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.

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.

060. Matches 36, 38 and 39

RWC2019 Match 36: Ireland 47 Samoa 5

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.

 

048. Matches 21 and 22

RWC2019 Match 21: Fiji 45 Georgia 10

Fiji ran away,with some gorgeous running and passing with ball in one hand, in the fourth quarter.  A bonus point meant they went (for a short-time) to second in their Pool.

They’re a mathematical chance of making the quarters (if they win with a bonus point against Wales, and Australia loses to Georgia without a bonus point), but in reality they’re playing for third place with its guaranteed entry to RWC2023.

The Georgians looked competitive for much of the first half, but ran out of puff in the second.

One of the big stories in the post-mortem of this tournament will the be the weather conditions.  Hot and humid is putting a huge stress on players, especially the tight forwards. That in turn is providing an opportunity to coaches who have prepared a high-speed, big-width aerobic strategy.

That would be Steve Hansen, and possibly Eddie Jones.

 

RWC2019 Match 22: Ireland 35 Russia 0

There were a lot of people wanting to get out of Kyushu towards the north today: something about some sports tournament maybe.  So this was one day’s travelling, heading for Kobe for this match, for which we had not been able to secure reserved seats.

Kokura was a scrum of gaijin with stupidly big bags trying to squeeze a seat on the fastest Shinkansen towards Kobe and Tokyo.

So LittleDavyOne and I took the slightly slower half-empty Shinkansen on the neighbouring platform, changing at Okayama to a Shinkansen that was crushed full, but we only had to stand for the 30 minutes to Kobe.

Play smart, people.

It was raining when we arrived, and I was not a hundred percent sure about which road to take to our hotel, so I popped into a police box to ask directions.  Not ony did they show me the way (100 metres up the street), but they also gave me an umbrella.

I haven’t quite worked out the umbrella ettiquette. Most hotels, shops and bars will have a container at the front-door where you put your wet umbrella.  When you step out, take an umbrella.  If you have an umbrella you want to keep, they have special plastic bags for you to wrap it in and carry with you inside, or there will be an umbrella stand with combination locks.

But the basic umbrella? Take one, use it, leave it somehere useful for the next person.

Which is maybe why the officer was a bit nonplussed when I returned the umbrella when we went out for the match later.

A good subway connection to the stadium, which included Ned entertaining a couple of Japanese toddlers with his funny faces routine. I could tell they thought me charming because they got more naughtily noisy as the trip went on.

Kobe is another soccer stadium, which felt quite compressed with the stands close in.  The advantage was the Irish singing felt wonderful.  A few Russian likely lads in attendance kept up a good steam of “Ross-i-ya” throughout, which was warmly welcomed by everyone.

And, despite the scoreline, the Russians were good.  They’ve clearly come on during the tournament, which is part of the point of the whole deal.

The Irish, on the other hand, went long periods looking adrift. Beyond getting a bonus point win it was not entirely clear what they were looking to get from the game. Maybe that’s enough in a Pool which has been turned topsy-turvy by Japan’s win over Ireland.

But it’s not going to be good enough when it comes to the quarter-finals.

 

042. Matches 13, 14 and 15

RWC2019 Match 13: Argentina 28 Tonga

Argentina are shaping to be one of the disappointments of the tournament.

Yes they shot out to a 28-nil lead after 27 minutes, locking in a bonus point.

But then they stopped.

After losing their first match to France when they shoulda coulda woulda won it, they’re now going to have to pull something special against England.

Tonga, on the other hand, are growing into the tournament. Once again showing how much improvement can come quickly for teams with talent when they can spend time together and get better opposition.

 

RWC2019 Match 14: Japan 19 Ireland 12

Mayhem and I had made our way from Osaka to Mikawa-Anjo by Shinkansen in the morning. Dropped our bags at a doss house, and back on local trains heading for Toyota Stadium for the South Africa-Namibia match.

The first clue something was happening was that the local trains were packed with locals heading for the stadium four hours before kick-off. They were getting to the Fanzone to watch this match first.

The Fanzone was an indoor stadium, used for basketball and badminton and such. Today there were rugby kicking and passing set-ups for the kids, dance and music entertainment (Japanese kids doing Irish dancing was just the right thing), and, regrettably, more of the sponsor’s product.

(It’s a bloody disgrace that the green stuff is the only beer at the official sites, when the Japanese stuff is so much better.)

We managed to squeeze ourselves into a couple of spots in the bleachers, surrounded by maybe 5,000  keyed up Japan fans.

And the match delivered.

This was not a ‘miracle’. It was not a ‘surprise’.

This was Japan’s debutante ball. This was the game they announced they have arrived in Tier One.

They played with passion, discipline and smarts. Their set-piece, especially their scrum, was magnificent. Their work on defence was precise and forceful.

And Ireland were … what? Complacent, perhaps, although the after-match comments by Joe Schmidt say no. Their set-piece – especially the lineout- was a disgraceful catastrophe.

After the first quarter – when they scored two tries by way of a cross-kick and a chip-kick – they became increasingly tentative and hesitant and clueless. Which culminated in that shockingly awful decision after the full-time gong to kick it out to take the one match point, rather than chance their arm for a length of the field match-drawing try. Where’s the pride in that?

Japan, on the other hand, grew in confidence through the match, especially when Michael Lietch came on for Mafi at 30 minutes.  The Fanzone erupted in cheers of ‘Leitchy’ – or maybe the local transliteration is Li-chi – when he came on and whenever he touched the ball.  They love the guy up here, he’s their talisman. So from any idea that Leitch and Luke Thompson and others are mere foreign guns for hire: they are embraced and taken to hearts.

When the final whistle blew the Fanzone blew up in celebration.  We yelled and cheered and hugged and high-fives and grinned and gripped, and did it all again.

Beautiful.

RWC2019 Match 15: South Africa 57 Namibia 3

Forget the scoreline. This was South Africa doing something important that other Tier 1 teams have not yet done against the smallest teams: they imposed complete control, and ran the match to get what they wanted and needed out of it.

Clinical. Efficient. Contained.

That bodes well for Rassie Erasmus’s campaign management. He’s using his time, not wasting it.

And one thing he will have learned is that Elton Jantjies is not making a challenge to be the first-choice first-five. He’s a good enough player and all, but he’s two floors below Handre Pollard. Lock it in.

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.