076. RWC2019 Bronze Final Preview

Meh.

I affirmed a long, long time ago – when I still cared, when I still had hope – that the Bronze Final is “a helluva cruel thing”.

Sure, the New Zealand vs Wales game on Friday night has some elements of interest to it.

Two coaches of long tenure looking to go out with a win.

Wales trying to get their first win against the All Blacks since 1953.

The All Blacks trying to wash away the hurt of losing to England last Saturday night, a nearly balm to apply over a long summer of regrets.

But none of those things have anything to do with the Rugby World Cup. It’s over for both teams.

So, meh.

Will I watch it? Of course I bloody will.

But meh.

And the next day I’ll watch the Grand Final, which is not so grand for me.

But it’s all about being one week closer to a chance of redemption in 2023.

075. RWC2019 Semi-Final 1: England 19 New Zealand 7

The importance of being a good loser is three-fold:

  1. it’s the right thing to do;
  2. the fans of the winning team should be able to celebrate without having their moment dragged; and
  3. sucking it up and digesting it in its entire awfulness, rather than diverting yourself with nonsense, will make it more likely we’ll learn the right lessons to win the next time.

So as soon as the final whistle blew, I shook the hands of the English fans in front of me and said “Congratulations, well done, you were much the better team tonight”, and I continued that with all the England fans I encountered on the walk back to my hotel.

It’s a sobering experience, which is why I decided what I really needed was some whisky. But not good whisky, because no All Black fan deserves good whisky after that performance.  No, what I needed was bad whisky.

The local 7-Eleven store was able to lower itself to meet my expectations with a hip-flask of know-nothing industrial ethanol and caramel colouring (on the label it boasted it was ‘peat-free’, which is to say ‘not really whisky’) for a mere 284 yen (about NZD$4.40). (Yup, the decimal point is in the right place.)

I then joined a group of half a dozen kiwis on the patio of our hotel, and poured the ‘whisky’ into my coffee and then beer, which at least diluted the ‘flavour’, as we commenced the post-mortem.

The short story, we reckon, is that there’s a difference between theory and practise, and between plans and execution.

Shag’s theory in the selection of Scott Barrett at blindside was that we could pick their line out.  Good theory, entirely plausible – and not nearly executed.  Instead the English lineout was a machine that delivered high-quality ball to them, and disrupted our lineout so we got dribbles of nonsense.

This is not a criticism of Scott Barrett, who made an amazing try-saving cover defensive effort to keep us broadly in touch.  And it is a description rather than a moral criticism of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick to say they got completely dominated in the lineout, and nullified at the breakdown.  I know it, you know it, they know it: and despite how bad I feel, you can bet they feel 284 times worse. Sport, huh.

The second area where we got beaten was in the English rush defence.  We had seen enough from the All Blacks back line this year – especially against Australia at Eden Park, and against Ireland in the quarter-final – to persuade ourselves that we could pick the lock of any defensive system.

It turns out we were wrong.  The English defensive line was fast, straight and disciplined.  Nobody rushed up out of line to create a gap.  They kept their discipline and made their tackles: and the English loose duo of Curry and Underhill in particular made some big hits that sent us backwards.

So the conclusion is that Eddie Jones’s theory played out in reality, and Shag’s theory did not, on the day.

Maybe on another day those roles would be reversed, but this match wasn’t played on another day.  And we lost.

To the better team.

Lost to England in a Rugby World Cup for the first time. Congratulations, well played.

Have another slug of ‘whisky’.

With the result that when I crawled out of bed on this grey, sad Sunday to find that it wasn’t a bad dream my head and stomach agreed that it was all sad and bad.

The only thing to do was go for a ride on the Cosmo World roller coaster, which suited the moment exactly. You twist and plunge and hurtle into the ground, and it’s all over quite quickly, and you return to earth feeling a bit sicker than before.

 

074. I Hate Losing

I hate losing.

I especially hate losing to England.

(Or Australia.  Or South Africa. Or anyone really.)

England were the better team tonight.  By a comfortable margin.

It was the best English performance I have ever seen.

The better side won.

And that is something we will eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the next four years.

More later.

073. Shagalicious Selections

The New Zealand and England teams have been named for the first semi-final on Saturday.

New Zealand

1. Joe Moody (44 tests)
2. Codie Taylor (49)
3. Nepo Laulala (24)
4. Brodie Retallick (79)
5. Samuel Whitelock (116)
6. Scott Barrett (34)
7. Ardie Savea (43)
8. Kieran Read – captain (125)
9. Aaron Smith (90)
10. Richie Mo’unga (15)
11. George Bridge (8)
12. Anton Lienert-Brown (41)
13. Jack Goodhue (12)
14. Sevu Reece (6)
15. Beauden Barrett (81)

16. Dane Coles (67)
17. Ofa Tuungafasi (34)
18. Angus Ta’avao (12)
19. Patrick Tuipulotu (28)
20. Sam Cane (66)
21. T J Perenara (63)
22. Sonny Bill Williams (56)
23. Jordie Barrett (15)

 

England

1 Mako Vunipola (56)

2 Jamie George (43)

3 Kyle Sinckler (29)

4 Maro Itoje (32)

5 Courtney Lawes(79)

6 Tom Curry (17)

7 Sam Underhill (13)

8 Billy Vunipola (49)

9 Ben Youngs (93)

10 George Ford (63)

11 Jonny May (50)

12 Owen Farrell (77)

13 Manu Tuilagi (38)

14 Anthony Watson (40)

15 Elliot Daly (37)

 

16 Luke Cowan-Dickie (19)

17 Joe Marler (66)

18 Dan Cole (93)

19 George Kruis (39)

20 Mark Wilson (16)

21 Willi Heinz (8)

22 Henry Slade (25)

23 Jonathan Joseph (45)

 

The talking points for each side write themselves:

  • for the All Blacks, it’s the loose forwards: Matt Todd not considered due to injury, Ardie Savea starts at 7, Scott Barrett starts at 6, and Sam Cane on the bench.
  • for England, it’s George Ford returns at first-five and Owen Farrell slips out to second-five.

The All Black selection doesn’t surprise me, if only because that was the rumour circulating on Twitter last night. And when you stop to think about it, it’s another stroke of Shag genius.

Matt Todd’s injury means he’s not an option, but even if he were available, I suspect this would have been the choice. Having Scott Barrett on the field from the first whistle gives you extra heft in defence for the critical opening stanza when England will throw everything at the black wall. But he also gives an extra edge in the close channels for attacks, with beautiful short offloading skills.

Meanwhile, Ardie Savea’s engine goes for 120 minutes, and starting him at 7 says, I suspect, that his mission will be to pinch at the breakdown (or force penalties trying).  If you look at the tapes from the previous matches, they haven’t done much pinching, deliberately.  They’ve been willing to let the opposition have the ball, and cough it up in a tackle, or just kick it to us on a plate. (It’s also a useful way to not give away penalties.)  But I reckon pinching will be one of the few change-ups in our pattern for this match.

After 50 or 60 minutes of that, bring on Sam Cane with fresh legs, and Ardie goes back to 6.  You’ve then got the option of taking Scott Barrett off at that point, or keeping him on and switching him to lock. (Although probably not: just throw Patrick into the mixer if Brodie needs a rest.)

And the balance is there if there’s an injury (or yellow card) early on.  In fact, it’s the balance I like most about this selection.  It gives Shag lots of options from the coaches’ box to shape the game, rather than just replacing like for like.

So, watch for Ardie to go pinching, and Scott to go smashing, from the opening blower.

For England, I reckon the inclusion of Ford at first-five is a retrograde move by Eddie Jones. He’s responding to what he’s seen from the All Blacks, and because he doesn’t really have many options, he’s gone for an extra kicker.  Because that’s what Ford does: he kicks, and when he gets a chance, he kicks some more, and if he’s feeling really enthusiastic, he’ll kick even more.  (Don’t count those tries from earlier: proverbial dead granny territory.)

I’d expect England to split Ford and Farrell either side of the breakdown, as if that somehow splits the All Blacks’ defence or puts them in two minds as to which one of them will kick.

Yawn.

The interesting thing is what happens if one team jumps out to an 8 or 15 point lead by the end of the third quarter.

We know what the All Blacks will do if they’re behind: they’ll run everything from everywhere.

The only question for England is whether they can.

 

072. RWC2019 Semi-Finals Preview

In the quarter-finals round the motto is “Win or go home”.

No such luck for the semi-final losers who will have to stick around another week to play in the Rake in More Dosh By Making The Losers’ Play Again Bronze Final.  Which is incentive enough to win this weekend.

 

Semi-Final 1: New Zealand vs England

In three previous World Cup encounters England have never beaten the All Blacks. Now would not be a good time to start. Never would be a good time to start.

Their previous World Cup semi-final match was the 1995 Jonah Lomu Benefit where the big fella scored four tries and Zinzan Brooke kicked a droppie from halfway.

The 2019 version of England is a far better side than 2015, and indeed 1995.  Eddie Jones has got them drilled to automaton status.  They know what they’re supposed to do, and go about doing it relentlessly.  In Owen Farrell they have the best goal kicker in the tournament, and they’ll collect three points every time you give away a penalty in your own half.

Their whole game is based around winning collisions.  And they go looking for collisions, running straight at the defensive line again and again.  It’s the “Move Lord Kitchener’s drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin” strategy.  Attrition rather than movement.

The 2019 version of the All Blacks is … well, turn around three times and spit, because we won’t know how good they are for ten days yet.  And I will not be tempting the gods with any rash prediction about what will happen.

What we do know from their performances against Australia at Eden Park, and against Ireland in Tokyo, is that this team wants to play at relentless pace with ball in hand.  They want to find gaps, and create them with magical running lines, and go through them with multiple players in support. And on their day they can do all of that and more.

‘On their day’.  But as Shag and I know only too well, not every day is your day.

Probably the best guide to this match was the AB’s opening pool match against South Africa, which they won 23-13.  Two tries in three minutes, while the rest of the game was a tight clinch of control.

England will be better than South Africa were that day, so the All Blacks need to be better again.  The opening ten minutes will be epic, but not the decider.  Look for the ABs five minutes either side of half time.  And please oh please, for the sake of my heart, liver, spleen and brain – let us be up by 15 with ten minutes to go.

 

Semi-Final 2: Wales vs South Africa

Wales have never appeared in a World Cup Final.  They have two world-class players in Alun Wyn Jones and Dan Biggar.

Warren Gatland wants this so bad.  He’s been chasing it for 12 years, using the same formula.  The only problem is that the recipe is now 12 years old, everybody’s read it, and it’s so stale it’s getting whiffy.

Wales in the pool matches were meh, but you figured they were working on getting steadily better through the tournament rather than showing too much too early.

Their squeaky win against France in the quarters shows that theory was wrong: they really were playing as well as they could, but it just wasn’t very good.

South Africa’s quarter-final against Japan got the job done, but without much finesse, and with less control than you would expect.  That suggests that the on-field thinking is not there yet, which is not something you want to be tweaking at this stage of a tournament.

South Africa should take this one, if not at a canter, then at least at a trot.

 

070. RWC2019 Quarter-Final 3: Wales 20 France 19

I’d made the Sunday dash to Oita to watch Wales and France engage in a desperate struggle to see who was the worst.  It was France, if only because of that weird and dreadful elbow to the head which rightfully earned a red card for Sebastien Vahaamahina.

Weird because the French usually save that stuff for the dark recesses of a ruck or maul, rather than in plain sight.

Neither team played well, with the kicking out of hand the worst of it. Punt, catch, punt, catch.  You might have heard Ned from the stands yelling “It’s not soccer!”, but apparently the players didn’t.  You might also have heard my advice to Jaco Peyper that the French were rarely put onside after those kicks.  He didn’t either.

That Wales scraped a win with a converted try in the final few minutes, after playing against 14 men for 25 minutes, is all you need to know about their prospects in the semi-final.

Dim to non-existent.

 

069. RWC2019 Quarter-Final 2: New Zealand 46 Ireland 14

The defining moment of this game happened before kick-off, when the Irish fans sang Fields of Athenry over the haka.

They thought they were being clever, that they would lift their team.  They thought they were meeting one display of culture with another.  It was neither.

First, there were the five elderly Japanese gentlmen sitting behind us who had enthuiastically told us how excited they were to be witnessing the haka in real life.  They’d only had You Tube videos, but now they were to get to experience the real thing live.  So well done Irish fans, you ruined that moment.  But you do you.

Secondly, there is a long history of overseas journalists writing up a storm about how the haka is unfair and out-dated and something something, as they attempt to create a controversy to distract the All Blacks before a big match.

It doesn’t work. It’s never worked.  We never take the bait, and all they do is look like whining weaklings.  It’s chum for clicks.

Here’s the rule: disrespect the haka, and we will fuck you up but good.

(Most famously, in 2006 the Welsh rugby union were insisting that the haka be performed before the Welsh national anthem.  So the All Blacks performed the haka in the dressing room.  The 74,000 people in the Millennium Stadium did not get to see the haka that day, but they did get to see the All Blacks win 45 – 10.  So you do you, and see how that works out.)

To be clear, the Irish team themselves did not participate in this nonsense.  The coach and captain are people of dignity and class and charm.

And also to be clear, the All Blacks were in dismantling mode before they stepped out on the pitch.

They brought a sublime performance, the best I have ever been privileged to see in real life.  (And maybe that’s some compensation for the Japanese gentlemen behind me.  And they apparently enjoyed my own performance of jumping to my feet after every try and yelling to the Irish fans “We’re the bloody All Blacks and that’s how you play rugby!”. Many high fives all round.)

One moment for me that showed the exquisite skill involved, at pace: Jack Goodhue running his line straight, gave a beautiful no look pop pass that Sevu Reece collected on his finger tips.  The point being that it was a pop pass that went two metres wide, not one metre, so Reece had just an extra bit of space to burn past the next defender.  From that move Aaron Smith scored his second try.

It was a performance of pace and precision.  Always with the aspiration to run and score tries.  Tackling low, and inviting the Irish to play the ball quickly, which they really didn’t want to do because they wanted to set the play before pulling the trigger.  Solid set pieces that were about starting the next sequence of attack, rather than boof and ego.

Not perfect: a period of ten minutes in the fourth quarter where they leaked two tries and a yellow card.  Just what a coach needs to bring them back down to earth.

In one sense, it is difficult to know what this presages for next Saturday because we don’t know how good or bad this Irish team was.  They simply weren’t allowed to play.  Over the course of this tournament the Irish looked like a team on the wrong side of the slope from their 2017 and 2018 heights.

There’s another lesson for RWC tournament campaigns: get your timing right.

068. RWC2019 Quarter-Final 1: England 40 Australia 16

And so the Cheika Era comes to an end, not with a bang or a whimper, but with chaos and stupidity.

Kurtley Beale repaid his coach for continuing to select him well past his use by date with another display of missed tackles and kick and pray.

The forwards repaid their coach’s arrogance off the field with arrogance on the field, and got their arses handed to them.

Cheika’s legacy is a lesson in how not to mount a campaign.  No selection consistency, chopping and swapping, bringing back players like Justin Bieber James O’Connor in the hope they might be a silver bullet, and never ever settling on a strategy.  Never ever coaching players to get better.

There are good players in Australia who deserved so much more: David Pocock in particular was a great talent in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Was.

Eddie Jones is the exact opposite.  Whether you like his brand of rugby or not, at least he knows what he’s trying to do.  Big brutal forwards, backs who return the ball to their forwards, and just occasionally run like the wind.  Efficient.  Effective.

England proceed.

Australa go home to a long hot summer of internecine blood-letting that will make the Godfather movies look like a Jane Austen period drama.

 

067. Train Museum

I’ve done MOTAT in Auckland.  And I’ve done the train museum in Swindon. And when I was a kid I climbed all over the rusty old locomotive at Hamilton Lake.

But the train museum in Saitama is not any of those things. It’s a proper museum, with trains. Lots and lots of trains.

There are dozens of locomotives and carriages, from the 19th century to yesterday.  And they are all beautifully restored, clean as a whistle, and you get to go inside many of them.

But wait, there’s more.

There are artefacts and displays that cover the bridges and tunnels and food and music and movies and tickets and uniforms and stations.

It’s glorious history you can touch: social and political and economic history driven along by a technology revolution that we take for granted and barely comprehend.

And gloriously filled with hundreds of laughing, running, screaming with delight young children.  Because this is where they pass on the Japanese love of trains to the next generation.  (There’s a big classroom of train driving simulators, and a wonderful play area full of model train sets.)

It brought home to me how important railways and trains are to the Japanese sense of themselves.  Perhaps it’s because the opening of the country through the Meiji Restoration coincided with the eruption of the new technology: moving people and things at distances and speeds that were completely transformative.  And every generation has striven to go faster and better.  Trains are at the heart of how Japan works as a community, and somehow at the heart of how Japanese comprehend themselves.

Here’s just a sample, to encourage you to come and see it for yourself. Bliss.