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Five things we have learnt in the World Cup, and two we will learn soon

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4th October, 2023
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As we reach matchweek week five of the Rugby World Cup some themes are starting to emerge.

1. Union is expanding in name as well

There are as many players in this Cup named Pablo or Pierre as Johnny or Richie.

Jose is as common as James. Juan is more common than Chris (or Christ).

There are six Damians, but only one Owen, thank goodness.

Even a good old rugby name like Ben (eight of them if Eben is counted) has been surpassed by Matias-Matt-Matthieu (9) and Dan (if Theo Dan, Danilo and Danco are included).

But the big three are Sam (12), Tom (13), and Nick (10); if Samisoni, Samu, Samuela, and Samiuela are in, as well as Tommaso, Tomas, Tomos, and Tomoki, and Niccolo, Nicolas, and Nicky.

If we look at the referees, we must add a Ben, two Matthews, two Nics, and one Andrew and Angus. Only if we look at the TMO bunker can we find Joy.

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For all the doom and gloom around Australia’s rudderless misfire in this competition, the fans have come from all over, in larger numbers than ever.

All the matches have been sold out or near about, and even a rout like the All Blacks’ smearing of Italy has drawn 5.3 million television viewers in France, which is thirty percent more than the Champions League final broadcast on Canal and TF1.

Spanish language rugby channels have seen a 33% rise in followers; the advent of more Latin American and Iberian rivalries is clear.

Tier 2 versus Tier 2 is not box office, right? In 2015, such games struggled to sell 10,000 tickets.

Think again: 49,342 watched Uruguay play Namibia in Lyon, which has emerged as the best city in France for visitors to spend a week, even if the stadium feels like it is in another department.

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To put the 50,000 fan mark in perspective, this was the number for quarterfinals in Japan in 2019.

Yes, a French holiday mitigates the foul play of Eddie’s acolytes, but it still an uppercut to an Aussie wallet to make the journey.

Of the 1.5 million spectators who made it into a heavily guarded and beer-deficient stadium in France for the first 32 matches, Australia has supplied tens of thousands of fans, third most I hear, having travelled around the world, copped some stick, and kept smiling.

The dodgy draw notwithstanding, the fact 12 teams are still vying for eight spots helps grow interest. A couple of matches featuring rare names like Duhan and Agustin will decide it.

Now, we need more players named Tijuee, Waisea and Aranos.

2. World Rugby has a weird allergy to sharing vision

Influencers have been treated as if they have influenza.

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Stick figures, papyrus scratches, caricatured bald spots, salt-and-pepper shaker scrum schematics, literal spiderwebs instead of spider cams, and other workarounds have been the way contraband images of this wonderful tournament have been published on social media.

Bordeaux is in tweet lock down, Lilles is a video gulag and gifs are the new phish.

As I was in six stadia in six cities, with very decent seats, I thought it would be simple to snap a few pictures of Johnny Sexton’s warmup routine (elaborate) or a film of Rassie Erasmus taking a drop goal whilst eating biltong and carrying traffic signals in his baggy adidas shorts, but World Rugby’s image swat steam swotted them away from my posts, until I discovered the practice of texting myself a highly stylized filter (cartoon mode) of sunlight leaking through the Nantes walls, and posting my films with the warning they were unreal renditions of rugby as art.

Beholden as we are to the editors of World Rugby for a moment it deems sexy, it is clear they do not like scrum analysis or find all the underwear reveals as interesting as we do. Set-piece junkies are starving for the kind of detail they crave this time.

The stated reason given is World Rugby is sensitive to “trial by social media” using freeze frames of high tackles rather than all the angles the TMO sees, which could lead to fans being prejudiced about outcomes in the panels or officials being unfairly pilloried: “Refereeing is one of the hardest jobs in the sport, and our responsibility is to make the referee’s lives as simple as possible by always supporting them. We know we have the best of the best.”

Leaving aside the banal nonsense within that platitudinal blather, Wayne Barnes is often said to be the best of the best of the best. He has 70,000 followers on X. He and his fellow referees posed plenty in the leadup to the Cup. He just posted, or tried to post, a video of Florian Rosu (Florian is also a name I have a lot of time for) shaking his hand after Barnes carded him (“very classy from Florian” posted the English ref) but was blocked by copyright, to protect Barnes?

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To render the controversy over a card less fiery? I am not sure, by the way, that the referee’s job is harder than being an amateur player trying to tackle Duhan van der Merwe in full flight, but even if Barnes did repost a vision of the moment he felt was poignant: being validated by the carded player which did pass muster. But it all just seems silly and counterproductive.

Refs have never been more famous, both by the rise of the game, their own efforts to build fame and second career, and due to the complex nature of the breakdown.

If we want a dispute-heavy game with big-time refs, it seems obvious that more fans should be able to share more views and when someone has spent ten thousand bucks to be in the arena, a funny video of a scrum battle officiated by a ref with a bald spot and a blind spot surely helps the “narrative” of “hardest job; best of the best” more than making vision as scarce as the Avignon Pope Innocent VI’s innocence.

3. The organisers thought it was a soccer World Cup

There are too many machine guns at this Cup and not enough beer. On our podcast, we joked with Rob Kitson about the gun-to-beer ratio and whether we should print a tee-shirt to that effect. But of course, we would be geo-blocked by copyright.

Nothing is wrong with the quality of play in this tournament, but the manner in which games are conducted inside and outside the stadium has been a bit odd.

Spiro Zavos wrote Eddie Jones has been confused about the code at play; the French team running this Cup seems to think they are hosting English and German football hooligans or South American fanbases who must be housed in sealed off blocks, marked by snipers.

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Wallabies coach Eddie Jones. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, they have finally realised they missed an opportunity to serve 40,000 additional beers in Marseille when Scots and Saffas converged on a hot day when Finn failed to fire; even the new record (120,000 in Paris when those same Saffas saw Ireland win by a downed maul) was fifty percent low on what they could have sold.

Ditto for the lack of sausage rolls and meat pies; it is only stale hot dogs without fixings.

The feeling which comes from the squads of commandos patrolling the exterior, storming a peaceful Irish gathering on the green, rifling through Springbok fans’ biltong backpacks, and separating us by gender for body pats in Marseille, is one required for a different sport.

Rugby fans can feud without fighting. There is no need for the giant wave of yellow-vested teens in the sight lines of rows 1-5.

4. Conspiracies reign

The unusual permutation which presented itself in Pool B, the Pool of Sledge, wherein a very odd scoring margin could see a Caledonian-Hibernian pact oust the Boks in the name of Celtic pride, caused irrational and nonsensical theories to be spun (along with old-fashioned satire).

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Leaving aside the fact that elite sport abhors throwing a game or losing it to anyone, and that Ireland would want South Africa, more than Scotland, to have a bash at France in a quarter, the entire theory was premised on cooperation which has never been seen in the 1,700 years since Roman writer Eumenius described Picts (the ancestors of many Scots who had migrated from Scandinavia by way of Orkney) and Irish attacking the ancient equivalent of the Springbok stiletto-umbrella defence, Hadrian’s Wall.

Yes, Picts were a “confederation of tribal units whose political motivations derived from a need to ally against a common enemy” but it is likely Ireland would remember the SRU voted against Ireland’s bid to host the World Cup, no matter how deeply Pierre Schoeman, Duhan, Kyle Steyn, and WP Nel feel connected to the lochs and monsters and Scottish plots, they would never go along with throwing a match to decimate their homeland, and Andy Farrell’s team wants never to lose again, to anyone, ever. The only thing on their mind is winning.

This is actually likely to be the match of the last round, with careers defined by it. Game on.

5. Who is in which tier? What do tiers mean anyway?

World Rugby divides the global game into two tiers. Tier One has ten teams: the Six Nations teams plus The Rugby Championship roster. Tier Two is comprised of the rest.

But a “tier” has a colloquial use as well. Would anyone stack Georgia as meaningfully behind Italy given the advantages Italy has had for over twenty years? Fiji just beat Australia and did not look lucky.

In 2015 and 2019, Japan notched three wins over Tier One teams, but all of those are now in the top five, and Japan has hit a wall unless they upset Argentina this weekend. Romania has looked badly off the pace, whilst Portugal has looked on the rise (Spain was a big loss to this Cup).

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I talked to a Romanian in the stands in Bordeaux, with his son, and he observed: “Today is a valuable lesson for my boy. To be good, you have to play the best. And it will be bad. It’ll hurt.” How can the lower Tier Two teams play enough Tests against the big boys to get better in time for 2027? It is not clear just being wiped 76-0 every four years will do anything for them.

Perhaps we should structure tiers in four layers, and be clear about requisites, much like a boxer who slips in rankings or loses the belt if he does not put it on the line enough.

Tier One looks like a ten-team group but not including Italy. In fact, number ten (Australia) lost a coach over a loss to Italy, who was mown over like winter grass by New Zealand and appeared to give up completely. Why is Italy being propped up like a crumbling column?

In Tier Two, you might have Italy, Japan, Georgia, Samoa, Tonga, Portugal, Uruguay, the U.S., Spain, and Chile. The focus should be to max out their Tests against each other and Tier One.

Tier Three would begin with Romania, Canada, and Namibia and encompass the most intriguing: Brazil, Netherlands, and Belgium. Here, the focus should be on tournaments that matter.

Two Things We Are About to Learn:

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1. Is Ireland too hungry?

Rock-paper-scissors is a fine game to compare rugby to, and I have said South Africa and France are rocks so large they can smash other rocks, whilst the All Blacks are (at their best) butcher paper or (when they struggle against power) ornate scissors, but is Ireland all three?
We are about to learn when they must beat scissor-handed Scotland, after playing the boulder Boks, then another rock (Wales or Argentina) and then an even rockier Boks or France, probably.

It may come down to attrition in nutrition. Ireland’s loose trio of Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris with honorary affiliate Tadgh Beirne have been the scavengers of the Cup, but 240-minute Beirne and old O’Mahony looked out on their feet in Paris after the great escape and 29-tackle Doris and the 68-ruck Dutch Disciple always look hungry.

Mack Hansen of Ireland celebrates victory at full-time following the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between South Africa and Ireland at Stade de France on September 23, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Franco Arland/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Ireland’s Mack Hansen celebrates victory over South Africa. (Photo by Franco Arland/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Emma Gardner has been Ireland’s chief nutritionist, leading eleven other experts across the provinces, and is directing what 63 people eat every day. Talking to Murray Kinsella, on the42.ie, she explained she must cater to Andrew Porter’s barrel build (“for Ports, 400 to 600 grams of carbs in a day; think one plate of pasta might be 80 grams”) as well as wiry Mack Hanson, and navigate tricky 9 pm kickoffs (“feeling sluggish because the only thing you do is eat all day”) which meant they got back to the hotel at 1 am and had a post-match meal: “We had to. There’s no other time.”

I have noted France is aroused but asked if they are hard enough. South Africa is hard but are they big enough on the wings. New Zealand is down but are they really out?

Ireland: are they too hungry for their own good?

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2. Is Argentina peaking at the right time?

Pool D’s denouement arrives this weekend. Michael Cheika’s side appeared to be asleep in Round One, waking up in Round Two, and catching fire in Round Three, with Nico Sanchez driving the Pumamobile.

Sitting on 9 pool points, equal to Japan but with a 32 point margin in their pockets, this is a play in match.

The oddsmakers have Argentina as 75% likely, having slain bigger dragons more often than the Brave Blossoms, and if they win, they will fancy a crack at Wales to get to the semis, where they could join anywhere from naught to three fellow Southern Hemisphere teams.
The Pumas have a vastly superior lineout, second best in the tourney, with brilliant hooker-lifter-leaper calls and athleticism, but Japan has a scrum that could smoke Argentina.

Cheika’s men have gained 33 metres a game from maul drives (best in the comp) whilst Japan has managed less than 3 metres. Japan’s insistence on running the ball from deep will put them in the soup.

The question is: has Argentina timed their run beautifully, as Cheika did once before?

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