The Wrap: All roads lead to Yokohama

Geoff Parkes Columnist

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    When the Rugby World Cup was first played in 1987, fans of the concept welcomed the context it bought to a hitherto unstructured rugby schedule.

    The ability of all rugby nations to tangibly measure themselves against each other every four years was welcomed by players and fans, and the title ‘Rugby World Cup champion’ has without question become the defining prize in rugby.

    Further, a World Cup allowed rugby – which was in the last throes of amateurism – to fully unlock the commercial potential inherent in a genuinely global sport. This realisation has allowed the game’s administrators to monetise the sport in a way that underpins the continued global development of rugby in what are now 121 member countries.

    A contrary view was that a World Cup would become too overpowering and that too much discussion and too much planning would be centred on a four-yearly prize, rendering everything that happened in between subservient to the Holy Grail.

    And so it was that, with both the Wallabies and All Blacks very much conducting business typical of a mid-point in the cycle, the weekend past marked almost exactly two years to the day until the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, scheduled for the International Stadium in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo.

    A Japanese stop-over en route to season-ending internationals in Europe makes good sense – more so when it provides an opportunity for the Wallabies to familiarise themselves with a location and venue that they hope to return to for the final stages of the World Cup.

    (Image: Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

    The draw announced last week for the tournament has the Wallabies scheduled to play in Sapporo, Tokyo (at Tokyo Stadium), Oita and Shizuoka. It is only if the Wallabies make it through to the semi-final and final that they will return to Yokohama, hence the value of this stopover.

    Note also that it was announced last week that the third Bledisloe Cup match for 2018 will not be played in New Zealand but will be moved to Japan. As yet the venue is not confirmed, but there are obvious benefits if it is Yokohama. If not, then a match at Tokyo Stadium will suit the Wallabies equally as well given that they have a crucial pool match against Wales on that ground. The All Blacks will play Japan there the following week.

    This is an understandable move by New Zealand Rugby. On one hand, they are forgoing a home ground advantage for the Bledisloe Cup, opening up an opportunity for Australia to break what will be by then a 15-year drought, but on the other hand, they are paying heed to the two factors that overwhelmingly dominate rugby on and off-field: winning the World Cup and making enough money to keep their best players at home.

    In that respect, the All Blacks’ match against the Barbarians at Twickenham meant very little in terms of assessing the 2017 team and their performance this season, but it meant much more in terms of their long-term build-up to the 2019 World Cup and shoring up New Zealand Rugby’s finances.

    When I met with New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew earlier this year, he had no qualms with saying that this Barbarians match was “unashamedly” scheduled as a money-making venture. In that light, one wonders if Rugby Australia execs were enviously calculating the difference between a 62,000 gate at Twickenham and a 17,000 roll-up at Allianz Stadium the week prior – and wondering if that justified trashing their own domestic competition in the process.

    (Image: Matt King/Getty Images)

    The most memorable Barbarians games have been played at the completion of spring tours when the composite side has resembled a Lions-style selection of the best players from the home unions and with the traditional addition of one promising uncapped player. That way the tradition of open-style – or Barbarians-style – rugby has been able to be maintained while retaining a north versus south edge to the contest.

    But in 2017, with Northern Hemisphere players firmly attached to clubs that have priorities other than the health of international rugby, that concept is dead in the water. Hence the construct of Barbarians sides that – in Sydney last week and London this week – contained far too many players from the same nation to make the contest anything other than totally disposable.

    There is clearly an audience for rugby of this type. But faced with the option of watching Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in an exhibition tennis match versus two guys ranked in the mid-200s scrapping for a life-changing qualifying spot in a grand slam main draw, I would take the two battlers every time.

    It was no accident that the best sports event of the weekend was – by a country mile – the Rugby League World Cup match between Tonga and Samoa simply because you could see, hear and feel what it meant to the players and supporters.

    Brothers playing against each other, teammates against best friends and – in the case of Richie Mo’unga, Mitchell Drummond, Dominic Bird, Atu Moli and Dillon Hunt – five players who will now join the All Blacks on tour rendered this contest meaningless, although that is not to decry the efforts of the players who certainly strived to provide value for those in attendance.

    Leader in that respect was Lions flanker Kwagga Smith, probably the player with the most to prove after being omitted from South Africa’s end of season touring squad. And from the All Blacks point of view, with Yokohama in mind, Steve Hansen will have noted how comfortable and assured Mo’unga looked on the Twickenham stage.

    The most telling image, however, was one of Hansen watching the match in the stands flanked as usual by Ian Foster on one side but without Wayne Smith on the other. While the All Blacks are proven masters at succession planning, it isn’t hard to imagine how much rockier their journey to Yokohama is going to be without Smith centrally involved.

    (Image: David Rogers/Getty Images)

    The Wallabies, missing three key members of their starting backline, were accomplished and professional in putting together an easy 63-30 win against what must be said was a very disappointing Japanese side. The locals failed to cope with the Wallabies’ defensive line speed, failed to respect possession or the touchline and, for the first 60 minutes, resembled a rabble, not the side that did their nation proud at the 2015 World Cup.

    Their effort was encapsulated by the kick on halftime by halfback Fumiaki Tanaka that gifted Tevita Kuridrani his second try – a horrible piece of rugby from a player who should know better. In Jamie Joseph, Tony Brown and John Plumtree, Japan have assembled a noteworthy coaching team that will almost certainly ensure they are far more organised and competitive come the World Cup, which their country – and the tournament itself – badly needs them to be.

    Kuridrani would go on to share five tries with Samu Kerevi, which spoke to their total dominance of the midfield and also the Wallabies continuing to demonstrate efficiency at the recycle, providing them with more of the continuity and go-forward that has become increasingly evident as the season has progressed.

    Individually, most eyes were on Reece Hodge to see how he measured up at flyhalf, with a number of plusses, minuses and too-soon-to-tells eventuating. Hodge was serviceable in attack and faultless from the kicking tee, although when punting he chose to do so from a pocket directly behind his halfback, a tactic unlikely to cause concern to stronger sides.

    Defensively Hodge adopted Bernard Foley’s ‘second fullback’ role, which at first glance was a little surprising but which on second thought allowed for continuity and consistency in the team pattern. Whether Hodge has sufficient evasive skills to run the ball back from fullback or is wasted out of the frontline defence remains to be seen.

    (Image: AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    One obvious work-in-progress is Hodge’s passing, not rolling the ball out of the fingers like most natural distributors at flyhalf but favouring the wrist pump popularised in 1980s rugby league by players like Brett Kenny. If Hodge ends up half the player Kenny was, that augers well for Australian rugby, but for now I expect there will be many joining me sitting on a crowded fence.

    As for Yokohama’s International Stadium, it too deserves a mixed assessment. An impressive arena, it will serve Japan well for the World Cup and is particularly suitable for the pomp and visuals of an opening ceremony.

    It suffers, however, like all rugby stadiums do, when they contain an athletics track inside it. Immediately fans are set back a long way from the action, which diminishes atmosphere. The truncated, compromised in-goal areas, although they might meet lawful minimum requirements, take away rightful options from the attacking side.

    Alarmingly there was also evidence that the dreaded nematode worm has found its way to Japan, with large chunks of turf being ripped up at some scrums. The Japanese way is to politely bow and to assure that everything is okay, but expect World Rugby to be asking some serious questions of the organising committee this week about the suitability of the playing surface.

    Congratulations to the Canberra Vikings and Queensland Country for setting up a worthy NRC final next weekend, to be played in Canberra. It was a near thing for the hosts, with the Perth Spirit playing a spirited final ten minutes while a man down. However, Canberra’s defensive organisation and simple game plan have held them in good stead all competition.

    They will need to be at their best again next week, particularly if the nimble-stepping, sweet-passing Taniela Tupou is allowed anywhere near the latitude the Fijian Drua gave him in their semi-final.

    Two years is a long time in rugby, but make no mistake: the Tongan Thor is also on the road to Yokohama. It’s going to be one heck of a ride watching him get there.

    Geoff Parkes
    Geoff Parkes

    Geoff is a Melbourne-based sports fanatic and writer who started contributing to The Roar in 2012 under the pen name Allanthus. His first book, A World in Union Conflict; The Global Battle For Rugby Supremacy is due for release in November. Meanwhile, his twin goals of achieving a single figure golf handicap and owning a fast racehorse remain tantalisingly out of reach.