The festival part of the 2015 Rugby World Cup is over with the completion of the pool rounds and the usual suspects, except for hapless England, have made their way into the quarter-finals.
There is a nice symmetry about the quarter-finals line-up which opens up the possibility of an all southern hemisphere (or much less likely, an all northern hemisphere) semi-finals series: South Africa versus Wales, New Zealand versus France, Ireland versus Argentina, and Australia versus Scotland.
New Zealand, Ireland and Australia are the teams in the quarter-finals series that have won all their pool matches. Usually there are four teams that go into the finals series unbeaten. But South Africa, the winner of its pool, rather famously lost to Japan.
The significance of all this is that every team that has won the Webb Ellis trophy has won all its tournament matches.
Teams have lost pool matches and gone through to the Rugby World Cup final: England in 1991 and 2007, and France in 2011 when they actually lost two pool round matches, to New Zealand and Tonga.
Will this be the year where a team beaten in the pool round goes on to win the Webb Ellis trophy? It will be if South Africa, Wales, France, Argentina or Scotland wins the final.
World Rugby president Frenchman Bernard Lapasset has issued a media release that gives some facts to back up the assertion that the 2015 World Cup 2015, already, has been “the most competitive” tournament ever. The “competition gap” is closing, he asserts.
Lapasset makes the following points.
Japan defeated South Africa in “the biggest upset in Rugby World Cup history”, the average winning margin has fallen from 28 points in 2011 to 24 points, and the average gap between the tier-one and tier two nations has reduced from 36 points to 30, the lowest in any World Cup since its expansion to 20 teams in 1999.
The really significant fact is that the ball-in-play time has increased to 43 per cent, while the number of tries scored has decreased from an average of 6.1 in 2011 to 5.8 in 2015.
These statistics, Lapasset argues, highlight “the great strides in defence made… over the past four years”.
The implication in all of this is that teams have made the quarter-finals, despite losing a pool match, because there is a growing evenness in the competing teams.
Any team, on its day, can give its opponent, no matter whether this involves a tier two nation playing a tier one nation, a hard match. And sometimes a defeat. Ask the Springboks about their match against Japan’s Brave Blossoms.
If we follow this reasoning through, it also suggests that the time might have come when the Webb Ellis trophy moves away from the four nations that have won the tournament in the past: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England.
Three of these nations are still in contention to win a third Webb Ellis trophy. But England has drowned in its self-created ‘Pool of Death’.
Is it significant that England, the only home union not contesting the finals, had a home grown coach, Stuart Lancaster? Ireland, Scotland and Wales all have New Zealand coaches: Joe Schmidt, Vern Cotter and Warren Gatland.
Moreover, of the eight teams in the quarter-finals, only France (Philippe Saint-Andre) has a northern hemisphere coach.
Again, we can ask the question, is this significant?
The answer is yes.
And why? Look at the ball-in-play statistics and the tries scored statistics quoted by Lapasset. Rugby is becoming increasingly a coaches game, finally catching up to the other sports like gridiron, soccer and league, for instance, that have been professional sports for much longer than rugby.
One of the consequences that flow from a sport becoming professional is that sooner or later the coach becomes the most important person in the franchise.
In the case of rugby, the coaches who have had the most success have been those who have embraced the Australian and New Zealand concept that rugby is a running, passing, tackling, set piece, kicking (in that order) game.
There are eight coaches holding New Zealand passports at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. There are also two Australians: Michael Cheika, whose Wallabies have turned on the best attacking performance (against England) and the best defensive performance (against Wales), and Eddie Jones, whose Brave Blossoms gave the best technically perfect performance of the tournament when they defeated the Springboks.
England’s problem, in this context, was that it was playing or attempting to play old amateur rugby where the ball was in play for about 20 or so minutes, where endless scrums and lineouts became dockyard brawls, and where rugby was really ‘rugby’ football.
Modern rugby, in imitation of the other professional sports, now has coaches for every aspect of the game, on and off the field. Last week, for instance, Steve Hansen paid tribute to the All Blacks mental coach Gilbert Enoka, a psychologist who has been with the team for over a decade.
The Wallabies, especially the defensive coach Nathan Grey, got high praise from all the pundits and fans around the world because of their intrepid and more importantly accurate and smart defence when they were down to 13 men against Wales. Teams actually practice now on how to cope with one or more players off the field.
They can do this and all the other training, on and off the field, because the players are professional. There is time for the detailed coaching and gym work now that was just not available to players before 1996, when rugby became a professional sport.
During the 1987 Rugby World Cup, Alan Jones and Alec Evans (especially with the forwards) coached the Wallabies. Jones continued with his morning radio program which was in its early days, but he insisted that the players stop working during the tournament.
There is a famous story of him ringing up Nick Farr-Jones at around five o’clock in the morning and being infuriated to find him at work. Jones was even less pleased when, after he bagged Farr-Jones for disobeying his instruction, the Wallabies half back told him in no uncertain terms that he didn’t see why he should not stop work (and lose money) when he, Jones, was not prepared to do so, as well.
With the players being professional (only Namibia had a preponderance of amateur players), the opportunity is there for camps, intensive preparations, detailed gameplans and lots of one-on-one coaching.
Professionalism has given the players the opportunity and the time to hone their skills in a way that was not possible in the amateur era, from 1871 to 1995. The players are fitter, more skilful, understand the dynamics of the game better and have a more detailed knowledge of what they have to do to organise their way around the field to set up winning plays.
The days of playing for penalties, an easy option, has gone. Someone needs to tell England. Most of the other teams, tier one and tier two, have tried to play the modern Australian and New Zealand game of the ball in hand. Hence the statistics that Lapasset has provided.
And hence the fact that once the TMOs were put back in their box after the first match between England and Fiji, the rugby has been a thrilling, breathtaking spectacle. The Wallabies versus Wales game has been described as “the greatest game ever played with no tries scored”.
As the skill levels have increased around the world to allow for this breathtaking rugby so, too, have the defensive levels, in terms of technique and in reading when to and when not to make the tackle, or go for the turnover.
Adam Ashley-Cooper’s tackle on Dan Biggar to kill off the last Wales attack when their 15 was trying to score against the 13 Wallabies deserves to be ranked along with George Gregan’s classic tackle on Jeff Wilson to win the first night Bledisloe Cup Test at Sydney in 1994.
Here are my picks for the quarter-final winners.
South Africa to beat Wales
My reason for this is that Wales have been smashed around before and during the tournament. They played heroically against the Wallabies but they lack their traditional hywl (passion). They looked leg weary and mind weary. North would have scored that try when the cover was coming across (in the 13-Wallabies period) by just powering on for the corner. But he came in-field and cut off the distance Bernard Foley had to run to get a hand on him.
Wales, too, have beaten the Springboks only twice in 30 Tests, the first time when ‘The Great Redeemer’, Sir Graham Henry, was coaching the side.
The Springboks have been better by the Brave Blossoms. They then monstered Scotland and went on to top their pool quite comfortably. They are a better team when Fourie du Preez is running the show. And this should be enough to get them a win and semi-final match, which they will lose.
New Zealand to beat France
It was Karl Marx who said: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.”
From an All Blacks perspective, the loss to France at Cardiff in the quarter-finals of the 2007 Rugby World Cup was a tragedy. As was the loss to France in the 1999 World Cup in the semi-finals at Twickenham.
I expect a comfortable, of sorts, victory to the All Blacks (and a farce, therefore, for France) in the replay of that 2007 match, again at Cardiff. France haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 2009, and lost to them in two Rugby World Cup finals, 1987 and 2011.
More importantly, France were unimpressive in losing to Ireland in their cut-throat pool round match. Ireland carried 146 times for 422 metres against the 117 carries and 237 metres for France. If the All Blacks get the carries that Ireland got, they will score plenty of tries.
The All Blacks, too, are playing in their iconic black colours, having won the toss and the right to home ground advantage. They are a much better team than the 2007 side which was unsettled at all levels, including the coaching staff.
And this time, too, the All Blacks won’t be as complacent as they were in 2007. Then they were worrying about what side they should play in the semi-final. Lesson learnt, I reckon, by Hansen and his coaching staff, and a reason why his All Blacks have won an astonishing 90 per cent of all their Tests in the last four years.
Argentina to beat Ireland
This is my big call. Ireland have the oldest team in the tournament. Paul O’Connell is out and Johnny Sexton is under an injury cloud. Coach Joe Schmidt has done a terrific job with Ireland. Their lineouts are good and their scrums (a worry against the Pumas) are less good. Everything about the team is efficient. But they do lack game-breakers.
The Pumas gave the All Blacks a ferocious first-up Test in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. They were leading well into the second half. In their other matches, the Pumas have been brilliant. They have benefited from the instruction they were given from Sir Graham Henry when they came into the Rugby Championship. Henry told them their game was too one-dimensional, too much like England’s game.
In two years they have developed a total rugby game, the sort of all-court game played by the Wallabies and the All Blacks at their best. If they kick their goals, the Pumas are capable of beating any side in the world, as they did in the opening match of the 2007 World Cup when they upset the host nation, France.
Australia to beat Scotland
Scotland have a successful New Zealand coach in Cotter. Unlike Stuart Lancaster and his fatal preference for Chris Robshaw, Cotter understands the need for some pace with his No.7. He has imported two New Zealanders, one of them the outstanding John Hardie, to give the Scottish pack a presence which a modern, successful team needs.
There is an Australian presence, too, with defensive coach Matt Taylor and director of rugby Scott Johnson. Johnson, or ‘Johnno’, was a long time Sydney club rugby stalwart. Later, as a protege of Peter Fenton, he became an interesting rugby thinker and innovator.
I remember going to a match he arranged with ‘Scott Johnson Laws’ which anticipated most of the innovative changes brought in with the ELVs. Johnson will have the Scots fired up and with some interesting plays. But Scotland don’t have the cattle to match the ambitions to play modern ball-in-hand rugby that Cotter has introduced to the side.
They have defeated the Wallabies twice, though, in the their last three matches. But this is now, not then. Cheika’s Wallabies are the best and most successful Australian side since the great days of Rod Macqueen. They topped the Pool of Death with a plus 106 points aggregate. The All Blacks and the Springboks, in easier pools, recorded plus 125 and 120 aggregates. And Ireland, also unbeaten had a plus 99 differential.
By getting through the hardest pool in the tournament, the Wallabies have been rewarded by going into the easiest half of the finals draw. They avoid the All Blacks and the Springboks. More importantly, of all the teams in the World Cup, the Wallabies have been the team that has grown the most during the pool round matches.
Who would have guessed Foley, seen as a journey man before the tournament, would turn in a such a performance against England, a final for the Wallabies, that had pundits (well, me actually) comparing him to Stephen Larkham, of blessed memory.
Another splendid performance against Scotland will see the pundits (including me) start to compare Cheika with Macqueen, the greatest of all the Wallabies coaches.