Sunday, 4 October 2015

RWC 2015 - The Week In World Cup Rugby

The Rugby World Cup has now been going for just over 2 weeks and so far, it is shaping up to be one of the best World Cups in the history of the game. Records are being set and broken quite frequently (or at least it appears that way). As with the last post to this page, I wrote about the results and some of my thoughts on the games. This will be a two part blog though as there is a fair bit to be written about the first host nation to not make it out of the pool stages. I left off last time with Australia having just pumped Uruguay 65-3 – the biggest point difference in a game so far in this World Cup.

In what seemed like a repeat of their last game, Scotland started off slow against the USA. Now, they had played 4 days earlier against Japan but unlike Japan, Scotland have reasonable depth in their squad. It would be foolish to say this short turnaround wouldn’t impact them at all, but Scotland, like all of the bigger rugby nations, would be better equipped to deal with it than say Japan (or any other tier 2 nation for that matter). USA scored the only try of the first half and went in at half time with a 13-6 lead. While it was possible at this stage for an upset to happen, I figured it was only a matter of time before Scotland would wake up and take control of this game. The second half was pretty much all one way traffic in Scotland’s favour with USA only getting 3 more points. Scotland scored 5 tries (4 of which were converted) giving them a 39-16 win. In the 3rd and final game of Sunday 27th September, Ireland faced Romania and once again, the record attendance at a Rugby World Cup was broken – 89, 267 people were at this game. Ireland comfortably won this game, scoring six tries against Romania. One of the main talking points would be whether the Irish defence could hold out and prevent Romania from scoring a try. They succumbed eventually and the final score was 44-10 to Ireland.

I can’t talk much about the Tonga v Namibia game (the only game on the 29th September) as it kicked off when I was at work and I ended up missing the rest of the game due to travelling and the need to go food shopping (a poor excuse I accept). Namibia scored 3 tries in this game, two of which came from their captain Jacques Burger. It would have been good to see them get one more and come away with a bonus point but alas, not to be. October kicked off with a game which somehow seems to be a regular at Rugby World Cups – Wales v Fiji. They have played each other now for 3 RWC’s in a row. Before this game it was one game all, with the Fiji win in 2007 being a pretty historic win for the Pacific Islanders. The 2011 game however was a tad one sided, with Wales winning 66-0. Once again, I missed this game due to having to work late. From what I heard though, it was a very close match, with Wales doing well to get the win. Wales won this one 23-13 and much like Australia, failed to get a try bonus point. I wondered at the time if this might come back to haunt them. Answer? No. Fiji have put up a good fight against 3 of the top teams in the world, and played some really good rugby. Almost seems criminal they haven’t at least got one bonus point. Such is life. I suspect they will look to batter Uruguay and have something to show for their tournament. The evening game on Thursday was France versus Canada. I expected this to be one way traffic in favour of France. However, credit where credit is due - Canada actually played quite well at times during this match. They seemed to fall away as the game went on though and France took advantage, with them getting the win 41-18.

The only game of Friday night was New Zealand taking on Georgia. I don’t think anyone gave Georgia a chance in this one. It was a great sight though to see how happy the Georgians were at getting to play the All Blacks. This much was obvious just looking at their faces during the haka – there were several big grins beaming. New Zealand took just 73 seconds to score their first try. When this happened, my immediate thought was “how many will we see tonight?” However, the next score to come was a try from Georgia! They capitalised on a New Zealand error and scored a try, which they then converted as a result. I think if Georgia could declare at this point, they would have. 5 minutes in and they were level at 7 all. Sadly, that was the only try of the game for Georgia. New Zealand scored 7 in total and won 43-10. The main talking points from this game were that New Zealand were not their usual selves in that they made a large number of handling errors (19 I think it was – some of which definitely denied them more tries) and Dan Carter looked positively human from the kicking tee. However, I feel the question does need to be asked, if New Zealand can make as many errors as they did, and still score 7 tries – how many would they have scored if they didn’t make any errors? Frightening thought really.

Saturday started off with Samoa versus Japan. Samoa had to win this game if they wanted to keep their hopes of making it out of the pool alive. Japan were in much the same boat. They benefitted from having 10 days between their last game against Scotland and this one. Samoa had a week so really, it was two fresh teams facing off. Not that you would have known it looking at Samoa. I don’t know what it is about them, but they just haven’t looked very good at this World Cup. They looked poor against South Africa but I wondered if part of that was to do with the Springboks showing how good they actually are.  This performance against Japan was not good though, which made me wonder if there is something systematically wrong in the Samoa camp at the moment (well, there has been a lot of chat about issues with the rugby authorities in Samoa but that aside). However, Japan didn’t win this game purely because Samoa weren’t playing well – Japan were worthy of their second win of this Rugby World Cup. They went in at half time 20-0 up. The second half was a much tighter contest between the two, but Japan won the second half points-wise, meaning the full time score was 25-6. Cracking result for Japan this one.

The next game was the top of the pool clash between South Africa and a weakened Scotland team at St James’ Park in Newcastle. I couldn’t work out why Vern Cotter had made as many changes as he did for this game. Perhaps it was so the first choice team will face Samoa and they stand a better chance of winning that one? I’m not sure. This game was all South Africa. Scotland didn’t get much of a look in really. South Africa proved in this one they were still a force to be reckoned with. At half time, they went in 20-3 in front and it didn’t look like Scotland were going to get back in it. They didn’t. Scotland did score a second half try but they couldn’t build on that to even secure a losing bonus point. Two moments of madness from Scotland are worth mentioning. Greg Laidlaw was sent to the sin bin for deliberately taking Bryan Habana out off the ball, preventing him from potentially scoring a try. It was a very cynical move by the Scotland captain and had it been closer to the try line, I think his visit to the bin might have been accompanied by a penalty try. The other moment of madness was Stuart Hogg seemingly taking a dive to claim he was more hurt from a collision with a South Africa player in the air than he actually was. Replays showed that the collision was minimal and Hogg had in fact taken a dive. The referee for this one was Nigel Owens – who had a few choice words to say to Hogg. I do love Nigel Owens sometimes, and this is one of those times. South Africa won this one 34-16. Australia beat England 33-13. I will be doing a separate blog about this result and what England’s elimination from the tournament means for them going forward.

Today offered up two games, one each from pools C and D. Both had potential to be very interesting. Argentina were playing Tonga, who were above them in the pool (a solitary bonus point separating the two teams). Ireland were facing Italy in a reprise from the Six Nations at the Olympic Stadium. I had assumed Argentina and Ireland would win their respective games, but I was surprised at which one was closer, score line wise. The first half in the Argentina/Tonga game was really close, with Argentina getting two tries on the board and then Tonga following suit. Half time was 20-13 to Argentina and at this point, I really felt we were in for a cracking second half where it could go either way. The second half was really good but it was one sided. Argentina scored a further 3 tries, securing a try bonus point. The final score was 45-16. I will be interested to see how Argentina develop as most of the starters in this game have all signed for the new Argentina Super Rugby franchise, which means the national team will be playing with each other for most of the year against some really good opposition. That can only do good things for the game in Argentina. Ireland versus Italy was a very tight affair, a much tighter game than I would have imagined it would be. Italy haven’t looked great at this World Cup and suffered a bit of a scare at the hands of Canada last week. Ireland on the other hand have been playing quite well. I dipped in and out of this game but from what I saw, Ireland were being frustrated by Italy and struggled to get their game going. The only try of the game came in the first half. I know it is wrong to suggest that any team is a one man team, but I wonder if it is much of a coincidence that Italy made a rapid improvement in their play when Sergio Parisse recovered from injury and took his place in the Italian pack. It was not enough however to lead them to victory. Ireland won 16-9 and consigned Italy to an early exit.

So, with most teams having just the one game left, what is the state of the pools?

Pool A – Australia and Wales will face off in a pool winner shoot out next Saturday at Twickenham. England are out of the Rugby World Cup – the first host nation to fail to make it to the knock out stages.

Pool B – This is a very tight pool actually. South Africa have a 4 day turn around before facing USA at the Olympic Stadium. They are currently top by a point but one would assume they will win this game and probably pick up maximum points. If they do, they will win the pool and face the loser of Australia v Wales. USA then have a 4 day turn around before facing Japan. Scotland face Samoa on Saturday. For Samoa to qualify, they need maximum points out of their game against Scotland and for Japan to get no points against USA – unlikely I would say. Japan are currently 3rd in the pool, two points behind Scotland. For them to qualify, they need Scotland to lose to Samoa and not get 2 bonus points. Scotland just need to beat Samoa and they will qualify for the quarter finals. Simple right? I think we are in for some drama in this pool before all is said and done.

Pool C – New Zealand have qualified from this pool. Who saw that coming? Their last game is against Tonga, who are the only team who can prevent Argentina from qualifying. In a nut shell, to qualify, Tonga need to beat New Zealand and Namibia, after a 4 day turn around, need to beat Argentina. So I guess what I am trying to say is that New Zealand and Argentina have qualified from this pool. I guess it is still technically possible for Tonga to qualify. However, their chances are remote.

Pool D – Ireland and France have qualified from this pool and will face off in a pool winner shoot out next Sunday. The winner will likely get a quarter final date with Argentina. The loser will likely get a quarter final date with New Zealand. I think I speak for everyone who wants to see history repeat itself when I say COME ON IRELAND! It would be awfully funny if France and New Zealand played each other again at a Rugby World Cup, and funnier still if France won again.

We have one more week of pool games before the business end of the tournament begins. Two things are for sure. The first is that England will not be in the knockout stages for the first time since the inception of this tournament. The second is that this tournament is just getting going in terms of excitement. I think we are in for some great rugby before the pool stages wrap up. I will post another blog as I said earlier about England, but I will be back next weekend to sum up the weeks games and to talk about the quarter finals, and if my predictions were right (I know one of them was wrong!)

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