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.

 

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.

 

054. Matches 28, 29 and 30

RWC2019 Match 28: France 23 Tonga 21

With all the leaks and speculation about the usual unhappiness inside the French team it was no surprise that they played un petit peu de potage.

Two tries in the first half showed a sniff of what they can do, but they only snuck home on the back of three penalties, against Tonga’s three tries.

Like most of the Tier 2 teams Tonga shows how much improvement comes from spending four or five weeks together.  Their fitness, combinations and belief have gone several notches, and they should feel aggrieved they could not quite repeat the heroics of 2011.

 

RWC2019 Match 29: South Africa 66 Canada 7

A ten try to one rout should count as helpful and hopeful to South Africa’s cause, but:

  • it was against Canada, who are far and away the worst team in the tournament, and
  • Canada was playing with 14 men for 45 minutes, after Josh Larsen misfiled into a ruck and connected with the head of a South African, and
  • even with just 14 men, Canada scored a try – just their second of the tournament.

So a bonus point win means job done for Rassie Erasmus, but without any sense for him or us of whether it means anything.

And I’ll say it again: Canada’s coach should be sacked and the board should resign. This is a disgraceful performance at a World Cup.

 

RWC2019 Match 30: Argentina 47 USA 17

Argentina finally released their running style in their last match at the tournament.  They’ll be going home with plenty of regrets about their opening game, a 2 point loss to France. Oy. Third place in their pool means automatic entry to RWC2023, but they coulda shoulda woulda been staying around for the quarters.

Seven tries to the Bargies, and the USA chipped in with two of their own. Their results against the three Tier One teams in their pool have not been a complete disgrace, but we’ll see how far they’ve really come in their final pool match against Tonga on Sunday.

 

047. Matches 19 and 20

RWC2019 Match 19: France 33 USA 9

A scratchy performance by France gets them the bonus point they need in Pool C, but unconvincing for later in the tournament.  A bit more competitiveness from the USA (good for them).

This is classic French progress in a Rugby World Cup.  They’ve always got out of the Pools, but you never quite know what you’re going to get later. Wait and see.

 

RWC2019 Match 20: New Zealand 63 Canada 0

Oita, on the east coast of Kyushu, hosts five matches for RWC2019: three pools, and two quarter-finals.

Which had me a bit worried, because it’s not exactly at the centre of things.  The airport’s a fair way off, there’s no Shinkansen, the local train connections are interesting, the hotel bookings are off the charts, and the stadium itself is a long long walk from the city centre.

Which had me worried that this would be the logistical achilles heel of the tournament.

Yeah nah.

LittleDavyOne and I had gone tram, train, Shinkansen, train from Nagasaki to Usa, a little town about 45 minutes by train from Oita. Checked into a little guest house in the middle of rice fields: tatami mats, traditional bathrooms, gorgeous.

On match day we caught an early train into Oita.  Masses of locals in All Blacks shirts, a fair few kiwi families, a smattering of Canucks.

Which is where the superb local organisation kicked in.  A 700 metre gentle walk to free shuttle buses, dozens of them lined up and keeping the crowd moving. Forty minutes up to the stadium in a very pretty park, walk 800 metres, in like Flynn.

Raining, but the roof was closed. This is the stadium we should have built in Wellington.

Spotted the Beaver in one of the hospo suites, and helpfully explained to the local staff who he was and what he had done back in 2011.  They smiled and nodded.

The ABs came out for the warm-up.  Dear friends, Mr. B. Retallick took a full part along with all the non-playing squad, including packing a scrum with Mr. S. Whitelock. The big fella’s looking good, so expect him back sooner rather than later.

Into the match.

Okay, so Canada is awful. Woeful. What exactly have they been doing for the last four years? What exactly do they want to achieve at this tournament?  Key moment for them was right at the end of the first half: they got good ball off the top of a lineout, and … kicked it out to go to the sheds. I mean, seriously, how much good ball did you have that you would waste even the littlest bit?  Zero aspiration. Sack the Board, sack the coaches. Start again.

In complete contrast, the All Blacks were magnificent.  Not because they ran up a cricket score, but because they didn’t.

They didn’t attack the Canadian rucks and mauls.  They didn’t play helter-skelter. They didn’t give away penalties.

They sat back, got the ball and attacked with speed, sleight of hand, and combinations. Slick.

Yes there were handling errors but, my goodness, there was beautiful running of smart lines, and always looking for the slightest of gaps, the edges of tackles, rather than rumpy-pumpy smash collisions like some other teams I could mention.

Speed.

Here’s the thing I saw: the All Blacks didn’t take quick throw-ins, but they sure as hell took fast lineouts.  Liam Coltman rushed to the spot, took the ball and quickly wiped it, and threw immediately because the other forwards were already in position. No mucking about.

This is a team that wants to play at Shinkansen speed. Not in spite of the heat and humidity, but because of it.  Stretch the other side when the oxygen is getting low.  Don’t allow them to regroup.  Go and go and go again.

Very bloody impressive.

Which won’t, of course, stop me worrying about later matches. But it was a beautiful night in Oita.

And the logistics were a dream.

034. Matches 2, 3 and 4

Mayhem and I started the day by popping down to Sapporo station to get his 7-day Japan Rail Pass sorted.

Big queues as the Aussie and English fans had flooded in over the last few days.  Friends, I can report that they were not as organised as Ned.  Not nearly.  Some of them seemed a bit surprised that Japan was a foreign country. None of them had a detailed list of the train reservations they wanted to make. Amateurs.

Mayhem was appropriately dazzled by the wondrous paperwork. Seriously people, exchanging your rail pass voucher is an experience worth the trip to Japan, all in itself.

Then we meandered down to Odori Park to one of the Fanzones. Lovely little spot to lie on the grass and watch a big screen.  A little garden of lavender with dragonflies a-buzzing.

Odori Park Fanzone, Sapporo

At one point of a group of tall, lithe women arrived. Mayhem and I debated which sport they wer involved in.  Not quite tall enough for basketball, maybe a sevens rugby team?  I checked: they were the USA volleyball team, in Sapporo for the World Cup which is happening here at the same time as the rugby. How much sporting fun can one city handle?

 

RWC2019 Match 2: Australia 39 Fiji 21

Lying on the grass we watched Fiji steam out of the blocks. They played well for 60 minutes, then got a yellow card, and it was all over rover as the Aussies swept through with three more tries for a bonus point win.

My impression that the Wallabies were not great was confirmed by a few Aussie fans chatted with later.  Suffice to say that they’re here for the beer, not the trophy. The best anyone could manage about Cheika was “You can’t blame the coach if the players make bad decisions”, to which I replied “That’s exactly who you blame.”  He deflated a little: “Oh. Yeah.”

 

RWC2019 Match 3: France 23 Argentina 21

Mayhem and I relocated from the Fanzone to a sports bar, on the basis that we wanted to be settled in before the Aussies were released from prison the stadium. We got the last two stools at the bar, right in front of a big screen. Perfect.

Les Bleus played much much better than their pre-tournament form would suggest.  Some flair, plenty of ambition, and only a few brain farts.  They stayed interested for the full 80, and celebrated at the end as if they’d won the trophy itself.

Which maybe tells you as much as you need to know about this French team: everybody has written them off, including me and including maybe themselves.  This game was about them persuading themselves they can do it.  Maybe they’ll carry that forward, and maybe they won’t, but this game showed they have enough skill and strength and speed to be a threat to most.

Argentina should be kicking themselves for losing a game that was in their grasp.  They came roaring back in the second half to take the lead, and then let it slip through their fingers.  In the last five minutes, with oxygen deficit and Creevey off the field, their rugby brain switched off. They took a long-range penalty shot, when the money play was kick for the corner, lineout and drive to take a try or suck a penalty close to the posts.

Not a good sign for the Bargeys.

Still waiting to see if the RWC Judiciary will have any spine when it comes to the after the final whistle all in how’s your father. Not holding my breath.

 

RWC2019 Match 4: New Zealand 23 South Africa 13

The Big One.

By now the bar was heaving with drunk and loud Aussies, and loud and drunk Pongos. Mayhem and I were focused on keeping our heads down and out of trouble, not matter how much trouble wanted to find us.

Philosophical aside: why do so many sports fans bring the worst part of themselves on tour?  Why don’t they leave the boofhead onesie at home, and just pack the pleasant pyjamas?

Anyways. I was ignoring the pushing and insults and drink spilling at my back.

The ABs brought their own passion to the anthem and a refreshed haka. Hoo boy.

And the Boks brought plenty of passion to meet it.

It was a game of four quarters:

  1. Boks with the ball, ABs holding them back.
  2. ABs unleash, with gorgeous tries to Bridge and Barrett. (No, the big one. Scott.)
  3. Boks have drunk something at half-time, and come out rampaging.  ABs defensive system misfires once, and the Boks stroll through for their one and only try.
  4. ABs take control to close it out.  Some pretty damn good game management focused on getting the win, not scoring mega-points.  That’s a good sign for later on.

The good people around me now made the mistake of suggesting that I could relax, as we now move on to Canada, Italy and Namibia. Sheesh. Have they learned nothing?

Points of interest for me:

  • The Mo-unga – Barret combo works.
  • Sevu Reece is this year’s Nehe Milner-Skudder.  He does unexpected things that other teams haven’t figured out yet. They will, but hopefully not for another six weeks.
  • There was a bloody interesting substitution sequence: Tuiplotu comes on for Cane, with Savea going to openside and S. Barrett moving from lock to blindside; you get extra minutes from Barrett the big unit, then sub him off for Frizzel on at blindside.  Can you remember any international team doing such a sequence?
  • For the Boks, they really only had one interesting attack option: Kolbe on the right wing, who is small and freakishly fast and numbingly nimble.  He bamboozled our defence three times, but also bamboozled his own team mates, so they couldn’t get in support fast enough.

The conclusion is this: we did what we had to do, which was win beyond 8 points, but we cannot relax.

Not now. Not ever.