Rugby World Cup overview: It’s all going to script
There are four weeks gone in Rugby World Cup 2019 and less than two to go before the champions are crowned and so far it is all going according to the script, with three pre-tournament favourites plus Wales through to the last four.
Most people who deal in smart money said before the World Cup kicked off that there were three teams that stood out as potential winners – champions New Zealand, South Africa and England. The All Blacks just because they have been the world leaders for so long, the Springboks because they have beaten the Kiwis in their own backyard, and England because they have impressive depth and one of the best coaches and most astute and experienced coaching groups in the business.
GAP BETWEEN THREE FAVOURED TEAMS AND THE REST
The first half pluck and energy of the host nation notwithstanding, all three advanced without too much fuss. Indeed, the 23 points that separated South Africa from Japan in Sunday’s Tokyo Stadium quarterfinal was the closest anyone came to upsetting the big three, who do look some distance ahead of the rest. Apart from Japan, the casualties were Ireland, who frankly lost the plot the moment they beat the All Blacks last November, and Australia.
The Wallabies haven’t been a force for a while now, and are a long way from being the threat they were when they won the Webb Ellis trophy twice in the 1990s. They have some soul-searching to do, and almost predictably, their coach Michael Cheika was the first tier-one coach to fall on his sword. Although of course there are others – Joe Schmidt (Ireland), Warren Gatland (Wales), Conor O’Shea (Italy) – who let it known this would be their last World Cup before the tournament started.
DISTRAUGHT SCHMIDT OWNS UP TO HIS BIG MISTAKE
Schmidt made no secret of the fact that he was a distraught man when he faced the media after his team’s big loss to the All Blacks, and he was honest enough to admit to a mistake that he might not be alone in having made ahead of a World Cup.
“After we beat the All Blacks last year I started to focus too much on the World Cup, experimenting by giving younger players leadership opportunities, and not enough on winning the small battles along the way,” said Schmidt.
It is understandable why the Irish should obsess so much about the World Cup. While they were the dominant team in the Six Nations in this four-year cycle, and success at that level was by no means new to them, they have a long history of failure at the sport’s global showpiece event. They have never progressed beyond the quarterfinals, and after being blown away by Argentina at that stage of the 2015 tournament, Schmidt was desperate to get it right this time.
“We would love to have got into the top four. That is the one thing that continues to remain elusive,” said Ireland’s departing Kiwi-born coach.
“Heartbroken would not be far away from how I feel and how the players feel. After the November series we wanted to make sure this (the World Cup) was our target and maybe it consumed us too much and we got distracted from the focus. You carry your scars a lot more than your successes and the scars are deep and that is why I am broken by it.
“But when I get some distance to reflect, we’ve had maybe 75 test matches and won 75 percent of them. We’ve had some incredibly good days and they don’t get washed away by two defeats. I felt we had good reason four years ago (not to make the top four) because we lost our leadership in this game we just met a team who are No 1 in the world for a reason.”
They are indeed, and the All Blacks, as their coach Steve Hansen pointed out, are also not a team that forgets its failures.
“I can tell you that All Blacks remember the games they lose a lot more readily than the ones they win,” said Hansen.
DOUBLE MISSION FOR VENGEFUL ALL BLACKS
So there was a double mission in Saturday’s second quarterfinal. Kieran Read’s team would still have been sore at their defeat in Dublin 11 months ago, and would not have forgotten that much of the world rugby media unwisely wrote his men off. Those who advised against that line, and pointed to how tired the All Blacks were after a busy year, plus the possibility they were keeping some powder dry for the World Cup, should on the evidence of their latest game feel vindicated. New Zealand do seem to know when to peak, and they are peaking now.
Ireland are a pale comparison to the team they were a year ago, and probably never really recovered from their pool defeat to Japan. South Africa were able to regain confidence when the same thing happened to them in Brighton in 2015, but Ireland couldn’t. But there was also no denying the quality of the All Black performance.
They’ve shown how adaptable they can be during this tournament. They won an arm-wrestle against the Boks in Yokohama when the conditions dictated that there needed to be some ugliness about the way they went about winning at the start of the tournament, and the pack came to the fore with a powerful, physical performance against the Irish that suffocated their opponents.
GROWTH IN THEIR ATTACKING GAME
The talking point though would surely have been the growth in the attacking game of the All Blacks, and that is what should make them clear favourites to retain the World Cup trophy they have now held since 2011. Hansen paid tribute afterwards to his assistant coach Ian Foster’s role in taking his team to what he felt was a different level from an attack viewpoint.
“Our attack has gone to a new level and he is coaching the best I’ve seen,” said Hansen.
The All Blacks were able to mesmerise the Ireland defence with the pace and skill which they were able to put their attacking game together. And while there is no doubt now that the humidity that turned the early weeks into wet weather matches is no longer a factor, they will know they have two big challenges ahead of them.
England impressed with how clinical they were in dispatching Australia. They underlined what Bok coach Rassie Erasmus said earlier in the tournament about not needing to play much rugby, and it was the Wallabies who did much of the earlier attacking. But they seized every half opportunity that came their way with almost All Black-like precision.
They have a strong, physical pack and big threats out wide as well as a strong and influential flyhalf (Eddie Jones’ move of switching Owen Farrell back to flyhalf worked), and are going to be strong challengers in Saturday’s semifinal.
The clash between the All Blacks and England looked like it might be shaping as the final for a while on Sunday when the Boks were struggling to put away Japan, but the Boks did enough with their massive defensive game and their forward power, which was nothing short of brutal, in the game to prompt a rethink on that one.
BOKS HAVE A LOT THEY STILL NEED TO GET RIGHT
There’s plenty the Boks still need to get right, not least their poor finishing, and coach Rassie Erasmus faces a massive headache over what to do with fullback Willie le Roux. The former Sharks and Cheetahs player is patently out of form and lacking confidence, and could be a liability against a good tactical team like Wales in Sunday’s semifinal.
Against a team like Wales, the Boks won’t be able to waste scoring opportunities like they did against Japan, and they will also require a better success rate when kicking at the posts from Handre Pollard. The conversion kicks he missed were from out wide, but he also missed a penalty well within his range.
A better success rate in Yokohama might have seen the Boks home in that first game against the All Blacks, and missed kicks were also as much the reason for France’s departure from the tournament as the idiotic act of thuggery that saw their lock Sebastien Vahaamahina red carded in Oita.
WALES MAY CHALLENGE SA BUT ARE NOT TITLE CONTENDERS
It gave the Welsh a free passage into a semifinal that looked most unlikely for most of their quarterfinal. That though is what could make Wales dangerous – Sunday’s game was the sort that can make you start feeling you have a winning habit.
But while the Welsh could well challenge the Boks, who haven’t beaten them since the 2015 World Cup, they’re just not playing well enough to go all the way. So the script is unchanged – the 2019 champions will be one of New Zealand, South Africa and England. My money says that will be the finishing order too.
England 40 Australia 16 New Zealand 46 Ireland 14 Wales 20 France 19 South Africa 26 Japan 3
England v New Zealand (Yokohama International Stadium, Saturday 10am SA time)
South Africa v Wales (Yokohama International Stadium, Sunday 11am SA time)