Archive for the ‘Rugby World Cup 2019’ Category

Yes that magical moment that only comes around once every four years is finally upon us. The World Cup final! It’s been a tournament full of twists and surprises. Japan’s meteoric rise to superstar status, England’s demolition of New Zealand – the list goes on. Meanwhile France and Ireland held true to form and squandered their chances at glory in the quarter finals. France blew it through their mercurial form and a blatant act of stupidity. Ireland meanwhile peaked far too early and by the time the tournament kicked off were out of ideas and essentially a spent force needing to go back to the drawing board. Wales it has to be said found themselves lucky to make the semis courtesy of France, but much like Ireland seemed to run out of steam as the tournament progressed. Australia’s dismal form of the last few years continued and much like Ireland their quarter final exit was clearly on the cards before the tournament even began.

So six weeks later here we are and it’s England versus South Africa. England in many ways have been a revelation and if a team has had the perfect trajectory to the final then it is Eddie Jones’ Men in White. They have simply got better and better with every match of 2019, and without a doubt look the most complete unit in this World Cup. A bruising yet highly mobile and skilled set of forwards, a slick half back pairing to manage proceedings and a set of backs that pack grace, power and speed. Whichever way you cut it they fully deserve their shot at glory on Saturday, and it is going to take a monumental effort from South Africa to derail the English World Cup Express.

South Africa may have lost to New Zealand in their opening match, and the history books seem to indicate that that is as good as the kiss of death in a World Cup final. South Africa’s road to the final may not have been pretty, but brutally efficient it has been. They may not have been the most imaginative team in the tournament, but defensively they pose an enormous challenge. In short, this is a team it is very difficult to wear down, and the physical costs of doing so are enormous. England may be the more creative side, but South Africa have the potential to put up probably the most resolute defense the English have faced all year. South Africa have their own X-factor in the shape of winger Cheslin Kolbe, so that although they may not have the overall pace and imagination of England out wide, they can still be a threat. Couple that to a forward pack that England will be able to go toe to toe with, but the question remains at what cost physically? In short, nothing is guaranteed on Saturday even if on paper the odds would tend to favor England.

England definitely can and we think should get to lift the Webb Ellis trophy on Saturday for the second time in the tournament’s history, but South Africa will have a lot to say about it and clearly fancy their chances of lifting it themselves for a third time. It should be an epic contest and one worthy of a final, so here’s what got us talking.

England vs South Africa – Saturday, November 2nd – Yokohama

Two big bruising sides meet at Rugby’s ultimate crossroads on Saturday. South Africa are better known for being a side that will simply obliterate an opposition through sheer physical prowess, while England have shown both creativity and a pace and power that can be a match for anyone. England look the most complete side, but whether or not it can break down the kind of Berlin Wall that South Africa represents remains to be seen.

England have gone from strength to strength in 2019, but South Africa have also undergone a dramatic transformation under Coach Rassie Erasmus in the last eighteen months. His job will be done come the final whistle on Saturday, but there is no doubt that he has provided his charges with a sense of belief that November 2nd could be their day. It remains to be seen however, if a relatively one dimensional game plan, albeit built around a daunting physical presence on the pitch, will be enough to overcome an English outfit that has managed to combine brawn with pace and creativity.

Expect the front rows from both sides to stand firm, but England’s offering to create more opportunity once the ball is loose

South Africa have a very good scrum, and with the likes of  Tendai”Beast” Mtawarira in the mix it’s unlikely to budge much under English pressure. However, once the ball comes loose we just feel the English trio of Sinckler, George and Vunipola are likely to do more with it than the South Africans. If England can really put South Africa under the pump here for the first hour, then they may well have done enough to negate the impact of South Africa’s bench replacements in the front row. Vincent Koch, Steven Kitshoff and Malcolm Marx in particular are well known for their ability to create absolute havoc and we’d argue are a much more dangerous offering than England have on the bench. How much South Africa have been made to go backwards here in the first hour will determine how much of an impact a dangerous Springbok bench are likely to have. If the scores are close then England could be in trouble here come the three quarters mark.

The most fascinating and telling contest of the afternoon – the second and back row battles

Let’s be honest, perhaps apart from seeing what Cheslin Kolbe can do, this is the contest we are all most looking forward to on Saturday. South Africa have an outstanding back row, and Captain Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen are back to their very best, while as regular readers know, we rate Pieter-Steph du Toit as one of the best in the world. By the same token however, there is no getting away from the fact that the English back row of youngsters Sam Underhill and Tom Curry or the “Kamikaze kids” as they have become known as, are rapidly becoming the new global benchmark on what you want your back row to look and operate like. Add into the mix the bruising power of Billy Vunipola and there is no question that that English back row is going to take some beating on Saturday. It’s powerful, fast and highly mobile and as  good as South Africa are, we feel they are going to have trouble matching up to such a well drilled and highly skilled English unit. Much like the front row though, keep the scorelines tight and England may find themselves in hot water come the sixty minute mark as that South African bench comes into play. This is perhaps even more prevalent when talking of the second rows. Maro Itoje has been in a class of his own for England this tournament, and in our opinion can easily negate the physicality and in your face niggles of South Africa particularly at the lineout. However, both Franco Mostert and the rather terrifying prospect of South Africa’s own “caveman” RG Snyman on the bench is something we doubt England are looking forward to having to contend with. Once again if the scores are tight here as we get to the final twenty expect some bother for England.

England’s game management should prove superior

Although Handre Pollard had a superb outing for the Springboks at fly half in their semi-final win over Wales, we were not as impressed with the South African half back pairing as a unit. England look sharper here in George Ford and Ben Youngs allied to Owen Farrell’s ability to pull strings from the center and shift back to number ten when needed. In our opinion, Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk’s box kicking last weekend was almost a liability for South Africa. South Africa kicked away far too much valuable possession last weekend, without really providing a platform for their backs to work off. A lot of it seemed pointless and had Wales been a bit more adventurous last Sunday it could have all gone rather sideways for South Africa. Given England’s abilities under the high ball, this could prove a very costly tactic for the Springboks on Saturday, and it will be interesting to see if de Klerk has been instructed to keep the kicking to a minimum. The English triumvirate just look like they have a better sense of what they are trying to achieve and a back line more than capable of using the platforms they create to their full advantage. South Africa just don’t look creative enough here to really bother England in our opinion. Pollard may excel at punishing England with the boot, if the contact aspect of the game leads to lapses in English discipline, but whether or not he will be able to pull the strings in the same way the Farrell/Ford axis can, remains to be seen.

South Africa need to go wide and have plenty of gas to do so

South Africa bring two very exciting wingers to Saturday’s contest. South African supporters will be delighted to see the return of Cheslin Kolbe, as will every neutral on Saturday. Makazole Mapimpi is a flyer of note and has really grown into the tournament, but Kolbe is South Africa’s biggest X-factor. While he may provide plenty of excitement in open space, he has also shown that he can defend and tackle well beyond his own weight. Just watch him bringing down New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick at speed if you don’t believe us. To match them England boast perhaps the fastest man in rugby’s 100 metre sprint through Jonny May, and Anthony Watson has been outstanding in both attack and defense for the Men in White. The English pair have been given much more work to do this tournament by their half backs than their South African counterparts, and there is no doubt they go into this match as the more well rounded and finely tuned unit. At fullback South Africa have looked distinctly vulnerable, and last weekend Willie le Roux struggled to hang onto the ball throughout the match. With Elliot Daly having a power boot to get England out of trouble as well as being consistently reliable in the air, expect to see Francois Steyn on the pitch sooner rather than later to provide South Africa with some parity here, unless le Roux ends up having one of those blinders he occasionally pulls out his hat. Despite the presence of Kolbe here for South Africa, we think overall England are packing a set of backs and centers who are much more comfortable operating as a unit. South Africa seem to operate more as a group of individuals in the backs and this could ultimately be their undoing on Saturday, as they don’t quite have the seamless transition between the physical prowess of their forwards and the speed of their backs, a linkage that England seems to have mastered.

It’s all in the benches

This is where, as we’ve said throughout this piece, the match could well be won or lost. While England perhaps offer the more cohesive starting fifteen, South Africa have the bench to unravel what good work it may have done, should the scores be close come the sixty minute mark. Also with the injury to replacement scrum half for England Willi Heinz, England Coach Eddie Jones has been forced to draft in Ben Spencer who has not played in this tournament so far, and it’s a big ask for him to come to the fore in such a high stakes match. South Africa’s scrum half replacement Herschel Jantjies, while only having a few Test caps under his belt has not seemed to suffer from stage fright whatsoever for the big occasions, and along with Kolbe is another part of South Africa’s X-factor component. England themselves pack a star studded bench, and anyone would want the likes of Dan Cole, Jonathan Joseph, Mark Wilson and George Kruis backing up their efforts, but we just feel overall South Africa are packing the more tried and trusted bigger guns on their bench.

Verdict

Form and the history books would seem to hand this one to England, and we have a hard time disagreeing with that assertion. England’s performance against New Zealand was something to behold, and combined the attractiveness of Japan’s offloading game with a physical presence that suffocated the All Blacks. It was an inventive and highly mobile performance from England that highlighted a superb all round skill set and the power and pace to keep the opposition at bay. Overall England have looked the most complete and well rounded team of the tournament, and they will be very hard to beat. South Africa’s motivation will be off the charts and expect them to give England an exceptionally tough physical challenge, but whether or not they will be able to match’s England’s imagination and creativity is up for debate. South Africa will have to do much more than simply bludgeon England into submission, and to date we haven’t really seen them demonstrate an ability to adapt their game plan to do otherwise. Nevertheless, Saturday’s final sees two of rugby’s finest brains in terms of the Coaching box in Eddie Jones and Rassie Erasmus, so who knows how this week’s training sessions have gone. In short, these are two teams who will spare no punches and will throw everything at tomorrow’s proceedings. It should be a tense and at times tight affair, but pick a winner we must and for now our gut is saying a more clinical and well structured English team to get their hands on the Webb Ellis trophy by four points!

While it may be hard to top events on Saturday, these two quarter-finals will provide plenty of drama, and certainly in the case of Japan an expectant host nation will watch to see if their heroes can make this tournament one where dreams really do come true. The form books may be even less kind to the two underdogs, Japan and France than it will be to Saturday’s wild cards Ireland and Australia, but in many ways that makes these contests all the more fascinating. Japan have shown the world that this is a special team that still may have some surprises up their sleeves and who are not short on belief. Meanwhile France have shown flashes of brilliance that still lead us to believe that we haven’t yet seen their traditional big game in a World Cup yet, 2015 being the only notable exception to that trend where there weren’t any.

The favorites for Sunday’s encounters Wales and South Africa, do enter this stage of the competition with a certain degree of confident swagger that is well justified. Wales have looked the part from day one, and despite being clearly rattled at times by Fiji they still managed to produce arguably one of the best games of the pool stages in their thriller against Australia. Wales look the part and a have a quiet air of assurance about them that France will struggle to deal with. Wales have got the basics right and it is a tight and well drilled unit that is fully conversant with their roles as a group and as individuals within it.

South Africa may have come short against New Zealand in their opening match, but they put up one hell of a fight in the process, and the All Blacks were left in no doubt that they had just experienced a “genuine Test match” of the highest order. South Africa then went on to dispatch the rest of their Pool B opponents with relative ease, though like New Zealand were not overly challenged in the process, something that Japan will have an edge over them in as they have had to fight tooth and nail for all four of their Pool wins. Then there’s the small matter of the “Brighton ghosts”. South Africa will be out for revenge and the 2019 edition of the the Springboks is dramatically different to that which Japan encountered four years ago. Better coached and with a raft of players who can match the raw energy and excitement levels that Japan offers, South Africa are a different beast in 2019 and justifiably have their eyes set on the main prize.

So here’s what got us talking in relation to Sunday’s proceedings.

Wales vs France – Sunday, October 20th – Oita

These two sides have an interesting history in that the result is never a given between them, no matter what the form book says. France invariably give Wales a game to think about, and in recent years have posed the Men in Red with some serious questions come half time. Wales however do seem to be better at reinventing themselves against France in the final forty minutes, while France struggle to understand that what was working for the first forty has clearly been found out and undone by the Welsh. Herein lies France’s biggest problem of the last four years – they simply aren’t an eighty minute team. Wales on the other hand are and if anything tend to play their best rugby in the final forty minutes.

Wales have looked composed even under adversity such as against Australia and Fiji this tournament, and that Welsh defense just gets better and better as the clock winds up to the final whistle. One thing it seems you can’t do against the Welsh is wear them down, as if anything they become more resolute and impervious to the effects of fatigue as the the full time whistle approaches. If you’re going to catch Wales napping, you’ve essentially got to do it in the first twenty minutes and then spend the rest of your game keeping them at bay and not allowing them to return the compliment.

France on the other hand have, much like Australia, got the job done but not looked overly flash in the process. Sure their opening game against Argentina showed off some outstanding attacking skills, particularly through center Damian Penaud, but they got an almighty fright in the second half and in all honesty were lucky to win that match. While they comfortably dispatched a plucky USA side, they almost came horribly unstuck against Tonga, and were spared the potential embarrassment of having to face England courtesy of Typhoon Hagibis. In short, most people have written France off in this tournament, but to use the well worn cliche that is when they are at their most dangerous.

Welsh resolve is at its most convincing in Alun-Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric – something France simply don’t have

If you ever wanted an analogy between Rugby and Marvel Super Hero comics then look no further than Wales. Welsh Captain Alun-Wyn Jones and flanker Justin Tipuric could easily move to Hollywood after this World Cup and take roles as Thor and Ironman in the next Marvel blockbuster. These two characters are completely indestructible and can be depended on to pull their team from the brink of disaster consistently for eighty minutes. In short, you can’t and will not break them. In France’s offerings we see none of the same qualities, despite Captain Guilhem Guirado’s inspirational leadership and complete disregard for his own safety. Not only are Jones and Tipuric extraordinarily skilled players in their own right, their on field heroics are such a key part of providing motivation to the rest of this Welsh squad, that in our opinion they are Wales’ two most important players.

We have trouble seeing France gain much in the way of parity in any of the forward battles

France have some quality players in their forward pack make no mistake. Hooker and Captain Guilhem Guirado and number eight Louis Picamoles are world class through and through and there is some genuinely promising talent in the likes of second rower Bernard le Roux and back rowers Gregory Alldritt, Wenceslas Lauret and Charles Ollivon. However, as a unit we struggle to see them matching up to a capable Welsh second row and back row that has been rock solid and highly dynamic so far in this tournament. The essential difference in the two sides is this Welsh pack plays as a finely tuned unit whereas France play as an eclectic collection of brilliant individuals. Without any kind of cohesive forward dominance France will struggle to unleash the mercurial talents of world class backs like Gael Fickou, Damian Penaud and Virimi Vakatawa.

While he’s often had his critics there is no doubt that Dan Biggar has got better and better this year and has ultimately negated the loss of Gareth Anscombe, while Rhys Patchell has been a noteworthy understudy

The loss of Gareth Anscombe prior to the tournament caused a genuine stir amongst Welsh supporters and we felt some rather unjustified criticisms leveled at Dan Biggar his replacement. We’ve always held Biggar in high regard and when he is on song, which he has been this tournament, there are few who can better him in terms of reliability. Furthermore, Rhys Patchell has really risen to the occasion as Biggar and Anscombe’s understudy. In short, despite the cries of alarm prior to the World Cup, we’d argue that Wales are in exceptionally rude health at fly half.

The most entertaining contest on the park on Sunday – the battle of the scrum halves

Both France and Wales arrive in Oita with a full deck in the scrum half department. Gareth Davies for Wales and Antoine Dupont for France are excitement machines through and through, and the kind of players who in the blink of an eye can change the momentum of the game in their side’s favor. Davies excels at being the intercept king while Dupont’s eye for opportunity and some searing breaks that suddenly open up an entire pitch are becoming the stuff of legends. Expect both sides to monitor their opposition nines with the utmost of vigilance. There are also some very handy replacements for both sides on the bench, though we’d argue that France’s Baptiste Serin has yet to really hit his stride in the tournament and had an absolute shocker against Tonga.

Remember this guy?

No not number 7, the great Olivier Magne, but number 14 Philippe Bernat-Salles and the try that rang around the world in the 1999 Rugby World Cup, as France who had essentially been written off, knocked the highly vaunted All Blacks out of the tournament in the semi-finals. Well we think his successor in the number 14 jersey for Sunday, Damian Penaud has all the same qualities if not more. For us he is the embodiment of those exciting French backs of yesteryear, and if Wales give him just a sniff of space then you could well end up seeing a repeat of 1999. On the big stage it will be the biggest Test his opposite Welsh number, youngster Josh Adams, has had to date in what is turning out to be an equally promising career.

Verdict

Despite rumors circulating in the press that dissension within the French camp is rife, one shouldn’t read to much into it, as France being France there is always some sort of sideshow going on. Despite all of this France somehow always manage to come to the party for the big moments at World Cup time, even if 2015 was an exception to the rule. There is still enough raw talent in this French squad to upset the best laid plans of the top sides. Wales though simply look too polished to really allow the form books to be tossed out the window. There still seems to be the fundamental disconnect between the French coaching staff and the players and that is what undid them in 2015 and history certainly looks set to repeat itself this year. It still should be an interesting and entertaining match spiced with the “what if France shows up” perennial question. For us though Wales look like the finished product and are still the contenders and dark horse to lift the trophy they were when they headed into the tournament. As a result we’re handing this to Wales by sixteen points!

Japan vs South Africa – Sunday, October 20th – Tokyo

As much as we love the underdog here at the Lineout, we have to admit we really didn’t see this coming. Japan’s success in this tournament has been a glorious advertisement for the game globally and we have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Brave Blossoms extraordinary journey to this point. And brave they certainly have been, in slaying the Irish tiger and the Scottish lion. What’s next for this extraordinary band of rugby players buoyed on by 126 million ecstatic Japanese? To say that they have exceeded their country’s expectations and got every neutral rugby fan across the globe onto their bandwagon for the ride is an understatement, making Sunday’s match up with South Africa’s Springboks one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures in the tournament’s history.

South Africa, apart from their initial do or die tussle with New Zealand at the start of the tournament have had a much easier ride to Sunday’s quarter final than the hosts. One thing they may well be wary of though is the fact that the last match they played against a brave Canadian side was almost two weeks ago. Having to sit around and watch the country you’re in go ballistic for the team you are to face in the quarter finals, without any game time under your belt in the process must have been slightly disquieting no matter how professional your setup is. How much will nerves ultimately play a part in Sunday’s proceedings as the Springboks will have had to watch all the momentum favor their opponents heading into the match. The flip side of that coin is that with all the attention on Japan, the Springboks have been allowed to go about their business quietly out of the spotlight, and in terms of pressure then that is all on Japan.

Can Japan really out muscle a Springbok tight five that takes physicality to a level that they just haven’t encountered yet?

Ireland were off the boil physically against Japan, so although they had the edge on paper they failed to make it count. Scotland were simply at sixes and sevens for too much of the match as a superbly drilled Japanese unit from a technical point of view got the better of them. We don’t feel that will be the case on Sunday, as South Africa pack a formidable front row with an equally capable unit on the bench. Although Japanese Hooker Shota Horie has been outstanding he will meet his match in Bongi Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx. Meanwhile Eben Etzebeth in particular will bring an edge and physicality to the engine room in the second row and the lineout that Japan will struggle to contend with, and expect to see their discipline suffer as a result. And when you’ve got the destructive forces of Franco Mostert and RG Snyman (with the latter simply being able to terrify opposition defenses on the basis of looks alone) waiting on the bench to add further fuel to the fire, we can’t help feeling Japan could well unravel here on Sunday.

In the back row Japan have looked strong but South Africa is one of the best in the business

That Japanese back row of Michael Leitch, South African import Lappies Labuschagne and Kazuki Himeno has been one of the revelations of the tournament, but we struggle to see it competing for a full eighty minutes with an intensely physical South African unit. As regular readers know we consider South Africa’s Pieter-Steph du Toit to be one of the best loose forwards in the world, and he just gets better and better with every outing. Japan will be intensely competitive here make no mistake and with Leitch probably dominating the motivational speeches and selflessly putting his body on the line for the jersey, South Africa will get a challenge here make no mistake but we doubt it will be strong enough to negate the South African threat for a full eighty minutes.

There’s nothing like experience at the highest level and at the pivot points South Africa clearly has the edge

Japan’s halfback pairing has impressed make no mistake this tournament, but we feel it will be hard pressed to match South Africa’s big match temperament in the shape of Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard. Pollard has been good with the boot and a reliable kicker and de Klerk is the devastating live wire he excels at being. The one thing the Japanese pair do have going for them is speed and precision, qualities that they have consistently delivered on this tournament, especially scrum half Yutaka Nagare. Despite some of the cricket score results in the tournament so far by the bigger sides, Japanese fly half Yu Tamara finds himself heading into this match as the competition’s leading points scorer, meaning that if nothing else he will keep South Africa honest with the boot if their physicality becomes overly exuberant in the eyes of referee Wayne Barnes. Nevertheless, South Africa have so much proven talent in these key positions, especially with new sensation Herschel Jantjies on the bench, that ultimately South Africa should find themselves running proceedings with ease. However, as a caveat this Japanese side went up against one of the best half back pairings in the world in the shape of Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray and clearly got the better of them – so anything could happen on the day!

Japan can do this but South Africa can also do this!

You have to admit that is some pretty compelling viewing from both sides! That Japanese try against Scotland shows some offloading skills that simply defy belief, and we here at the Lineout would dearly love to see this become the new norm in Test rugby, as it certainly is easy on the eyes. Then again so is pint-sized South African winger Cheslin Kolbe’s running game. Expect Kolbe to be one of THE players of the tournament once it is done and dusted and to receive the same kind of accolades and respect from teams that the late great Jonah Lomu of New Zealand received. What is perhaps even more impressive about Kolbe is his ability to bring down giant second rowers – in short if you want commitment from a player then look no further than this mini version of Jonah Lomu. Along with Justin Tipuric and Alun-Wyn Jones from Wales there is clearly a role for the South African in the next Marvel Action Heroes film.

Much talk of the Brighton ghosts has been made leading up to this match, but in reality the two scenarios couldn’t be more different

There is no doubt that South Africa will have this at the back of their mind. Sure they played a warm up match against Japan in Kumagaya a week before the tournament started, and thrashed the hosts comprehensively. However, that is all it was – a warm up game and the Japan we have seen in this tournament has grown into a very different beast. By the same token though South Africa are almost unrecognizable from the shambolic outfit that ended the 2017 season (one of the worst in their proud history), and unlike the last World Cup there has been a much more consistent approach to and preparation for the global showdown. South Africa have done their homework and look the part, whereas the 2015 World Cup Springbok side did not, and instead looked a disjointed mess for much of the tournament. Japan also did not have the weight of expectation on their shoulders in Brighton that they will have in Tokyo on Sunday. This will be the biggest game of Japan’s rugby history and as good as this side may be, we fear that with little collective experience of these kinds of occasions it may all prove too much for them. They have been marvelous hosts and their team has done their country proud and been a credit to the sport as a whole, but it has had an almost fairy tale like tinge to it. Whether or not the carriage will turn into a pumpkin on Sunday at midnight remains to be seen, but there is no denying they and the rest of the world have thoroughly enjoyed the ride!

Verdict

We don’t for a minute think that this will be the one-sided blowout in favor of South Africa that many are predicting. We do believe, albeit with a genuine sense of regret, that the party has to end some time for Japan, and this will likely be their last waltz at the tournament. However, we think that the spirit that has characterized this exceptional side will come to the fore, and allied to some world class skills, Japan will be a difficult nut for South Africa to crack. But crack it will under the sheer physical force of a Springbok onslaught for eighty minutes. Japan does have the talent to spring one more shock of the century, and as a result another entry in the history books is not completely beyond the realms of possibility. Sadly though a big bruising Springbok juggernaut, blessed with some dancing feet of their own, is the side more likely to be standing upright at the final whistle. A powerful Springbok performance is thus likely to end Japan’s epic World Cup journey by eleven points!

When we first looked at the pools draw for this World Cup, we felt that possibly the pool stages may have ended up being rather one-sided. In many ways they were, certainly in the case of Pool B. However, as always some of the Tier 2 nations packed some genuine punch. Uruguay were well worth their admission, as were Georgia and Fiji in Pool D and Japan completely turned the form book on its head in Pool A, much to the chagrin of Ireland and Scotland. The tournament in that respect has completely exceeded expectations and Japan have been a genuine revelation – their offloading game against Scotland was truly spectacular and had to be seen to be believed. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the tournament was the fact that despite the advent of a professional league in North America, Canada and the United States were sadly uncompetitive in their respective pools, with Canada having the added injury of being unable to play the only match they had a genuine shot at glory in against Namibia due to Typhoon Hagibis.

All that aside after a month of some glorious rugby, the business end of the tournament really gets underway on Saturday with the quarter finals. We’ll be having a look at all four matches, but as we only have the team sheets for the first round of Quarter Finals on Saturday, we’ll take a look at Wales vs France and Japan vs South Africa tomorrow.

As expected England topped their pool and now face an Australian side that got the job done but often looked less than convincing in their journey to the knockout stages. England really only had Argentina to test their resolve, after their final match with France was called off due to Typhoon Hagibis. Australia provided us with one of the best games of the pool stages in their thrilling second half comeback against a Welsh side who just managed to hang on to the narrowest of wins. By the same token Australia almost got embarrassed by Fiji and found the going tough at times against Georgia. The Wallabies will have the advantage of being slightly fresher out of the blocks than England, as their final game was not subjected to the vagaries of Typhoon Hagibis. 

England have looked dominant in their run up to their quarter finals after having dispatched Tonga, USA and Argentina with relative ease. They probably could have done without the enforced 14 day break between their game against Argentina and Saturday’s clash with Australia, but the flip side of the coin is it has given them time to sort out any niggling injuries picked up in the pool stages as well as allowing the team ample preparation time. While hardly ideal, were England to come short against Australia on Saturday, it would be a rather weak excuse.

Next up is New Zealand against Ireland, in a match that has so many subplots it would be worthy movie or thriller material. New Zealand will be seeking revenge for Ireland messing with their dominance of the global game in the last four years, in addition to the pressure of ensuring a spot in the semi-finals. Ireland, no doubt would have preferred the Springboks as a quarter final opponent, especially as the form that catapulted them to the top of the world rankings last year has all but deserted them of late. Sure they put away Scotland and Samoa convincingly, but their loss to Japan highlighted some glaring gaps in both strategy and execution on Ireland’s part. Their labored win over Russia did little to convince the rest of the world that Ireland are potential title holders. Ireland simply don’t look the part at the moment and it will take a monumental shift in both execution and effort on Saturday to get Ireland’s World Cup campaign back on track. Ireland have beaten New Zealand in two of their three encounters since the last World Cup, but for all intents and purposes that is now ancient and irrelevant history.

New Zealand on the other hand are having no such problems in their campaign. Their only major concern is likely to be the fact that so far in this World Cup they have only been put to the test once and that was four weeks ago, which is a very long time in the scope of a tournament like this. Their opening game of the tournament against South Africa is the only time that New Zealand have really felt any kind of genuine pressure. Their Sunday strolls in the park against Canada and Namibia, were simply that – good-natured training sessions amongst friends, and we say that in no disrespect to these two opponents who certainly threw everything they had into both matches, even if the outcome had been essentially predicted in the last century. As a result it is a fit and well rested New Zealand that takes on Ireland, but without the benefit of some genuinely hard fought clashes behind them to draw on in terms of big match preparation in the tournament so far. Add to the fact that Ireland would seem to have become New Zealand’s new bogey team, a title held until recently by France. As a result it is likely that there have been just a few jitters in the All Blacks camp this week, should the ghosts of 1999 and 2007 come back to haunt them, albeit in green rather than blue jerseys this time.

So without any further ado here’s our five talking points coming out of Saturday’s big bill of two mouth watering encounters!

England vs Australia – Saturday, October 19th – Oita

Since 2000 these two sides have met 25 times, and England have the healthier balance on the outcome sheet by a considerable margin, especially come World Cup time with the exception of that rather topical loss in the Pool stages of the last World Cup. If the statistics of these two teams aren’t enough of an argument in England’s favor come the World Cup since the turn of the century, there is the small matter of Australia’s form these last four years which is about as consistent as the value of airline shares on the stock exchange. One moment absolutely scintillating and capable of turning the All Blacks inside out and the next minute being blown off the park by any of the Tier one sides, the Wallabies are simply too unpredictable. In many ways they have become the Southern Hemisphere’s version of France in years gone by – in other words which Wallaby team will turn up on Saturday?

England meanwhile do not seem to be suffering the same identity crisis and with the exception of New Zealand, in many ways have looked the most self assured of all the competitors at this year’s World Cup. While they had a relatively easy journey to this quarter-final, courtesy of Typhoon Hagibis, there is no denying that they look a very capable side and one which barring one or two concerns certainly seems to know the type of game they want to play and how to execute it. In short, barring a few lingering questions around big match temperament and lapses in concentration, England look very much like a side who has every intention of being in Yokohama on November 2nd, and the skill set to ensure that becomes a reality.

England’s tight five to establish front foot dominance

Australia’s scrum has improved dramatically in the last year, but England’s has been all powerful. With a powerhouse front row, with a lethal second row providing some real stability and aggression in the set pieces, Australia are going to find the going tough here on Saturday. Like we say Australia have got better but not good enough to cope with England’s all out power, aggression and technical proficiency at the coalface. Australia may be a bit more competitive in the lineouts courtesy of Rory Arnold, Isaac Rodda and Adam Coleman, but with a power packed bench England are likely to be simply too much of a handful for Australia. It will be the platform from which England’s technical proficiency will be built on Saturday, leaving Australia with too much to do in terms of simply attempting to gain parity, let alone build a foundation of their own.

Australia will get some parity in the back row but even with Pocock and Hooper in the mix they won’t get the kind of dominance in the loose they tend to thrive on

If this was England’s back row of the first three years since the 2015 World Cup then we’d argue that Pocock and Hooper would be licking their lips. The problem is it isn’t and anything Pocock and Hooper can do, England’s back row for Saturday can do as well and in many cases probably better. As regular readers of this blog know, we simply cannot rate England’s Tom Curry highly enough. He’s England’s best find of the last four years and future Captain material at the tender age of 21. While the Australian duo, and Hooper in particular thrive in the loose, so too do England’s Sam Underhill and Curry. Add in to the mix England’s one man panzer division in the shape of Billy Vunipola and we just can’t see Australia keeping up here despite Pocock and Hooper’s exceptional talents.

It may seem harsh for George Ford, but Coach Eddie Jones has probably made the call he will stick by to the final should England get that far

George Ford has put in some big performances in the past few months in an English jersey, but when it comes down to the wire for the big games, Eddie Jones is likely to stick with Owen Farrell as his pivot to call the shots in the big games. Given what is at stake, it would seem to be the right call as Farrell seems to have a tighter hold on his game management skills from the ten slot than in the centres. For this match Jones probably could have got away with Ford at ten and Farrell at twelve as Australia do not really posess a world class number ten at the moment. However, for the clashes with England’s potential opponents in the next round, Jones needs some consistency in selection. Furthermore, Ben Youngs who has been seen as England’s weakest link of late at scrum half does seem to play better alongside Farrell than Ford. Ford will still have a chance to bring some impact in the final quarter but expect to see him on the bench for the remainder of the tournament as Jones hedges his bets on a combination that has served him well.

Wallabies Coach Cheika rolls the dice, but this could work out well for him as Eddie Jones also appears to throw caution to the wind

We think that it’s a bold decision by Jones to suddenly insert Henry Slade into the centre channels for a match of such importance, given the fact that the English centre has very little game time under his belt heading into this match. An absolutely brilliant player on his day with some outstanding skill sets, Slade has the potential to set the pitch alight. But then so too does Jordan Petaia for the Wallabies, which in many ways is an even bolder gamble by Cheika. The nineteen year old has very limited Super Rugby experience and even less Test experience. In terms of a leap of faith it doesn’t get much bigger than this. He has a huge amount of talent of that there is no doubt, but whether or not he will be able bring it to this kind of stage remains to be seen. If he does and Slade fails to find his groove and gel with Tuilagi, then with the electric Samu Kerevi alongside him Australia could end up with some momentum changing moments in this part of the park.

Hopefully this is the game where Elliot Daly finally has his detractors leave him alone

We’ve struggled with a lot of the criticism directed at Elliot Daly, England’s fullback on Saturday. Agreed he’s made mistakes in the past, but in our opinion he’s been there when England have needed him, has an exceptionally reliable boot and overall puts in the effort as well as creating some special moments of his own. In short we fail to see the problem. Very few if any of the teams in this competition have a water tight fifteen, and Daly is no exception, but in terms of reliability and doing what it says on the tin, then we find it hard to argue against Daly. In short, we’re fans and think Jones is doing the right thing by sticking with Daly and we really hope he has the kind of performance on Saturday that puts such debates to bed once and for all.

Verdict

Although much has been made of England’s bench, in terms of it closing up shop in England’s favor on Saturday, apart from the front row replacements, we’d argue that it is one area where the two sides are on par. However, it still doesn’t detract from the fact that overall we feel England is simply going to do too much damage in the first hour, for a bench to really make that much of an impact on Saturday. Unless Australia have studied France’s exploits of the 1999 and 2007 World Cups and embraced their underdog status and with it a plan to turn the form books upside down, then it’s hard to see anything other than a fairly convincing England victory. Barring any surprises from Australia and the dreaded English “choke” factor under pressure, then the Men in White to keep moving forward to next weekend by 13 points!

New Zealand vs Ireland – Saturday, October 19th – Tokyo

Australia may have taken some notes out of French play books of years gone by, but Ireland are likely to have made them mandatory viewing each night as they desperately seek to come up with something that New Zealand are not expecting. Let’s be honest the Ireland of 2019 has become beyond predictable and as a result it is going to take a bag full of surprises and an Irish side that New Zealand and the rest of the world has never seen before, if they are to reverse history and go beyond the quarter finals for the first time in the Emerald Isle’s spirited but ultimately disappointing World Cup history.

New Zealand will be fully aware of this and the fact that Ireland have been the annoying thorn in their side since the last World Cup. In short as far as the All Blacks are concerned it’s time to bury this cheeky green demon once and for all, and what better stage to do it on than the World Cup. New Zealand have had their ups and downs this year make no mistake, but they haven’t quite hit the lows that Ireland have in their dizzying fall from their successes of 2018. New Zealand when they click, and they still do with alarming regularity, look unstoppable and while the golden years since 2011 may be coming to an end, this group of rather extraordinary sportsmen aren’t quite done yet.

The “Tadhg” is back and Ireland will need every ounce of the raging bull on Saturday

After a rather quiet 2019, in Ireland’s final pool game against Samoa, the Irish tighthead prop exploded back into his groove. Tadhg Furlong’s influence on Ireland’s fortunes was immediate and set the tone for much of the match. He and New Zealand’s Joe Moody are likely to have a great deal to say to each other on Saturday, but if the Wexford tank hits his mark in Tokyo, New Zealand could face a long day at the coalface as well as having a few broken bodies across the park as the Irish prop seems almost impossible to bring down once he’s built up a head of steam.

Ireland like to suffocate the ball and slow the game down, but referee Nigel Owens likes the game to flow – consequently Irish discipline and keeping on the right side of the laws will be paramount

Ireland are blessed with a superb disciplinary record, which of late has, fairly or unfairly depending on your point of view, lost some of its lustre. The dangers of slowing the ball down bring with it all kinds of issues around the fringes of the laws, territory which New Zealand excels at operating in. Ireland will need to keep it tight but also ensure that the game flows while at the same time not leaving themselves exposed especially in the loose. Ireland’s speed at the breakdown, their rush defense and efficiency at the ruck have all been exemplary under Coach Joe Schmidt, but the aggression and physicality New Zealand are likely to bring to the contact areas on Saturday are going to put this under the most extreme pressure. If Ireland are able to match this and not get bullied by New Zealand and consequently avoid costly disciplinary mistakes then they are in with a chance, but it will be a key area of concern for them and should they not master it, New Zealand will quickly run away with the match by dominating its momentum.

It’s Ireland’s back row that is perhaps their biggest concern

Once a thing of pride it seems to have lost its way not helped by injury, but Ireland’s back row efforts just don’t seem to be matching up to the competition of late. The heroics of Peter O’Mahony on that famous day back in Dublin last year against a group of individuals in black jerseys seem to be nothing more than a distant memory, while CJ Stander seems to have gone into hibernation – even if we did see flashes of his old self against Samoa. Even Josh van der Flier has been strangely quiet this year. It’s a good back row make no mistake, but New Zealand’s offering is simply humming with precision and an all out physicality that is hard to match. Ardie Savea is such a live wire he is almost impossible to read and opposition defenses are never quite sure where he is likely to pop out, and once he does good luck trying to catch him. Sam Cane is back to the bruising ball carrier he loves to be and Kieran Read although not quite the force he once was still lends that steady hand of leadership and provides the glue that keeps this unit together.

If you want entertainment then look no further than the respective nine and tens

What a match up – plain and simple!!! New Zealand’s Richie Mo’unga may not have the pedigree and track record of the other three gentlemen he will be sharing this part of the park with on Saturday, but he certainly has the skill set to mix it with the best of them. We have to confess to being surprised at Aaron Smith getting the nod for the starting berth for the All Blacks at scrum half as we still feel that TJ Perenara is the more explosive of the two and thus a greater handful for the Irish defenses. Nevertheless, if the Irish forwards are managing to go toe to toe with their All Black counterparts and holding their discipline, then the playing field suddenly starts to level, especially if Ireland’s Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton hit their traditional high notes in terms of game management.

It’s a great set of Irish backs as a unit, but New Zealand look like they have more individual try scorers

If you look at the backs from both sides, then it’s really only Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour who stand out as dead ringer candidates likely to get familiar with the opposition try line for Ireland. Gary Ringrose also has some genuine dancing feet for Ireland in the center of the park and knows how to use them in space and create opportunities for the rest of his teammates. However for New Zealand, Richie Mo’unga, Sevu Reece, Beauden Barrett, George Bridge and Anton Liennert-Brown all seem to do it with alarming regularity. New Zealand have a set of backs who are more than comfortable operating as free agents, whereas Ireland’s backs thrive off a more orchestrated approach with the exception of Stockdale and Larmour. Consequently if Ireland are going to keep New Zealand at bay, denying any space whatsoever to five key players will be a much more challenging task than New Zealand having to keep only two or three Irish players in check who can really capitalize on broken play at speed.

Verdict

We would dearly love to see Ireland break their long suffering penury at the stocks in World Cup quarter finals, but it is hard to see it happening based on their buildup to Saturday’s match. They just haven’t looked the part so far this year, leading to the inevitable call that they peaked too early for this World Cup. All the evidence would tend to support that claim as other teams have left them in their wake in the last few months. Still to write off what is essentially an exceptionally talented group of world class players would be sheer folly, and New Zealand have clearly recognized this. Ireland may be down, but when it comes to passion and fire there are few teams who can top the Irish, and as a result they are definitely not out yet. They desperately need some new tricks up their sleeve though as they have sadly become far too easy to read. Whether or not they have been saving themselves for this moment and we will see a side full of surprises remains to be seen, but there is that nagging feeling that it all may be too little too late. New Zealand are building towards one last great hurrah for this group of players and it is going to take a very special team to derail them. Ireland may well end up giving them a fight to remember, but it is hard to see anything other than an All Black victory by 12 points!

With all the rugby going on at the moment, we have to confess to finding it hard to keep a handle on all of it and a balance with work and family. As a result it’s a slightly abbreviated look at some of this weekend’s action. After a bumper crop of top notch matches in Round 1, the pickings are slightly slimmer this weekend, but some big matches are on offer. We’ve picked out three that perhaps best capture the flavor of what is already proving to be a memorable World Cup.

First up is tomorrow’s headliner between hosts Japan and one of the tournament favorites Ireland. The Irish have recognized the potential banana skin posed by Japan in front of what should be a very vocal crowd in Fukoroi. Ireland field a full strength side with only one or two omissions, fully aware that Japan will throw everything at them. After Scotland’s annihilation at the hands of the Irish, Japan are probably looking at their final match of the Pool stages with the Scots to attempt one of the tournament’s big upsets. However, they couldn’t ask for better preparation than Ireland who would appear to be regaining the form that made them such a force in 2018.

For us though it is Sunday that provides the bulk of the action. It is Uruguay who caused the first big upset of the tournament, with their historic win over Fiji, and what a match it was! It caught the imagination of the fans in attendance and was a fabulous match to watch. Georgia also put on an impressive second half display against Wales. On the basis of that we think that Sunday’s fixture between Georgia and Uruguay could end up being one of the best Tier 2 Pool games of the entire tournament. Uruguay will have had a shorter turnaround than the Georgians but if they play with the same kind of heart and conviction they showed against Fiji, then as a spectacle this could be quite the match, as Georgia are also not short on passion and hard graft.

We end with THE big match of the weekend as Pool D’s heavyweights, Australia and Wales do battle. Wales may have blown Georgia away in the first half  of their World Cup opener but the Georgians came back with a real vengeance in the second half and caused the Welsh all kinds of problems. In Australia’s case they suffered a serious case of opening night nerves as Fiji had them on the ropes in the first half. They were able to regroup for the second half and ultimately secure the victory, but there is no denying that they had been asked some serious questions along the way. As a result this could be a very even contest on Sunday as both sides seek to gain ascendancy in Pool D.

Japan vs Ireland – Saturday, September 28th – Fukuroi

Arguably Ireland’s second most difficult game of the Pool stages and one which will require another emphatic performance similar to that against Scotland. Ireland will be well aware that they have struggled at times this year to hit the ground running. Should they have the kind of off day that we saw a lot of during the Six Nations, then Japan could fancy their chances at an upset akin to their triumph over South Africa in the last World Cup.

However, Ireland in their last three games prior to the World Cup would appear to have started to hit their straps again. The performance we saw against Scotland, admittedly an exceptionally poor Scottish effort, in tough conditions demonstrated that Ireland would appear to be back on an upward trajectory just when they need it most.

Japan got the job done against Russia, but didn’t look like the giant killers that some imagine they may be in front of their home crowds on Rugby’s biggest stage. There’s certainly enough there to cause Ireland problems, but at this stage we’re not quite envisaging an upset on Saturday, especially with Ireland fielding an exceptionally capable squad which clearly recognizes and respects the potential threat Japan could pose.

Ireland will want to see a good outing from winger Keith Earls and fullback Rob Kearney after they missed the Scotland game due to injury. Meanwhile Jacob Stockdale will need to be at his best to contain Japanese try scoring machine Kotaro Matsushima who looked outstanding against Russia. CJ Stander was back to his bruising best for Ireland and will really need to step up again against Japan’s Amanaki Mafi who is genuinely world class. Also after an outstanding contribution from Jack Carty who took over from Johnny Sexton in the last quarter against Scotland, the young Irish fly half gets the nod at the starting 10 spot for this match. Irish supporters will also be keen to see Joey Carberry make an appearance as Carty’s replacement, after Carberry’s absence with injury.

Overall, despite what we think will be an exceptionally vigorous Japanese challenge, there is just too much class, pedigree and experience in this Irish match day 23 to make the likelihood of an upset a reality. Japan will be brave make no mistake and cause Ireland some problems, but Ireland to ultimately seal the deal by 16 points!

Georgia vs Uruguay – Sunday, September 29th – Kumagaya

After both sides exploits against Wales and Fiji, we have to confess that we are really looking forward to this one. While Uruguay managed to win their match after a heroic effort, Georgia certainly gave Wales an uphill battle at times in the second half. Both these teams really play with their hearts on their sleeves and are likely to be firm crowd favorites during the pool stages.

Georgia are keen to make a statement this tournament as they continue to push for a spot in the Six Nations, and a strong third place finish in their pool would further strengthen that argument. Uruguay meanwhile will continue to be an emerging rugby force in the Americas and with an increasing number of their players plying their trade in Major league Rugby in the US and Top 14 in France, they will also be chasing that third spot and automatic qualification for the next World Cup in France in 2023.

As a result two highly entertaining sides with plenty of grit go head to head with each other. Georgia should have the better forward pack, but as Uruguay showed against Fiji their forwards are no slouches. Uruguay should have the edge in the backs, having displayed some lovely running in the Fiji game, but Georgia has also come a long way since the days of them being recognized as a bone crushing set of forwards but not much else. They too have some silky backs, and as we saw against Wales they were able to make some damaging incisions into the Welsh defenses. In short, two very high quality Tier 2 sides who should provide one of the best underdog competitions of the tournament. Georgia’s reputation being the more heavyweight of the two should see them through in a very tight contest by two points!

Australia vs Wales – Sunday, September 29th – Tokyo

Without a doubt the showpiece event of the weekend! Barring any major upsets this contest will decide Pool D, despite Wales and Australia in particular having their odd moments of uncertainty against Georgia and Fiji. Australia as we predicted found that their rather exuberant running game at times would catch them out against Fiji, particularly if the execution wasn’t quite up to scratch. It wasn’t in the first half and Fiji capitalized as there is nothing they love better than unstructured open play. Australia adopted a much more conservative approach in the second half and it paid dividends.

Wales appeared to take their foot off the gas in the second half against Georgia, and got the rudest of wake up calls for the first quarter. A mistake they are unlikely to repeat against Australia. Much like Scotland though they have serious concerns about how deep they can go into this tournament should the injury gods not be kind to them in the Pool stages.

For a match of this significance both teams are packing a powerhouse match day 23 and bringing out all their big guns. While Wales managed to beat Australia in Cardiff last November for the first time in 8 years, it was at home, and the Welsh record against the Wallabies is not a favorable one. However, this Wallaby side blows so hot and cold, much like the French, that we are all wondering which Wallaby team will turn up on Sunday, even if it looks almost exactly the same on the team sheet bar one or two exceptions as the one that went up against Fiji. Wales meanwhile bring to Tokyo essentially the same team that faced off against Georgia.

The battle of the back rows should be one for the ages with David Pocock and Michael Hooper of Australia up against Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi. Newcomers Isi Naisarani for Australia and Aaron Wainwright for Wales have both impressed, and should be well mentored by the four veterans surrounding them. The battle between Justin Tipuric and David Pocock though is one of the key battles on the park. Pocock seems back to his best after injury and Tipuric is probably one of Test Rugby’s most dependable men in a crisis.

Australia though have gone for a sea change in the half backs, while Wales stick with the tried and trusted formula of Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar. Biggar really seems to have a handle on how to pull Wales out of the fire should things start getting away from them and his goal kicking appears to be spot on. Australia bring Will Genia and Bernard Foley back into the mix and for a match of this importance, and despite being really impressed with Nic White, we feel it is the right call. Christian Lealiifano just didn’t seem in the match last weekend for the Wallabies and Bernard Foley and Matt Toomua look like more reliable platforms at number 10. The other notable inclusion for Australia is the long awaited return of Adam Ashley-Cooper on the right wing. However, we feel that the outstanding winger’s best days may be behind him, so expect to see Fijian missile Marika Koroibete and centre Samu Kerevi have more to say in the try scoring department for Australia on Sunday.

The benches look solid, but Australia may have the edge in their front row replacements, as we saw last week against Fiji. Otherwise we think it’s fairly even, and it’s another big call for Welsh fly half Rhys Patchell on the replacements bench. However, we’ve been fans of the Scarlets play maker for a while now and for the most part he seems to rise to big occasions like Sunday’s match.

Two very evenly matched teams face up in what should be a thrilling contest. Two teams who love to run the ball, with Wales perhaps having the better kicking game, but Australia a more enterprising and unpredictable back line. In the forwards it’s even stevens, with the Welsh pack perhaps being the more settled of the two. In short, almost impossible to call but we’re hedging our bets that Wales have a better understanding of the type of game they want to play and how to execute it. No we haven’t been taking betting tips from Rob Howley, but we’re giving it to Wales by three!

Canada and the USA kick off exceptionally challenging World Cup campaigns tomorrow. Canada get their journey in what is essentially the “Pool of no Hope” underway, while the USA commence operations in the “Pool of Death”. In short both teams have the unenviable task of collectively facing up to five of the best teams in the world.

In Canada’s case, New Zealand and South Africa are so beyond them in terms of skill levels at the moment that one is almost scared to watch. Although they managed to give Italy one hell of a scare at the last World Cup, given Canada’s form of late, it’s hard to imagine a repeat performance on the same scale. That leaves a possible consolation win against Namibia as the best that Canada can realistically look forward to, and even that could be a challenge.

For the USA, they start their World Cup journey against a menacing looking English side, widely tipped by many to top Pool C and ultimately have a shot at lifting the tournament’s silverware. If that wasn’t challenging enough the Eagles then have to face France and follow it up with Argentina. You could not ask for three tougher back to back matches at World Cup intensity. While it’s difficult to realistically see the Eagles getting past any of these three heavyweights, even mercurial France, you’d have to argue that they are in a better position than Canada at having an outside chance of causing an upset. With France prone to massive concentration lapses come World Cup, the USA may find les Bleus their biggest potential wild card. Although France beat Argentina by the narrowest of margins at the start of this tournament, and in our opinion some help from the officials, they seem incapable of playing a solid game of two halves at the moment. Argentina on the other hand got better as the match progressed. England would appear to be in a league of their own in terms of Pool C, so it is likely that the USA is targeting a performance tomorrow more than a result. Put in two good games against France and Argentina and then Tonga should be theirs for the taking.

The growth of professional rugby in North America through Major League Rugby is clearly starting to pay dividends, as the shock win for Uruguay today over Fiji showed. With many of the Uruguayan team plying their trade in the MLR, and for Canadian fans two players in the Toronto Arrows, the evidence was there for all to see as there were several standout performances from MLR based players. While it still may be a stretch for Canada or the USA to take down any of the six big guns they will be facing this World Cup, the boost to rugby in North America and the continued expansion of the MLR would be enormous were they to do so.

Italy vs Canada – Thursday, September 26th – Fukuoka

This match in the last World Cup provided the 2015 tournament with one of its most memorable tries, as Canadian winger DTH van der Merwe produced a mesmerizing display of footwork and ball handling skills. In case you’ve forgotten cast your minds back to this.

This will probably be the legendary Canadian winger’s last World Cup, but we can only hope that he still has a few more vintage moments like this left up his sleeve over the next three weeks. Sadly though the rest of his team have struggled to match up since the last World Cup, and even DTH himself has been ominously quiet in the red jersey for much of the four year period leading up to tomorrow.

Canada has struggled plain and simple since the last World Cup and now find themselves ranked 22nd in the world and if things don’t start to improve soon, could find themselves skirting the borders of becoming a Tier 3 nation. We’re still quite a ways from that, though the dizzying fall of Canadian rugby from being ranked 12th in the world at the start of the 2011 World Cup, to their current position of 22 makes for depressing reading. As to what’s gone wrong, there are a myriad of reasons, but gone wrong it has and given the rather daunting Pool Canada find themselves in this year, one has to wonder what further damage will be done to a country whose rugby identity seems in tatters.

Italy will be a tough call tomorrow, and unlikely to be such an opportunity for an upset as they were four years ago. While Italy themselves have failed to really progress beyond being Six Nations wooden spoon holders, the point is they still compete in such competitions as well as having the opportunity to face the big Southern Hemisphere sides every year in November. They have even claimed the odd big scalp such as South Africa, France and Argentina, something it would seem Canada can only dream about at present. Canada will bring plenty of passion and heart to proceedings tomorrow, but whether or not it will be enough to unseat a side to determined to finish with nothing less than third place in their Pool is questionable. Watch the above video again though and you can’t blame Canada for thinking big.

As Canada’s only outside chance at a big upset, we once again scratched our heads over the selection for this one

Let’s be completely honest, the chance of Canada in its present condition upsetting New Zealand or South Africa’s apple cart is such a pipe dream it’s sadly laughable. Surely an upset against Italy and a win over Namibia, thus potentially securing them a third place finish in the Pool and automatic qualification for the next World Cup, given their struggle to qualify for this one would have been the goal. Consequently, you would have thought the selectors would have placed all the emphasis on this match as Canada’s number one priority. Agreed one doesn’t want to completely lose face against New Zealand and South Africa, but the bigger picture should surely have been the priority. While we accept that the loss of Evan Olmstead and Taylor Paris have no doubt forced the selectors hand somewhat, we still remain somewhat baffled. In truth it’s only in the back row and on the wings, where we feel Canada will be truly competitive on Thursday. For the rest of it, well we may be surprised but we’re not holding our breath. Italy on the other hand appear to be taking no chances and field a squad that has proved themselves at European club level as well as catching the eye at times during the Six Nations.

Canada’s back row – something to get excited about

While we took one look at Italy’s back row offering for this match and almost recoiled in horror as it boasts some very frightening characters, Canada should also be able to provide plenty of heart and all out grit here to try and counter it. As regular readers of this blog know, we are huge fans of Toronto Arrows stalwart Mike Sheppard who finds himself moved from the second row to the back for this match. However, his work rate is off the charts and never say die attitude will be an enormous talisman to Canada tomorrow. Tyler Ardron has been hands down Canada’s best player of 2019, and Lucas Rumball appears to have recovered from the injury that saw him miss much of the Toronto Arrows MLR campaign. It may not be the world’s flashiest back row but it is one that can definitely muscle up to the likes of Sebastien Negri, Jake Polledri and Braam Steyn, even if the Italian trio are the more fancied unit. The three Canadians will put their bodies on the line and then some tomorrow and expect plenty of heroics from the Canuck trio.

Canada’s half back combination really needs to click tomorrow and hasn’t shown much evidence of it so far

We won’t say much about the choice of the rather pedestrian scrum half Gordon McRorie for this match, since we’ve said enough already on that score this year. However, he and Irish import Peter Nelson don’t appear to complement each other, and up against a very composed high energy Italian unit, we feel Canada is going to struggle tomorrow. Jamie Mackenzie makes the bench as scrum half cover, and we’d prefer to see him on sooner rather than later tomorrow, as Italy’s bench offerings for both positions will continue to provide pace and accuracy.

Canada may have DTH but Italy have Matteo Minozzi

Agreed DTH van der Merwe plays on the wing and Minozzi at fullback, but whatever DTH can do so can Minozzi and probably more at this stage. The electric Italian fullback really lit up the 2018 Six Nations for Italy and was one of the players of the tournament, but injury left him sidelined for a year. He appeared to be spooling up nicely against Namibia last week and Canada are going to have to watch him like a hawk, as just like DTH he is absolutely lethal given any kind of space. Tommaso Benvenuti against the legendary Canadian winger should also be a tasty match up, backed up by a bruising and highly mobile Italian centre unit. If Canada make the mistake of relying too heavily on DTH to get them out of jail or work miracles, as they tend to do all too often, Canada could be in for a long afternoon.

Verdict

This may have been one of the great matches of the 2015 World Cup Pool Stages, but we fear this edition may not have quite the same luster. If Canada are to reverse their seemingly inevitable slide into the abyss of Tier 3 rugby then arguably this is their biggest match of this World Cup, yet we can’t help feeling that they are heading into it with one hand tied behind their back. We sincerely hope it is not the case and we will have plenty of egg to wipe off our face tomorrow morning, but we simply can’t get the tea leaves to arrange themselves with any great degree of optimism. A tough encounter in which, as they always do, Canada will put up a brave fight, but which the Azurri will comfortably take by 21 points!

England vs USA – Thursday, September 26th – Kobe

If the USA are to make a statement that they are genuinely an emerging rugby power, and that the growth of a professional league in North America is strengthening that contention, then perhaps more than any other tomorrow’s match against England will be the proof, irrespective of the fact that an upset is not really on the cards. If the USA are able to make England question themselves to a greater degree than Tonga did, and on the basis of that go on to score an upset over Argentina or France, then the argument that American rugby has come of age will be hard to dispute. They certainly have the squad to do it tomorrow with a good mix of players plying their trade in Europe and the MLR.

England bring their usual powerhouse squad, and know that they may be facing a side very keen to make a point. England perhaps underestimated Tonga at their peril in their World Cup opener and at times seemed off the mark. However, they still ultimately kept Tonga comfortably at bay and perhaps most telling of all not a single Tongan crossed the English whitewash. The USA might be able to match it up front with England relatively well tomorrow but we’re not convinced their backs are of equal caliber. England will want an emphatic victory over a challenging opponent tomorrow that pushes them hard in preparation for their crucial encounters with France and Argentina – we think in the shape of the Eagles they may well get it.

You might end up seeing the name John Quill a lot in this tournament

If the niggling injuries that have haunted the big American back rower don’t come back to haunt him this World Cup, then Quill could be one of the Eagles big breakout players this tournament. We’ve been particularly impressed with his antics in the MLR with Rugby United New York this season, and he couldn’t ask for a better test of his mettle in the shape of England’s Tom Curry. Curry is arguably one of England’s most important players, and in our opinion an English Captain in waiting for the next tournament in 2023. If Quill can match up to him, then the USA have a genuine big match talent for this World Cup. With Quill ably assisted by another of the USA’s headline grabbing players, number 8 Cam Dolan, expect some fireworks in this part of the park from the Americans, even up against the likes of Curry, Billy Vunipola and Mark Wilson.

Another benchmark of how far the USA has come will be the contest between AJ MacGinty and England’s George Ford

The USA’s Irish import brings some real pedigree to the Eagles. He is already a well recognized facet of the English Premiership in his regular exploits with Sale Sharks, but MacGinty is a talent that the USA holds dear to its plans for this World Cup. If MacGinty can run the game for the Americans to the degree where his opposite number George Ford is unable to really carve out a genuine advantage for England, then the Americans could definitely rattle the English. As we have seen on numerous occasions this year when England, and Ford in particular are spooked, they tend to unravel slightly. When he is on form there is no denying that MacGinty is capable of pulling it off, and the Eagles will be placing a great deal of trust in their play maker tomorrow. If MacGinty can keep them in it and force Ford’s hand, then the Eagles will certainly be able to keep the English on their toes. Owen Farrell will ultimately be there for England to restore order should MacGinty become too problematic, but expect the American play maker to make life difficult at times for England, and punish them with the boot for any disciplinary infractions.

At the end of the day though it’s that English set of backs that will really test how far the Eagles have come in the last four years

The Americans may be courageous and play with plenty of heart in this part of the park, but we have trouble seeing them really containing the likes of Piers Francis, Joe Cokanasiga, Jamie Joseph and Anthony Watson. Despite some feeling that Elliot Daly shouldn’t be England’s first choice fullback we beg to differ. Sure he makes the odd mistake but in general he is a pretty reliable and capable backstop for England with a rather handy boot. Our one over riding impression of MLR rugby is that while there may be lots of tries by the league’s backs they emanate from generally poor back line defense. A trait which the Americans may end up paying heavily for tomorrow. While their forwards may be able to grunt it out with England, defensively we feel they may struggle to contain England at the back.

Verdict

While we don’t feel this is a match that’s too hard to call, we do feel that it could well be one of the most interesting of the Pool Stages. A big brash rugby nation desperate to prove that it is a growing force to be reckoned with, up against the game’s traditional order. While the Eagles will clearly want to cause the upset of the century, a solid performance against England that sees them remain competitive with the Men in White till the final whistle will be more important than the result. If they do manage that then they will make a big statement about where Rugby in the US is headed. England should anticipate a Test match that will be excellent preparation for their must win encounters with France and Argentina, but one which they should ultimately emerge comfortable winners by 18 points!

 

It is widely assumed that Ireland and Scotland will be the teams that progress from Pool A to the quarter finals. There is the wild card that is Japan and how home advantage could cause them to create two upsets this tournament as opposed to their one historic victory in the last World Cup, but for most their money is on the two Celtic tigers to progress to the next round. What faces either of them is a rather intimidating quarter final prospect with either New Zealand or South Africa. On the basis of today’s dust up between the two Pool B Southern Hemisphere superpowers, you could argue that a quarter final date with South Africa would be marginally preferable to one with New Zealand. Consequently in a World Cup opener for Scotland and Ireland, the stakes could not be higher in a must win match scenario.

Despite the form that catapulted them to dizzying heights in 2018, seeming to have deserted them, Ireland still look the better placed of the two sides to have South Africa as opposed to New Zealand on their dance card in four weeks time. Scotland will bring plenty to the table tomorrow and are more than up to the task of ripping up Ireland’s preferred quarter final invitation, but they will need a performance of the ages to do it, despite Ireland’s recent wobbles. With Ireland having dispatched Six Nations Grand Slam Champions Wales twice over the summer at home and away, it could be argued they are the side with less to prove tomorrow. Yes we know there was that horror show at Twickenham, for which there is little or no explanation, but Ireland do seem to have moved on from that. However, it is Scotland who on their day can play a style of rugby akin to a Northern Hemisphere version of Fiji at full throttle. In short, there are no guarantees tomorrow.

Ireland vs Scotland – Sunday, September 22nd – Yokohama

Tomorrow is a must win match for both teams plain and simple. You could have argued that the teams might have been able to judge that call a bit better after watching today’s match between New Zealand and South Africa and deciding who they would rather face. However, this is the first match of a long tournament for both teams, and while the omens look good for both teams progressing to the semi-final, barring the threat that Japan could pose on home soil, we can’t help feeling that after today South Africa is the preferred quarter final opponent of choice for both teams. However, that’s not exactly a comforting thought.  South Africa may have lost today and not looked as sharp and polished as New Zealand at times, but there is no denying they put up one hell of a fight! In short, New Zealand or South Africa are daunting potential opponents in your first kick at the knockout stages, and to be honest if we were Ireland or Scotland we’d want neither, as the likelihood of it all ending in tears is just too strong a possibility.

So the priorities tomorrow will be pretty simple for Ireland and Scotland – throw everything at each other including the kitchen sink and get the win, but in doing so avoid the types of injuries that invariably have caused Ireland to never get beyond the quarter finals in a World Cup, and Scotland only manage a semi-final once, way back in 1991.

It’s not quite Ireland’s best, but not far from it

For us there are three notable omissions for a game of such stature from an Irish point of view. Dan Leavy, but that was always going to be the case after that horrific injury earlier this year, and Rob Kearney and Keith Earls. With Kearney and Earls being wrapped in cotton wool for the quarter finals and beyond, should Ireland make a break with World Cup history, their omission is understandable even if they could have played this match. Scotland are going to put Ireland to the test under the high ball, and Ireland will miss their version of Israel Folau, as Rob Kearney sits this one out and Jordan Larmour gets his biggest chance to date to prove he is the future of Ireland’s 15 jersey. Andrew Conway may have more gas out wide than Keith Earls, but Earls sheer reliability and work rate is something that Ireland has found great comfort in when the chips are down. Otherwise this is Ireland at maximum strength and Scotland will have to be at their best to keep them in check. It’s a very good Scottish team, make no mistake, but Ireland if they click have the kind of cohesive pedigree in this match day 23 that could take them back to the glory days of 2018. Either way we’ll find out tomorrow if Ireland’s drop in form was simply a ruse to keep everyone guessing till Japan, or if the rest of the world really has got Ireland taped once and for all.

While Ireland need Rory Best’s leadership on the pitch, others will really need to take the mantle for the future tomorrow

Many have argued, ourselves included that second rower James Ryan is the future of the Irish captaincy. While he may be a little green around the edges, no pun intended, he is part of the leadership cadre that will need to step up to provide support to Rory Best who is clearly battling with the demands of the role at times in the twilight of his outstanding career. Others like Peter O’Mahony and Jonathan Sexton will also need to put their shoulder to the wheel over the coming weeks, as part of a watertight and cohesive collective Irish leadership, especially as this is something that Scotland seemed to have had more success in building. While we feel slightly treacherous in admitting this, we have to admit we felt that in terms of Ireland’s set pieces in their final warm up game with Wales, Hooker Niall Scannell made a better fist of it than Best, and when the Irish Captain did come on in the final quarter Ireland’s dominance of the game started to slip. While Best may still be the talisman to the squad, there are other players whose quiet leadership and skill sets now need to come to the fore.

Is Hamish Watson Scotland’s most important player?

In big crunch matches like this, we’d argue yes. As most readers know we are huge fans of the Scottish wrecking ball, as he is just everywhere on the park for Scotland. If Scotland need a talisman on Sunday, then Watson embodies it by the bucket load. We regard Watson as the Northern Hemisphere’s version of New Zealand’s Ardie Savea, and we’d argue you’d be hard pressed to top that as a compliment. Sure Scotland have some genuine game changers and play makers in the likes of Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and the secret tactical nuclear missile they keep on the bench in the shape of winger Darcy Graham, but for us nobody epitomizes the surprise package of frenetic pace and skill that Scotland have become better than Hamish Watson. Whenever he gets the ball, Scotland experience a sea change in momentum, and Ireland will need to work hard at keeping the dynamic forward in check.

Sexton needs to develop the kind of relationship with Stockdale that Damian Penaud and Antoine Dupont showed today for France

If you watched arguably the day’s most exciting match, that between France and Argentina, then that partnership between Penaud and Dupont was a thing of beauty. Penaud knows how to use space and Dupont knows how to put him there. Ireland’s key play maker fly half Jonathan Sexton and winger Jacob Stockdale will need to develop a similar relationship tomorrow and for the rest of the tournament. When Sexton does bring out his first choice set of conducting batons, Ireland veritably hum and speed and space merchants like Andrew Conway, Jordan Larmour but especially Jacob Stockdale shine. We haven’t seen much of it to be honest so far from Ireland and Sexton in 2019, and Stockdale has been ominously quiet for much of the year, but you know it’s there if Ireland can get it right. Having watched South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe carve huge chunks of space out of the New Zealand defence today seemingly at will, then Ireland need to start practicing for whoever their dance partner may end up being come the quarter finals.

Verdict

It may be damp tomorrow in Yokohama which may make ball handling a nightmare, especially given the humidity. Apparently both teams have been practicing chucking balls around lathered in shampoo, baby oil etc so they should be in good stead to handle the conditions. Both these teams, but Scotland in particular, love to run and we hope the conditions don’t stifle this ambition too much. Either way it should be a highly charged and entertaining high stakes spectacle. Hard to call, but on paper this does look like the Irish side that turned the rugby world upside down last year, with Scotland perhaps relishing the underdog tag, albeit one loaded with X-factor. A tough contest in store but one which a better drilled and perhaps more comprehensively coached Irish side should clinch by 8 points!

The World Cup’s fourth Pool Match is almost larger than the tournament itself. Many people with good reason, see South Africa and New Zealand as the two teams leading the charge to lift the Webb Ellis trophy on November 2nd, with England, Wales and Ireland snapping closely at their heels. Nevertheless, there is no question that this is THE match of the Pool stages. If you only watch one Pool game in this year’s tournament then this is it, as it simply doesn’t get any bigger than this!

This is one of rugby’s greatest traditional rivalries at the best of times and throw in the added pressure of a World Cup and the intensity goes through the roof. South Africa have come a long way in the relatively short space of less than two years, and you could argue that their rise has highlighted some emerging cracks in New Zealand’s dominance of the global game since 2011.

With that said though New Zealand still look the most finished product of any team out there, and have a depth of talent that is the envy of the rest of the world. South Africa have become a real thorn in their side, but only just and consistent failures in performance are something you rarely see from the All Blacks. They may stumble at one hurdle, but are likely to take the next one completely in their stride.

New Zealand vs South Africa – Saturday, September 21st – Yokohama

So many matchups – so many questions

As a who’s who of Test rugby heavyweights lining up against each other, the contest breaks down into a question of units vs individuals within those units. Start with the front row. New Zealand pack the better unit, but if Malcolm Marx and Steven Kitshoff show up in excess for the Springboks then New Zealand could well look out of puff before too long. When you move to the second row then South Africa are fielding a more accomplished unit but Sam Whitelock is just such a presence for New Zealand on the field that he alone could potentially negate anything South Africa throws at the All Blacks. It’s a better All Black back row on paper, but if Siya Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen and Pieter Steph du Toit really bring their A game can New Zealand contain them, especially once the benches come into play?

It’s a sharper looking and more settled halfback unit for South Africa, but if Mo’unga really clicks at Test level on the biggest stage you’d argue he has enough X-factor to leave South Africa clutching at straws. It’s only really in the backs that New Zealand start to pull away. The All Blacks center pairing is likely to run rings around the Springbok offering and we think is likely to prove the best in the tournament in the shape of Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown. On the wings you’d also have to give it to New Zealand, but South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe is such a game changer that he could turn the game on its head at a pivotal moment in the Springboks favor. Lastly you’d have to say that New Zealand has the last line of defence sewn up with Beauden Barrett, but he is not as accustomed to the role as South Africa’s Willie le Roux who when on song can be unstoppable.

On the benches you’d have to argue it’s anybody’s day, but both sides pack a few individuals who could end up being the talking points of the tournament. New Zealand give us Sonny Bill Williams and TJ Perenara and South Africa give us Rugby Championship sensation Herschel Jantjies and RG Snyman (with the latter being perhaps one of the most frightening looking players in the tournament akin to the great Sebastien Chabal of France – just looking at these guys you know it’s going to hurt!)

Aaron Smith vs TJ Perenara, and how long will the latter actually spend on the bench

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. New Zealand’s form scrum half for a match of this nature is without a doubt TJ Perenara in our opinion. Thus imagine our surprise to see him on the bench. This guy packs more intensity than a roomful of politicians squabbling over Brexit. Aaron Smith is a solid offering but he just doesn’t pack the speed and turn of pace that Perenara brings, and has also been running the show in some of New Zealand’s more recent slip ups. Coach Steve Hansen still seems to regard Smith as his go to starting scrum half, but we feel he’d be better placed to have Perenara calling the shots. Consequently we feel that you’re going to see Perenara sooner rather than later tomorrow. If things are not quite going New Zealand’s way, expect to see Smith replaced before the first half whistle.

They may have lost a little of their shine lately but we think New Zealand are still the side everyone knows they have to beat in this tournament

At the end of the day, South Africa are in it to win it make no mistake, and have proven themselves more than capable of doing so. However, we still have trouble buying into the argument that New Zealand are a force that is slowly waning. Possibly in the long term yes, but not this tournament. Whether or not they will ultimately win the thing remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised to see them as one of the parties in attendance on November 2nd. Before any team can even contemplate winning the World Cup they know they have to beat New Zealand first, unless someone else does the job for them on the road to the final. For South Africa their chance to lift the Webb Ellis trophy starts tomorrow, but they have the unenviable task of having to potentially face the All Blacks twice should both teams make it to the final. So the ultimate question on everyone’s lips is – is this a dress rehearsal for the final? If only we had a crystal ball. Either way the winner tomorrow will have a gentler route through the quarter-finals so a win is an absolute must for both teams, and one of rugby’s greatest rivalries will live up to the intensity such encounters are famous for.

Verdict

This has caused more debate than any other topic related to the World Cup. It’s the first crunch match even though it isn’t the knockout stages. It will be a big, loud and potentially epic contest that will have all of us glued to our television screens, along with the rest of the world. Whoever comes out on top may not necessarily win the World Cup, but it will tell us a great deal about what the rest of the teams will have to do to get to the final. South Africa have consistently surprised us this past year, and could well do it again. However, as good as they are, we think it’s still too early to say that they have dethroned the All Blacks in the race to the finish line. A tight and at times thrilling encounter that makes no excuses when it comes to physicality, but one which should see New Zealand just come out on top in one for the ages by 2 points!