A few thoughts now that we’re two weeks into the World Cup.
The rugby world fell in love with Japan after their heroic win against South Africa, with Eddie Jones masterminding one of the greatest upsets in the history of sport. While there is a huge gulf in class between tier one and tier two nations, Jones ripped up the script and led the minnows to a famous victory against a hugely experienced Springbok side.
Low body angles, quick tempo, Japan’s approach has been energetic and enthusiastic. While they couldn’t capitalise on their opening success against Scotland, a more rested Japan will certainly eye the scalps of Samoa and the USA as they hope to make this campaign an even more memorable occasion.
Also – is the ‘Brave Blossoms’ name the worst nickname in rugby?
WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS
Last November Springbok captain Jean de Villiers picked up a potential career ending injury against Wales, dislocating his knee and tearing various ligaments in the process. Having picked up injuries in the World Cup success of 2007, and in 2011, it looked like de Villiers was never going to get his World Cup fairytale.
However a hugely inspirational comeback saw the former Munster centre overcome all the odds – and a broken jaw early into his return – to take the captain’s armband into England on behalf of Heinke Meyer’s side.
One of the most unlucky men in rugby, de Villiers broke the opposite jaw on Saturday and has been ruled out of the rest of the World Cup – retiring him from test rugby. I doubt a loss to Japan and 75 minutes against Samoa is the campaign he hoped for, but there’s not much room for sentiment in sport.
SWING LOW; LOWER..LOWER – TOO LOW-..LOWER
It’s quite possible that Chris Robshaw could have set an orphanage on fire and come away with less criticism then he did for turning down the chance for those three points. Whilst slightly baffling at that time, not least in hindsight, it was very much reflective of England’s belief that they were never going to lose that game.
People have compared England’s decision to turn down the shot at goal to Japan’s choice against South Africa, which ended in success. The difference between the two calls is Japan had nothing to lose, whereas England had everything to lose – and they may now have lost it.
If the decision to go for touch wasn’t a bad one, the lineout itself was – going to the first jumper in the lineout that close to the touchline is a poor choice, with the Welsh defence already set to hit the maul before it sets. Whether it was hitting the tail, the middle jumper, or shifting the point of the maul, there were a number of better options for England to take. Poor decision making, and not for their first time.
England are now left in a situation where their qualification hopes are dubious at best. The loss to an injury hit Welsh side wasn’t in the brief, and England’s biggest threat still looms. Even with a deal lasting to 2020, it’s difficult to imagine Lancaster will survive in the job if he fails to bring the hosts out of Pool A.
With Joseph injured, Burgess inexperienced and raw, Barritt struggling to perform, and Slade on tea and coffee duty, England’s midfield deficiencies were highlighted. The Farrell/Forde debate rages on, and England are still unsure as to what their best XV is. Their discipline is terrible, while losing Youngs, and Lawes would be a massive blow to the flailing host nation, whom have already lost Billy Vunipola today.
There were positives from England’s early dominance, but their failures in the final 20 have overshadowed performances from Dan Cole and the English pack. A big performance against Australia is needed, but that’s not an easy task.
DROPPING LIKE FLIES
How unlucky can one side be? ♫
I always felt Jonathan Davies wouldn’t prove to be a crippling loss for Wales, as it forced Scott Williams into the team. But now Rhys Webb, Leigh Halfpenny, Eli Walker, Cory Allen, Hallam Amos & the previously mentioned Scott Williams join Davies on the long term injury list, while Liam Williams is going to miss at least the Fiji clash. That ‘gruelling’ preseason probably isn’t looking like the smartest idea in hindsight.
Wales defied the odds to beat England, and now stand on the brink of qualification. With two games left, it is their clash against Fiji that could prove to be more telling than their battle with Australia. Fiji will want to cause an upset somewhere in this campaign, and Wales is their last chance to do so – especially an injury hit Wales on a short turn around after such a gruelling encounter. They’ve done it against the men in red before, and Gatland would be wise to look no further than the islanders on Thursday.
IRISH EYES ARE SMILING
Ireland have had a relaxing start to the Rugby World Cup – two bonus points against two weaker teams, with two satisfactory performances that had 30 different players on display. A clear game plan tailored to their opposition, they managed to secure maximum points without being forced to show their full hand. In truth, we couldn’t have asked for more from O’Connell and his men.
The Irish game plan revolves hugely around the Sexton-Murray axis, so for both players to be fit and firing is crucial to any World Cup aspirations. Murray is getting into his rhythm, while Sexton began to hit his stride against Canada. Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Dave Kearney are in the form of their lives, Henderson is a man possessed, and a lot of the Irish players are looking very sharp.
It’s important not to get carried away – Ireland haven’t been tested yet. But they have shown a sharpness, and have been mechanical in doing what needs to be done. The signs indicate that Ireland are peaking at the right time, but stern tests lie in the not so distant future.
I thought it was interesting to see the TV3 panel debate the merits of Payne at centre after a “poor game” against Romania. The panelists highlighted three clips of Payne from the game, and they were slightly anticlimatic – his kicking has been poor, but other examples of his “poor” play seemed quite harsh.
Rock solid in defence, he is one of the most important players in the team when Ireland don’t have the ball. He reads the defensive line excellently from the 13 channel. He is by trade a fullback – his best position – but has been shoehorned into the centre to fill the void left by O’Driscoll, and that is largely attributed to his defensive capabilities in that jersey.
Poor kicking & lack of linebreaks are a fair criticism, but Payne is following in big footsteps and has done an assured job. Maybe he lacks that bit of magic thus far? There’s question marks over how much Ireland can create in midfield with Payne at 13. He’s not the long term answer, but at 29 he never was.
D’Arcy and O’Driscoll created a synergy in midfield – take away their individual plaudits, and they worked seamlessly together. They amplified each other’s strengths, and minimized each other’s weaknesses. Ma’a Nonu & Conrad Smith are along the same line, and that’s down to experience together, which there is no substitute for.
Ireland have had a different centre partnership in their last 6 outings, which may not be the most encouraging statistic. Fluidity and continuity in midfield is important as Ireland get towards the latter stages of the competition, and that has already been disrupted by an injury to Robbie Henshaw – deciding that we don’t want Payne at 13 will only add further disruption, and an untried/untested centre partnership at this stage in the World Cup could be extremely risky.
New Zealand got off to a shaky start against Argentina, but their class shone through in the second half when they really put their foot on the pedal. The most clinical side in the world defeated Argentina in what will be their most difficult group game, before swatting away Namibia without much difficulty.
Nehe Milner-Skudder’s Man of the Match performance against Namibia is a sign of things to come from the young All Black, while Aaron Smith had an excellent game against Argentina. An ageing force, they’re still the team to beat.