There’s been so much rugby during the course of this third week of Rugby World Cup 2015, that we are going to have to try and condense it all into a slightly briefer version of our daily report card just to keep up as we head into week four and the final round of the Pool stages. So a bit like high speed wine tasting, we’ll keep our comments short and sweet on a week that saw plenty of drama including the blockbuster news of tournament host England being knocked out of the tournament.
Tonga vs Namibia
Final Score – Tonga 35/Namibia 21
Tonga – 8/10
The week got off to a flying start with an impressive display from Tonga that thoroughly entertained a sellout crowd in Exeter. Tonga looked really good value for money and ran in five tries that really showcased their skills with winger Telusa Veianu and flanker Jack Ram having a particularly productive afternoon. Tonga looked focused and produced some dazzling displays of running rugby at times. Furthermore despite the frenetic pace of the match, they managed to keep for the most part a good handle on their discipline which has often been their Achilles Heel. In short a solid well structured display from Tonga that produced some sublime rugby at times.
Namibia – 8/10
Full marks to Namibia for once again putting up a courageous fight against superior opposition. Namibia never took their foot off the gas and at one point even looked like they might cause an upset. Furthermore in the process they would run in three fine tries of their own, with inspirational Captain and flanker Jacques Burger providing two of them. As we saw in the match against New Zealand, Namibia have no fear of anyone despite their lowly status in the world rankings. They compete hard in every aspect of the game and as a result get full marks for entertaining the crowds who have turned out to watch them play in this tournament. Even though they lost we’re giving them the same score as Tonga for commitment and effort alone. They were key in making sure that this contest was as entertaining and enthralling at times as it was.
Wales vs Fiji
Final Score – Wales 23/Fiji 13
Wales – 7/10
After their epic performance against England, Wales enjoyed the luxury of a home game in front of the Welsh faithful as they got the job done against a potential Fijian banana skin. Whilst perhaps not as impressive as their victory over England, a Welsh side still reeling from a significant injury count managed to hold off a powerful second half surge from Fiji. Gareth Davies once more had a really good game for Wales, and has made the loss of Rhys Webb look far less of an issue than originally envisaged. Lock Alun Wyn Jones continued to impress and is absolutely critical to Wales in attack and defence. Prop Bradley Davies was lucky to avoid a yellow card and in general the Welsh scrum whether it was a function of fatigue or not struggled at times against the Fijians. Australia’s scrum had the better of England and is a vastly improved unit and Wales will need to be mindful of this come next Saturday. Dan Biggar at flyhalf once again had his GPS boots on and his goalkicking reliability is rightly becoming the envy of the tournament. In general, you have to admit despite coming so quickly off the back of a titanic effort against England, Wales looked sharp for the most part and with a week to recover should be in good shape for Australia. However, as impressive as they were they are going to have to find a couple of extra gears if they want to remotely challenge an Australian side that looks like they have the ability to go all the way.
Fiji – 7/10
Your heart has to go out to Fiji, they have played with enormous resilience and courage in this tournament in a pool that was always going to stretch them to the limits. Their never say die attitude really has been impressive, and their resurgence in the second half of this match was fantastic. Had their execution been just that bit sharper as well as discipline coupled with increased accuracy from flyhalf Ben Volavola in the kicking department, then they may well have pulled off an upset and once again turned Pool A on its head. Nevertheless they can take great consolation in having provided some of the most memorable moments of the tournament so far in the try scoring department and winger Aseli Tikoirotuma’s spectacular run from his 22 and ultimate offload to centre Vereniki Goneva was one of the scores of the tournament. In a stern test against Wales, Fiji really took the initiative in the second half and had they had the likes of missing winger Nemani Nadolo and scrum half Nikola Matawalu it could well have been Fiji’s day. Furthermore the days of Fiji being pushed around in the scrum seem to be well and truly over. It has been Fiji’s harsh luck to be drawn in Pool A and had they been in any of the other pools we may well have ended up seeing them in the Quarter-Finals. All credit to them, they have entertained us and the tournament has been all the richer with their presence.
France vs Canada
Final Score – France 41/Canada 18
France – 7/10
France remain a mystery. Once again they were put to the test and although they emerged the victors they hardly look like a side that will go all the way in this tournament. Blessed with plenty of talent and the odd dash of flair they still have yet to put in a complete performance. Furthermore once Canada fought back, France often looked surprised and it took them a remarkably long time to regroup and regain the ascendancy. Were it not for fly half Freddie Michalak, France would have lacked a degree of control and guidance that they will need against the bigger teams once they get to the knockout stages. France’s saving grace at the moment is the opportunities Michalak is able to create for them coupled to a powerhouse forward pack. I am still not convinced by France’s options in their backs and their ability to create opportunities for France to score tries. Still their scrum is exceptionally sound and Pascal Pape and Louis Picamoles are providing exceptionally hard graft for Les Bleus in the forwards which is proving inspirational to the rest of the pack. Good but definitely not looking like the finished product they need to be to go the distance, the Pool decider against Ireland will tell us a great deal of what France will ultimately do in the tournament.
Canada – 7/10
Another heroic performance from Canada which pushed France hard at times, but sadly still saw them run out of steam in the game’s closing stages. Given their solid effort against Italy only five days earlier it was always going to be a tough call to do it all over again in such a short space of time against France. Still to their credit they gave it everything they had and can hold their heads high. Winger DTH van der Merwe once more scored a spectacular try and has really made a statement this tournament. He is without doubt a world class player and deserves his reputation as a much sought after commodity in European club rugby. I have long argued that scrum half Phil Mack should be Canada’s first choice scrum half and apart from one defensive lapse that contributed to Wesley Fofana’s try early in the game, he provided some excellent service to his team that played a key role in Canda’s charge midway through the game. An intensity I felt that Canada instantly lost once he was replaced by Gordon McRorie. It was a brutal blow for Canada to lose Captain Tyler Ardron so early in the proceedings after he had had such an influence in the Italian game, especially as he will now miss Canada’s last game of the tournament against Romania. Despite the scoreline Canada to a man put up a really solid fight against the French which only really started to cave in the last twenty minutes, as fatigue set in. From there all the problems Canada has seen throughout this year, in terms of breakdowns in discipline and a lack of finishing skills once more reared their ugly heads. Canada also still has a problem of missing too many first phase tackles which makes them have to work even harder in energy sapping defensive stands. They have been enjoyable too watch this tournament and courtesy of DTH van der Merwe have provided us with some of the most memorable moments of the Pool stages. If Canada can find the balance between the demands of its Sevens programme and that of the fifteen a side game, the future could be very bright.
New Zealand vs Georgia
Final Score – New Zealand 44/Georgia 10
New Zealand – 7/10
As tournament favourites New Zealand failed to impress yet again. I am sure they are taking the easy route through a soft pool, but in past World Cups with the favourites tag on them they have tended to put cricket scores on tier two nations in the pool stages. Not so this World Cup. To be fair this is also a reflection of the fact that the Tier Two nations are getting considerably better and the gap although still significant is narrowing. Nevertheless, I have yet to see an all conquering All Black side in this tournament. Sure they barnstormed their way to the required bonus point and the win in a mere 21 minutes, which is no mean feat, but they just don’t look that driven or motivated. I am sure that the best is yet to come for the World’s number one team, but the waiting must be proving frustrating for their supporters. If Georgia actually had backs that could have threatened New Zealand then the result may have been very different. That being said, Georgia didn’t and despite the fact that at the breakdowns and in the scrums New Zealand were made to work exceptionally hard, they were never in danger of losing the match. What was worrying for New Zealand was how easily the relentless forward pressure from Georgia forced the All Blacks into numerous handling errors. Sonny Bill Williams and Julian Savea made a clear statement in this match but against a side that has not much to offer in the backs department it was hard to guage how good a performance by these two it really was. Waisake Naholo made an emphatic return to an All Black shirt after a remarkable return from injury but even here lack of game time saw him make a few basic mistakes under pressure. Meanwhile Richie McCaw hobbled off and fly half Dan Carter looked less than flash all night. I am not writing the All Blacks off by any manner of means, but like most was surprised at the sloppiness of this excecptionally underwhelming display by New Zealand. New Zealand will cruise into the knockout stages undefeated but after what we have seen so far, they will really have to step it up a few gears and really find some killer instinct if they are to get any further than the Quarter Finals.
Georgia – 7/10
Another impressive outing by Georgia which put tournament favourites New Zealand under all kinds of pressure. If Georgia had a back line that could match the world class talents of their forwards, then this team could be a real contender. Having said that, right now they just don’t but I am sure by the time of the next World Cup they will have that aspect of their game addressed. In the meantime, even without a potent back line Georgia have been real contenders this tournament which just goes to show what a force this country is becoming. Calls for them to be included in a higher level competition such as the Six Nations are certainly not without merit. All credit to Georgia, their scrum often dominated New Zealand and their defence was always valiant despite a seeming reluctance by both sides to tackle early on. Georgia’s back line did have a moment of glory through an opportunistic try by full back Beka Tsiklauri in the opening stages of the game, but that was sadly the only moment of quality back line play from Georgia. In the end Georgia can take great pride in the fact that they stood up to the All Blacks and made the World Champions look distinctly average for long periods of the match. Their final match against Namibia should see them comfortably clinch third spot in Pool C and automatic qualification for the tournament in Japan in 2019.
Samoa vs Japan
Final Score – Samoa 5/Japan 26
Samoa – 5/10
Samoa promised so much going into this tournament but are in serious danger of exiting with a whimper. This can only be described as a dismal performance which most of their players and supporters will no doubt want to forget. Japan essentially dominated a woeful Samoan side racked by poor execution and a complete lack of discipline. Samoa can’t even use the excuse of a quick turnaround as they were well rested for this crucial fixture. In short there is nothing really to say about this match from a Samoan perspective. They simply didn’t show up and as a result are for all intents and purposes on the plane home. It is hoped for the sake of this proud rugby nation that they can find something in the tank to put in a display against Scotland that although it won’t change Samoa’s fortunes could end up having a huge impact on how Pool B may be determined.
Japan – 8/10
A well rested Japanese side completely outplayed a poor Samoan side. The only negative aspect of Japan’s performance was the reluctance to take bonus points which were clearly on offer on two occasions and instead take the safer option of kicking for goal. This conservative approach was certainly not a feature of their heroic effort against South Africa, and with so much at stake in terms of positioning in terms of Pool B, it was perplexing to see Japan take these options on Saturday. Nevertheless, it was a solid performance from Japan that eclipsed anything Samoa could offer. Fullback Ayumu Goromaru put in another massive performance for Japan and really is a critical component of Japan’s composure under pressure. Nevertheless he was not as accurate with the boot as he was against South Africa, which made the decision to kick for goal on two occasions when Japan had Samoa on the ropes in defence all the more puzzling. Despite this Japan head into their final game with the USA, in excellent shape. A chance of them making the quarter finals is distinctly possible depending on how the Scots fare against Samoa. Japan should easily get the better of a tired and ill-disciplined USA side reeling from a very physical encounter with South Africa with only four days turnaround. Japan may rue the decision to not check their maths during this game, but their Cinderella story in this World Cup for the moment still looks very much alive.
South Africa vs Scotland
Final Score – South Africa 34/Scotland 16
South Africa – 8/10
South Africa continued their rise from the wreckage which was their opening match against Japan in no uncertain terms. For all intents and purposes they neutralised a Scottish side that clearly came to put up a challenge but never really looked like threatening a very fired up and focused Springboks side. It was physical and intense from the get go and South Africa essentially bludgeoned the Scots into submission. As impressive as it was, you still couldn’t help get the feeling that South Africa’s game play still relies far too much on this overwhelming physical approach and up against more tactically astute sides in the knockout stages this slightly one-dimensional style could be their undoing. It was a measured and solid performance from South Africa. They dominated the setpieces and lineouts and Lood de Jager alongside his lock partner Eben Etzebeth had a massive game for the Springboks. JP Pietersen on the wing had another excellent game and has really been key in defence for South Africa as well as bagging another superb try. Handre Pollard really came into his own with the boot and had a very assured afternoon at fly half. I only saw two weak points in this Springbok performance, Jannie du Plessis’ yellow card and some truly shocking defence which resulted in Scotland’s only try. I like many feel that du Plessis unlike his brother Bismarck really has past his sell by date and he should be making room for a younger generation of Springbok props. South Africa are back and mean business but I really do feel that they need to use their backs more if they want to get beyond the Quarter Finals, especially if their first knockout opponent ends up being Australia.
Scotland – 6/10
After a stellar opening two games in this World Cup, this was a poor performance from Scotland. They were completely dominated by South Africa in all aspects of the match. They had moments of brilliance but these were more due to South African mistakes than genuine playmaking from the Scots. Scotland’s only try from winger Tommy Seymour set up by a piece of sheer magic from fly half Duncan Weir was definitely one of the highlights of an otherwise brutal physical encounter with the Springboks clearly in charge. Scotland just never really got into the match and even Greg Laidlaw’s usually reliable boot wasn’t working for them. Their scrums got pushed around and they essentially stood no chance in the lineouts and at the breakdowns despite some really solid work from number eight David Denton and Blair Cowan both of whom put in performances that often sparked some Scottish momentum. Fullback Stuart Hogg was always dangerous but suffered from a severe lack of discipline at times and his diving antics at one point totally deserved the stern reprimand he got from referee Nigel Owens. Nevertheless it was still sad to see this star player limp off in the second half with an injury and it is hoped that he will be fighting fit for the remainder of Scotland’s campaign.
England vs Australia
Final Score – England 13/Australia 33
In the biggest match of the tournament so far, the hosts England were once more found sorely lacking in character and ability. It is still harsh justice that they are now out of the tournament but like many I have never really seen anything from England in the last year that really led me to believe they could keep up a consistent run of form to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in their own backyard. Furthermore, as readers of this blog know I have always had serious doubts about Coach Stuart Lancaster’s ability to take this team to World Cup glory as he struggles to find the team he wants and needs. Bizarre selection choices based on reputation rather than form have let England down time and again. The decision to select in my opinion England’s most overrated player Owen Farrell, who often lacks discipline and composure under pressure, was only part of England’s undoing, along with a reliance on an inexperienced flash in the pan player like Sam Burgess to save the day. England were for the most part a shadow of their Wallaby opponents in every aspect of the game. Whereas the Wallabies were clinical and deadly in everything they did, England often looked desperate and lacking conviction in their abilities. As the match wore on they simply dug themselves deeper into their own hole and the Wallabies punished them for it. As I have always felt the minute George Ford at flyhalf came on moving Owen Farrell to centre, England’s attack finally seemed to have some purpose, but it was simply too little too late. Farrell’s sending off for a truly stupid shoulder tackle would be the last straw that would knock England out of the competition even though I agree that Australia’s Michael Hooper should have been carded for the same offence earlier in the match. England now face a meaningless game with Uruguay before the entire English rugby setup is put under the most unforgiving of microscopes for the next few months. Despite the shock of this result England deserved to do so much better and I hope that this major setback will be the catalyst to find the answers as to why England is where it is and how to fix it – a painful but long overdue few months now awaits.
Australia – 10/10
At the end of week three, for me the team that is leading the chase to get their hands on the Webb Ellis trophy is clearly the Wallabies. This was a clinical and ruthless performance which showcased Australia’s depth in both defence and attack. In short they made England look like amateurs for most of Saturday night and there was only ever going to be one result. As far as I was concerned it was a masterclass performance by Australia and the only blemish on it was Michael Hooper’s cynical shoulder charge on Mike Brown’s head, which should have seen a yellow card. It didn’t but at least justice has been served in his citing post the match and resulting one week ban. Nevertheless it still wouldn’t have changed the outcome of this match. Australia were the class act and England the pretenders. Bernard Foley at fly half was absolutely outstanding and his two tries surely made an emphatic statement that Quade Cooper should continue warming the bench for Australia. Australia’s forwards made mincemeat of England’s replies and David Pocock demonstrated time and again why he is the world’s most devastating loose forward. Of particular note for me was another exceptional performance from flanker Scott Fardy, his workrate is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends. I was surprised to see Nick Phipps brought on at scrum half for Will Genia who more than answered all his critics in a superb return to form, while Phipps often looked nervous and made several critical errors which gave England a chance to get back in the game. In short, Australia look good – really good and from what I have seen so far, are in my opinion currently the front runners to take the big prize on October 31st. We wait and see what happens against Wales but Australia must be feeling pretty good about life right now.
Argentina vs Tonga
Final Score – Argentina 45/Tonga 16
Argentina – 9/10
I have to be honest, apart from lock Tomas Lavanini’s disciplinary problems, Argentina are looking really good. Lavanini should have got a yellow card and despite his obvious impact in this Pumas side they are really going to have to get such lapses under control if Argentina are to continue to advance in this tournament, which on the basis of this display they are more than capable of doing. Argentina in this match despite some very spirited play from Tonga were clearly in charge of this game. Their legendary scrum passed all the required tests, their lineouts were good coupled with excellent work at the breakdown coupled to a set of backs that are really starting light up this tournament. Nicolas Sanchez at flyhalf for the Pumas made a truly spectacular return to the form we all know he is capable of. Accurate, disciplined and with a keen eye for opportunity he was key to Argentina’s success on Sunday afternoon. Once again for me though, winger Santiago Cordero and number eight Leonardo Senatore were real revelations in this match. Cordero’s speed of step coupled with a willingness to make tackle after tackle in defence has been one of the real highlights of this Pumas squad during this World Cup and he is going to be a major threat. Leonardo Senatore at number eight is another key component of this Pumas side and gains key turnover after turnover for the Pumas while covering the entire park for eighty minutes. Argentina are clearly looking for glory and have so far shown that they have the capability to get results as they go from strength to strength. France and Ireland must surely be feeling that whatever happens in Pool D, there will simply be no easy rides at the quarter finals now.
Tonga – 7/10
Tonga were brave and worthy opponents against an Argentinian side that is starting to look like real contenders for World Cup glory. However, it was a lack of discipline at times and lapses in defence which ultimately meant that Tonga would fall short of the mark. When they had the ball in attack they always looked dangerous and their two tries were excellent value for money. However, it was always going to be a hard task for them to match the intensity and class that the Pumas had on offer. Tonga gave it their all and helped make a match that on the scoreline alone appear one-sided, a thoroughly entertaining and at times tense encounter. Well done Tonga and it seems a shame that a side that has provided some really exciting rugby faces the prospect of only finishing fourth unless Namibia upsets Georgia. The passion inherent in Tongan rugby has been there for all to see throughout this tournament and I like many have thoroughly enjoyed it. New Zealand will have to be mindful of this as Tonga take on the world’s best in their last hurrah of Rugby World Cup 2015.
Ireland vs Italy
Final Score – Ireland 16/Italy 9
Underwhelming to say the least is what Irish supporters must have felt about their side’s performance in this match. All credit to Italy who took the game to Ireland in no uncertain terms led by their talismanic Captain Sergio Parisse. Ireland however, just couldn’t seem to string a comprehensive game plan together to match the Italian intensity. There were some standout performances for Ireland with lock Ian Henderson stealing much of the Irish limelight. Peter O’Mahony made a real impression with his try saving tackle on Josh Forno which could have ended up swinging momentum in favor of the Italians, but his high tackle later in the match could well have undone his earlier heroics. Keith Earl’s try got Ireland the gap they needed to win the match but it was the only real highlight of a match where Ireland looked nervous and clearly struggling to contain a rampant Italian side. It was labored and certainly will not be giving the French much to worry about. As Ireland’s first real test of the World Cup they walked away with a win but left far too many question marks on the field!
Italy – 8/10
If anyone ever doubted the impact of Captain Sergio Parisse on Italy’s fortunes then surely this match must have put those to rest. He was as always incredible and lifted a valiant but demoralised Italian side to new heights. Italy although unable to score tries due to some solid Irish defence, otherwise had the better of this match. They were unlucky not to score a try and a last minute error in decision making by lock Josh Forno, coupled with some critical misses by fly half Tommaso Allan at goal, meant that ultimately it would not be Italy’s day. They were close ever so close and really put one of the tournament’s favourites under incredible pressure for the full eighty minutes. What Italy can take enormous heart from is the fact that the loss of Sergio Parisse after 60 minutes did not for a second diminish the intensity of the Italian performance. They played some fantastic rugby for a full eighty minutes leaving Irish supporters sweating in their seats till the final whistle. They now face an epic showdown with Romania and I for one can’t wait. Italy’s World Cup may be over, but with one match left there is still plenty of life left in the Azurri!