Sunday, 27 September 2015

RWC 2015 - England Under Pressure

9 days have passed since the 2015 Rugby World Cup started and the tournament so far has lived up to all the hype. When I last wrote about action in the tournament, I was talking about last Saturday’s shock win for Japan over South Africa plus the other games that took place on that day. There has been a lot of rugby since then to talk about. I will go through the games in chronological order and give some thoughts on them.

Sunday 20th September started off with Samoa versus USA – two teams that had played each other in the recent Pacific Nations Cup (with Samoa winning 16-21). The two teams before this contest had played each other 4 times, with Samoa winning all 4 games but by a slim margin (never by more than 7 points I believe). The game was entertaining enough but riddled with errors on both sides. USA looked handy enough at times but it was obvious Samoa were the better team and won 25-16 – their highest winning margin against the USA to date. Wales then kicked off their World Cup campaign against Uruguay. I didn’t give much hope to Uruguay in this one and even when they took an early lead through a couple of penalties, I didn’t see it lasting. Sure enough it didn’t. Wales scored 8 tries in this one-sided victory. I’m sure it could have been more as well. The final game of Sunday was the biggest clash in Pool C, New Zealand v Argentina. The game set a new record for highest attendance for a game at a Rugby World Cup (89,019). I missed some of this game but from what I saw, it looked as though Argentina gave the All Blacks a good game – they even went in at half time in front 12-13. New Zealand won 26-16 though denying Argentina a losing bonus point they arguably deserved. One further point from this game – I heard one of the commentators say that this was the first time New Zealand had failed to get a bonus point win in a pool stage game. Amazing record to have had, but if accurate, it is now over.

There was then a 2 day break where the opening weekend was chewed over a lot before the action resumed. Wednesday 23rd offered up 3 matches, all of which were very interesting. The day started in Gloucester with Scotland opening up their campaign against the previous weekend’s heroes, Japan. There was some chat before the game about how Japan only had a 4 day turn around between games and whether that would come back to bite them (both physically and mentally). Regardless of this though, after their win against the 2 time world champions, you couldn’t write them off. Japan dominated the first half pretty much, with Scotland on the back foot. When they did attack though, they made it count, with Greg Laidlaw looking very sharp scoring 4 penalties. Japan on the other hand were on the attack a lot but only had one try to show for it. Scotland almost got a try just before half time but a magnificent tackle from a Japanese wing prevented the try from being scored. Half time was 12-7 to Scotland and before the game, Eddie Jones had said if Japan were still in the game, they would come back and win it. With 5 points separating the teams, you had to wonder if this would happen. The first score of the second half went to Japan thanks to a penalty. From this point on though, it was all one way traffic. Scotland waited for their opportunity to strike and took it well. Not long after the Japan penalty, Scotland scored a try. As the half rumbled on, they scored another 4 tries. Japan looked dead on their feet during the second half, proving that they just couldn’t handle the 4 day turnaround between games. Credit where it is due for both teams though, as this was a really good game of rugby. Full time score was 45-10 to Scotland.

The day’s other games were Australia v Fiji and France v Romania. I think deep down I had hoped for an upset in one of these games but realistically knew it wasn’t going to happen (that Japan win has thrown me through a loop with how I think games will end). Due to the timing of the game, I missed the bulk of the first half of Australia/Fiji as I was at work and then travelling home from work. Fiji looked pretty good against the Wallabies, but it was clear who the stronger team were. That said, Fiji did manage to frustrate Australia in the second half. Australia won 28-13 but did not pick up a bonus point win – in Pool A, which could be crucial. Speaking of teams being frustrated, France were by Romania at times. They picked up a bonus point win, which probably doesn’t come as much of a shock, but Romania really caused them problems at times. They also looked pretty solid at the lineout and scrum – a good platform to build off of. I’m not sure if it was Romania tiring or France stepping up a gear (or both), but 3 second half tries confirmed the bonus point for them in a 38-11 win.

Thursday saw New Zealand field a weakened (!) team against Namibia. 1st in the world vs 20th – this one was pretty much an open and shut case – the All Blacks would win. Win they did as well, 58-14. I didn’t see the game but I was told Namibia actually did quite well at times and deserved their try. Richie McCaw came on and broke another record, most appearances for an All Black at a Rugby World Cup. It is going to take some player to break the records he has set. Friday saw Pool C opponents Argentina take on Georgia. At half time it was 14-9, and Georgia were looking alright and deserved to be close to Argentina. In the second half however, disaster struck. Their captain and talisman, Mamuka Gorgodze got sent to the sin bin. In the 10 minutes he was off the pitch, Georgia shipped 21 points. When he came back, Georgia were defeated and Argentina had their tails up. They secured a bonus point and won the game 54-9.

It was at this point we arrived at the second weekend of the Rugby World Cup. There were 3 games scheduled for yesterday – Italy versus Canada, South Africa versus Samoa and then the headline act – England versus Wales. Italy against Canada was going to be an interesting one. I suspect neither team will qualify from the pool but both teams would want to win this game as they don’t tend to win many games. Canada held their own throughout the game, and caused Italy a few scares at times. In the end though, it was 2 kicks which separated the two teams on the scoreboard with Italy winning 23-18. South Africa versus Samoa was going to be an interesting clash on the grounds that it really could have gone either way. Pre-tournament, I would have said South Africa without hesitation but after the Japan game, I had to give it some more thought. Samoa would go into this game hoping for a win anyway, but after the result the weekend before, I reckon belief would have soared in the Samoa camp. They however needed to turn up and play their absolute best as South Africa would be looking to strike back with a vengeance. I think it is fair to say that on reflection, Samoa didn’t play their best. I don’t think South Africa did either but I also don’t think they needed to. South Africa won 46-6 and it could have been more if their kicking stats were better. Samoa will be disappointed with this result for sure. They did however set a new first, having 3 brothers from the same family on the pitch at the same time – Ken, George and Tusi Pisi made history at this World Cup.

England versus Wales – what can I possibly say to describe how big this match was. The biggest between the two teams? Arguably. There was a lot of chat in the build-up about team selection. It started with the news that Ben Morgan and Jonathan Joseph were injured and would miss the game. It was obvious that Billy Vunipola would step in at No.8. What wasn’t obvious though was what the centre partnership would be. It was leaked in the week that Farrell would start at 10 ahead of George Ford and the centre partnership would be Burgess at 12, Barritt at 13 – another new centre partnership under Stuart Lancaster for England. I wasn’t happy with this team change – given the options, I would have started with Burgess or Barritt at 12 (probably Barritt), and Slade at 13. I’d also have preferred Ford to Farrell, but I understand why Farrell was picked. Going into the game, I suspected Wales would win. I thought it would be close, but I just didn’t see this England team being good enough to beat Wales. It should go without saying, but despite my opposition to the selection changes, I would still back the team 100%, whatever the result.

I hate being right. The first half was an even affair which I would say England edged. England conceded a few sloppy penalties which Dan Biggar had no trouble punishing England for. Farrell also looked good from the kicking tee and scored a drop goal. England’s only try came in the first half for Jonny May who was on the end of a well worked move. 16-9 and half time, and I found myself believing it was possible that a win would come. I had concerns about the partnership of Burgess and Barritt but up to this point, they had played well (and only been found out once). The second half started and again, England’s discipline was poor. Wales again did not hesitate to punish them. England were 10 points up on two separate occasions, but continued to concede penalties and Wales remained within 7. At one point they were within 4 until Wales conceded a pen and England were back in front by 7. It was 25-18 to England when a defensive lapse occurred (Watson and Barritt the main culprits for England) and Wales scored a try under the posts which was then converted. England then conceded a penalty for not releasing about 50 metres from the posts. Biggar proved that Wales were not missing Halfpenny by slotting the kick and giving Wales the 25-28 lead which would be the final score. It however could have been different but for one decision by Robshaw. Right towards the end of the game, in the Wales 22, England are awarded a penalty by the touch line. Instead of going for posts and hopefully securing a draw, the call is made to kick to the corner. The subsequent lineout is secured but the players could not form a driving maul and instead, Wales put them into touch. At this point, it was game over. It could be said that Wales wanted the win more, but my view of the game is that England generally played well enough to win, as did Wales. England’s biggest fault was they conceded too many penalties and allowed Wales to remain in the game. Of course, questions will be asked of Robshaw for that penalty call. Was he thinking of the Japan game? Did he think any kick would be too difficult to make? Did he think a draw would not be enough? These questions and more will be asked of him. But bigger questions need to be asked of the whole team, especially if they have an early exit in a fortnight. Wales suffered heavily though with this win, with two players stretchered off and another going off with what looked like a dislocated shoulder. You never want to see that and I hope the players all make a quick recovery.

What is the state of play then, just over a week in?

Pool A – Australia are top, having just beat Uruguay 65-3. They are on 9 points. . Wales are currently second on 9 points. England are third on 6, Fiji and Uruguay fill up the bottom spots, each with 0 points. England, to remain in the tournament, have to beat Australia. Wales need to avoid a slip up against Fiji and at least get a LBP against Australia. As for Australia, they have their two hardest games left, and they need to make sure they get something out of them both. This pool is far from decided, but the pressure is on England to remain in the tournament.

Pool B – South Africa went to the top of the pool with their big win over Samoa, and are currently on 7 points. Scotland are second with 5. Samoa and Japan are 3rd and 4th respectively, both with 4. The USA currently have no points. Scotland versus the USA is the next game after Australia v Uruguay concludes. I imagine Scotland will win, get a bonus point again and open up a 3 point lead at the top of the pool. They then however play both Samoa and South Africa. If they can beat Samoa, they will qualify. If they win both, they will of course top the pool.

Pool C – New Zealand top with 9 points. Argentina second with 5. Georgia 3rd with 4. Tonga are 4th with 1 and Namibia are bottom with 0. Tonga versus Namibia is the next game that will take place in Pool C.

Pool D – France are top with 9 points. Ireland are second on 5 (but have only played one game). Italy are 3rd on 4. Canada are 4th on 1, and Romania are bottom with 0. I expect Ireland, when they play Romania today will get a bonus point win and sit atop of Pool D.

Exciting times have happened, and there is still plenty more to get excited about. England have everything to do in order to progress in this World Cup. There will be some big questions to be asked this week, and potentially some even bigger ones to be asked next week. 

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