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.

 

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.

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.

 

049. Match 23

RWC2019 Match 23: South Africa 49 Italy 3

Any day that includes a castle, a tea ceremony, Japanese gardens, and a rugby match is a good day.

LittleDavyOne and I got up early in Kobe to walk around the Kitano neighbourhood of our hotel.  Back in the late nineteenth century this was the hillside enclave for European merchants and diplomats to build their fancy houses, many of which still stand. Lovely views out to the sea, Shinto shrines, and many elderly Japanese taking their small dogs for morning constitutionals. A suburb very satisfied with life.

Then we packed our bags, walked up to Shin-Kobe station, and – smart as two smart things – put the bags in a coin locker.  Up to the platform and straight on to the first Shinkansen heading to Himeji, one stop back up the line.

Step out of that station, and look up the avenue to a picture perfect 17th century Japanese castle. Himeji Castle, also known as the White Egret Castle, which is a seriously cool name for a home.

Himeji Castle

We walked all around and up it, accompanied by several classes of Japanese school kids (also picture perfect).  While it is a castle, and was built as a strong defensive position, in its present configuration it was never attacked.  (It even survived the Second World War aerial bombings essentially unscathed.)  So it is the real deal, and two major renovations in the last 60 years have made it sumptuously alive.

The major sense I took away with me was the smell and feel of the wood: cedars and pines, centuries growing and now centuries in place. You have to take your shoes off as you enter the castle proper, and the rub of the wood floors on your soles is a treat.

Below the castle are formal gardens, exquistely laid out and maintained.

Himeji Castle gardens.

In one of them is a tea house where you can have an abbreviated experience of how tea should be properly conducted.  LittleDavyOne loved it, and Ned didn’t disgrace himself by dropping anything, so that counts as a victory.

Back to the station, catch a Shinkansen back to Shin-Kobe, regather our bags from the locker, back up to the platform, and straight on to another Shinkansen, bound for Hamamatsu.

Because Ned’s a clever bugger, and knows that the Shizuoka stadium could be a tricky transport option.  It’s close enough to Tokyo for people to Shinkansen in and out, but that still requires a local train as well, so it could all be a bit pressed dealing with 40,000+ people getting in and out.

So we get off at Hamamatsu, and catch the local train to Shimada (which is a place not on your bucket list), bags to the hotel and time enough for an hour’s rest, return to the station, and catch a train back to Aino station.  A nice half-hour walk up to Shizuoka stadium, which is damn big and damn pretty.

South Africa vs Italy, Shizuoka Stadium.

And it’s a damn good game, right up to the brain fart by two Italian forwards at the beginning of the second half.  It’s a terrible tip tackle on Vermuelen, dropping him on his head.  Straight red card for the worst offender, and arguably should have been for both.

Italy had played with real spirit up to that point, only conceding two tries in the first half.  Afterwards, the South Africans ran in another five.

The other feature was the injuries to the Italian front-row, which meant golden oldies scrums for most of the match.

All of that means it’s difficult to assess what sort of progress Rassie Erasmus’s squad is making as they head for the quarters.

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.

030. The All Blacks Team Against South Africa

So Shag has named the team for the must-win match against South Africa.

“Must” win?

Four reasons:

  1. The ultimate winner of the tournament has always gone through undefeated. Always.
  2. The All Blacks have never lost (or even drawn) a Rugby World Cup pool match. Never. That’s 28 matches without a loss. Now would not be a good time to start. Never would be a good time to start.
  3. The loser likely faces Ireland in a quarter-final, while the winner likely faces Japan or Scotland.  I know which side of the draw I’d rather be on.
  4. Ned’s emotional well-being.

The team contains only one maybe surprise, to my eyes.

Of course they’ve gone with the Mo’unga-Barrett combo at 1st five and fullback. Of course they have.  Of course they have B. Smith on the bench to cover fullback and wing.  Of course it’s S. Barrett starting at lock, with Tuiplotu on the bench. Of course it’s Sam at 7 and Ardie at 6. Of course you start with Dane Coles at hooker, to bring the stand your ground from the very first whistle.

The only surpise is Shannon Frizell on the bench rather than Matt Todd.  Which is maybe not a surprise if you think Shag is thinking that the Boks are big boys, so we’re going to need our own big boys right through the 80. No disrespect to Todd, who will tackle until the lights are turned off, but he’s not the size to blast a hole through the Maginot Line.

Which also says – given that Frizell only joined the squad as a replacement when Luke Jacobson was ruled out for concussion symptoms – that they would have had picked Jacobson over Todd as well.

Which in a funny way would have felt to be a bigger call than Frizzell over Todd. Just because we’ve only seen Jacobson in two tests so far, whereas Frizzell has had five.

Anyways. I’m nervouser than a nervous thing about this match.  We need to get out of the blocks real fast if we’re going to grab control of this tournament.

The team is:

  1. Joe Moody
  2. Dane Coles
  3. Nepo Laulala
  4. Sam Whitelock
  5. Scott Barrett
  6. Ardie Savea
  7. Sam Cane
  8. Kieran Read (c)
  9. Aaron Smith
  10. Richie Mo’unga
  11. George Bridge
  12. Ryan Crotty
  13. Anton Lienert-Brown
  14. Sevu Reece
  15. Beauden Barrett
  16. Codie Taylor
  17. Ofa Tuungafasi
  18. Angus Ta’avao
  19. Patrick Tuipulotu
  20. Shannon Frizell
  21. TJ Perenara
  22. SBW
  23. Ben Smith.