughts pitch-side with the former New Zealand half-back, Jon Preston. But, when it comes to the game, Wales grab it by the scruff of the neck, regardless of the conditions. Their Lions - Phillips, Roberts, Williams, Jenkins, etc. - are immense in the opening exchanges and the tone is set. Wales play as well without the ball as they do with it, as Ireland throw everything at them but can't break through. Even after Keith Earls' slide into the corner in the second-half, there feels like only one winner. Mike Phillips' finish would have made Gareth Edwards proud to call it one of his and a beaming Phillips is just one of many happy Welsh faces that interview at the end of an unforgettable day. By way of contrast, the Irish camp is inconsolable. Like with Andy Robinson last week, I shake hands with Declan Kidney, there really is nothing more you can say.
These are late working finishes at this World Cup and there's another one after watching England bow out to France. A piece for Sky Sports News in the hotel foyer is followed by being part of a gathering of contented Welshmen and women. Gerald Davies returns to the hotel beaming.
As for England, they do not deserve to progress; they were beaten by a better team on the day and they have come to the end of a pretty miserable and cheerless World Cup campaign, scrambling for wins and struggling to get anywhere near where they had to be. They will now have to face those inevitable calls for change.
Day Thirty-five - October 9th
Sunday morning continues, after an interlude for sleep, with an early call to go up the Wellington cable car to talk to some Australian and South African fans. It's great banter and, of course, I get plenty of stick for England's exit - thanks goodness for the Ashes! Once down in town again, we bump into the former Aussie winger, Joe Roff, who seems reasonably confident but stresses that David Pocock has to play a blinder.
At the ground, the tension in the tunnel area is unbearable as everybody knows another giant of the world game is going home after this. Pitch-side with the Springbok coach, Peter de Villiers, we talk about how a quarter-final is no place for a World Champion country to lose and he strongly puts his case for John Smit as the team's number one starting hooker and, of course, leader when I question him on the debate on that issue outside the camp.
During the game, it is fascinating to watch the facial expressions of two great former players, Francois Pienaar and Michael Lynagh, who sit in the viewing position adjacent to ours. But, when the final whistle blows, it is Lynagh doing the smiling and Peter de Villiers, in effect, doing the resigning.
John Smit has been a great captain of the Springboks and Victor Matfield a great player too (and in Smit's view the greatest ever Springbok) but, for them, it is also the end of the road. For Australia, after an amazing defensive performance, there will be a chance to show a little more in the way of attack against New Zealand in the semi-final. I ask James O'Connor what was going through his mind when he kicked that penalty-goal. With a grin he replies, 'that's my little secret'. The square David Pocock comes into the interview room with a smile almost as wide as his shoulders. Next week, it will be Richie McCaw for him as the All Blacks get past a passionate Argentina. If this weekend was good - how good is next weekend going to be?