076. RWC2019 Bronze Final Preview


I affirmed a long, long time ago – when I still cared, when I still had hope – that the Bronze Final is “a helluva cruel thing”.

Sure, the New Zealand vs Wales game on Friday night has some elements of interest to it.

Two coaches of long tenure looking to go out with a win.

Wales trying to get their first win against the All Blacks since 1953.

The All Blacks trying to wash away the hurt of losing to England last Saturday night, a nearly balm to apply over a long summer of regrets.

But none of those things have anything to do with the Rugby World Cup. It’s over for both teams.

So, meh.

Will I watch it? Of course I bloody will.

But meh.

And the next day I’ll watch the Grand Final, which is not so grand for me.

But it’s all about being one week closer to a chance of redemption in 2023.

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.


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)



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.


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.


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.

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.


052. Match 27

RWC2019 Match 27: New Zealand 71 Namibia 9

Tokyo Stadium is a thing, all by itself.  When it’s full, and 90 percent are wearing some sort of All Blacks merch, it’s another thing again.

All Blacks warming up, Tokyo Stadium

The ABs are adored in Japan.  The Japanese man next to me even sang our anthem. Crikey.

And the haka got all the oohs and aahs.

And Namibia got a huge roar of approval when they converted an early penalty to lead 3-nil.

Yes, the underdogs had come to play, and play well.  They ran, they passed, they tackled, and they very rarely kicked.  Good for them.

At the 30 minute mark, the ABs had their noses in front 10-9, two tries unconverted, and then Nepo Laulala got a yellow card for a forearm to the head of a falling Namibian.  We’ll come back to that.

Apparently Shag got to use one of his fireworks at halftime, which he rarely does.

It worked, with the Abs running in seven more tries in the second half, with some scintillating running lines and offloads.  Much much better.

Except for Ofa Tu’ungafasi also getting a yellow card at 72 minutes, also for an arm making contact with the head of a falling Namibian.

Under World Cup guidelines, those were probably the right decisions.  But the guidelines might need some tweaking, because there’s something else happening.

It’s becoming standard for forwards taking the ball up to lower their heads as they go into contact.  Partly that’s about getting low so they can leg surge upwards through the tackle and end up with a good position to lay the ball back.  But sometimes, especially when they are putting their heads below their hips, it’s making it difficult for a defender to find a place to make effective and legal contact.

And when the second defender is coming through, after the first defender has made a low tackle, and the attacking player is falling, it’s a lose-lose proposition.

To be clear, neither Laulala nor Tu’ungafasi were making swinging arm tackles. They were attempting to make a wrapping arm tackle on a player who was falling down and away from them, but their arms did clearly make contact with the Namibian’s heads.

Given the high tackle rules are about player safety, which is everybody’s responsibility not just the defenders, my guess is that World Rugby is going to tweak the Laws to say that leading with your head lowered too far is not allowed.  Just a guess.

There was a lot of chatter afterwards that J. Barrett had an indifferent game at first-five, especially in the first half.  But from my view the problem was really with Aaron Smith, who had an off day with his kicking and some of his passing.  That pushed the pressure outside, and the good Namibian rush defence compounded it.

Other aspects: Brodie Retallick returned from injury for 30 minutes of full contact.  He looked good, although obviously not back to his best yet.  I also thought he looked leaner than usual, but maybe that’s just me.

Sevu Reece was sharp, and Anton Leinert-Brown is gobbling up the 12 jersey.

All in all, this was a first half much like the Perth loss to the Wallabies.  Heads not in the right place, so the fluidity was missing.

All of which will be grist to Shag’s mill as we head towards the quarters.

One final observation: at the end of the match, most of the crowd stayed.  They were anticipating that the All Blacks would show their respect by bowing to all four edges, which they did.  And the really good part, was that they did so with all the Namibian players, the two teams intermixed.  This is such a good thing for world rugby, and indeed World Rugby. Let’s keep it going.

All Blacks and Namibia bow to crowd, Tokyo Stadium

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.


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.