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Opinion

The cream rises to the top at the RWC

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Roar Rookie
28th October, 2019
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The All Blacks’ clinical demise by England has opened the door for the fresh winds of change to blow away NZ’s decade of world domination and usher in a new era in world rugby.

The knockout stage has distilled the crop of contenders to establish a new pecking order in world rugby with the Japanese fairy tale adding a new twist.

A look at the teams involved in the knockout stage raises interesting questions for world rugby’s road ahead.

The vanquished

Japan
From achieving the impossible with the miracle of Brighton in 2015 to being bundled out in the quarters in 2019 by the same foes, Japan have announced their arrival as an internationally respected rugby force.

Their frantic pace and their swarm approach delighted all and surprised both the Irish and the Scots until they ran into the brick wall of good old-fashioned rugby based on forward dominance.

Japan has embraced rugby and the future is bright. Let’s hope this exposure stimulates real buy-in by the locals and they go from strength to strength going forward.

Ireland
Joe Schmidt’s team was carefully assembled and matured around the Conor Murray-Johnny Sexton axis to become a world force that unfortunately peaked a year too early.

With little new talent added over the last 18 months, the quality in depth of replacement and support players proved their downfall once the Sexton-Murray show went beyond their sell-by date and started misfiring.

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Ireland face a daunting rebuilding period after the Schmidt-Sexton era.

Australia
Michael Cheika’s swansong once again proved that momentum is key at a World Cup.

Michael Cheika

(Photo by Warren Little – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Despite having a competitive team on paper, his erratic selections leading up to the quarters – combined with the over reliance on David Pocock’s fading powers – got blown off the field by Eddie Jones’ structured team play, momentum being their key.

Rugby’s technicalities have evolved to the point where you cannot just throw 15 talented players together on a given day and expect them to create magic to win, like you could during the amateur era of old.

Australia can do with a good dose of Dave Rennie or Robbie Deans going forward.

France
True to form, the French lived up to their reputation once again to confuse everybody leading up to the tournament.

They had the usual internal squabbles during the tournament, just to have an outstanding match in the quarters that confounded all comers, then threw the baby out with the bath water with a brain-freeze, hot-headed moment of passion to hasten their exit.

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Stay tuned: this French crop has oodles of talent, and in little Romain Ntamack, they have a real little jewel that could turn world rugby upside down in years to come.

New Zealand
The easy part of becoming rich is always your first million. The difficult part is to keep it and make it multiply.

A three-peat was within view for the mighty All Blacks machine to enhance their dynasty, but it proved just a stretch too far. After a decade of world dominance, the land of the silver cloud exits stage left, bruised and battered after the wheel of time caught up with them.

Kieran Read dejected.

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

We salute Steve Hansen, seen congratulating the victors after the match, and his troops for their sustained excellence and the joy they gave all rugby lovers over the last decade. They’ve changed the game forever and will go down in history as the greatest team ever to grace our beloved sport.

Despite vacating the WC throne, they will still be the team to beat going forward.

Wales
The Welsh team – warriors one and all – were guided by the canny Warren Gatland’s hand to create a team punching above their weight on the bedrock of sound technique and unquenchable passion.

With the talent at hand, reaching the semis is a true reflection of their position in world rugby.

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The victors

England
The little wizard Eddie Jones had four years to groom England to become world champions again and what a sterling job he’s done.

His squad looks ominously unstoppable a week out from the final. Their phase play with a few burly gain-line attackers allied to speed out wide and a tight John Mitchell-designed defence has seen them past all comers to build up the momentum to topple the All Blacks against all expectation.

This game that will go down as a classic and a shade of his 2015 upset over the Springboks. On paper his troops are the clear favourites to take home the silverware next week.

The thoughts of both Hansen and Gatland rings true though. Have England peaked and played their final in the semis?

Time will tell.

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Springboks
The Boks messiah Rassie Erasmus has raised a bruised rugby nation found in tatters to within 80 minutes of World Cup glory once again – a true Lazarus act.

He’s done this in a space of 18 months and 24 Tests. Eddie’s had four years and 56 Tests to achieve the same.

Momentum has been key for both these teams and of the two, England seem the more polished and complete team with a strong tight five, two young flankers and a balanced back line with a tight defence.

They haven’t really been put under pressure this World Cup and their temperament during a pressure cooker final is in doubt.

The Boks are still a work in progress with dominant but stop-start showings throughout the tournament. An iron-cast defence and two monster sets of tight fives are their strengths.

This relatively inexperienced team haven’t had a complete performance yet this World Cup and I suspect (and hope, as an unashamed Boks supporter) that they’re saving it for the final.

In a WC final, the team that dominates the gain line will take home the silverware.

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After 12 years we have a 2007 final replay, albeit with reversed stats. Then, England lost a game in the group phases and in 2019 the Boks did, so is this a sign of an England victory or will the Boks become the first WC winners after a loss in the group stages?

History and glory beckons for both, but rugby is the real winner at RWC 2019.