076. RWC2019 Bronze Final Preview

Meh.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

058. Matches 31, 32 and 33

RWC2019 Match 31:  Scotland 61 Russia 0

Having recognised the threat they were under of not getting to the quarter-finals, Scotland turned up to play. Even as the ‘second string’ team, they ran and passed and caught like they meant it.

Young fly-half Adam Hastings had a game to remember, scoring two tries and eight conversions for a personal tally of 26 points.

For Russia, a bit of a bump down to earth after some decent performances against Samoa and Ireland.

 

RWC2019 Match 32: Wales 29 Fiji 17

For much of this game, up until the 68th minute when Wales scored a converted try to take it out to the final score, you imagined this would be Fiji’s night.

Partly that’s a statement of how well Fiji played, and partly how discombobulated Wales let themselves be.  Fumbles, bumbles, aimless kicking, dropping off tackles. Even the wonderful Alun Wynn Jones made a couple of errors.

Two uncoverted tries to Fiji in the opening eight minutes gave the dozen Fijian supporters just below me in the Oita Stadium stands a lot to cheer about, which they duly did.  Amazing how just a dozen voices can fill a stadium. And the Japanese crowd loves the underdog.

The large contingent of Welsh supporters were trying to find their voices, and when they did it largely consisted of advice regarding ingenious but improbable acts of physical dexterity for the referee, the players and (bizarrely) New Zealanders. (I’m not kidding about the last one: I was tempted to ask the boyo why, but thought better of it given the amount of sponsor’s product involved.)

A couple of real worries for Welsh coach Warren Gatland will be the lack of discipline (two yellow cards in the 7th and 52nd minutes, and conceding a penalty try), and the injury to Dan Biggar.  The latter was the result of a clash with one of his own players as they both went for a high ball (which in itself is a type of ill-discipline), and Bigger stayed down for quite a while. Long enough for them to bring out the stretcher cart, before he stood up and jogged off waving to the crowd to persuade them all was well.

You cannot underestimate the importance of Biggar to the hopes of this Welsh team.  His skills and strength put him several notches above his team mates, and he drives his team around the park with ferocity.  He screams at his mates, putting them where he wants them, directing the lines they should run.

The latest reporting from the Welsh camp is optimistic – ‘Warren Gatland is hopeful of a clean bill of health’ – but if you parse the comments closely you’ll get an idea that all is not so well:

“Dan has gone through the protocols. He had a scan as well. He’s spoken to consultants from World Rugby, we’ve had an independent consultant talk to him as well. They are pleased with the progress he is making. So he’ll be fine.”

Uh huh.
Scan, spoken to by World Rugby medicos, got their own consultant, ‘progress’. Right.

But the real comments about the game should be about the Fijians: big, fast, strong, skilful, joyful, and tonight for 68 minutes playing with real smarts about when to run and when to hold, deft field kicks, devastating tackling. Yes they ran out of gas, but it was a great ride while it lasted.

 

RWC2019 Match 33:  Australia 27 Georgia 8

No rejoicing for GirtBySea tonight, with a shockingly bad performance by the Wallabies. Just awful:

  • their first try came in the 22nd minute, the dull pick and go and smash at the line variety
  • another yellow card for poor tackling technique
  • half-time score 10-3
  • second try comes at 59 minutes, a piece of solo Marika Voroibete genius
  • a very lovely running try by Georgia at 69 minutes closes the score to 17-8 (conversion missed)
  • two late tries (74th and 78th minutes) take the score out, and get the bonus match point.

Ups to the Georgians, who are enjoying the World Cup opportunity to keep improving the ambition of their game.

Downs to Michael Cheika who has the unenviable ability to make his team worse rather than better.

 

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.

036. Match 8

Dear Reader: it was a triumpant day of transport.

Ned and Mayhem stepped out of our apartment at exactly 0610 hours to catch the 0620 tram, just as the first drops of rain from the approaching typhoon began falling.  We were bugging out just in time.

It went like this:

  • Tram-subway-train-plane-train-train-train.
  • Check-in to hotel.
  • Train-train-train.
  • Watch the match.
  • Train-train-train back to the hotel.

And every single link was exactly on time.  Public transport you can set your watch to. Apparently it can be done, even if the Greater Wellington Regional Council are on a mission to prove that it cannot.

 

RWC2019 Match 8: Wales 43 Georgia 14

Sapporo Dome was fab. Toyoto Stadium is wow.

Approaching it across a bridge that itself is a work of art, it glided up like a stingray. Or possibly a Klingon starship hiding in plain sight.

Our seats were behind the goal posts on the south side: Wales playing away from us in the first half, and towards us in the second.

Toyota Stadium, City of Toyota, Japan

Which meant we could see the width which Wales wanted to play.  Pay attention kiwis: Dan Biggar is a very fine fly-half.  Able to catch and send an accurate spiralling pass half way across the field in a single movement.

And he’s strong and brave.  We watched him being monster sandwiched by the Georgian heavies, and he picked himself up and got back in line and did it again.

And the Georgians were big units. And willing.  And with enough skill to put two tries past the Welsh in the second half.  But lordy they do not know where to kick: always sending it straight to a thankful boyo rather than trying to find grass.

The Welsh, I think, can be happy enough with their bonus point win.  A dominant first half, before they lost focus for much of the second in the face of a revived Georgia.

But they’ve certainly had the better showing of any of the Tier 1 teams (such as England or Australia) playing a Tier 2 team.  They did the business.

Which has got me thinking about what the business is for the Tier 1 teams through the pools.  I’m trying out a theory on Mayhem before I share it with you. He’s suitably impressed, which is to say, polite enough not to snore.