Before the 2019 World Cup tournament began the coach of the All Blacks, Steve Hansen, suggested that six teams can win the most open tournament yet.
Those six teams were Australia, England, Ireland, Wales, South Africa and New Zealand.
With the all these teams now well into their pool rounds we are already beginning to see question marks raised about some of these teams.
Three of these teams – Australia, Ireland and South Africa – have already lost a match.
No team in past world cups has lost a pool round match and gone on to win the tournament.
However, as recently as Rugby World Cup 2011, France lost two pool round matches, to New Zealand and Tonga, and then went to lose the final 8-7 to the All Blacks, the tightest margin of any World Cup final.
It is only a matter of time before a team loses a pool round match and then goes on to win the final.
The reason for this is that the margin of superiority between the top teams is getting smaller.
With these top six sides, for instance, they can lose quite overwhelmingly one week to one of the select six and then turn around a week later and win just as overwhelmingly.
The Wallabies this year monstered the All Blacks at Perth and a week later at Eden Park they were, in turn, monstered by the All Blacks.
On their day, therefore, these teams can and do beat each other.
Wales beat the Wallabies, for instance, 29-25 in Pool D. But only once in recent years has Wales defeated the Wallabies.
This result could easily have been overturned if some of the refereeing decisions had not run towards Wales and if the Wallabies had got their game together earlier rather than waiting for a second-half revival.
The same sort of argument could be made about Ireland’s loss to Japan.
Japan had the advantage against Ireland of being the home side too, but if the two teams played again in the tournament, Ireland would surely win quite comfortably.
Ireland looked lethargic against Japan after a short turnaround from a solidly impressive victory over Scotland.
According to Stuart Barnes, Ireland defeated Russia with a bonus point but couldn’t get out of second gear. He insisted that Ireland could not win a quarter-final playing the way it has so far in the tournament.
Ireland scored 21 points in the first half, 14 of these points in the first 14 minutes of play.
In the second half Ireland could only score two tries.
The intense humidity that matches are being played in too has had its impact. Humidity that exhausts players and makes the ball as slippery as a cake of soap in a hot bath is a great leveller.
Ireland seems to feel humidity more than most of the other teams.
Even though the All Blacks-Canada match was played inside an enclosed stadium, which had its roof shut, the humidity levels were over 90 per cent.
In these conditions the ball becomes saturated with sweat, wet and dirt and extremely hard to hold onto, especially when hard tackles are made. This had the effect of producing numerous handling errors from the usually immaculate All Blacks.
Moreover – and this is not to bag the referees involved – there have been disconcerting, for the players, interpretations of the laws about contact by runners and tacklers.
World Rugby has received criticism from the media for some of the decisions. But the teams were fully briefed, as Uruguay centre Andres Vilaseca has told the media.
And the deeper context for the obsession by World Rugby about protecting the heads of the players is that last year, according to the UK’s Daily Telegraph, there were four player deaths in France.
To complicate matters, some of the leading teams – and the Wallabies fall into this category – are struggling to adjust to the way the referees are adjudicating in favour of attacking play.
Turnovers are hard to get.
The really smart teams like Wales, Ireland and the All Blacks are concentrating more on disrupting the rucks rather than always trying for turnovers and risk giving away penalties.
Having slowed down the ball, Wales, Ireland and the All Blacks then concentrate on putting on big hits to drive the runners backwards and force a dropped ball or even a penalty for holding on to the ball.
The way the pool rounds are shaping up, we could have quarter-finals with this sort of a line-up:
This line-up presumes that Japan will defeat Scotland. But if Scotland defeats Japan and gets more bonus points than Japan, then we could have quarter-finals comprising Scotland-New Zealand and Ireland-South Africa.
Another possibility is that Ireland will get bonus points from its last game, which would mean, after the bonus-point win against Russia, that they will end up with 16 points.
If Scotland or Japan – whichever of these teams makes the final – do not get to 16 points, Ireland will avoid a quarter-final against the All Blacks.
The point here is that whether Japan or Scotland force their way into the finals, the six teams that Hansen reckons have a chance to win the World Cup will still be in the hunt for the Webb Ellis trophy.
I now want to introduce readers to an interesting theory about which of these six teams could emerge as the winner of the Webb Ellis trophy and why this success will happen to the team.
We will call it the Deans Theory, after its creator, one of the most successful coaches in the modern era, Robbie Deans.
In an article on Stuff headed ‘Why attack gives the All Blacks a winning edge at Rugby World Cup‘ Deans lists a table showing that “on three occasions the best attacking team prevailed against the best defensive team at the Rugby World Cup … those occasions have coincided with the All Blacks Rugby World Cup titles, including their two most recent successes in 2011 and 2015”.
|Year||Best attacking team||Points for||Best defensive team||Points against|
|1995||All Blacks||222||South Africa*||26|
|2007||All Blacks||309||South Africa*||15|
|2011||All Blacks*||240||South Africa||24|
*Denotes winner of that year’s World Cup.
Deans says that the All Blacks selectors and coaches have concentrated their thinking on “a point of difference as a team that would ultimately separate them from the rest”.
And that point of difference, says Deans, wearing his All Black colours, is that “attack is in the All Blacks’ DNA and has been part of our rugby from the beginning of last century”.
The selectors, he reckons, shifted selection allegiance late in the piece with the injection of some youth and younger combinations that necessarily did not have the experience of the older incumbents.
The point of this shift was to give the All Blacks speed over the field to capitalise on the general high skill levels of all the members of the squad.
George Bridge, Sevu Reece and Nepo Laulala have been rushed straight into the starting squad offering, Deans argues, “an injection of vitality”.
Deans finished off his analysis with these comments about how the All Blacks finished off the Springboks in their torrid match:
“The relentless attacking mindset from the back three was the difference between the two teams … Frantic early, the All Blacks found their rhythm and holes in the defence using their three-pronged attack of run, pass, kick in any order, according to circumstance.”
The interesting aspect of the table that Deans has presented is that five teams with the best defensive record in a specific tournament have won the tournament.
These tournament victories occurred between 1991 and 2003.
The tournaments won by the team that scored the most points were all won by the All Blacks, 1987, 2011, 2015.
With two of these three All Blacks World Cup victories recorded in the last two tournaments, what Robbie Deans seems to be suggesting is that pointscoring teams rather than defensive teams now have the best chance to winning this year’s tournament.
So far in the tournament none of the other major sides other than the All Blacks has shown a similar willingness and brilliance in their attacking play.
George Gregan, for instance, has complained that Wales have a lack of attack that will cost them the World Cup.
Stephen Jones has complained that England are “boring”.
Ireland found out against Japan that playing a no-risk game is a huge risk when the tide of a match turns against the side.
My guess too is that the best hope of the Springboks to beat the All Blacks was in their first-up encounter. The All Blacks generally are scratchy when starting a tournament.
Despite the fact that they played an under-strength Russia, Ireland still bored their way to an unimpressive 35-0 victory.
Ireland scored twice in the last five minutes of play but could not score a point, for instance, even when Russia had a player in the sin bin.
Throughout the tournament so far Ireland have shown they do not have the instinct or the panache to create some moments of brilliance to overcome the problems of a match flowing away from it.
As for the Wallabies, Michael Cheika seems to be no nearer to knowing what his best squad is, with his side’s third match in the tournament coming up than he was at the beginning of the tournament.
This is hardly a recipe for success for the Wallabies.
Meanwhile, the All Blacks burst into brilliant form in their second match of the tournament against Canada with a 63-0 victory, the biggest winning margin of the tournament so far.
More importantly, the All Blacks are pioneering a new way to play rugby – to play winning rugby actually – with the system of dual fullbacks-playmakers with Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett.
These two brilliant players have now played six Tests in tandem. Against Canada they ripped their opponents to shreds time after time.
At the next World Cup in France in 2023 all the leading teams will be playing the Mo’unga-Barrett system.
The fact is too that the All Blacks, unlike the other teams, have brought a number of changes to its usual game plan. For instance, it was noticeable that Sonny Bill Williams made a number of runs from rucks, rather like a dummy half in rugby league.
There is, though, some hope for supporters of teams other than the All Blacks. The tournament in which the All Blacks scored the most number of points any side has scored in a World Cup was in 2007. This was the tournament in which they were booted out in the quarter-final.
This was the worst performance of the All Blacks in any World Cup.