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.

 

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.

 

064. And Then There Were Eight

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 JAPAN JAPAN JAPANHead 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.

059. Matches 34, 35 and 37

RWC2019 Match 34: New Zealand 0 Italy 0 

Match cancelled (Typhoon Hagibis)

 

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.

 

050. Matches 24, 25 and 26

RWC2019 Match 24: Australia 45 Uruguay 10

Cheika’s Chumps carried on with their high-tackling ways, coughing up two more yellow cards in the 13th and 28th minutes.

The earlier disclosure that Cheika has never briefed his players about the World Rugby tackling protocols is straight-up malpractice, and it’s coming back to bite them.

Yes they got a bonus point win against the 18th ranked team in the world, and they debuted the brightly-talented 19-year old Jordan Petaia, but there are just too many ifs, buts and maybes about their pool performances to think they’re going to go deep.  They failed to score in the fourth-quarter.  Chronically bad tackling technique is just the headline symptom of a team that’s putting in plenty of effort but in a slightly wrong direction.

Uruguay, on the other hand, can take much heart from another willing performance. They scored the last try in the match, keeping alive a record of scoring at least one try in every match.  Not too shabby for a bunch of semi-professionals.

 

RWC2019 Match 25: England 39 Argentina 10

Another match that promised much given what was at stake, but was put in its box by a red card.

This time it was serial bad-boy Lavanini who went kaput, and ended any chance of Argentina getting out of the pools. His high shot on Owen Farrell in the 17th minute was stupid, blatant and par for the course. Numpty.

Even so, it took a while for England to settle into a rhythm, but when they did, they showed why they’re going to be tough in the knockout stage. They play a low-risk pattern based on possession and collision by big monsters upfront, and only spreading the ball when the proverbial my dead granny could score. Brutal but/and effective.

I caught up afterwards with a gaucho who had flown Buenos Aries – New York – Tokyo, with tickets for all the Argentinian matches, sad face missing his wife and kids, and all for no joy at all. Not a happy cowboy, and putting the blame on Super Rugby for exhausting the same group of players week in week out.

I quietly suggested that they should think about getting a coach who used to play in the backs. Mario Ledesma is a good bloke and all, an excellent scrum coach, but if you were raised in the front row you’re unlikely to love or understand the running and passing game so much.  (Exhibit B: Warren Gatland.)  The Argies have a history of fluent running backs, which they they should return to.

I don’t think he heard me over the sound of his tears splashing into his beer.

 

RWC2019 Match 26: Japan 38 Samoa 19

The ferocious excitement lit by Japan’s win against Ireland was tangible in the City of Toyota Stadium.  Japanese fans are now daring to believe that their team can, should, will win every match.

And why shouldn’t they when the team is coming along with such joie de vivre.  Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown have done an outstanding job instilling real rugby intelligence across the field.  They know what they want to do, and they go out to do it.

This was exemplified in the final plays of the match, when the Brave Blossoms were comfortably ahead having scored three tries and a swathe of penalties. But they wanted the bonus point for the fourth try, knowing it could mean the difference between getting a quarter-final spot or watching from the sidelines.

So they went for it, and got it in the 4th minute of overtime. The crowd, as they say, went wild.

Samoa again showed the challenge of having a squad of guys mostly in their 30s.  The legs just don’t last like they used to, even if the heart and head are willing.

There are so many Pasefika playing for other teams at the tournament.  It would be unfair to call the official guys the leftovers, but the fact is that professional rugby spots the best Pasefika talent at an early age and takes them away and doesn’t release them for international duty.  New Zealand is not the worst offender by any means*, but we have a responsibility to use our heft at the international level to find a way that provides the benefits of professionalism without undermining national teams.

Robert van Royen’s piece on foreign-born players in Tier One teams is worth a read.

For a start, the All Blacks have four players who were born elsewhere: Sevu Reece (Fiji), Nepo Laulala (Samoa), Ofa Tu’ungafasi (Tonga), and Shannon Frizell (Tonga).  On the other hand, there are 13 men born in New Zealand who are appearing for other teams at this World Cup.

Scotland wins the booby prize for most foreign-born players (14 out of a squad of 31), and Australia isn’t far behind (12). Argentina gets the medal for having exactly zero.

040. Matches 9, 10, 11 and 12

RWC2019 Match 9: Samoa 34 Russia 9

Our hotel in Hiroshima was basically in the railway station, and across the road was an eight-storey building full of restaurant stalls and pachinko parlours.  Avoid the pachinko and go for the restaurants, especially the okonomiyaki.  Wikipedia describes it as “a Japanese savory pancake containing a variety of ingredients in a wheat-flour-based batter”, which barely scratches the surface of the thing.

The Hiroshima variant layers rather than mixes the ingredients, and the real point is to sit on the stool and watch it being prepared in front of you. A thin batter spread on the hotplate, a big handful of shredded cabbage, your chosen bits and pieces, an egg, flipped a couple of times and slathered in a local sauce.

It’s the theatre as much as the taste.

Which explains why Mayhem and I were a bit late getting to the pub to watch this game.

Short story: Russia were willing but limited, and Samoa struggled to get their rhythm. Three yellow cards (two for Samoa, and one for Russia), six tries to Samoa and a bonus point. They’ll be pleased to start their campaign and, for the moment, be top of Pool A.

 

RWC2019 Match 10: Uruguay 30 Fiji 27

Didn’t see any of this match as we were Shinkansen-ing our way to Kyushu, so I had to rely on breathless text updates from LittleDavyOne to alert me to the first upset of the tournament.

Okay, one of my brothers predicted this result, but I reckon that was just a slip of the pen. Or he had actually studied the draw and seen that Fiji had played Australia on Saturday and were playing again on Wednesday.

This is the real burden faced by qualifying teams at Rugby World Cups: they’re given some pretty short turn-arounds. The match reports suggest that Fiji were fumbling and out of sorts.

But fair-do’s to Uruguay: this is their first win in a Rugby World Cup since 28 October 2003 when they beat Georgia 24 – 12.

 

RWC2019 Match 11: Italy 48 Canada 7

Mayhem and I had got to Fukuoka the previous evening.  A good little (and I mean little) apartment three train stops from the city centre. We spent an excellent couple of hours in the local supermarket marvelling at many things we did not comprehend.  The locals thought us charming.

On the day of this match we headed into the main station, got interviewed by a local television station (as you do, and they also thought us charming), and went to the Canal City complex for two things: get Mayhem a Japan RWC2019 jersey and play some arcade games.

Mayhem (left) and friend in Japan RWC2019 jerseys.

The arcade was as noisy and bright and distracting and disorienting as you might expect.  The evil genius is that you can use your IC card (the memory chip tap to pay cards that are essential for subways and local trains and buses) to pay for games.  Which means paying to play is painless.

A couple of games caught our admiration: one local guy was beating a dream on ‘drums’, somehow scoring points for something, and getting a damn good workout at the same time. By contrast, there was a train driving game, with full console and wrap around screens where the aim was to get the train in to the station on time and smoothly and stop at the exactly appointed spot on the platform. Genius.

After all that excitement we headed out to the stadium by subway and shuttle bus.

Involved in our first traffic accident: some numpty taxi passenger opened their door just as our bus started off. Taxi driver very unimpressed with his door pointing in the wrong direction. No injuries all round, carry on.

The Fukuoka stadium is in a gorgeous park setting, with each end open to the trees.  Clearly not generally used for rugby, as they’d had to bring in extra lighting for the in-goal areas.

 

West end of Fukuoka Stadium
East end of Fukuoka Stadium

Also clearly not generally used for rugby because the turf cut up very badly after the very first scrum.

Pitch damage after first scrum.

 

A couple of match helpers came on with buckets of sand and tried to stamp it down while play proceeded around them.

Trying to fix the pitch.

 

This is one of the challenges of holding matches in non-rugby stadia, because soccer (for example) generally favours a flat surface over a robust one.  Having said that, the pitch at the Millennium  Stadium in Cardiff was notoriously awful. Difficult enough to get grass to grow in Wales without putting a lid over it.

There will be controversy if the pitch conditions lead to an injury, or affects the result of a match, especially in the knock out matches.

On to the match itself.

O Canada, indeed.

Woeful is one word. Inept is another. Embarrassing is a third. Seriously awful performance, with missed tackles, dropped balls, and lack of vision.

The Italians played well, with strong runners and real ambition. They may, should, come away with the idea of having a crack at making the quarter-finals. That would require tipping over either South Africa or New Zealand.

Which means that the All Blacks final pool match on 12 October should be a fairly willing encounter. Good.

 

RWC2019 Match 12: England 45 USA 7

Mayhem and I made our way back to the centre of Fukuoka to the Fanzone. As you would imagine, a very well set up space with a big screen, good food, a happy crowd of mainly locals, and unfortunately the sponsor’s product.

We had agreed beforehand that we weren’t particularly enthusiastic about supporting either team, so we would clap and yell only when there was good play. The first opportunity came in about the 75th minute.

I cannot understand what Eddie Jones was trying to achieve in this match. The English passing was loose, and they were constantly running into contact rather than finding holes.

It was only when Owen Farrell came on late in the game that they started finding any fluency. He passed long and in front of the player.  Which probably tells you all you need to know about Willie Heinz and George Ford as the starting 9 – 10 combo.

The Americans picked up the first red card of the tournament, well-deserved for a nasty shoulder to Farrell’s nose. They also picked up the last try of the match, with only 14 men, in a scrambling mangle of a final play when England had multiple opportunities to stop the play.

My overall impression: England have trained four years to be strong, but they haven’t trained to be skilful or particularly smart.  Farrell is their one and only strike weapon.

Oops.

035. Matches 5, 6 and 7

The downside of connectivity: I spent the morning doing some work for back in New Zealand.

Mayhem went off for a meander of the neighbourhood to find a Japanese RWC2019 jersey, which are very very cool (and also very very unavailable due to some ordering officer not realising there was a Rugby World Cup happening in the vicinity which might like a bit of very very cool).

We arranged to meet up at the sports bar of the night before to watch the first match, before going on to Sapporo Dome.

 

RWC2019 Match 5: Italy 47 Namibia 22

Once the bar owner had figured out which channel the rugby was on, we discovered that Namibia had scored the first try with a nice break down the right, and a good line run by the halfback on the inside. That was the high point.

The Nambians kept their hearts in the match but it was never going to be their breakthrough win. Even against an Italian side that will be going home at the end of the pool play.  Moments of flair, but just about average on a good day.

On the upside, I met another good Aussie: Jim from Yass. Not a fan of Mr Cheika, either.  Go figure.

 

RWC2019 Match 6: Ireland 27 Scotland 3

I’d like to tell you about this match but I can’t because, for some bizarre reason, it was not being shown on the big screens at Sapporo Dome.

Sapporo Dome, Hokkaido, Japan

Mayhem and I had made the strategic decision to get to the Dome early early to avoid the subway rush, confident that we’d be seeing the Irish and Scots on the big screens having a ding-dong while we waited.

Nope. We got several videos explaining lineouts and scrums to the locals.  And round the block queues for food, beverages and the consequential toilets. (RWC announced today that you can bring your own food to the stadia from now on, which is maybe their way of saying they stuffed up.)

Being smart fellas, we sat in the gods of the Dome and waited for the beer sellers to come to us. About NZD$10 for the sponsor’s product, but at least you avoided the queue.

Right. Where was I? Yes, that’s right, I know nothing about this match expect the score. The win for Ireland was expected, but Scotland’s 3 is a bad bad sign.

Best headline was from the Irish Times: Ireland now on a collision course with South Africa.  That’s the spirit of worry, anxiety and pessimism that makes for great rugby teams.

 

RWC2019 Match 7: England 35 Tonga 3

Let’s get my angry stuff out of the way upfront. At the end of the match the Tongan team lined up and bowed to the audience.

At the end of the match the England team lined up and clapped at the audience.

No. Just no. That is tone deaf Little Englander rubbish.  You’re in Japan FFS. It’s the first Rugby World Cup outside Tier 1, the first in Asia.  You might want to show some respect to where you are and who is hosting you.

It’s the sort of rubbish spouted throughout the match from the Yorkshire gentleman directly behind us throughout the match. (Including the classic line “I didn’t see anything from the All Blacks or Springboks last night to scare me” and culminating in the proud boast “I must be the most hated man in the stadium”. Uh-huh.  I hope he didn’t book his trip with Thomas Cook.) He occasionally attempted to start a rousing audience sing-along of Swing Low, but thankfully there was no enthusiasm. And that is an interesting data point.

There is possibly much to like about the English side.  Their fitness, their strength and size, and a couple of players of genuinely superior talent.

But they were off their game last night: passes just behind the player, fumbles and pointless penalties.  Not a good effort.

And oh Tonga.  Lots and lots of tackling practise because every time they had the ball, until late in the game, they box kicked.  Every bloody time, and gave the ball back to the English to fumble.  And they sent a telegraph every single time: “Hey England, we’ll be kicking the ball to you in just a moment, so you might want to fall back and get ready for it.”

So not a great game, unless Eddie Jones wanted a long list of work-ons.

But the Dome was fabulous, and the crowd was glorious, and the trip back on a squashed subway was another Japanese moment to treasure.  Exquisitely organised with squads of staff every step of the way, and unfailing politeness even in the face of the most boorish behaviour from well-liquored bozos who know no better.

Thank you Sapporo.