The Pain and Glory of Rugby World Cup’s 2015 Quarter Finals

Posted: October 22, 2015 in Rugby World Cup 2015
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Yes I know, for regular readers of this blog the first question is what happened to the last week of the pool stages?  A million apologies but between a family holiday and travelling to Cardiff for the Quarter Finals yours truly just simply didn’t get around to covering it hence the silence of the last sixteen days.  Still back in the game again and we’ll pick up the action at the Quarter-Final stages as well as tomorrow look forward to a weekend of spectacular semi-final action.

As exciting as the last week of Pool action was it never really provided us with any surprises in terms of outcomes, and while for many the same could be said of the Quarter-Finals, few predicted the complete annihilation of France by the All Blacks or the clinical thrashing by Argentina of a wounded Ireland.  Furthermore, Wales spirited fight against the Springboks was the stuff of legends and almost till the end had supporters from both camps on the edge of their seats.  Meanwhile very few people had predicted that Scotland would come so agonizingly close to rewriting the history books.  As the Millenium stadium became known as the slaughterhouse this past weekend, Twickenham really lived up to the title of fields of glory!

South Africa vs Wales
Final Score – South Africa 23/Wales 19
Twickenham

It was everything we expected it to be between these two sides – epic, physical and for most of us nerve-wracking till the final whistle. Although Wales were the losers they can still hold their heads high for ensuring that South Africa were never able to relax for even a second from the opening whistle till the very end. Furthermore, the match would see the lead seesaw between the two sides for its entirety. Still in the end there can only be one winner and on the day you could not fault South Africa for just finding that little bit extra to see them home and into a semi-final clash with the mighty All Blacks. Duane Vermeulen’s incredible backward flick pass off the tail of a rolling maul to scrum half and Captain Fourie du Preez will be one of the highlights of the tournament and demonstrated that in terms of creativity South Africa just held the edge over Wales when it mattered most.

It was always going to be physical and from the moment that referee Wayne Barnes blew the opening whistle these two sides went at each other hammer and tongs at a pace that left many wondering if either team could possibly last a full eighty minutes. The intensity of the battle at the breakdown was exhausting to watch, with South Africa’s experience and physicality in the shape of their two locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager, number eight Duane Vermeulen  and the incredible Schalk Burger on the flank coming to the fore and their better discipline under pressure ensuring that South Africa would win the penalties war especially in the first half. Wales on the other hand were looking slightly more adventurous in open play until time and again some poor execution particularly in terms of passing would let them down at crucial moments.

Despite this it would be Wales who would get the first five pointer of the match through a brilliant try set up by Welsh flyhalf Dan Biggar who continued to be one of the tournament’s superstars. Chasing an up and under of his own Biggar managed to shrug off some weak South African defence before finally providing scrum half Gareth Davies with a brilliant pass to score the first try of the match. Gareth Davies, as he has for Wales throughout their campaign, proved time and again that the loss of first choice Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb for the tournament has not been the disaster many predicted. Meanwhile South Africa were having problems of their own in terms of the execution of their game out wide as twice Fourie Du Preez would miss his target of JP Pietersen on the wing for what would have been certain tries.

Welsh fly half Dan Biggar would take his chances with an opportunistic drop goal on the stroke of half time which would send Wales into the dressing room leading by one point at 13-12. This Welsh side that had performed so well despite so many obstacles certainly looked like they had the heart and character to go all the way.

The Welsh continued in this vein as the second half got underway as penalties were traded but the boot of Dan Biggar seemed to have a degree more accuracy than his South African counterpart Handre Pollard. South Africa then launched a series of punishing physical assaults on the Welsh line, but to their credit the Men in Red once more showed an incredible depth of character as their defence held firm. There was very little between these two sides as they both used every trick in their arsenals both out wide and through the inside channels to get across the try line as the game swung from end to end. Then South Africa just found that little piece of magic and finishing prowess that Southern Hemisphere sides seem so blessed with.

Whether it was a move that had been rehearsed throughout the week or was simply a moment of sheer genius is hard to say, but at the seventy-fifth minute it was the hammer blow South Africa had been looking for all match. For the remaining tense minutes the momentum seemed to firmly swing South Africa’s way and after some sustained forward pressure by South Africa in the final minute it was a simple matter for Captain and scrum half Fourie Du Preez to simply boot the ball into touch and South Africa firmly into the semi-finals.

It was heartbreaking to see the shattered emotions of a Welsh team that has done so much and shown so much character in this tournament, and we can all feel genuinely privileged to have watched them in this World Cup. For South Africa it was sheer joy tempered with the knowledge that perhaps the greatest challenge of their World Cup lies in wait for them next Saturday as they do battle with the All Blacks. They too have shown plenty of grit and determination to come back from that humiliating loss to Japan at the start of the tournament. Fourie du Preez’s quiet but assured leadership has propelled this Springbok team to new heights and the challenge they face next weekend is monumental to say the least, but you can’t help feeling that the momentum and self belief in this team is getting stronger by the minute.

New Zealand vs France
Final Score – New Zealand 62/France 13
Cardiff

There were two sides to this match, a dazzling display by the All Blacks and on the flip side a truly abysmal performance by probably the worst French team I have ever seen in thirty years of watching rugby. I was fortunate enough to be at the match in Cardiff and while there was jubilation amongst the New Zealand supporters there was an air of abject despair mixed with, believe it or not, what one could almost call a sense of relief amongst French supporters. On the train back to Bristol where many of us were staying the French contingent nevertheless managed to find some cheer in the fact that despite their team’s total humiliation, it surely means the end of the current French setup and the glimmerings of a new dawn. In short, if you were French it simply couldn’t get any worse than this and from here on it is time for a clean sweep of French rugby. As one French supporter I spoke to said, if they had won it probably would have meant more agony as the present system which is in tatters would have been allowed to continue however briefly and with it the pain and suffering.

New Zealand are now faced with a quandary however. Their performance in this match truly was something to behold as they ran in nine tries, with winger Julian Savea finally sparked back into life with his own hat-trick of tries. Nevertheless, the fact remains that New Zealand have only been tested once in this tournament, in their opening match against Argentina. France were so utterly hopeless that they hardly provided a genuine challenge to the All Blacks. Therefore as impressive and clinical as this victory was, it was against an opposition that can only be described at best as mediocre. The kind of space New Zealand were afforded in this match simply will not be available next Saturday in Twickenham against a now seasoned and hardened South Africa.

Nevertheless while not much can be said about the French performance it still doesn’t detract from the fact that this was a masterclass display of rugby by the All Blacks irrespective of the inferior quality of the opposition. There were so many standout players for New Zealand from the opening whistle that it is hard to single out anyone in particular. However for me on the wing Nehe Milner-Skudder once more had an absolutely fantastic game and his own try was sheer magic, begging the question as to why was there ever any doubt, despite his lack of Test experience, that he shouldn’t be a shoe-in for New Zealand’s World Cup campaign. Flyhalf Daniel Carter once more blazed back onto the World Stage and showed the sheer class this player possesses, as evidenced by this brilliant offload which set up Julian Savea’s first try.

The man himself, winger Julian Savea blasted his own way onto the Rugby front pages in this match through his three tries. In his second effort which saw him batting away hapless French defenders akin to a certain Jonah Lomu many years ago, Savea has suddenly found all the speed, pace and strength that has often eluded this try scoring machine in the last year. All the other usual suspects in the All Blacks camp stood up and were counted – the lock partnership of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, flankers Richie McCaw and Jerome Kaino, Kieran Read, scrum half Aaron Smith, fullback Ben Smith, Ma’a Nonu at centre – the list goes on and on. Add to that a bench in the shape of Beauden Barrett and Sonny Bill Williams among others and you are packing more talent than most coaches would know what to do with. Can they be beat? Yes. Will they be beat? Unlikely.

As I say for the French it is time to assign this match to history and start a long and painful process of rebuilding. In some ways their task may be even greater than England’s as they struggle to contain the rampant commercial aspirations of their domestic competition. As for this match itself from a French perspective there is little to report as it was for all intents and purposes a one-sided affair. There were moments of redemption but they rarely looked cohesive as well as desperately few and far between, and by the 60 minute mark it was hard to determine if there actually was even a French team on the pitch. I have always been a great admirer of French rugby, but as evidenced on Saturday, this once proud nation has seriously lost its way. I am sure that I voice the opinion of all neutral supporters when I say that we all hope to see a French side that once more buzzes with the energy and flair that has provided us all with so many memorable moments in the past, return to the fore in the not so distant future. France has reached a low from which there can only be one way out and that hopefully is up, and stadiums will once more resound with cries of “Allez les Bleus” that smack of confidence and exuberance as opposed to despair and a longing for the final whistle to put everyone out of their misery.

Ireland vs Argentina
Final Score – Ireland 20/Argentina 43
Cardiff

As holders of the Northern Hemisphere’s strongest hopes for World Cup glory it was devastating to see Ireland crash out of the tournament in the end with a whimper. There were moments in this match where they showed some real character and appeared to make the loss of such key players as Johnny Sexton and Paul O’Connell almost meaningless, but in the end it was always going to be bridge too far for them. As the last quarter of the match unfolded there was a growing sense of inevitability amongst the Green Army in the stands as Ireland sadly exited with a whisper.

Argentina on the other hand once more showed to the world how far they have come in the last four years through one of the most technically competent and assured performances of total rugby that I have ever had the privilege of witnessing. The fact that at the final whistle they received a standing ovation from not only their own wildly exuberant supporters but also the vast numbers of Irish supporters left in the stands as well, shows you just how much respect this team has generated. Argentina weren’t just good in this match – they were brilliant! As sad and heartbroken as many Irish supporters were to see their heroes make such an early exit, I know many of them will be firmly throwing their weight behind supporting Argentina’s continued quest for glory in this World Cup. In short, it wasn’t just a Pumas team that won on Sunday in Cardiff, it was rugby and the great traditions of our sport in general that really won.

Argentina came out of the blocks in this match running on rocket fuel. Scoring two tries in the first ten minutes is always going to put a serious if not life-threatening dent in the confidence of your opponent. Both tries were set up by winger Santiago Cordero who for me has been one of the most exciting and skillful players in the tournament so far. However, it was the sheer class and skill of finishing by his fellow winger Juan Imhoff, that showed just how much quality of execution the Pumas now possess.

Despite reeling from Argentina’s initial lightning strikes, all credit has to be given to a shell-shocked Ireland for how they fought their way back into the match and remained in contention right until the halfway point of the last quarter. They made an impressive effort of containing Argentina’s massive physical presence, and used their numerical superiority during Argentine prop Ramiro Herrera’s yellow card to full advantage. Luke Fitzgerald’s opening Irish try showed some real class and pace. Fitzgerald came onto the wing early to replace winger Tommy Bowe who was stretchered off. From the minute he came on Fitzgerald was one of the Irish players who really stood out in this match.  Fitzgerald’s efforts, along with centre Robbie Henshaw, Captain Jamie Heaslip, and hooker Rory Best were the key elements in Ireland’s heroic fight back. For me the rest of the Irish squad although never giving up, at times often looked poor in comparison to their Argentinian counterparts. Poor decision-making and woeful lapses in discipline would cost Ireland dearly for much of the match as well as a reluctance to use the outside channels on attack where there were often opportunities.

Argentina on the other hand, apart from the odd errors in discipline as evidenced by Herrera’s yellow card, never really lost their composure. Their breakdown work was absolutely clinical and often left Ireland clutching at straws, while their scrum as always was the stuff of legends. What was interesting for me was how good their lineout work was along with the sheer vision displayed in their running game. Flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez could not put a foot wrong both in his tactical kicking and his shots at goal. In short, one observer, in the papers the following morning, described Argentina’s performance as beautiful rugby and I would have to agree.  As dismayed as I was to see Ireland ultimately put to the sword I was often mesmerized at how Argentina made such brilliant play often look easy.

Ireland did manage to keep themselves in contention and at half time were left with only a ten point deficit which is not exactly a crisis in modern-day Test rugby. Ireland started the second half full of intent and another searing run from Luke Fitzgerald would set up flanker Jordi Murphy for Ireland’s second try. For much of the next 20 minutes the scores would remain tantalizingly close, but at the 68th minute Argentina found those extra gears needed to put the match away and into the history books. Fullback Joaquin Tuculet, somehow managed to drag three Irish defenders with him across the try line, and then flanker and talisman Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe linked up with flying winger Juan Imhoff to seal an historic victory for the Pumas.

The pain of promising so much but ultimately falling short of the mark was there for all to see on the faces of the Irish players at the final whistle in stark contrast to scenes of wild jubilation amongst their Argentinian counterparts. Ireland no doubt felt the loss of so many key players as the tournament reached its crucial stages, but their players still put on a display that for the most part showed some real heart. However, in the end the Pumas blessed with all their key players really demonstrated what a world-class side they have become. They are a pleasure to watch and what this tournament means to each and every one of these players is there for all to see. For me they have easily been one of the most complete sides in the tournament and I feel they could easily get the measure of their semi-final opponents Australia next Sunday at Twickenham. The 2007 Pumas team that made the semi-finals was one of the best Argentina have ever produced, but this team is clearly in a class of its own and is far more complete than the 2007 heroes. Argentina can go all the way in this tournament and I for one believe they could just pull it off. Vamos los Pumas!

Australia vs Scotland
Final Score – Australia 35/Scotland 34
Twickenham

This was one of those games which will forever hang on the outcome of one call. Whether or not it was the right call by referee Craig Joubert will be debated long after this World Cup is over and probably even the next one. It would appear that a mistake was made which ultimately robbed Scotland of a piece of history. However, I like many feel that as brutal as the decision was from a Scottish point of view, I also share the view that in the heat of the moment a referee may call it as he sees it and in so doing make an error of judgement. It is a facet of the modern game and is likely to remain so for many years to come. Scotland found themselves winning but by the narrowest of margins and as a result it is down to how you best manage those margins and if anything the referee himself. Sadly in that respect, Australia probably had the edge on the day and as a result however unjust we may feel it is, it is the Wallabies and not Scotland who will find themselves facing Argentina in the semi-final.

This was an epic match that defied all the pundits’ predictions. Many had predicted a fairly straightforward win for Australia despite the dramatic improvements in Scottish fortunes under Coach Vern Cotter. What we got instead was a match that went down to the very last strand of wire. There is no easy way to put a fine gloss on Scotland’s loss and the sense of injustice that the players and their fans must feel after such a massive performance. However, Scotland must surely be able to take away from this match that they are once more contenders and are only going to improve. Scotland were brave of that there is little question, and although many of their opportunities came from Australian mistakes, the point is that it was Scottish pressure that was forcing those mistakes. Add to that an increasingly potent Scottish attacking threat and Scotland are back with a vengeance and over the next few years, their supporters can and should expect big things from this team.

Australia have been for most observers the complete package this tournament. Their defence as evidenced against Wales has become legendary, while their speed at the breakdown and attacking prowess out wide are serious issues for any opposition to deal with. In the centres Matt Giteau is always a threat and this match showcased Tevita Kuridrani at his barnstorming best. Meanwhile Australia’s rolling maul through their pack of forwards continues to look almost impossible to stop even without the legendary David Pocock. However, there were cracks that were evident in this match and ones which surely the Pumas will be licking their lips over as they lie in wait for the Wallabies next Sunday.

Although putting up a valiant resistance the Scots appeared to be ceding ascendancy to the Wallabies in the early stages of the match as Adam Ashley-Cooper’s try seemed to suggest. However, this was soon followed by some ferocious Scottish pressure in the Australian 22 and some shocking defence which allowed Scottish centre Peter Horne to simply stroll through for Scotland’s first five pointer. Australia’s scrum looked under serious pressure from Scotland and the Scottish forwards in general were making Australia work exceptionally hard. Scotland number eight David Denton was truly outstanding all match for the Men in Blue. Australia however would notch another try up through winger Drew Mitchell who has been having a fantastic tournament in reply to Horne’s audacity. Nevertheless the normally reliable boot of Ben Foley was just not finding the mark on Sunday for the Wallabies whereas Greg Laidlaw was punishing every Australian indiscretion and the Scots found themselves leading 16-15 at halftime much to the joy of an ecstatic Twickenham crowd.

Scotland came out of the blocks firing on all cylinders in the second half but their exuberance was causing them to make a few unforced errors, none more painful than the knock on by Scottish winger Sean Maitland which gave Australia a penalty and in my view a completely unjustified yellow card to Scotland for a perceived deliberate knock on. However, we have discussed the vagaries of refereeing calls above and as unjust as some of them may have appeared it is not the time to revisit them here. However, it did lead to a brief loss of composure amongst the Scots which the Wallabies were able to capitalise on with Drew Mitchell bagging his second try for the Wallabies.

Once the Scots were back to full strength again the momentum was regained and once more it was an even contest as Scotland after some superb work from flyhalf Finn Russell scored their second try through winger Tommy Seymour. However, Australia struck right back through centre Tevita Kuridrani’s bruising try for the Wallabies. Scotland were up against it but definitely not out of the contest trailing 32-27 with ten minutes to go. The heavens opened up and all of a sudden it seemed that Scotland would carve a place in the history books as this happened.

Sure it was an Australian mistake, but talk about seize the day when it matters the most. Mark Bennett was in the right place at the right time and that really should have been the match. From there Scotland should have cemented their place in the history books. However, as heart wrenching as it was, it was not to be Scotland’s day. With such a close scoreline at 34-32 in favour of Scotland and with mere minutes to the final whistle, the utmost concentration was required, and given the fact that many of the referee’s decisions were going against them, Scotland really needed to ensure that the next time the referee’s whistle was heard was to call time on an historic win. An error at the lineout caused it to unravel for Scotland and flyhalf Ben Foley despite the pressure would find that composure that has earned him the nickname of “the Iceman” when he needed it the most. I agree it should have been a scrum and not a penalty but it comes down to those heat of the moment calls that sometimes just don’t go your way.

Australia are now through to the semi-finals at the expense of a Scottish side that provided the Northern Hemisphere’s last heroic stand in this tournament. Scotland will probably feel robbed for a long time to come and you can’t blame them, but they really can take enormous pride in how they showed the rest of the world how far Scottish rugby has come in the very short space of just over a year, which in international rugby is a mere blink of the eye. Scotland will surely be taking some big scalps in the next few years and their supporters have a lot to look forward to.  Australia on the other hand look good but as we saw in this match there are some chinks in a very impressive armor. Either way a truly epic semi-final awaits next Sunday as Australia do battle with the Pumas and I for one can’t wait!

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