Who is really feeling the heat at the Rugby World Cup in Japan?
Is it the northern hemisphere countries, who have been touted to wilt in both the humidity and under the pressure of tournament expectation? Or is it the southern hemisphere, who have been told on a regular basis that the gap is closing – a perception reinforced by the World Rugby rankings before the competition?
In the second week of the tournament, a tentative pattern is beginning to emerge. It suggests there is a germ of truth to both sides of the argument.
In the three games so far between teams ranked in the top ten, the north has come out slightly ahead: Wales overcame Australia in a nailbiter by 29 points to 25, France shaded Argentina 23 points to 21, while hosts Japan upset highly ranked Ireland 19-12.
Six Nations sides, therefore, have a 2-0 record against teams from the Rugby Championship so far. In matches just below the top rung of the tournament, Scotland zipped Samoa 34-0 and England beat Tonga 35-3. That makes it 4-1 to the northern hemisphere.
A more complex and interesting pattern is emerging just below the surface, if we divide the top three matches by halves. The scores from the first period of play are as follows:
|Game||North (tries)||South (tries)|
|Wales-Australia||23 (2)||8 (1)|
|France-Argentina||20 (2)||3 (0)|
|Ireland-Japan||12 (2)||9 (0)|
|Total points||55 (6)||20 (1)|
The picture doesn’t change much with the addition of the England-Tonga and Scotland-Samoa games, in which the European sides scored 38 of their 69 points in the first half.
The comparison with the second half is like chalk and cheese:
|Game||North (tries)||South (tries)|
|Wales-Australia||6 (0)||17 (2)|
|France-Argentina||3 (0)||18 (2)|
|Ireland-Japan||0 (0)||10 (1)|
|Total points||9 (0)||45 (5)|
While the southern nations have only scored one try in the opening period, the northern countries have done even worse in the second – managing only three field goals between them.
The clear implication is that the humidity is taking its toll on the north. The professionals from the southern hemisphere play in Super Rugby, which is aerobically more demanding than the equivalent European club/provincial competitions. Super Rugby is staged across four different continents, and in a much wider spectrum of weather conditions.
At the same time, as long as the European teams can stay within their structures in the first period of the game, they are proving dominant, well able to control both the opposition and the scoreboard.
There is one important caveat here, which is that arguably the three strongest contenders to win the World Cup – New Zealand, South Africa and England – have yet to feature in the comparison.
But the initial signs point to a fascinating clash of attitudes and abilities, played out on a more level playing field than ever before at a World Cup.
The ‘Miracle of Shizuoka’, in which Japan turned over an early Irish lead and shut out the men from the Emerald Isle completely in the second half, fleshes out the contrast in approaches with some intriguing detail.
Ireland entered the game with a definite plan to attack the left side of the Japanese defence, and in particular the positional play of number 11 Lemeki Lomano and his supporting fullback Ryohei Yamanaka in the Brave Blossoms’ backfield.
They started the game by attacking through the kick:
In both cases, the ball is first shipped into midfield from the set-piece, only for Ireland outside-half Jack Carty to go back and ‘stretch the corner’, testing the positional play of Lemeki on the blindside wing.
This was only the first herald of a ruthless, trumpeting bombardment of the Japanese left wing. When Ireland discovered Lemeki out of position chasing a kick-off down the right in the 23rd minute, they immediately switched play into the yawning space he had vacated via the cross-kick:
James Ryan has made the catch on the receipt and Lemeki’s blond wig is visible loitering on the ‘wrong side’. The man who is trying to fulfil the role on his wing is none other than the Japanese 10, Yu Tamura. He and fullback Yamanaka are comprehensively out-manoeuvred by Keith Earls and Rob Kearney to engineer the break.
The build-up to the first Irish try was four plain vanilla same-way forward phases strung across the field, crowned by a typical Joe Schmidt sting in the tail on fifth phase:
After Rory Best’s carry on the fourth, it looks for all money that the next phase will be delivered to the pod on Ryan, to the left of Ireland scrumhalf Conor Murray. It is here that the master set-piece trickster Schmidt springs his trap:
The real target area is the shortside manned by Lemeki, and it is exploited by a neat switch around the circumference of the ruck between Murray and outside centre Garry Ringrose:
Ireland scored their first try less than one minute later:
Naturally, they achieve the score by returning to that bountiful well on the left side of the Japanese defence, with Yamanaka hopelessly overmatched in a jumping contest with Ringrose.
The second Irish try was finished by another short kick on the left side, this time with Carty’s chip won by Ringrose over Lemeki for Kearney to dot the ball down (at 0:57 on the reel).
Ireland’s success versus the left edge of the Japanese defence ground to a halt in the second period, and especially after Brave Blossoms head coach Jamie Joseph shrewdly replaced Yamanaka with Kenki Fukuoka in the 50th minute, with Lemeki shifting to fullback. That not only shored up the leaks, it handed Japan the initiative on attack.
From a set-piece of their own inside the Ireland red zone, Japan first sent Lemeki straight up the middle off 9 on a punishing run:
Lemeki’s run, and the pick and go immediately following it, compress the Ireland defence around the ruck, and help expose the space that is always available on the outside edge of an Andy Farrell-coached defensive structure:
The quick hands of the Japanese number 13 Timothy Lafaele are admirable enough, but it is really the spacing of the Japanese attackers in relation to the men in green defending them which is a joy to behold:
Ireland have the numbers in the line to defend the play man for man, but it is the stacking of Lafaele and Fukuoka in the five-metre corridor, and the beautifully weighted cut-out pass from Ryoto Nakamura, which eliminates all but one of them from the equation.
Appropriately enough, the game was effectively finished by an interception which showed how much Joseph’s substitution had improved Japan’s cohesiveness on that vital left-hand side:
Ireland would like to get to the far edge but this time Japan are one step ahead – jamming ‘one-in’, with Kenki Fukuoka beating that thorn in the Brave Blossoms’ side in the first period, Garry Ringrose, to the pass. It was a moment symbolic of the change in fortunes which had been triggered by the half-time whistle.
From the perspective of the eternal north-south debate, the 2019 World Cup promises to provide the most engaging and exhilarating chapter to date.
The northern hemisphere is here, it has turned up in force and with bad intentions. The question seems to be not so much whether those intentions can score points and dominate games against opponents from south of the equator, but whether they can dominate them for long enough.
In the first period, European structures on both sides of the ball are effective and productive. As the game develops in the second, there is far more of a struggle with the unfamiliar humidity and the superior aerobic conditioning of Super Rugby-schooled opponents.
With New Zealand, South Africa and England still to enter the debate proper, the argument is balanced on a knife-edge. This coming weekend, England will take on Argentina to make their opening speech on the subject. The All Blacks and Springboks will only make their contributions at the knockout stages of the tournament.
For now, it is enough to admire the improvement of those Brave Blossoms from the host union, and anticipate what promises to be the most evenly-contested battle between the hemispheres in any World Cup, bar none.