Despite my lack of writing about it this time round, I have very much enjoyed watching how the Rugby World Cup has played out. It was unfortunate that games had to be cancelled but in the grand scheme of things, this was the right thing to do. Could World Rugby have done more in terms of having a contingency plan in place to avoid games being cancelled? Perhaps. But in the grand scheme of things, rugby union is just a game. My thoughts go out to those people (and their families, loved ones etc) who lost their lives as a result of Typhoon Hagibis – a reminder that some things are more important than sport.
Where I left my last post was speculating whether Japan were about to repeat history, by repeating their feat from the 2015 competition of winning 3 pool games but not qualifying to the knock out stages. A very quick summary of my hopes was that I hope they would not repeat history and that they would qualify, be that at the expense of Ireland or Scotland. I did not care for the way Scottish Rugby (not the players, I should stress) conducted themselves when it seemed possible that their game against Japan would be cancelled, threatening legal action against World Rugby if they were eliminated from the tournament as a result of the weather. This was a clear case of some people forgetting that some things are bigger than sport but almost as bad as that – there was an air of entitlement that I really found distasteful. I didn’t like that chat, and what it did was turn me, someone who was slightly favouring Japan in this match (but would have been okay with either team qualifying) to someone who was supporting Japan and hoping that Scotland lost. As it goes, that did happen, and I was very pleased it did play out that way. Scotland (same as any nation) do not have a divine right to make the knockout stages – you earn it by qualifying, and that is what Japan did.
The way the two quarter final days unfolded were almost a mirror image of each other in terms of how I reacted to the two games. Day one was England v Australia and New Zealand v Ireland, and Day two was Wales v France and South Africa v Japan. What I mean when I say it was a mirror image in the way they unfolded was that the first game was one that I got really invested in and was hooked in until the end of the game – and the second game ended up being somewhat deflating. England beating Australia in a dominant fashion was great to see as someone supporting England (unsurprisingly). I had high hopes for New Zealand v Ireland as a contest and those hopes were dashed certainly by half time, with the All Blacks being 22-0 up at the break. As said previously, excitement was replaced by feeling deflated as it became obvious that Ireland were not going to stage a miracle and they were heading out of the World Cup again at the quarter final stage. It almost feels wrong to move on from this point without acknowledging the fact that concerns that Ireland had peaked a year before the World Cup probably were true – this did not look like the same Ireland that beat the All Blacks the year before. Day two started with Wales v France and this was a proper test match. France went in at the break 19-10 up and I thought they were going to go on and win it. The red card for Vahaamahina didn’t massively tip the balance in favour of Wales, but I am sure it helped in allowing Wales to get back into the game and eventually win 20-19. I was invested the whole way though as I genuinely didn’t know how it was going to end. Sadly, that feeling only lasted for one half in the South Africa v Japan match. The first half was really close although I think more to do with South Africa being wasteful than Japan being in the contest in the meaningful way, what with the half time score being 5-3. South Africa dominated in the second half with Japan not scoring any more points. The game finished 26-3 and as South Africa started to pull away…it was deflating. All the praise in the world though goes to Japan – they went into the game with their Plan A and stuck at it for as long as they could. There was lots of chat about what happens next for Japan and I don’t know what the answer is, but it would be a travesty if they are not afforded the opportunity to continue growing as a rugby playing nation.
Due to a lack of competition for the nations that didn’t make the quarter finals, it was another week to wait until the semi finals when England would face off against New Zealand and Wales would play South Africa. Focusing on today’s game to start, I am sad to write that Wales are out. It was not an overly exciting game if I’m honest – Wales did not seem all that threatening when attacking. I can only think of one time when they put sustained pressure on the South Africa try line - which, in all fairness, did lead to a try – but Wales didn’t seem to have enough about them today to beat South Africa. I did wonder when it was 16 all if they would get the chance to nick it. I thought they had the momentum and they were going forward, but Francois Louw won a turnover penalty for South Africa which allowed the Springboks to not only clear their lines but put Wales on the backfoot. When Wales were on the back foot, they conceded a kick-able penalty – and Hendre Pollard kicked it to perfection, scoring the winning points and consigning Wales to a bronze medal match against the All Blacks.
I say a bronze medal match against the All Blacks because oh my god England beat New Zealand! It still sounds great saying that (feels good to type it as well). This wasn’t a case of England sneaking a win though – England dominated the All Blacks in perhaps the best performance the team have put in under Eddie Jones. People have often said that when you play New Zealand, you must be at your absolute best otherwise they will show you up. On this occasion though, New Zealand were not at their best and England punished them for it. It would be wrong to not mention that not only did England win, but they had two tries disallowed. The first one was fair cop – Tom Curry acted as a dummy runner and was in an offside position, drawing a defender away from where the ball was and leaving a gaping hole in the New Zealand defence – it was certainly poor defending, but Curry was not in a legal place so fair enough. The second try – I’ve read conflicting views from chalking it off was the right decision to it being extremely harsh. I fall on the side of it being harsh. I’m glad I’m not talking about those two tries in the context of an England loss however. England were brilliant and thoroughly deserved their win.
And that, in a not so small summary, is what has happened in the World Cup since I last posted a blog about it. Next weekend there will be a bronze medal match between a depleted Wales team and a hurting New Zealand team. I can’t look past the All Blacks for that one, but then I couldn’t look past them for Saturday’s game so…who knows?! There will also be the small matter of the World Cup Final between England v South Africa, a repeat of the 2007 final. The only prediction I feel solid about making is that Mark Cueto’s name is going to be mentioned a lot by the media and on social media in the next week (Cueto had a try ruled out in the 2007 final). My prediction is that England will win, but it will be exceptionally close. I think England by no more than 4 points. What I do know is that I cannot wait. I hoped that England would be here, but I didn’t think it would happen – so now that England have made it…lets jut hope for once that it is not a case of “it is the hope that kills you!”.