Sunday, 27 October 2019

RWC 2019: The Business End

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!”.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

RWC 2019: Are Japan About To Repeat History?

During the 2015 Rugby World Cup, I wrote quite frequently about the tournament and all the various goings on. I had decided against that this time, instead choosing to just watch and enjoy – something I’ve been doing as much as possible. Some of the very early morning games have been missed, and sadly there is no work from home option in my job, otherwise I would have done that on certain match days. I go into the tournament supporting England but hoping all the teams go well, especially the other 3 home nations. From that perspective, things have mostly been good. England and Wales so far undefeated, and as of this writing, England are the first team to officially qualify for the quarter finals. This is excellent to see after what happened in 2015. If England can beat France, they will go onto the last 8 and likely play Australia. This will be a tough game for sure, but one I think England can win. Ireland and Scotland have had mixed tournaments so far, it is probably fair to say, and both of those teams will feature in this blog post – the subject of which is the host nation, Japan.

Japan, I think it is fair to say, won the hearts of the rugby world when they beat South Africa at the 2015 edition of the Rugby World Cup. It was, and remains, one of the biggest upsets in sport. I wrote a tribute blog to some of the smaller nations at the last tournament (which you can read in full here). On Japan, I wrote the following (slightly edited):

The final mention though has to go to Japan. I gave them no chance before this tournament, as I am sure so did many others. There have been so many words written about that game against South Africa. Just yesterday I watched that try which won Japan the game again. It was such a moment in time. The biggest Rugby World Cup upset? Undeniably. The biggest upset in the history of Rugby Union? If there is ever a top 10 list, it will be in it. One of the biggest upsets in sporting history? I would say so, yes. From that moment, almost everyone wanted to watch Japan win. I think it legitimately surprised people just how good they were. Their 4 day turnaround before the game against Scotland was just unfair really, and something which ought to be changed for the next World Cup. Teams like New Zealand can deal with such a short turn around as they can almost pick a new XV from their squad without issue. The smaller nations just can’t do that, and 4 days isn’t long enough to recover properly in time for another game. They comfortably beat Samoa in another game I expected them to lose. Samoa went in at half time having scored no points, and not looking like they would score any. They managed to get one try scored by the time the game ended but Japan were the deserved winners. They went into the last weekend knowing they could potentially qualify for the quarter finals. If Scotland lost to Samoa, they had their chance assuming they could beat the USA – a team they lost to back in July in the Pacific Nations Cup. Sadly for the, (and for rugby as a whole I think), Scotland beat Samoa and qualified for the quarter finals. This meant there was little to be played for in Japan’s game against USA. You wouldn’t know that by watching the game though! Japan played a fantastic game (and USA also played very well). Japan won, and became the only team in Rugby World Cup history to record 3 victories in the pool stage and not qualify for the last eight. It is such a shame they didn’t because they have been great to watch. For me, they have been the team of the tournament so far. Long after this tournament ends, people will still be talking about Japan and I think they will have become a lot of people’s “second” international team. Hopefully, the departure of their coach Eddie Jones does not derail their growth as a rugby nation. It would be great to see them make the last eight at their own Rugby World Cup in 2019.

Before talking about Japan, I would like to address the 4-day turnaround comment. It has not been dealt with in this tournament, but more teams have faced one (or will face one) – which makes it a bit fairer. Still tough for sure, but fair. Anyway, it was a hell of a tournament for Japan, and a real shame they did not qualify. Looking back on their pool, it was clear to see that bonus points (and Japan’s lack of them) was their undoing. Scotland qualified on the same number of wins, but with two additional bonus points to Japan’s zero. I concluded the paragraph above back in 2015 hoping that Japan make the quarter finals in 2019. We are now in 2019, and Japan have a very real chance of doing so. At the start of the tournament, Japan found themselves in a pool with Ireland (the world number one team at the start of the tournament, if you believe the rankings) and old foes from 2015, Scotland and Samoa (as well as Russia). Pre-tournament, I am sure I am not alone in predicting that Japan would finish third, behind Ireland and Scotland (in that order). Then, the tournament started. Predictably, but importantly, Japan kicked off the tournament on the opening night with a bonus point win against Russia. With a bit of a break, they then went into the game against Ireland. No-one really gave Japan a chance in this one, but they shocked the world again by beating Ireland 19-12 (a deserved result as well). This result dramatically shook the apple-cart so to speak in Pool A. The results so far have been:

Japan 30-10 Russia (Japan Bonus Point [BP])
Ireland 27-3 Scotland (Ireland BP)
Russia 9-34 Samoa (Samoa BP)
Japan 19-12 Ireland (Ireland BP)
Scotland 34-0 Samoa (Scotland BP)
Ireland 35-0 Russia (Ireland BP)
Japan 38-19 Samoa (Japan BP)

Which means the business end of the pool table currently looks like this:


The next game in the pool is on Wednesday, when Scotland take on Russia. The Japan/Ireland game (as well as the Fiji/Uruguay game) has proven that anything can happen on the day. I would predict however that Scotland will not only win this game but get a bonus point win. This would keep Scotland third, but put them one point away from Ireland heading into the final weekend of the pool games. The penultimate Pool A match on Saturday sees Ireland take on Samoa. Samoa were no pushover against Japan today, but I would expect an Ireland win, and probably one with a bonus point as well. Samoa have not had the best of World Cups either stopping Ireland from getting the bonus point or beating them would be an excellent way to sign off. However, I am predicting an Ireland bonus point win. This would put Ireland 2 points ahead of Japan, with the final pool match still to be played. This match happens on Sunday, and it is between Japan and Scotland.

Scotland crushed Japan at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. This, as mentioned above, was Japan after a 4-day turnaround. Still though, it was 45-10 to Scotland. The two nations have played twice since, when Scotland went on a summer tour to Japan, Scotland winning both times. Both matches were close affairs, but Scotland did get the win twice. These results are worth keeping in mind but will have no bearing on the game a week on Sunday. If Ireland beat Samoa, this game essentially becomes a knockout game to be the second team to qualify from Pool A. There are several permutations from this one that I can think of. Japan’s best way of getting to the quarter final would of course be to win. There are two other routes to the knockouts for them, one is by losing with a bonus point, and Scotland not getting a try bonus point for scoring 4 tries.  The other is both teams getting a try bonus point, and Japan getting a losing bonus point as well. This would put Japan on 16 points and out of reach of Scotland who can only get on 15. Were that to happen, Japan would also win the pool by virtue of having beaten Ireland in the head-to-head. I guess the point I am trying to make here is that there are a number of ways for Japan to qualify, and they don’t necessarily have to win. Scotland though could spoil the party for them and break Japanese (and the rest of the rugby world’s) hearts again. Could Japan be about to repeat history, and become the second team (after themselves in 2015) to win 3 pool matches, and not qualify for the knockout stages? It is entirely possible.

I have no idea how this will pan out. I am hopeful that Japan will qualify because they have been great this tournament. The old romantic in me wants this to happen as well because it would set up a likely quarter final clash with South Africa…a rematch from the 2015 Rugby World Cup. What a story that would be! It would probably be for the best to not think of the world cup warm match between the two at this point because that somewhat spoils the magic. All I can say for certain is that I am very excited about how all this will play out. Next weekend, when the Japan/Scotland match kicks off, you will find me glued to the TV watching it all unfold.