Japan were inspirational but it is now time for the world’s top four teams to fight it out
very best to do so. That said, they have the variety of attacking options and enough ball carriers who can break the gain and tackle lines to unsettle a hugely disciplined All Black defence.
The way in which England recovered from fast starts by Australia, at the beginning of both halves on Saturday, showed composure and some indication that they have absorbed, at least in part, the lessons of Wales and Scotland in the most recent Six Nations. As written here several times, we had not seen anywhere near Eddie Jones’s first-choice outfit, and when we did, you can see how just two or three extra attacking threats can unlock the best defensive systems.
Starting Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola gave England that crucial advantage. On the edge of two forward pods, they can take the ball into contact, slip it inside or out to support runners or pivot and deliver the deep ball to lateral runners and create opportunities out wide. However, against New Zealand, it is their kicking game that must be near perfect. They cannot afford to get this wrong against a Kiwi backfield who have shown how deadly they are with inaccurate kicks and indiscipline chasing.
For the Kiwis, you can but marvel at the way they are prepared to play nascent talent, such as Jack Goodhue, and augment it with experience. The decision-making of veteran Aaron Smith was equalled by his sublime service and was the fulcrum around which New Zealand blew away a disappointing Irish challenge. While giving the Kiwis full credit for a superb all-round display, you should ask why Ireland, yet again in a World Cup, limped out of the tournament. If the Irish rugby fans are satisfied with explanations such as “we’re a small nation”, “it’s not our No1 sport” and “we punch above our weight anyway”, then fine, but that will not get to the root of why this keeps happening.
As for Warren Gatland, you can say that France, again, imploded and made inexplicable decisions at crucial points during their clash, but you cannot question his side’s obduracy. Had the French possessed a modicum of rugby nous, they would have put this game away by 15 points, but they do not.
Getting a man sent off and not packing down with eight men at a critical attacking scrum were more to blame than any marginal decision about a ball going forward. And, for the record, as a disinterested spectator, I could not certainly say it did go forward.
It must be open to question whether Wales will be given this latitude by a powerful Springbok side and one who have individuals capable of making game-winning plays. But, would you put your house on them not scrapping their way to their first World Cup final? I would not.
Before they take this historic step, they will have to deal with the Boks’ rush defence and the individual power that the South Africans bring to each collision. This is not a new conundrum, but to solve it they will have to make sure their most potent attackers, especially their back three, get involved in the game on more than an occasional basis. They cannot rely on counter-attacking chances given by poor South African kicking, of which I am sure there will be a limited amount.
For the Springboks, they might bludgeon Wales into submission, but could they do that to England or New Zealand? I doubt that. It is time for them to enhance their boshing and add to it a bit more ambition.
All over: Japan players thank their fans after bowing out of the World Cup