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.

062. Match 40

RWC2019 Match 40: Japan Scotland

What did your Uncle Ned tell you back on 4 January?

The last pool match will be the best pool match.

And:

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 Guardian explained, 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.

 

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.

044. Matches 16, 17 and 18

RWC2019 Match 16: Georgia 33 Uruguay 7

A four day turn around for Uruguay after their heroics against Fiji.  They were never going to be in the hunt.

Georgia had 59 percent possession and 69 percent territory, which maybe says the Georgians should have had more than five tries. But hey, that’s a bonus point and put them third in Pool D. Mission accomplished.

 

RWC2019 Match 17: Wales 29 Australia 25

Yes the refereeing was terrible.

But so what, Mr Cheika? It has ever been thus, and always will be.  Ned’s rule from 2007 is “Never be in a position where a referee’s mistake can cost you the match.”

For long periods Australia played like they were auditioning to be a Northern Hemisphere team. Pick and go, pick and go, looking for contact rather than gaps, bash and budge. That’s your error, Mr Cheika, not the refs’.

The Welsh played like a Warren Gatland team, so no surprises there. Big, strong, brave – but very limited gap creation.

Remember that the prize for coming second in this Pool is probably a quarter-final against England. Which maybe might have been a reason to be more ambitious.

 

RWC2019 Match 18: Scotland 34 Samoa 0

Samoa struggled mightily in the sweltering heat and humidity, but they came up against a Scotland side that had something to prove after being absent without leave against Ireland. (And then Japan beating Ireland throwing Pool A into a free-for-all.)

Four tries (including two penalty tries) to Scotland gets them a bonus point, which will be critical to the final standings. They showed character, if not a whole lot of menace.

The last Pool match – Japan vs. Scotland – is shaping up to be massive, with everything on the line for those two teams, and the quarter-final matchups a mystery until the 80th minute.

Fabulous.

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.

041. Street Vendors

Vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan.

Mostly they’re selling drinks: water, chilled tea and coffee, sodas, beer and ‘whisky highballs’. And some stuff that remains mysterious.

Sometimes they’re selling snacks and ice creams. Very occasionally cigarettes.

They take coins, notes and the also ubiquitous IC card. Cheap, easy, convenient, reliable.

The walk from our apartment in Miami-Fukuoka to the train station was maybe all of 100 metres, and it went past seven vending machines.

033. Match 1

RWC2019 Match 1: Japan 30 Russia 10

Japan, while winning, were disappointing. Very disappointing.

From the kickoff (which they dropped), to conceding the first try of their own tournament, to their kicking away ball aimlessly, to their poor decision-making: disappointing.

Put it down to nervous excitement maybe, years of anticipation for just this moment, but goodness gracious me so many work-ons.

Whereas the Russians were rather good. Much better than I expected given their warm-up matches. Big and bruisy upfront, but with some nice skills at 9 and 10, and they lasted most of the 80. Good for them.

Mayhem and I watched the match at a local sports bar. Packed with expat Aussies and English in for their matches this weekend against Fiji and Tonga respectively.

The good aspect of that was it allowed Mayhem and I to console with the Poms about how awful the Aussies are, and with the Aussies about how awful the Poms are.

The bar was crowded, which wasn’t difficult considering it was the size of a Morris Minor. Plenty of shoving and grunting. Mayhem and I found a spot to stand next to the toilet (singular), and ended up being the queue monitors, which involved various amounts of banter about their teams’ chances.

Banter abounded, some of it witty, most of it not.  Plenty of ugly expat behaviour on show. But we did manage to find the two good Aussies in Sapporo, Bill and Tom from Country New South Wales.

We knew they were the two good Aussies in Sapporo when I asked what they thought of Michael Cheika.

“F*cking wanker” was the one repeatable opinion. They’ll enjoy their trip to Japan, but they’re not leaving any space in their suitcase for a trophy.