It’s been a few weeks since I had my hair cut in Sapporo, and I thought I’d sharpen myself up before the quarter-final in Tokyo, just in case the cameras catch me in my glory.
I’m in Saitama, half an hour out of Tokyo, mainly because I wanted to go to the Train Museum. (More on that later, with photos. Lots of photos.)
The trick, given my inability to read Japanese, is to look for the old fashioned barber poles: the red, white and blue twirly things. (They’re not poles anymore, of course, they’re lighted signs, but still.)
Found one near the railway station, followed the arrows down some steps to a basement barber.
Now maybe I should have reversed course at that moment, because the barber was sound asleep in his chair, there being no customers.
But he heard my steps, and jerked upright, which was not bad for a gentleman of his age. A considerable age, I would suggest. And now I was committed, because you cannot really back out with any grace when you may well be the old fellas first, last and only customer of the day.
With sign language we agreed that I wanted a Number 3 all over. At least, that’s what I thought we’d agreed.
But when he began the buzz (after a considerable amount of whooshing here and there with three covers over me, and a wandering round looking for things, and a rubbing of my head with a warm towel), there seemed to be an awful lot of hair falling. And, you must understand, that I have precious little of the stuff to start with.
I held up my hand, and then realised that it was too late. Like a sheep, I was committed. Carry on, we agreed.
The result is that if the cameras do swing in my direction tomorrow no-one from New Zealand will recognise me. There will be a very bald man giving advice to the referee, but it won’t look like Ned.
Which, come to think of it, might be the perfect disguise to unleash the Full Ned. And any subsequent perp photos will not look anything like me. Perfect.
I’ve gone back and calculated how it went against the actual results. (Note that I’ve scored the three cancelled matches as “0”.)
So it turns out that I’ve ended up pretty much where I thought I would, but the good news is that Japan’s win over Ireland at Match 14 gave me a real boost through the middle part of pool play. I slipped back later on because New Zealand didn’t get to play Italy (and Namibia didn’t get to play Canada.)
If we add back in the three cancelled matches, and assume that New Zealand, England and Namibia would have won, I would have been well ahead of my expectations.
Given my heart/head predictions for the quarterfinals, I’m looking forward to a good weekend, up to the fourth match. I fully expect to be groaning and gnashing teeth and cursing the gods with all the rest of Japan if/when South Africa carry the day. There shall be rending of garments and lamenting on the shoulders of friends.
Or it could all go pear shape on Saturday evening, in which case it will be sobbing. Prolonged sobbing. Alone.
And so we enter the knockout phase (having knocked out 12 teams to get there).
QF1: England vs Australia, Oita
England have this, if only because Cheika has done a Cheika and selected 19-year old Jordan Petaia at centre.
No worries about choosing a 19-year old, who is clearly a big future talent. But up to this point he’s been a winger.
It’s just another data point in Cheika’s long history of imagining shit up.
Eddie Jones is not rolling any dice. He’s got a very solid team who will bore you to defeat.
Heart says England (but without much passion). Head says England.
QF2: New Zealand vs Ireland, Tokyo
Ireland’s loss to Japan in the pools means they get the joy of meeting the All Blacks. And their performance through most of the pools says this is a team that peaked too early: 2017 and 2018 were great, 2019 not so much.
On paper, this is the ABs match to lose. They have the experience, skill and, most importantly, pace to make the Irish weep. The only question, really, is whether they turn up with the right mental attitude.
Heart says All Blacks, obviously. Head says All Blacks. But I’ll be anxious as hell until they actually do the business.
QF3: Wales vs France, Oita
Wales are another team that have not greatly impressed through the pools. A couple of great players in Alun Wynn Jones and Dan Biggar, but for long periods they have fumbled and bumbled. Let’s assume that Warren Gatland puts a rocket up them before kick off.
France is still France. They snuck a win against Argentina, numerous reports of revolts against the coach, and way too many questions about their connectivity.
But they’re France, and this might be the one match where they turn up and play like angels.
Heart says Wales. Head says Wales, but this is the one quarter-final where it really could go either way and you wouldn’t be surprised.
QF4: Japan vs South Africa, Tokyo
After that nervous first start against Russia, Japan have been absolutely fabulous through the pools, collecting Ireland and Scotland scalps along the way.
And now they’re going to go bump. Because South Africa is not going to play an expansive, helter skelter game. They’re going to play hide the ball in the jumper, and use their yuge forwards to steamroll the Japanese pack. It won’t be pretty, but it will be very effective.
Japan are going to have to find a way to win with 30 percent possession and 20 percent territory. Good luck with that.
Heart says JAPANJAPANJAPAN. Head says (whisper it) South Africa, in a crushing slow-motion mauling mashing sort of way.
Ned will be in attendance for QF2 and QF3 (which requires some nifty footwork to make the connections). Let’s get ready to rumble.
Scotland need to go home and reflect long and hard about where they’re at, because it’s nowhere good. Nearly half their squad were not born in Scotland. They have plenty of hard grafters, but none of them would be in a World XV. There’s a whiff of entitlement to their approach: a belief that they somehow deserve to be in the quarters even if they go no further.
And their Chief Executive brought disgrace on the Union with his outbursts about the possibility of cancellation of their final pool match against Japan on the day after the killer Typhoon Hagibis swept through the country. If he doesn’t resign he should be sacked forthwith.
And as it happened, the Japanese wanted to play Scotland to honour the tournament and their fans. And they beat Scotland into the bargain.
Go home, and think very very hard.
Samoa played well in patches, but pretty ordinary in most of it, with the age of many players seeming to catch up on them. World Rugby needs to do more, much more, to allow this cradle of talent enjoy the fruits of professionalism.
Russia were a surprise, in the good way. Sure they got thrashed, but they got better through the tournament, adding some running aspiration to their heft up front. They should be better for the experience.
Of all the teams affected by match cancellations Italy can feel the most aggrieved. They had a mathematical chance of being in the quarters if they’d beaten the All Blacks in that match. But, you know, it was the All Blacks, and that math doesn’t really add up.
Italy dealt with Namibia and Canada well enough, but they didn’t show anything to suggest a break through. So they get the third place prize of automatic qualification for RWC2023, where they’ll probably come 3rd in their pool again, and so it will go.
Namibia have a moment to treasure from this World Cup: they led the All Blacks 3-nil, and kept them to 9-10 until nearly the end of the first half. They played with great panache and enjoyment that day. Another team that got better through the tournament.
There is no “Commonwealth exception” in a global tournament: Canada were the worst team in the tournament. Just awful. Put it this way: there are 20 teams in this tournament, and Canada are ranked 22nd in the world. They should fire the coach, sack the board, burn it all down and start again. They looked like a college 2nd XV on an end of year tour, just there for the laughs. Embarassing.
Argentina were my big disappointment this time: promising so much through Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, and then losing the match to France which sealed their fate. And it was a game they coulda shoulda won. Back to the drawing board, build up a new team, rediscover their attacking mojo.
Tonga brought the thrills and won a lot of hearts, especially in their last match when they played on after the whistle to score one more (beautifully executed) try. The best-performing 4th placed team across the tournament (by match points, and points for/against). Played with pride.
Unlike their northern neighbours, the USA played with some ambition: 7 tries compared to Canada’s 2. Yes they should be doing better, with all that sports science and population behind them (and getting good results in Sevens), but at least they had a go.
The bare numbers don’t quite show how Fiji nearly had a very good Cup. They pushed Australia, and then Wales, very hard for long periods. But then they got ambushed by Uruguay. Still one of the best international teams to watch as those big legs get striding while they hold the ball in one hand for a miracle offload, but it’s close and no cigar this time.
Aside from a good win over Uruguay, the key measurement of Georgia’s tournament was that they scored 9 tries in their four matches. They came to play.
As did Uruguay, and their ambush of Fiji showed some real smarts. They’d figured out the schedule and targeted this one match with everything in their semi-professional arsenal. A great sporting moment they’ll be living off for years to come.
What did your Uncle Ned tell you back on 4 January?
The last pool match will be the best pool match.
Scotland’s advantages are that they have a long history of playing Tier 1 teams, they have a smart coach, some good-ish players, and they can play with heart.
Japan’s advantages are that they are playing at home, and they have been targetting this one match for ten plus years. They want to be in the quarter finals like you would not believe, and they know that if they get there, then anything is possible. (Not probable, no: but possible.)
But this match, this match, is going to be out of sight. All or nothing, go big or go home, glory or despair.
Scotland go home with an excess baggage of despair.
Japan have the glory. However much further they go in this tournament, they have raised the roof with this match.
The set up was perfect: three teams were in the running to be one of the two qualifiers from Pool A depending on the result. The mathematics were a little complicated, but basically Scotland had to win, and win with four clear match points over Japan.
And the match was happening the day after Typhoon Hagibis had swept through, dumping tonnes of water on and around the stadium. And the game was under threat of cancellation right up to the late morning of the day itself: a threat of cancellation which had drawn from the Scotland Rugby Chief Executive an wildly unwise threat of legal action, as well as broad hints of chicanery that the Japanese didn’t want to play the match to assure themselves of a quarter-final
As the excellent Andy Bull in the Guardianexplained, that latter was an absolute canard:
Officials slept in the stadium on Saturday night, while the typhoon blew outside, so they could start assessing the damage the minute it stopped. At dawn the repair crews came in, and started pumping the floodwater out of the dressing room, where it was an inch deep, while the fire-service triple-checked all the electrics. Later they hosed down the pitch, to clear off the mud and debris. Meanwhile the organising committee were coordinating with the government and regional authorities, with all three emergency services, the water authorities, the road authorities, the train and bus companies, trying to untangle a cat’s cradle of complications.
In Japan all the talk has been about how this World Cup is about omotenashi, Japanese hospitality. The word doesn’t exactly translate, but, in the sketchy understanding I have of it after four weeks here, it’s about doing more than your very best to please your guest.
But this was several steps further again, well beyond what anyone could have expected. Which might be why so many people got it all so wrong in the days before the match. Why they imagined that Japan wanted to have this match cancelled, that they would rather have been awarded the draw than face the Scots, a team against whom they had only ever lost. They even suggested it was all part of some grand conspiracy to hobble the Scots.
The chief executive of the Scottish Rugby Union, Mark Dodson, got it all wrong too. Dodson let fly about how the SRU had taken legal advice, raged how he wasn’t going to let his team be “collateral damage”. It was an embarrassingly wild misreading of what’s been going on here, of the mood among the Japanese, and how determined they were to play, and to win, this game.
All that pre-game emotion threatened to unseat Japan when the match finally began: the Scottish fly-half Finn Russell skipping through some skittish defence at 6 minutes to score underneath the posts.
And then Japan got their mojo on: three well constructed tries in the first half, another just after halftime by ripping the ball away from a Scottish attacker, all converted. At 28-7 Japan were on their way … whoops, hold on a minute.
Because Scotland to their credit came roaring back with converted tries at 49 and 54 minutes: 28-21.
Every mathematised fan knew the equation now: Scotland had to win by 8 or more points, so they needed to score 15 points in the last 15 minutes.
And they tried and tried and tried some more, but the exhausted Japanese defence kept making tackles, and getting up, and made some more.
What a great game. The best pool match of them all, just as Uncle Ned promised.
Morioka is the capital city of Iwate prefecture, up the north of Honshu. The wider region is often referred to as Tohoku. (The 2011 earthquake and tsunami impacted this region most dramatically, which is why it’s known as the Tohoku Earthquake.)
Morioka Castle was built between 1597 and 1633 on a small hill overlooking the Kitakami and Nakastu rivers, a great strategic position to control local comings and goings. It was all part of the power plays around the beginning of the Tokugawa era, and the Nanbu clan held sway here until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
The local information says the Castle was demolished in 1874, and the site turned into a park, which is, as you would now expect, beautifully laid out.
The views from the top on this autumn late afternoon, across the city towards the mountains, are sweetly calming. On a bustling work day there are few visitors, but you can look down and see the crowds going busily about their business.
I wonder whether or how or why or when or how often the local residents pause to wonder about this place in their midst. Do they come here at all, or do they just go around it to get to where they’re going?
Just as back home, we’re too busy to stop and wonder about the markers of our own history: how many people in Wellington, for example, have stopped at the pou marking Kupe’s first landing in Te Whanganui-a-Tara in the place we now call Seatoun, and which is more famous as the place the Wahine survivors came ashore? Stop and look and imagine.
The fact of the castle being demolished in 1874 piques my interest, especially because the park was only created in 1906, and gifted to the city by the Nanbu in 1933.
My assumption is that the Nanbu were involved in the resistance to the Restoration, and perhaps even in the short-lived nearby Republic of Ezo in 1869. But I can find nothing to confirm that. Just a silence.
There’s a lovely monument to a local poet, Takuboku Ishikawa, who died of tuberculosis in 1912 at the age of 26. Apparently he would wag school and come up to the park, and daydream, and write:
Lying on the grass of Kozukata’s palace staring up at the sky, the heart of being 15.
A short walk from the castle is what I am assured is the “famous” Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree.
It’s a cherry tree which started growing in a crack of a large boulder perhaps 400 years ago, and never stopped. It is indeed a rock-splitting cherry tree, now outside the prefecture’s Court building, which may or may not be a metaphor for something.
After a day in Morioka I picked up a rental car, getting ready to head for the Namibia-Canada match in Kamaishi on Sunday.
I learned to drive in a lime-green Ford Escort 1.6 Sports on the road between Hamilton and Raglan, putting it through its paces on tight blind bends along a crest of jagged hills, so 40 years later I’m excited by the opportunity to … drive a Nissan Note on an expressway in Japan.
It’s a perfectly adequate machine: four wheels and an engine, and it goes where and when I point it.
But it’s not Springsteen, is it? No-one’s going to write songs of adolescent angst and escaping capitalist oppression in a Nissan Note.
As a responsible representative of my place and my age, before I get on the Expressway I take it for a tootle and check the map app is working properly. I set it for the Baeren Brewery, because nothing says ‘responsible’ like picking up a rental car in a foreign country and heading straight for a brewery.
Actually, it’s because I’m a true Wellington hipster, with the horrible holiday beard to prove it, and Baeren Brewery is an authentic artisan brewery. They imported some old brewing equipment from Germany 15 years ago, and have been making a range of lovely drops ever since. I’d tried some the night before, and figured I’d pick up some more for my little road trip.
And very tasty they are, too, as I discovered later that night, after I’d finished driving a day in the not particularly tasting of anything Nissan Note.
This match could be played on Saturday night because it was out of Typhoon Hagibis path, down in Fukuoka on Kyushu.
A pretty good performance from Ireland considering they played with 14 men after Bundee Aki got a straight red card in the 28th minute for a high shot in an awkward tackle.
Samoa’s defence looked disorganised at times, which might be exhaustion, or it just might be Irish cleverness.
Ireland pick up a bonus point win to take them to 16 points, which is enough to guarantee them a place in the quarters. But they won’t know whether they are 1st or 2nd in their pool until after Match 40.
Samoa will finish 4th, their 34-nil loss to Scotland being their big disappointment. Much thought needs to go into how to lift the Pasefika teams out of the hole of giving great players to other teams, and not having the resources to gather and grow their own game.
RWC2019 Match 38: Tonga 31 USA 19
A really attractive game of rugby from two teams knowing they’re heading home. Not just a last chance to grind out a win, but a chance to show width and speed and enjoyment.
Nothing epitomised that better than Tonga, with the win in their pocket, keeping pressing after the gong to grab a fourth try.
Kudos to USA for playing with ambition: praise to Tonga for playing with skill and panache.
RWC2019 Match 39: Wales 35 Uruguay 13
Fumble, bumble and crumble from the Welsh. Not good.
7-6 at halftime, a converted try just after halftime, but it wasn’t until a penalty try at 65 minutes that the Welsh began to move away and make the scoreboard solid. And even then Los Teros score their own converted try at 70 minutes.
Not good for Gatland’s heart pressure, this sort of rubbish. Not good enough to go much deeper into the tournament.
So the first match to ever be cancelled involves the All Blacks: I suggest you mark this down as a future pub quiz question.
Under the tournament rules a cancelled match is deemed a nil-all draw, with both teams getting two match points.
But in other real world places (All Blacks caps and statistics), this match is deemed to never have occurred. Because it didn’t.
Despite some of the breathless reporting out of the northern hemisphere, the All Blacks wanted to play this match:
give Brodie Retallick some extra game time in his return from injury
give a shadow first team more time working on their connections
keep the nerves under control.
Italy also wanted to play, partly because they still had a mathematical chance of making the quarters, but also because statistically it was going to be their final hurrah at this tournament, and who doesn’t want to put ‘played against the All Blacks’ on their resume?
A shame all round, but cancellation was the correct decision.
RWC2019 Match 35: England 0 France 0
Match cancelled (Typhoon Hagibis)
Another correct decision to cancel. Both teams had already qualified for the quarters, but this match would have been an opportunity for France to leapfrog England in the table order.
In theory that matters if you would prefer to play Australia rather than Wales in the quarter. But frankly, if you’re here to win, the correct attitude is “I don’t care who I have to play, I just know I have to win three in a row. Bring it on.”
But the French being French, if they go on to lose to Wales in the quarter, there will be a fair bit of cabbage throwing.
RWC2019 Match 37: Namibia 0 Canada 0
Match cancelled (Typhoon Hagibis)
Yet another correct decision, but the most regrettable by my reckon.
First and most important, it was to be played at Kamaishi. This was a place devastated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and a stadium had been built here as part of the recovery efforts.
Secondly, it was to be between Namibia and Canada, the two minnowiest minnows of Pool B. At stake was the opportunity to play your best rugby, get a win at a Rugby World Cup (which Namibia have never achieved, and Canada not since 2011), and not be the wooden-spooners in your Pool.
Thirdly, and least important by far, is that Ned had a ticket to this game. Of all the tickets Ned has, this was the one I was really most excited about. A small stadium in an off the beaten track part of Japan, and Namibia to cheer for.
Alas, not to be, and very interesting in the official statement the deference given to local authorities in the decision to cancel: “Following strong direction from the Prefecture of Iwate and the City of Kamaishi, we were left with no option but to cancel the match on safety grounds.”
This is local government that knows what a disaster looks like, and how bad decisions cost lives, and they were having none of it. Fair enough.
But sad too. Would’ve been a great day all round.
A final thought: we are going to have to devise new language and categories for these cancelled matches.
While the tournament rules need to deem the results nil-all draws, that is not in fact what happened. New Zealand did not draw a Rugby World Cup pool match; we did not draw with Italy.
Having recognised the threat they were under of not getting to the quarter-finals, Scotland turned up to play. Even as the ‘second string’ team, they ran and passed and caught like they meant it.
Young fly-half Adam Hastings had a game to remember, scoring two tries and eight conversions for a personal tally of 26 points.
For Russia, a bit of a bump down to earth after some decent performances against Samoa and Ireland.
RWC2019 Match 32: Wales 29 Fiji 17
For much of this game, up until the 68th minute when Wales scored a converted try to take it out to the final score, you imagined this would be Fiji’s night.
Partly that’s a statement of how well Fiji played, and partly how discombobulated Wales let themselves be. Fumbles, bumbles, aimless kicking, dropping off tackles. Even the wonderful Alun Wynn Jones made a couple of errors.
Two uncoverted tries to Fiji in the opening eight minutes gave the dozen Fijian supporters just below me in the Oita Stadium stands a lot to cheer about, which they duly did. Amazing how just a dozen voices can fill a stadium. And the Japanese crowd loves the underdog.
The large contingent of Welsh supporters were trying to find their voices, and when they did it largely consisted of advice regarding ingenious but improbable acts of physical dexterity for the referee, the players and (bizarrely) New Zealanders. (I’m not kidding about the last one: I was tempted to ask the boyo why, but thought better of it given the amount of sponsor’s product involved.)
A couple of real worries for Welsh coach Warren Gatland will be the lack of discipline (two yellow cards in the 7th and 52nd minutes, and conceding a penalty try), and the injury to Dan Biggar. The latter was the result of a clash with one of his own players as they both went for a high ball (which in itself is a type of ill-discipline), and Bigger stayed down for quite a while. Long enough for them to bring out the stretcher cart, before he stood up and jogged off waving to the crowd to persuade them all was well.
You cannot underestimate the importance of Biggar to the hopes of this Welsh team. His skills and strength put him several notches above his team mates, and he drives his team around the park with ferocity. He screams at his mates, putting them where he wants them, directing the lines they should run.
The latest reporting from the Welsh camp is optimistic – ‘Warren Gatland is hopeful of a clean bill of health’ – but if you parse the comments closely you’ll get an idea that all is not so well:
“Dan has gone through the protocols. He had a scan as well. He’s spoken to consultants from World Rugby, we’ve had an independent consultant talk to him as well. They are pleased with the progress he is making. So he’ll be fine.”
Scan, spoken to by World Rugby medicos, got their own consultant, ‘progress’. Right.
But the real comments about the game should be about the Fijians: big, fast, strong, skilful, joyful, and tonight for 68 minutes playing with real smarts about when to run and when to hold, deft field kicks, devastating tackling. Yes they ran out of gas, but it was a great ride while it lasted.
RWC2019 Match 33: Australia 27 Georgia 8
No rejoicing for GirtBySea tonight, with a shockingly bad performance by the Wallabies. Just awful:
their first try came in the 22nd minute, the dull pick and go and smash at the line variety
another yellow card for poor tackling technique
half-time score 10-3
second try comes at 59 minutes, a piece of solo Marika Voroibete genius
a very lovely running try by Georgia at 69 minutes closes the score to 17-8 (conversion missed)
two late tries (74th and 78th minutes) take the score out, and get the bonus match point.
Ups to the Georgians, who are enjoying the World Cup opportunity to keep improving the ambition of their game.
Downs to Michael Cheika who has the unenviable ability to make his team worse rather than better.
The Japan Times reports that, as of this morning, 35 people are dead and 17 are missing as a result of Typhoon Hagibis.
That’s pretty bad.
But it’s also, in another way, pretty good.
This was a ferocious storm, by some reports the strongest to hit Japan since Typhoon Ida in 1958 (also known as the Kanogawa Typhoon) which killed 1,269 people and injured 1,138 more.
Yesterday I set out to drive around the Tome area, and maybe heading for Ishinomaki to find a bar to watch the Sunday rugby. Tome is a renowned rice growing district, full of fat flat fields intersected by irrigation ditches. There was a lot of flooded fields, the rivers were very high, and a spread of debris across the roads. But nothing too dramatic.
The closer I got to the coast, however, the more the drama. Slips big and small, flooding across roads, swift big rivers approaching the tops of the levees.
My maps app hadn’t caught up with all of that, so I ended up driving in circles on secondary roads. Not a worry for me personally as I really had nowhere to be by any much time, but this is an area that had been devastated by the Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami in 2011, so there was just the sense of heightened awareness of danger. Old fellas in a big-vis vest waving big torches. Long traffic queues heading one way, then being turned around.
The relatively low death toll from Hagibis can be put down to the preparation. For more than a week, advisories had been pouring forth. In the two days before Saturday, the full preparations swung in, with planes and trains being progressively discontinued in the likely affected areas. And on Saturday itself, shops and businesses closed. Saturation coverage on tv, alerts to your cellphone, sirens throughout the night.
Which makes the decision of the RWC Organising Committee to cancel two matches on the Saturday (and eventually one on the Sunday) completely unremarkable. In the midst of much of a country going into lockdown, going ahead would have been a bizarre decision, and one which would have put a lot of lives at risk. Just think about all of the people trying to get to or from a stadium, stuck in the open when the typhoon hit. Not just bizarre: culpable.
There will be questions to come about the timing of this Rugby World Cup, not only covering the typhoon season, but also remember how hot and humid the early games were. (Hot and humid and typhoons tend to go together, of course.) Kicking off one month later might have avoided much of this. So yes, there will be questions about how much World Rugby thought about these things four or five years ago when they were making their detailed plans, but on the ground and on the day, they made the right calls.
Which cannot be said about Scottish rugby officials, who lost their minds, souls and reputation with some mind-bending stupidity. Their team needed to win, and win well, against Japan in their final match on Sunday evening if they were to progress. The Scottish officials saw all sorts of conspiracies in the glowering skies, had a public tanty and threatened to sue for lots of dosh if the game was cancelled.
That would have been a fantastic headline, yeah? “35 dead but Scots rugby gets millions of quid, so it’s all okay now”.