Archive for the ‘Rugby World Cup 2015’ Category

Last weekend saw the glorious ending of a tournament that has really lit up the rugby world over the last six weeks.  Saturday’s pulsating final saw New Zealand emerge as probably the most complete rugby team ever to grace a rugby pitch if not a sporting field period.  Australia meanwhile showed that under Coach Michael Cheika they are rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with and have plenty of promise for the future.  On the other side of London on a cold and windy Friday night, South Africa and Argentina did justice to a match, that in many ways is the hardest match to play in any World Cup, the controversial bronze medal playoff.

The final at Twickenham was probably the most exciting final many of us have ever witnessed and was a refreshing departure from the low-scoring tedious defensive affairs that this fixture has tended to be in the past.  New Zealand emerged as worthy winners with some spectacular displays of running rugby and a complete performance, but Australia made sure that the end result was never a complete certainty until the very closing stages of the match.  South Africa showed their class against a depleted but very feisty Argentinian side that gave us repeated glimpses of the promise that this young South American team holds for the future.  So let’s get the contentious issue of the bronze medal match out of the way first, before we revel in the glory of the final itself!

South Africa vs Argentina
Final Score – South Africa 24/Argentina 13
London

While many have called for the bronze medal match to be scrapped I must say that I do not sit in that camp.  I fully agree that it can appear meaningless to some, but on the other hand to finish in the top three of such a prestigious tournament is still a significant undertaking.  After these two teams soul-crushing defeats in the semi-finals I agree that it requires a real degree of motivation to get players to lift themselves for a match that much of the world sees as a complete sideshow to the main event of the last weekend of the World Cup – the final itself.  Perhaps in future third place should be decided on a win record and points which in this case would have given it to Argentina who lost only one match as opposed to South Africa’s two.  The merits and possible alternatives to this match will rage for many years to come and whether or not any changes will be made prior to the next World Cup in Japan remains to be seen.  However, irrespective of the issues around it, I like many still enjoyed watching two teams, South Africa and Argentina who have made such an impression at this tournament, have one last hurrah in a match that did not lack in intensity.

If this match was such a dead rubber it certainly wasn’t reflected in a packed to capacity Olympic Stadium and some very clear emotions on the players faces as the national anthems were sung.  Nevertheless it was clear from the outset that both teams were finding it hard to raise their game to the levels we saw the previous weekend in the semi-finals.  Pride was still at stake but exhaustion and the still overriding thoughts of what might have been were clearly evident at times.  Play was often sloppy from both sides and the game never really got the spark we have seen from both sides in the past few weeks, especially from Argentina.

South Africa clearly looked the better side as they were still essentially playing with their first choice XV as opposed to Argentina who were without a raft of key players.  Argentina showed plenty of initiative but the lack of experience of some of the younger Pumas was there for all to see as the seasoned Springbok veterans stamped their authority on the game in the first half.  Needless disciplinary errors cost Argentina penalties which allowed Springbok flyhalf Handre Pollard to kick for points and ensure that South Africa would go into the dressing rooms at half time with a solid lead.  South Africa started the match as expected full of physical intensity and their first try was through some powerful forward work which left the Pumas scrambling in defence.  JP Pietersen would dive over in the corner after a feed from a solid driving maul and only six minutes in Argentina would see themselves on the wrong side of the score board at 7-0 down.   Handre Pollard would continue to capitalise on Argentinian errors in defence and slot a further three penalties to give South Africa a commanding lead of 16-0 at halftime.

Still it hadn’t all been the Springboks way as repeated efforts to give Bryan Habana the ball to enable him to beat New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu’s World Cup try scoring record would all end in failure.  To be honest Habana had a poor game and while one could understand his teammates desire to see him beat the record, it did start to get tedious to see a series of poor passes to the winger fail to get the desired result.  As great a player as he has been, Habana’s career is coming to an end and his execution at times leaves a lot to be desired.  Habana was often simply not allowed to have the control over the ball he needed and Argentina’s defence was superb in shutting down the flying Springbok winger.  Argentina meanwhile had run and tackled everything thrown at them and one of the most exciting players of the tournament, winger Santiago Cordero, was working overtime in the thrills department as well as providing some solid defence when needed.

The second half offered up much of the same, the only difference being that Argentina seemed to be more settled and certainly in the last fifteen minutes put in a massive shift to cross the Springbok try line.  Argentine flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez once more showed his skills with the boot as he slotted a drop goal in the opening minutes of the second half to finally get his team on the scoreboard.  The score clearly restored some spark to an exhausted Pumas team and the Springboks were made to work hard against a side that just refused to lie down.  Realising that a comeback could be in the making South Africa ramped up their own intensity, and powerhouse lock Eben Etzebeth would go crashing over in the corner to seemingly seal the deal for the South Africans with half an hour to play.

Argentina however, continued to press and despite some bizarre decision-making in choosing to kick for goal when the game was clearly swinging in their favor from an attacking perspective, the Pumas remained doggedly in the match till the end.  Their discipline improved and South African flyhalf Handre Pollard was only given the one chance at points through a penalty kick during  the second half.  He was replaced by Pat Lambie, who perhaps due to lack of game time during the tournament, just couldn’t find the mark when two key opportunities presented themselves for South Africa for another penalty and a kick for the touch-line.

Argentina almost had a definite try on the cards but for reasons best known to himself, Pumas number 8 Juan Manuel Leguizamon chose to hang onto the ball himself instead of offloading to Argentina’s wonder weapon winger Santiago Cordero who was free on the outside. However, in the dying seconds of the game and after sustained pressure from the Pumas, they would finally get their reward as replacement forward Juan Pablo Orlandi would haul himself over a pile of bodies and get the try that Argentina so justly deserved even if at that stage it was only a worthy consolation effort.

While it may not have been a classic, it was still entertaining and both sides have to be given credit for turning out and putting in the hard yards for a game that must have been mentally very difficult to play. As the crowd rose to their feet to salute the final appearance of Springbok legends like Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana and most probably Schalk Burger, they were also thrilled to see some of the enormous potential that Argentina has as they prepare for the next World Cup in 2019. For South Africa as their veterans hang up their boots for good, a long and difficult process of rebuilding is about to start. For the Pumas there is the nucleus already of an exceptionally exciting and talented young team, winger Santiago Cordero is only 21 after all, that I for one can’t wait to see develop over the next four years. Argentina may have finished fourth but after their performances in this tournament they have left the world hungry for more!

New Zealand vs Australia
Final Score – New Zealand 34/Australia 17
Twickenham

This was the grand finale that so many of us had hoped for – a glorious display of grit and determination from both sides coupled with five tries that gave a whole new lease of life to Rugby World Cup finals.  Whoever you had been supporting over the last six weeks, you couldn’t help rejoice in the glorious demonstration of attacking rugby that Australia and New Zealand put on show to the world last Saturday at Twickenham.  It had all the classic trademarks of a World Cup final as both sides fought valiantly and there were the usual drop goals, but perhaps not since the original tournament back in 1987 have we seen such a pulsating and exciting final.  Those lucky souls who had taken out a second mortgage on their homes to be part of a packed Twickenham stadium must surely have felt they got their money’s worth.  All credit has to go to both sides as New Zealand provided a master class from 1-15 while Australia in the second half fought back brilliantly to keep the game on a knife-edge until the last 15 minutes.  New Zealand however in the end once again showed us how in the last quarter of any game they are for all intents and purposes unbeatable.  Many have called this All Black team the greatest to ever grace a playing field let alone a rugby pitch, but what has really impressed me over the last four years is how they have become the consummate finishers in world rugby.  The All Blacks have perfected the ability to simply close out any opposition in the last twenty minutes.  It is for this reason that unless the rest of the world can catch up, their position as undisputed World Champions is likely to remain for at least the next few years, and them winning a third successive World Cup is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Let’s face it despite the half time score line of 16-3 for New Zealand, it was not exactly one way traffic for New Zealand as for the first half hour the score was only 6-3 in the Men in Black’s favor.  What was clear though was that New Zealand were getting the basics right much better than Australia.  Australia’s lineouts were often a mess and New Zealand were managing to prevent Australia’s loose forward combination of Hooper, Pocock and Fardy having much of an influence on the breakdown.  When asked to kick for points flyhalf Dan Carter would not disappoint for New Zealand.  But it was that man Nehe Milner-Skudder on the wing for New Zealand who, as he has all tournament, lit up the pitch for the All Blacks in the final minute of the first half to put the All Blacks firmly in charge at 16-3 as he went across in the corner.  The whistle went for half time and it seemed impossible that Australia could come back from a seemingly one-sided All Black show.

The second half got underway and Australian supporters must surely have felt it was all over bar the singing as within a matter of two minutes of referee Nigel Owens blowing his whistle to get the second half underway, All Black centre Ma’a Nonu would break free and leave Australia scrambling in defence as he made one of his powerhouse runs through a series of holes that suddenly opened up in front of him.  It was now 21-3 New Zealand.  Still 40 minutes is a long time in Test Rugby especially for two sides of this calibre.  Australia must take full credit for one of the greatest comebacks in a World Cup final we have ever seen.  New Zealand in an uncharacteristic mistake from fullback Ben Smith would suddenly find themselves down to 14 men as Smith was caught tip tackling Australian winger Drew Mitchell.  It was a marginal call at best and there was certainly no malicious intent, but the rules are the rules.  Ben Smith’s ten minutes in the sin bin would see Australia bag 14 points and put them right back in the game at 21-17 with 15 minutes to go.  David Pocock would be the first to score for Australia off a driving maul followed by some real genius in the kick and chase department from halfbacks Will Genia and Bernard Foley with centre Tevita Kuridrani completing the move.

It seemed to be game on once more and the crowd held its breath as they waited to see if New Zealand would once more show the world why they are such masters of closing out big games such as this and how they are the undisputed world champions of the last twenty minutes of such high pressure encounters.  New Zealand did not disappoint as they calmly and clinically took the game away from an exceptionally spirited Australian comeback.  First Dan Carter would provide the textbook drop goal to make it 24-17.  A few minutes later yet another discipline lapse from Australia, an area that had plagued them all night, would cost them another 3 points as Carter made it 27-17.  Then in the dying minutes, the man most likely to be wearing Dan Carter’s boots in 2019, Beauden Barret would seal the victory.  Barrett would be set up by an initial error from Australia’s Drew Mitchell as he dropped the ball to have it seized up by New Zealand’s Ben Smith as if to atone for his earlier mistakes.  A brilliant kick through from Smith and chased by Barrett and the rest was history as we can see below.

Your heart has to go out to Australia especially as they put in such a brilliant campaign from start to finish, especially in the pool stages.  Their wobble against Scotland in that controversial quarter-final was the only real blemish in a spectacular run of form from the Wallabies over the course of six weeks.  In the end, they would come incredibly close to getting their third World Cup but just fall agonisingly short at the final hurdle.  Nevertheless Australia must feel excited at what lies ahead of them under the talented guidance of Coach Michael Cheika, especially when you look at the dramatic turnaround in the team’s fortunes in the space of less than twelve months since Cheika took over.

New Zealand meanwhile bids farewell to a veritable legion of superstars in the shape of Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu, Dan Carter and others.  However, the future looks so incredibly bright as the All Black factory churns out yet another batch of rising megastars in the shape of Savea, Milner-Skudder, Barrett etc, that most New Zealanders are going to have to continue to wear shades.  As one of the greatest players of all time, New Zealand’s Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis trophy for New Zealand one more time, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind whoever they had been supporting during this World Cup that they had just watched a performance by probably one of the most complete and gifted teams in the history of international sport.  Whether or not New Zealand can recreate this kind of form again in four years time remains to be seen but one thing is for certain – most of us will be glued to our television screens watching them try!

It has held our imagination for the last six weeks and been a truly great tournament, but like all good things sadly has to come to an end, but what an ending!  Saturday’s final at Twickenham sees two of Rugby’s all time heavyweights, Australia and New Zealand square off against each other as they try to create history by winning three World Cups.  For New Zealand there is the added weight of expectation in trying to win two World Cups back to back.  Meanwhile at Olympic Stadium, the most controversial match of any World Cup, the third place bronze medal match takes place between Argentina and South Africa on Friday night.  Controversial it may be, but I can’t help feeling that it still means a great deal to the players involved and as a result should still be regarded as a relevant contest.  Either way as Rugby World Cup 2015 draws to its epic conclusion, we are in for one last blast of vintage rugby this weekend.  Wherever they end up these four teams have still given us some spectacular entertainment and genuine excitement in the course of the last six weeks, and especially in the case of the bronze medal match, we as rugby fans really need to get behind the contestants this weekend as a testimony of our appreciation of what has been some amazing rugby!

Argentina vs South Africa
Friday, October 30th
London

As mentioned above there has been a great deal of talk in the press about the supposed irrelevance of this game, and how meaningless it is for the players involved. While I don’t dispute for a second that it will require a Herculean effort to motivate teams to play a game that for them is not the final they got knocked out of, it still has ramifications for the teams involved in terms of status. Third place in such an epic tournament is still no mean feat. Just look at what it meant to Argentina back in 2007 and how that really propelled the team into the top echelons of World Rugby. Sure it’s different now, and both Argentina and South Africa are undisputed heavyweights in world rugby’s pecking order so in essence they don’t need to prove a point. However, to finish third in a tournament that has demanded so much of the participants involved is still a significant achievement especially for the younger generation of players in both of the squads battling it out on Friday night. As a mark of respect to both teams it is my hope that the crowd will really get behind Argentina and South Africa on Friday night and salute their efforts to give us one last showing of these superb teams’ skills and abilities.

For Argentina, I can’t help feeling that there is very little concern about motivation in the Pumas camp. From Head Coach Daniel Hourcade to all the players in the squad there is a real desire to repeat the Pumas exploits of 2007 and claim another bronze medal. As is clear from all the players’ statements in the media this week, any opportunity to wear the Pumas jersey and showcase to the world the exceptional skills Argentina now possess is a privilege. Even though they may be without their inspirational Captain and hooker Agustin Creevy, I don’t doubt for a second that the experience and passion of figures like Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe will come to the fore in motivating his fellow teammates. Even without Juan Martin Hernandez and Juan Imhoff Argentina are fielding an exceptionally strong team that is bursting with raw young talent. They will be no pushover.

In the battle of the scrums, even though Argentina are without Agustin Creevy at hooker, two of Argentina’s key weapons Marcos Ayerza and Ramiro Herrera are still packing down in the front row. The lack of experience of Julian Montoya at hooker is made up for by the relative lack of experience of talented prop Frans Malherbe for South Africa. Nevertheless in the battle of the front rows I am just giving South Africa the edge here but it is going to be close. However, when it comes to the battle of the lineout throw Bismarck Du Plessis and his replacement Adriaan Strauss clearly have the upper hand over their Argentinian counterparts for this match.

In the back row battles, it will be fast and furious with South Africa probably coming out on top here especially in the lineouts, with Victor Matfield and Eben Etzebeth provided they keep their focus, discipline and motivation being too much for Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini and Matias Allemano. In the case of Argentina’s Lavanini, he really is a talent and provided he can keep his discipline should provide plenty of fireworks in his battle with Victor Matfield.

For the loose forwards, South Africa’s vast bank of experience in the shape of Schalk Burger and Francois Louw alongside Duane Vermeulen at number eight should also be too much for Argentina to handle. Once again there are no slackers in the Pumas line up here and with talents like Guido Petti and Facundo Isa waiting on the bench coupled with Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe at his best in the breakdown, South Africa despite their experience will have to stay sharp for the full eighty minutes.

When it comes to the battle of the halfbacks I personally think Argentina have the edge here. Ruan Pienaar has rarely impressed for South Africa in the last year at scrum half, whereas both Tomas Cubelli and Martin Landajo for Argentina have been outstanding. Rudy Paige on the bench for South Africa at number nine certainly seems to have plenty of talent but is still too much of an unknown at this level. Handre Pollard at flyhalf for South Africa is a good kicker and often superb in the contact areas but is not quite the playmaker that Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez is proving to be. Furthermore Sanchez’s almost effortlessly accurate kicking under pressure is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends in this World Cup. However, if the pressure gets too much for Pollard then South Africa’s own “Iceman” Pat Lambie is waiting in the wings to take over.

In the midfield the electric combination of South Africa’s centres Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel should just have too much pace and strength for Argentina to counter effectively. Matias Moroni was outstanding in Argentina’s quarter-final heroics against Ireland and he will be a handful for South African defences but I still feel South Africa have the more dominant combination here. On the wings, however it is another story. Horacio Agulla is no slacker for Argentina but it is that man Santiago Cordero who in my opinion outclasses anything South Africa has to offer in this department. Cordero for me has been one of THE players of the tournament and something special always seems to happen when he gets the ball. His sidestepping abilities coupled to some incredible strength in defence, despite his size, have dazzled spectators over the last six weeks. He is more than a match speed and strength wise for his opposite number JP Pietersen of South Africa. If the Springboks can’t contain the feisty little winger then it could be a very long evening. Bryan Habana is always a potential threat for South Africa but I can’t help feeling that the sun really is setting on his fabulous career in a Springbok jersey. Lastly at fullback depending on the type of form he hits in this match, Willie le Roux will either be South Africa’s saviour or a potential liability. He seems to be recovering some of his old form and therefore should be more than a match for his Puma counterpart Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino.

So for me when you look at it this way, this match does have all the makings of a classic irrespective of the supposed humiliation of having to play for third place. I personally think that both teams will be totally fired up for this and given that South Africa are renowned for the pride they place in the Springbok shirt matched up against the sheer passion that the Pumas have shown this tournament, it should be a cracker. Provided there is no drop in motivation levels as the match unfolds I foresee this going down to the wire. However, given the slightly higher level of experience in the Springbok camp, I am giving the battle to them by 10 points even though like many my heart will be with the Pumas. One thing will be sure in the case of the Pumas, as they play all their future stars of the next World Cup we are going to get a privileged look at a team that has the potential, if developed properly, to go all the way next time around in 2019! If that’s not enough to draw you to your television screen on Friday night then I don’t know what is!

New Zealand vs Australia
Saturday, October 31st
Twickenham

What an epic and fitting final to a glorious World Cup this promises to be, as two of Rugby’s most successful nations, Australia and New Zealand, square up against each other for Rugby’s ultimate prize. New Zealand still is arguably the best team in the world, but Australia’s meteoric rise under Michael Cheika in the last year to the point where they are snapping at the All Blacks heels for such an accolade is remarkable to say the least. Australia are more than a match for New Zealand and Saturday is a fitting test of who now really gets to wear the crown of not only World Champions but the most complete team in the world.

Both teams are fielding squads that most coaches in international rugby could only imagine in their wildest dreams. You can’t even call it on youth versus experience as both teams are evenly matched on the day in this department. However, overall I just can’t help feeling that from 1-15 New Zealand is just slightly more complete than their Australian counterparts and have a better understanding of how to work together as a team under enormous pressure.

In the scrums, Australia finally has a platform they can compete with after years in the wilderness in this department. Head to head I can see no real advantages in Australia’s Stephen Moore, Scott Sio and Sekope Kepu when matched up against New Zealand’s Dane Coles, Joe Moody and Owen Franks. However, there is one key difference where I think New Zealand has the edge. Exceptionally reliable in the scrums, hooker Dane Coles suddenly becomes absolutely devastating with any kind of loose ball as he suddenly gets transformed into a winger and one of the fastest men on the pitch. Because of Australia constantly having to contain him in this regard I am giving New Zealand the edge in the battle of the front rows. In the back row, the experience, strength and skill levels of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock for New Zealand are the stuff of legends and should effectively overpower Australia’s Rob Simmons and Kane Douglas especially at lineout time. It’s the loose forward battle where I am giving Australia the undisputed upper hand. The trio of Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper and the player of the tournament David Pocock seem almost unstoppable. New Zealand’s ultimate warrior and master of the dark arts, Richie McCaw will make life exceptionally challenging for this Australian trio, but on the basis of form I don’t see New Zealand’s Jerome Kaino and Keiran Read being able to get the better of their Australian counterparts. Consequently I can’t help feeling that ultimately this is where the game could be won or lost on Saturday.

In the halfback contest it will be up to New Zealand’s Dan Carter at flyhalf and Aaron Smith at scrum half to rectify any wreckage caused by Australia’s Pocock and company, and in these two players you are arguably looking at the best in the world in this department. Dan Carter’s accuracy should see him outdo his Australian counterpart Bernard Foley even though some of the passing skills shown in this tournament by the Australian have been instrumental in getting his team to where they are now. Australia’s Will Genia has more than enough experience and class to counter his All Black counterpart of Aaron Smith provided he hits all the right gears, but my money is still on Smith to come out on top here.

In center field, there is little to choose from in terms of the offerings being put forward by both sides. While Conrad Smith’s form has been erratic of late for New Zealand, Ma’a Nonu alongside him has more than made up for it as he makes his final bow in an All Black shirt. Without a doubt one of the most talented centres ever to grace a rugby field, expect to see Nonu carving up Wallaby defences all afternoon. On the other hand, Matt Giteau’s return to a Wallaby jersey has been one of the best calls made this year by Coach Michael Cheika. While Giteau has the vision and sleight of hand to work miracles, Tevita Kuridrani alongside him has the speed and power to split open any defence. However, for me it is the sheer brilliance of Nonu alone that should just see New Zealand come out on top in the war of the centres.

In the back three I can’t help feeling that there is more class here than most of us will see in a lifetime of watching rugby. I still hold that Australian winger Adam Ashley-Cooper is the ultimate finisher in the modern game today. His tries in this tournament have been an absolute privilege to watch. However, he will need all his defensive know-how and strength to contain New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu Mark 2 in the form of Julian Savea. Nevertheless I still hold that Ashley-Cooper is the more intelligent and skillful of the two which should just see him come out on top. On the other wing, Mr. Electric and New Zealand’s find of the year Nehe Milner-Skudder meets the experience of Australia’s Drew Mitchell. As good as Mitchell is, I can’t help feeling that Milner-Skudder’s speed and sidestep coupled with some phenomenal strength despite his size is too much of a complete package for Mitchell to contend with. Lastly in the battle of the fullbacks, as much as I think Australia’s Israel Folau is one of the best in the business, it is the calmness and composure of New Zealand’s Ben Smith that has so often been a game winner for New Zealand and I have a sneaking suspicion that this could well end up being the case again for the Men in Black on Saturday.

Once you’ve looked at it this way, and then figured into the equation the likes of Beauden Barrett and Sonny Bill Williams on the bench for New Zealand, you just can’t help get the feeling that although it is going to be ever so close, New Zealand on paper just have the edge. For that reason I am handing the All Blacks an incredibly hard-fought victory by three points. Still having said that I think this is potentially going to be one of the most dramatic and exciting World Cup finals any of us have been privileged to watch for a very long time and as a result one of the hardest ever to call. I very much doubt it will be one of the low-scoring all out defensively tedious affairs that we have grown so accustomed to in previous World Cups. I may be wrong but I sincerely hope I’m not and both teams go at it as if this were the last and greatest game of rugby on earth. Either way it probably will be for at least the next four years! Gentlemen start your engines!

It was a vintage weekend of Test Rugby as without a doubt the four best teams in the world right now did battle for a place in the final.  South Africa provided us with a bruising encounter against New Zealand that saw both sides throw everything they had in the tank at a shot at glory.  Meanwhile Argentina despite getting off to a nervy and poor start, provided plenty of excitement as they fought back to hold their own against a very classy Australian outfit.  All four teams can hold their heads high for putting in some outstanding performances, and the fact that there could only be two winners this past weekend doesn’t in the slightest detract from the quality that was on display by all four teams.

South Africa vs New Zealand
Final Score – South Africa 18 – New Zealand 20
Twickenham

To say that this was high-octane, intensely physical rugby would be an understatement.  It was a big, bold and bruising encounter in one of rugby’s oldest and greatest rivalries.  While New Zealand were able to weather the storm of the South African onslaught it was the All Blacks’ skill in opening play up and working around the seemingly impenetrable wall that was the Springbok defence that ultimately saw the Men in Black come out on top.  In the end, South Africa would get plenty of points on the board but none of them through the vital five points of a try, whereas New Zealand would score two.  The score was still incredibly close but it was this clinical prowess in attack that gave New Zealand the edge and got them past a valiant South African challenge.  South Africa looked good for the full eighty minutes, but their inability to cross the white line would ultimately see them fall agonizingly short of the big prize – a place in this weekend’s Rugby World Cup Final.

Despite holding the lead for long periods in the game, South Africa just couldn’t crack a resolute New Zealand defence and instead had to work through the boot of flyhalf Handre Pollard whose penalty kicking was exemplary all night.  South Africa would get the first points of the match through Pollard as New Zealand committed the first in an alarming series of penalties.  The All Black coaching staff will have to review this aspect of New Zealand’s performance in-depth as the penalty count against them was far too high for a side of this calibre on Saturday.  Minutes later though New Zealand would strike back through flanker Jerome Kaino who would have a stormer of a match, as he crossed for New Zealand’s first try in the corner.  It was telling that this try came through a series of back like offloads from the All Black forwards spreading the ball wide, which highlighted just how much of a complete attacking unit the All Blacks are and their ability to play such a varied game which keeps defences constantly guessing.  New Zealand’s phase play, as it has been all tournament, was truly outstanding and was one of the key ingredients in their success on Saturday.

The end of the first half would see yet another costly lapse in discipline from New Zealand resulting in try scorer Jerome Kaino head to the sin bin, while Pollard would make no mistake in slotting the penalty to put South Africa in the lead 12-7 heading into the dressing rooms.

The second half would see New Zealand as they always seem to do, quietly regroup and take charge of the match.  Still fourteen men down, Dan Carter would effortlessly slot a drop goal and the points gap was back to a mere two points in South Africa’s favour as Jerome Kaino returned to the field.  New Zealand’s scrum was proving itself to be the equal of South Africa and despite the physical advantage the South Africans had for much of the match, New Zealand were able to compete and slowly start to gain the ascendancy as bodies began to tire.  Beauden Barrett would come on for winger Nehe Milner-Skudder who once more had lit up the pitch all afternoon, and Barrett’s fresh legs and Ma’a Nonu’s vision would set up the try that would put New Zealand back in front and where they would stay for the rest of the match.

South African hearts were further broken by the fact that in the build up to the try Springbok winger Bryan Habana was seen to knock the ball down out of All Black scrum half Aaron Smith’s hands, resulting in Habana spending ten minutes in the sin bin.  As Habana sat on the sidelines with his head in his hands, there was a feeling around the stadium that this could well prove to be the turning point in the game as New Zealand now led 17-12 even though there was still thirty minutes left in the match.

South Africa would fight hard for the remainder of the game even with fourteen men for ten minutes, and while they never caved they also never really looked like scoring a try.  Replacement fly half Pat Lambie would slot a penalty with ten minutes to go from yet another lapse in discipline from New Zealand’s Kieran Read who was guilty of repeated offences at the breakdown on Saturday.  As the clock wound down you felt that South Africa had it in them, but as always New Zealand proved to be the world’s best at simply closing out the last quarter.  South Africa would do their utmost but even with a full slate of replacements from the bench, exhaustion was still starting to take its toll as Springbok centre Damian De Allende lost control of the ball as the rain started to pour down and the physical cost of 75 minutes of rugby at its highest intensity kicked in.  South Africa’s set pieces started to crumble especially the lineouts and New Zealand did enough to hang on till the end.  As referee Wayne Barnes blew the whistle on full-time, South Africa were left like many to wonder how on earth anyone can get one past the All Blacks in the last twenty minutes.

For the All Blacks it was jubilation as they face a shot at their third World Cup title as well as a first in the tournament’s history of defending the title.  As mentioned above Coach Steve Hansen will have to be ruthless with his charges when it comes to tightening up the discipline which enabled South Africa to remain so closely in contention all match.  However, fix that issue and the sheer finishing power and skill levels in this current All Black squad which is the perfect balance of youth and experience will be very difficult to beat.  Australia has shown much the same kind of resolve in the last few weeks and as a result there is little doubt that next week’s final sees the two very best sides in the competition duke it out for top honors.

Although gutted and clearly unhappy at having to compete for the honor of third place, South Africa can still walk away from this match with their heads held high. Whatever the future may hold for South African rugby between now and the next World Cup, their remarkable comeback from their opening defeat to Japan has once more shown the world what a remarkable beast Springbok rugby is, and at its heart it is still an undeniable force that will continue to shape the world of International Test Rugby for years to come.

Argentina vs Australia
Final Score – Argentina 15 – Australia 29
Twickenham

Despite a nervy start from the Pumas, that led many to believe that a match that had promised so much was ultimately going to end in a whitewash, this game turned into a high-octane classic. Australia showed some incredible finishing prowess while Argentina’s passion and commitment got them squarely back into the match and the end result was never a given until minutes from the end and Adam Ashley-Cooper, who for me has probably been the best finisher of the tournament, would score the try that would see Australia claim their place in the final.

While Australia for me were always the dark horse going into the tournament, Argentina have shown the world just how much class they themselves have especially going into the future, as a raft of young players, most notably flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez and winger Santiago Cordero, have really highlighted the remarkable transformation of this team under the tutelage of Coach Daniel Hourcade.  The future looks exceptionally bright for Argentina, and while they may have to settle for third or fourth place this time around, I fully expect to see them challenging for the ultimate prize in Japan in 2019.

Australia have impressed when they needed it most and last Sunday at Twickenham was no exception.  Clearly rattled by the scare they had from Scotland in the quarter-finals, Australia made few mistakes on Sunday and once more their defence which has been the stuff of legends in this tournament held firm while Number 8 David Pocock continued his incredible form in often singlehandedly destroying any kind of attacking platform opposition teams try to build up.  Pocock was outstanding in this match, along with flankers Scott Fardy and Michael Hooper, but it was Pocock’s amazing ability to turn an opposition attack into an advantageous offensive platform for the Wallabies that left many of us speechless for the full eighty minutes.  Australia have a great team of that there is no question, but Pocock is without doubt the most important man on the field for the Wallabies.

As the match got underway it was clear that both sides were suffering from a slight case of nerves from the enormity of the occasion, but in Argentina’s case it would prove more costly.  A nervous and wildly speculative pass from Pumas flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez would see Australia take a 7-0 lead within the first minute through an intercept from Wallaby lock Rob Simmons.  Although Sanchez would soon atone for his mistake through a successful penalty conversion minutes later, for the first quarter Argentina were clearly not playing with the assuredness we have seen from them throughout this tournament.  An inexplicable tendency to try to play the ball in their own half when under constant pressure from a rampaging Wallaby side, would see Argentina struggle to develop any kind of rhythm or composure.  They would pay the price for this again as Adam Ashley-Cooper would score on the ten minute mark to put Australia firmly in charge at 14-3.

After this exceptionally shaky first quarter from the Pumas they, to their credit, got themselves under control and fought back well.  Despite the fact they never actually crossed the white line to get a vital try, they threatened on numerous occasions while Nicolas Sanchez’s boot kept them in touch for the majority of the match.  Their comeback and ability to stay within one converted try for much of the match was no mean achievement when you consider they lost three key players to injury.  Captain Agustin Creevy, winger Juan Imhoff and centre Juan Martin Hernandez had all left the field by the last quarter.  Winger Santiago Cordero once again showed the quality he has both in attack and defence.  Countless line breaks from the Pumas winger would have the Twickenham crowd on their feet throughout the match, while his ability to tackle men twice his size earned the respect of the crowd and the opposition, his try-saving tackle on the immense form of Wallaby centre Tevita Kuridrani in the second half was a case in point.  Pumas fullback Joaquin Tuculet also had moments of brilliance of his own while the Argentinian forwards often dominated the scrums and gave Australia’s David Pocock and company plenty to contend with at the breakdowns.

As bodies began to inevitably tire as the intensity of the match took its toll in the final quarter, Australia just started to get the ascendancy in this epic contest.  Australia through winger Drew Mitchell seized the day at the seventy minute mark.  Mitchell scorched his way through flailing Argentine defences on a spectacular run and even though his offload to danger man Ashley-Cooper waiting on the wing was scrappy to say the least, his blitzing run had done so much damage that Argentina had nothing left in the tank to counter it.  At 29-15 for Australia with ten minutes left it was an impossible mountain to climb for Argentina, but to their credit they strapped on their boots once more and gave it a solid effort right up until the final whistle and one more devastating turnover at the breakdown from, yes you guessed it, Australia’s David Pocock.

Although Australia emerged the victors they knew that they had had to work incredibly hard for it against a team that just wouldn’t lie down.  The respect evident on David Pocock’s face as the final whistle blew towards an exceptional opposition was there for millions of viewers around the world to see.  Australia were the deserved winners and can take an enormous amount of confidence from this match as they go up against the All Blacks this Saturday for rugby’s ultimate prize.  However, although to some the ignominy of playing the bronze medal match may seem meaningless, I for one salute the Pumas as they have one more opportunity to show to the world that they really have become one of rugby’s superpowers.  As a fitting end to this post I end with scenes of Australia congratulating the Pumas which sums up the spirit of a great contest and one of the many fantastic highlights of a memorable World Cup.

While for many there will be disappointment that this semi-final weekend sees no participants from the Northern Hemisphere, few can deny that the two match-ups on offer have set the stage for an epic showdown between the four dominant powers of Southern Hemisphere rugby.  A clash between South Africa’s Springboks and New Zealand’s All Blacks is always something to relish and on the World Cup stage it takes on monumental proportions.  Meanwhile, Australia who have looked assured throughout the tournament take on a Pumas side that is playing some of the best rugby of this World Cup.  International Rugby doesn’t get much better than this, and no matter who you have been supporting this past four weeks, I doubt very much that you haven’t picked your team for this weekend and will be cheering them on just as hard as if they were your own team!

South Africa vs New Zealand
Saturday, October 24th
Twickenham

Any match between these two rugby giants always has a certain aura to it and tomorrow’s match on the world’s biggest stage will be no exception. As International Rugby’s greatest rivalry gets set to play out in front of an audience of millions around the world, you can only imagine the kind of pressure the players from the two teams must be feeling. It is going to be big, powerful, bruising and above all a fantastic spectacle.

South Africa come into this match as the underdogs based on their route to the semi-finals and their hit and miss form of the last two years. One day brilliant, the next a shadow of the team they could be, predicting a Springbok performance has become a real challenge. They started this tournament with one of the biggest humiliations in South African rugby history by losing to Japan. The way South Africa have regrouped since that match and built steadily to this point has shown both enormous depth and character, while Fourie du Preez’s quiet but assured leadership has more than compensated for the loss of talismanic Captain Jean de Villiers. There has been the perfect mix of youth and experience in this team, with the battle hardened heads of Du Preez, Du Plessis, Habana and Burger providing the leadership to the rising talents of De Allende, Kriel, Pollard, De Jager and Etzebeth. Add into the mix the power of Duane Vermeulen, Tendai Mtawarira and JP Pietersen and this is a powerhouse team. However, despite this extraordinary depth of talent and experience, against quality opposition South Africa have often looked laboured in this tournament and if they are to beat New Zealand on Saturday it will require an effort akin to their famous victory over the All Blacks at the 1995 World Cup – in short they are going to have to dig deep – very deep!

New Zealand on the other hand look much as they have throughout the four years since they last lifted the Webb Ellis trophy in Auckland in 2011 – unstoppable! Is this the greatest All Black team of all time, if not the greatest rugby team of all time? I personally think that while they may appear superhuman at times and as good as they are, at the end of the day they too are mere mortals and as such can be beaten. It will take a very special and quite extraordinary side to do it but it can be done. There have been times in the last two years, however fleeting where New Zealand have looked vulnerable. Furthermore, one cannot deny that apart from the quarter-final match against France, they have never quite looked like the all-conquering black machine we saw immediately after the 2011 World Cup. If you ask me the only time New Zealand has really been tested in this tournament is in their opening match against Argentina where they looked decidedly vulnerable. In all the matches since then their opposition has been less than top drawer allowing them to essentially cruise to the semi-finals unlike the battle tested South Africans. Therefore it is hard for me to really estimate how good this All Black side actually is. While you cannot deny that they were truly spectacular last weekend against the French, let’s be honest the French hardly tested them. It has been a long time since that opening game against the Pumas and you can be sure that Coach Steve Hansen and his team have analysed that game to death to the point where the frailties seen in that match have surely been addressed.  New Zealand are highly unlikely to be suffering from any kind of complacency especially going into a match against their greatest rivals, but you can’t deny that they have only had to dig deep once so far in this tournament and regardless of their extraordinary skill levels tomorrow will still be the sternest of tests.

In the battle of the forwards, I am giving South Africa a slight edge.  I think the combined experience of Bismarck Du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira alongside the raw talent and youth of Francois Malherbe will have the better of the Moody, Coles and Franks platform for New Zealand.  Having said that though, Dane Coles defies all logic for New Zealand in his role as hooker as how many times have we seen this extraordinary athlete run almost the full length of a rugby pitch to score a try?  If the scrum breaks down allowing Coles to pop out into the loose anywhere South Africa are going to have to pull out all the stops to contain him.  Nevertheless when it comes to lineout time, Du Plessis has been more reliable for South Africa than Coles.  A fascinating contest awaits between these two.  In the back row, the clash between the raw physicality of South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager against the seasoned experience of New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick will be intense, with every lineout throw being a massive contest.  However, based on their passion and energy levels, provided they can keep their discipline I am giving the South African duo the edge here.  There’s little difference in terms of flankers between the two, with South Africa’s Schalk Burger up against New Zealand’s legendary Richie McCaw, while Francois Louw does battle with seasoned All Black campaigner Jerome Kaino, and given the pedigree of the Kiwis I am just giving the All Black pair the edge here.  Lastly at number eight, there is little to choose between South Africa’s Duane Vermeulen and New Zealand’s Kieran Reid.  With Vermeulen still just returning to form after a long layoff from injury I am giving this battle to Reid who is rediscovering some of the best form of his career in this tournament.

The half back battle will be fascinating.  South Africa’s Fourie du Preez and New Zealand’s Aaron Smith are two of the world’s best.  Du Preez may have the better brain but the sheer energy and pace of Aaron Smith gives him an edge that I feel Du Preez lacks.  Meanwhile youth meets experience in the battle between Springbok flyhalf Handre Pollard and his All Black counterpart Dan Carter.  Pollard’s composure under pressure has gotten better with every outing for the Springboks but it simply cannot match up to the genius and experience of Dan Carter who has suddenly found some of the best form of his playing career as he plays his last World Cup for the Men in Black.

In the backs, once more it is an epic battle between youthful raw talent and one of the most experienced centre pairings in International rugby.  There are few if any who can touch New Zealand’s Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith but they have looked vulnerable under pressure a few times this year, especially Smith.  South Africa’s Damien De Allende and Jesse Kriel were a revelation in this year’s Rugby Championship but they are going to have to temper their raw talent and youthful enthusiasm if they are to both attack and defend effectively against their New Zealand counterparts.  On the wings, I can’t help feeling that New Zealand’s Nehe Milner-Skudder and Julian Savea are simply too much of a handful for Bryan Habana and JP Pietersen.  South Africa’s speedster Habana will have his work cut out for him trying to contain the dancing feet of Milner-Skudder to the point where I doubt he’ll get much opportunity to run the ball himself.  Meanwhile JP Pietersen will have his hands full trying to defend against New Zealand’s second coming Jonah Lomu in the shape of Julian Savea.  Lastly, Ben Smith at fullback for New Zealand is simply in a class of his own, and sadly I can’t help feeling that the form that South Africa’s Willie le Roux is capable of will still continue to elude him in this match, especially under such enormous pressure.

With both benches packing some serious heavyweights capable of changing a game in the last quarter, the use of the reserve bench will be very interesting as the match unfolds.  Both sides have the ability to instantly change the momentum of the game through their bench as New Zealand wait for the right moment to throw the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and Beauden Barrett into the mix, while South Africa have the exciting prospects of Jan Serfontein and Mr. Reliable under pressure, Pat Lambie.

This is going to be an incredible match and one hopefully that we will all be talking about for many years to come.  While it is a real challenge to call it, I just can’t help feeling that New Zealand at the end of the day are just that more of a complete and versatile team than South Africa.  Therefore, New Zealand by five with the sparks flying for the full eighty minutes!

Argentina vs Australia
Sunday, October 25th
Twickenham

Having watched Argentina’s breathtaking performance against Ireland last week, this one is easy to call if I were to go with my heart. If Argentina bring anything like the finesse and intensity they showed in Cardiff to this match then the game should be theirs. However, the head says that Australia simply has too much experience and overall ability to do anything other than emerge the narrow victors. A huge game awaits and one which is almost impossible to call – but a spectacle is surely on the cards whatever happens.

Australia have looked exceptionally solid this World Cup and the only time where they really looked like buckling under pressure was last Sunday against Scotland. Once more restored to full strength for this match they will be very hard to beat and it is unlikely that the chinks in the Australian armor so evident last Sunday will be so easy to spot this Sunday. Big question marks remain however around the fitness of superstars fullback Israel Folau and number eight David Pocock. If fully fit and able to go the distance they, especially Pocock, will be unstoppable and may well swing the entire game firmly in favour of the Wallabies. If not however, then the Pumas will know they have some extra inroads into what has been for the most part a stellar Australian defence. Although the Australian scrum has improved dramatically in the last year, you still have to wonder if it can really match up to the tank engine that is the one of the Pumas key platforms.

For Argentina they have played some truly spectacular rugby this tournament and are very much a complete side. Powerful up front but now blessed with a back line that has speed and agility, and all linked together through a half back partnership that has a composure and vision which seems almost unshakeable, Argentina is probably fielding their greatest team in a proud rugby history. As someone who was fortunate enough to be in Cardiff last Sunday, I was mesmerized by the almost effortless finesse that the Pumas were able to apply to a clinical dismantling of a spirited Irish side. If both teams play the way they have so far in this tournament this is going to be one hell of a semi-final and as close as they get.

Up front, I can’t help feeling that the front row of Marcos Ayerza, Agustin Creevy and Ramiro Herrera is far superior to their Australian opposition in James Slipper, Stephen Moore and Sekope Kepu. Focused and increasingly better disciplined Argentina should have the edge here, with Creevy in his role as Captain providing enormous inspiration to his teammates. In the back row it should be a fairly equal battle between Rob Simmons and Kane Douglas for Australia and Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti for the Pumas. Both sets of back rows however are prone to lapses in discipline and the Argentinians slightly more so. If they can keep their discipline though I’ll give this contest to Argentina but if not then hands down the Wallabies should edge it. In the flankers, Pablo Matera for Argentina and Scott Fardy for the Wallabies will provide us with an epic tussle, but on a battle of strength versus skill I’ll give Fardy the edge here. Meanwhile one of the game’s greatest troublemakers and spoilers at the breakdown in the form of Australia’s Michael Hooper should get the better of his opposite Puma number Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. Lastly at number eight provided he is fully fit the incomparable David Pocock should get the better of his opposite number Leonardo Senatore even though the Argentinian has shown a phenomenal work rate all tournament.

In the battle of the half backs, despite having considerably more experience Australia are in a 50/50 battle with the Pumas here. Will Genia’s experience for the Wallabies should see him edge out his Argentinian counterpart Martin Landajo, but in the battle of the flyhalves I am giving Argentina the benefit of the doubt. As good as he is for Australia Bernard Foley seems more easily rattled than Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez whose effortless performance against Ireland last week gets him the nod from me in this contest.

In the backs, Argentina have plenty of promise and as I have been saying all along winger Santiago Cordero has been a real revelation. Matt Giteau’s experience and the raw physicality of Tevita Kuridrani may just give Australia the edge in the battle of the centres, but they don’t call Argentina’s Juan Martin Hernandez “the Magician” for nothing and Marcelo Bosch is dangerous with the boot from anywhere on the pitch. On the wings Santiago Cordero should get the edge over Australia’s Drew Mitchell. The little Argentine winger has the same kind of dancing feet as New Zealand’s Nehe Milner-Skudder which is proving almost impossible to stop coupled with some spectacular vision in terms of how the game is unfolding around him. On the other wing we’ll see the battle between Argentina’s Juan Imhoff versus probably one of the most experienced and competent wingers in the world in the shape of Australia’s Adam Ashley-Cooper. The flair of Argentina’s hat trick king may ultimately not be enough to outdo the experience and sheer talent of Ashley-Cooper. Lastly at fullback, Israel Folau if he is fit and not put under relentless pressure and allowed more of an attacking than defensive role is one of the most dangerous players in the world and should easily get the better of Argentina’s Joaquin Tuculet, despite the latter’s diminutive size dragging three Irish defenders across the try line last Sunday in Cardiff.

There are game changers aplenty on both team’s benches, though if Kurtley Beale shows the kind of form we have seen recently from him for Australia he could end up being the ultimate game breaker. In short this is going to be a thrilling and closely fought contest. Argentina will be emotionally charged for this in no uncertain terms, and it remains to be seen if the X-factor of their passion combined with a dazzling set of skills and crushing forward power will be enough to see off a solid and experienced Australian challenge. As I said at the beginning, my heart says Argentina but my head is saying Australia. Therefore as a result in the closest of games, I’m just giving it to Australia by two!

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!

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
Exeter

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
Cardiff

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
Milton Keynes

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
Cardiff

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
Milton Keynes

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
Newcastle

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
Twickenham

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
Leicester

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
London

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!

There were few if any surprises on Day Eight, especially after the high drama of the previous day and headline stealing showdown between England and Wales.  Australia put a brave but ineffectual Uruguayan side to the sword, while despite struggling at times, Scotland ultimately finished with a clinical display against the United States.  Meanwhile, as expected Ireland ironed out the last of their kinks against Romania with an emphatic win in readiness for getting the business end of their World Cup started this weekend against Italy.

Australia vs Uruguay
Final Score – Australia 65/Uruguay 3
Birmingham

Australia – 8/10

Against a significantly weaker opposition, it was hard to judge Australia’s performance on Sunday. It was a convincing and emphatic win, but one that surprised few while perhaps not convincing many that we know what we can expect from Australia once the tournament really starts to heat up.

Australia got the job done against a valiant but completely outclassed Uruguayan side. Australia looked good for the most part, but nagging questions still remain. Quade Cooper continued his erratic form, brilliant one minute but then careless and sloppy the next. It was a good outing for Dean Mumm on his first Captaincy and like many of his colleagues he put in a good performance.

Australia were effective and at times clinically ruthless in the way they dispatched Uruguay, and Sean McMahon was one of the real standout performers in this match and must surely give Coach Michael Cheika some breathing room should he lose either of his two first choice flankers, David Pocock and Michael Hooper, to injury as the tournament progresses. Ben MacCalman on the other flank also put in a solid effort all afternoon.

In short, there was little to criticise in this Australian performance which for the most part ran to script. The only real variables for me were Quade Cooper and to a certain extent Drew Mitchell. Cooper although showing some real flashes of brilliance at flyhalf showed that for the big pressure games he is likely to be far too much of a liability for the Wallabies. Poor discipline and a 50/50 success rate with the boot means he is unlikely to get too much match time in the two must win Wallaby matches against England and Wales. Plenty of scope for him as a substitute impact player but for the full eighty minutes in two high pressure games he is simply too much of a wild card. Secondly, I thought winger Drew Mitchell, despite his two excellent tries, often lacks the ability to see the game as a whole as it unfolds around him, and tends to suffer from white line fiver resulting in him missing opportunities for the rest of his teammates. This slightly blinkered vision could be a liability causing points to go begging for Australia when up against tougher opposition.

Nevertheless, as Australia approach the real business end of their Pool they surely must feel pretty confident of a spot in the quarter finals. All that remains to be seen is whether or not they emerge from the Pool in first or second place. This Saturday against England will be the decider. Barring any Quade Cooper wobble moments, this Wallaby team really does look exceptionally focused and are going to prove very difficult to beat.

Uruguay – 7/10

Even though they knew that the likelihood of them pulling off an upset was about as likely as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin having a civilized tea party, Uruguay came into this match with their heads held high and were valiant competitors for a full eighty minutes. However, at times the gulf in quality and experience between the two sides was painfully obvious. Despite that Uruguay played with plenty of heart and courage even though it was for all intents and purposes a one-way Wallaby road show.

There were glimmers of hope for the Uruguayans and a few try scoring opportunities did present themselves but the lack of finishing skills by the South Americans was painfully obvious at times. Furthermore, although they were courageous in the contact areas and on several occasions held their own against the Wallabies, their defence found it hard to really plug the continuous gaps that Australia managed to find.

In short, a team that unfortunately found it hard to shake off its minnow status all afternoon came to this match full of intent and certainly put their hearts and souls into everything they did. They never looked like quitting despite the scoreline and for that we have to salute them. It is unfortunate that they have been drawn in such an overwhelmingly difficult Pool, but they clearly are enjoying the opportunity of showing the rest of the world that they are at this tournament for a reason and not just to make up the numbers. Like many in the stands last Sunday we all hope that they continue to acquit themselves with pride for the remainder of this tournament and that it ends up being a positive experience for the players and the future of rugby in Uruguay. I am pretty sure we will be seeing Uruguay again in Japan in 2019.

Scotland vs USA
Final Score – Scotland 39/USA 16
Leeds

Scotland – 8/10

Another really solid performance from Scotland on Sunday in the second half showed that Scotland’s chances of reaching at least the quarter-finals look exceptionally strong. Composed and efficient and able to cope with some significant pressure from the USA at times, Scotland look solid up front and devastatingly quick with ball in hand. There is no doubt Scotland are building nicely for their all important last two matches with South Africa and Samoa to determine the pecking order of Pool B and who their quarter-final opponents will be.

Scotland won this game comprehensively but a shaky start to proceedings in the first half will concern Coach Vern Cotter as his side despite numerous penalties awarded to them, failed to really assert any kind of authority over a very motivated American team. Given the physical authority of the Springboks, Scotland cannot afford a similar shaky start this weekend against the South Africans. Indeed had the Americans been blessed with better discipline and stronger execution then Scotland would have had to work much harder in the second half than the scoreline would suggest. Nevertheless it is the second half on which I am primarily judging Scotland as they came from behind and clearly took the match by the jugular in a masterful display of composure and authority. This is a talented side that has plenty of potential to really make a statement of how far Scottish rugby has come in the last year.

In many ways Scotland muddled their way through the first half, and often seemed surprised at the speed and ferocity of the American rush defence, with Eagles players putting in some massive hits on their Scottish opponents.  The Eagles were looking good for their lead at half-time with a well-earned try. Scotland had challenged well for the most part but their execution was letting them down hampered by the odd lapses in discipline. Stuart Hogg at fullback was doing plenty of work and constantly sparking Scottish attacks but his passing and accuracy were falling short of the mark.

No doubt a fairly serious tongue lashing was doled out by Coach Vern Cotter in the dressing room, and the Scotland that emerged onto the field looked a very different side. Within minutes they had hit back and quickly began to get themselves in the driving seat with a brilliant try from winger Tim Visser, after that man Hogg had started the movement and found the accuracy in his offloads once more. Sean Maitland would follow with a second try and Scotland were back in the lead and charging hard. Scotland would experience a brief scare from the Americans midway through the second half but solid Scottish defence would see the Eagles’ handling and execution fall apart. From here on, it was all about Scotland till the final whistle, as the Americans exhausted from their earlier heroics rapidly began to fade despite a raft of substitutions. The only blemish to the Scottish performance was the loss of Finn Russell due to injury.

Put aside the inability to find the right gears in the first half, and the Scottish resurgence in the second half and the intensity at which they played gives them a solid score in my opinion. By the end of the second half it was clear that this Scottish team have figured out the way they want to play, and the execution was there for all to see. They will still need to review that first half, and make sure that against South Africa we see eighty minutes of what they are clearly capable of delivering. How far they can ultimately go in this year’s World Cup remains to be seen, but they are surely guaranteed a quarter-final spot unless it all goes horribly wrong against South Africa and more importantly Samoa. In the case of the latter match against Samoa, I have a hunch that it will be Scotland’s day. Nevertheless, Pool B surely still has some twists left in its plot, and Scotland will need to be on their guard as the job is far from done yet.

USA – 7/10

You have to hand it to the Eagles for putting up some bruising resistance that really made it hard for the Scots to find any kind of rhythm in the first half. However, as we have seen time and again from the Eagles they really do have some serious discipline issues which ultimately mar what could have been some outstanding performances and possibly even cause the odd upset. Furthermore, as the pressure starts mounting against them and the discipline starts to crack so too does the handling and execution. In short, a side with some serious promise but lacking the necessary finesse at the moment to really compete and hold their own at this level.

The Americans played a solid first half, which barring some costly disciplinary lapses left them with a deserved 13-6 lead at half time. Fly half AJ MacGinty was providing some solid work with the boot as well as often finding holes in the Scottish defence, which centre Seamus Kelly was able to exploit and turn into some good metres for the Americans. The American forwards were putting in some huge hits on the Scots, and even winger Takudzwa Ngewnya showed that he is not just one of rugby’s fastest men but is also not shy of the odd monster tackle as he flattened Scottish centre Peter Horne. Flanker Andrew Durutalo was having a particularly bruising afternoon on attack as well as pushing Scotland hard at the breakdown. The Americans were quickly up in defense and it was causing Scotland great difficulty in establishing any kind of pattern to their game.

However, it was the second half and a disintegrating display of discipline and execution by the Americans which let them down and surely must be frustrating for their supporters as they have seen this all too often. Even though the Americans briefly rallied midway through the second half, it was cold comfort for their supporters who had rightly believed after the first half that their team was about to deliver so much more.  With two games left the Americans will really need to find those finishing touches as they face first a bruising encounter with South Africa and then the Cinderella story of the tournament Japan.  This is a gutsy and talented Eagles side but they will have to dig very deep for the remainder of the tournament and their final match with Japan should be a classic.

Ireland vs Romania
Final Score – Ireland 44/Romania 10
London

Ireland – 9/10

Ruthless and with some dazzling displays of flair, this was a very good-looking Irish performance.  How good Ireland are at this stage is still hard to tell as with no disrespect to Canada or Romania, they have yet to be really tested.  Nevertheless this was a sound performance from Ireland against a plucky but clearly tired Romanian side still reeling from their efforts against France a few days earlier.

Few doubted Ireland’s ability to win the match but were perhaps surprised to see it take as long as it did for Ireland to notch up the all important bonus point.  Nevertheless, Ireland got the job done and in the process produced some real class with Simon Zebo stealing much of the limelight at times.  Tommy Bowe on the wing stormed back to form after the question marks raised about him during the summer’s warm-up games and Keith Earls on the opposite wing is really starting to show some form and consistency.  Ireland effectively neutralised Romania’s traditional strengths in the scrum and Devin Toner answered his critics by having a standout game especially in the lineouts.  Flanker Chris Henry continues to impress for Ireland and really shows how much depth Ireland has managed to develop in their squad in the last two years. Meanwhile although looking slightly rusty at times, Cian Healy is coming back into the Irish fold after his injury layoff at speed and is likely to be at his fighting best come the critical match-up with France.

Calm and efficient but with the ability to give the noisy crowd plenty to cheer about, it was a polished Irish display which should set them up nicely for their last two games where the real work of this Rugby World Cup begins for Ireland.

Romania – 7/10

Romania were always going to be up against it for this match, as reeling from their impressive encounter with the French only a few days earlier, they were now faced with the task of taking on Pool favourites Ireland.  To give Romania full credit, they gave it everything they had and although outclassed by Ireland, they were worthy competitors who often made Ireland work hard.  Their never say die attitude resulted in a well-earned try late in the match and merited them a lap of honor around Wembley stadium at the end of the match, with the Kodak moment of Romanian scrum half Florin Surugiu proposing to his girlfriend on the pitch.

Romania showed some real pace in winger Adrian Apostol which almost resulted in a try for Romania and managed to set up a lengthy passage of play for them in Ireland’s 22 at one point.  Furthermore, despite the ferocity of the Irish attack particularly in the second half, the Romanians managed to get some significant turnover ball at key moments, once again proving that when it comes to a work rate at the breakdown they are no slackers despite some clearly fatigued bodies.  It was unfortunate that a lack of discipline towards the end would see Romania the recipient of the match’s only yellow card, but they can still take heart in a well worked consolation try through lock Ovidiu Tonita in an exhausting final quarter.

With the benefit of some decent rest ahead of them before their next encounter with Canada, I fully expect to see Romania give the Canucks a serious run for their money as these two teams battle it out for fourth place.  While Canada may have the edge in their backs they are going to have to work hard to create space for them when up against a very physical and effective Romanian forward pack.  Romania are still here to make a statement and Canada and Italy will need to be wise to the real threat this team poses.