Sunday, 18 October 2015

RWC 2015 - And Then There Were Four

As of Saturday morning, there were 8 teams left standing in the 2015 edition of the Rugby World Cup. Now, there are only 4. Looking at these fixtures before this weekend, there was only one game I was confident about how it would finish. I also figured that all 4 games would be relatively close. It didn’t quite play out that way mind! I’m going to talk about all 4 quarter finals and what I thought of the games.

The first quarter final was South Africa versus Wales. I had predicted a South Africa win but I really had no idea how this one would end. The first half was a very even affair. Neither team was significantly better than the other I’d say. One thing which was evident however is that Wales had not learned from the mistakes they made against Australia the week before. Gethin Jenkins spurred a very early chance to give the ball to Tyler Morgan who was in a ton of space on his wing. His pass went over the Morgan’s head (Morgan is over 6ft tall by the way) and went out into touch. North had a chance pretty early on to score a try but was stopped short of the try line. I think if he had opted to go to the corner, he would have got across the line but he went into the middle of the park (I guess to try and get closer to the posts) and was unsuccessful in scoring. Wales gave away 4 first half penalties which lead to shots at goal, some of which were a bit cheap. Wales scored the only try of the half to take the lead at that point, but then coughed up one of those aforementioned cheap penalties which gave South Africa the lead back. It looked as though the score would remain 12-10 to South Africa going into the break before Dan Biggar nailed a very sweet drop goal to give Wales the one point advantage going into the break. A very level first half only really as close as it was due to Welsh sloppiness.

The second half was another close affair with each team scoring 6 points apiece with Wales initially extending their lead before South Africa scored a penalty and a drop goal to take the lead. South Africa missed penalties either side of the drop goal, which left me wondering if those misses would come back to haunt them. Wales scored another penalty to take the lead again to make it 19-18 in the 64th minute. South Africa then attacked Wales quite ferociously, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at them. Wales were defending these waves of attack very well until a late scrum opened up an opportunity for South Africa. They gained a bit of space on the blindside of the scrum, which allowed No.8 Vermeulen the chance to pick up the ball. He was then tackled but managed to offload the ball in a magnificent way (backhanded offload? My word) to the scrum half Fourie Du Preez who dotted down for South Africa’s only try of the game. It was not converted but South Africa had the lead 23-19. This was the final score and Wales were eliminated. A very rough end to Wales’ campaign, especially given the pool they were drawn in. However, they certainly had a couple of chances they didn’t take and coughed up too many penalties. In the end I think, that was their undoing.

The late game on Saturday was New Zealand versus France in the same venue of the famous 2007 quarter final where France had won – the Millennium Stadium. I had hoped for this game as soon as I realised it was possible. In 1999, it was a semi-final that France won, in 2007 a quarter final. New Zealand won the World Cup in 2011 by beating France in the final (by a single point). These two nations had some previous at World Cups and I thought there was no way this game wouldn’t be something special. It turns out I was right, but not in the way I could have possibly imagined. I had predicted a New Zealand win but I assumed it would be a tight game. One thing that is worth remembering from this game is that France took the lead via a Spedding penalty. However from this point, it was pretty much one way traffic. France suffered a pretty significant blow in the 10th minute when not only did New Zealand score their first try, but one of the men involved in the famous 2007 win, Freddie Michalak picked up a game ending injury. New Zealand scored another two first half tries which Dan Carter converted almost taking the game out of France’s reach before Picamoles struck back with a try of his own. If this try raised France hopes, then Savea’s second of the evening dashed them again. Half time the score was 29-13.

France scored no more points in this game. New Zealand on the other hand scored 5 tries, 4 of which Dan Carter converted. Those 4 converted tries came within 12 minutes. I’m not sure if France stopped trying at times during this or whether New Zealand were just that good. Honestly it could be both. I’m thinking back on the game now and cannot think of a single passenger in the New Zealand team – everyone put in a fantastic shift. Savea’s first try, by the way, was New Zealand’s 300th try across all of the Rugby World Cups. They are currently on 306 as a result of this game. The next country on the list is Australia with 203. That just goes to show how good New Zealand are at World Cup time. On a personal level, that was Savea’s 4th test hat trick for New Zealand and he has now scored 38 tries in 39 appearances. He is also the 5th highest test try scorer for the All Blacks, now having surpassed a certain Jonah Lomu. What a game this was. I would never have predicted this game being as one sided as it was. New Zealand put on an attacking masterclass and played some real champagne rugby. France never got out of first gear. New Zealand won 62-13. The twitter account of the Eggchasers Rugby Podcast pointed out that Namibia only lost 58-14. Remarkable stuff.

The first game of Sunday was Ireland versus Argentina at the Millennium Stadium. Ireland had been knocked out of the previous 5 World Cups at the quarter final stage. Argentina had only made the semi-final once before, in 2007. The pre-game build up to this one couldn’t have been more different. Argentina last played Namibia and were able to make 10 changes from the team that started in that one. Some of the players starting had a 2 week break before lacing up their boots for this one. Ireland’s last game was almost exactly a week earlier, in which they lost 4 (I think? At least 3) players to injury and had another suspended for striking an opponent. Included in those players missing for this one was Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton and Sean O’Brien. Still, the patchwork Ireland team that was on the field did manage to beat France and played really very well. It wasn’t exactly a poor Ireland team that took to the field. Although it is probably fair to say they got off to a slow start, which against Argentina at the moment is the worst thing you can do. 13 minutes in, Argentina were 17-0 up thanks to tries from Moroni and Imhoff - and Ireland were looking shell-shocked. They were playing too narrow in defence and were left exposed. Ireland did manage to get back into the game before the end of the half, Fitzgerald scoring an excellent try. As the teams went off, it was 20-10 to Argentina. The momentum was definitely with Ireland though.

Ireland started the second half positively and Argentina now started to look rattled. Ireland scored a try in the 43rd minute bringing the deficit down to just 3 points and suddenly Ireland believed (as did I) that the biggest come back in Rugby World Cup history was on the cards. The teams exchanged penalties to make the score 23-20 to Argentina when Ireland missed a long range shot at the posts. There was an argument as to whether the Argentinian prop that conceded the penalty, who had already been sent to the bin, should have been sent off for conceding this penalty for a no-arms tackle, but the ref deemed the offense not worthy of a yellow card. Huge call there. Argentina were awarded another penalty for a high tackle which they scored. The momentum, which had been with the Irish for some time, was now shifting to the Argentinians. They made this count in the 68th minute by getting over the line again for another try. The conversion for this try was spectacular. This try came from Ireland being too narrow again in defence. The score was 33-20 to Argentina and there were just over 10 minutes on the board. Ireland had to score 2 converted tries and prevent Argentina from scoring again. This would be a mammoth task. It proved to be simply too much for them to overcome as in the 72nd minute, Argentina punched a hole again in the Irish defence and scored another try. This again was converted but this time from in front of the posts. To add insult to injury, Argentina scored another penalty to take the score to the total of 43-20. Ireland had been well and truly beaten in this one. The better team on the day have made the semi-finals.

The final game of the quarter finals was Scotland versus Australia. I’ll be honest, pre-game I had written Scotland off. Australia had looked so good against England and Wales in this tournament and were coming off the back of a successful Rugby Championship campaign – how could they not win this? Early doors there was an Australia try which was deserved. Australia had the best of the possession in the first 10 minutes. It was at this point I wondered if this would be the start of one way traffic similar to what we had seen the night before between New Zealand and France. However, this was not to be. Scotland popped a penalty over the posts before the Australia defence fell to sleep, allowing Horne to grab the ball from the ruck and almost stroll over the line. 10-5 to Scotland and not that it wasn’t already, but game on! Nerves appeared to set in for Australia, evident by Bernard Foley dropping a fairly straightforward catch, leading to a scrum penalty for Scotland which they scored to make it 5-13. Australia knocked on the door a fair bit at this point and for the rest of the half. They scored another two tries but didn’t convert either of them. Laidlaw scored another penalty for Scotland meaning the score at half time was 16-15 to Scotland.

The second half started with a massive decision from the referee Craig Joubert. Bernard Foley managed to offload the ball after being tackled and Sean Maitland appeared to try and grab the ball with one hand. He was unsuccessful and knocked it on. This was ruled as a deliberate knock on and Maitland was sent to the sin bin. That is a tough call to make. I’m sure it was a knock on, I’m not sure it was deliberate. This was to prove costly to Scotland as Australia scored a try which they then duly converted making the score 22-16. Laidlaw shortened the gap with another penalty before it looked very much like Ashley-Cooper had scored another try. However, there was a knock on in the build-up and it was scratched off. Big sigh of relief for Scotland there! Australia scored a penalty of their own to re-establish the 6 point deficit before Scotland returned to full strength. Scotland still looked very much like they stood a chance of winning this one. This much was confirmed when Russell charged down a kick from Foley and got the ball to Seymour who scored a try. Laidlaw missed his first kick of the day but the deficit was back at 1 point, 25-24. Australia banged on the door again and again before they scored another try. It was converted, making the score 32-24. Scotland never gave up, and when awarded a penalty in the 68th minute, they opted to kick for sticks (I can only assume to reduce the deficit and give themselves the chance to get back in the game). This worked, and they scored it. Scotland continued to give it everything they had. The rain started hammering down in West London, making things more difficult for both teams. Then, a wayward pass from a replacement Australian prop allowed Scotland in to score a try, which was then converted. 34-32 to Scotland with less than 6 minutes to go. Could it be? Well…

Scotland got the nod at a scrum which collapsed. I’m not sure that was the right decision but I was happy it went the way of Scotland. Then a moment which will be talked about for a fair while I think. Scotland had a line out, which they threw to the back of their line (poor call if you ask me), the ball was then knocked on by Scotland, and it hit an Australian player (Phipps I believe) before being gathered by a Scotland player, when an offside call was made. Personally, I think this is the sort of thing which should be covered in the TMO remit. The technology is there, why not use it to confirm? I think in this instance, Joubert might have got this one wrong. There is definitely a knock on by a Scotland player, which means the game should have been stopped there. The last contact of the ball is from an Australian player before being gathered up by Wells. Australia did not take advantage following the knock on which therefore means the game should be stopped. Now, the Scotland player was in an offside position from the Scotland player who last touched the ball, but the player who last touched the ball knocked it on, thus in theory ending play. Sometimes, this sport is complicated! The video is here if you can come up with something different. Anyway, Joubert gave the penalty to Australia which they scored. 35-34 to Australia with less than a minute left. That was the full time score and Scottish hearts were broken. What a game this was. Two massive decisions against Scotland proved costly and the last northern hemisphere team in the competition exited. Scotland played really well though and this was such a cruel way for their World Cup to end.

And with that, the quarter finals ended. The semi-finals, which will take place next weekend are as follows:

South Africa v New Zealand
Argentina v Australia.

For the first time in Rugby World Cup history, there is no team from the northern hemisphere in the final four. Not good news for those of us based in Europe. However, both semi-final games have the potential to be superb games. Both fixtures that occur in the Rugby Championship but with slightly more edge as there is no return fixture this time out. At this stage, both games could really go either way. I think we will see a New Zealand versus Australia final, repeating the inaugural Rugby World Cup final. However, I could well be wrong. I am sure looking forward to finding out if I will be though. 

No comments: