Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes talking points: Ireland's No 1 ranking and World Cup chances
Last Updated: 11/09/19 4:18pm
A little delayed; my apologies. This is what happens when you drop your house keys in London and don't discover that fact until you arrive home, 100 miles and two hours later.
Monday morning was a Podcast morning at London Bridge, with the afternoon and evening a splendid four hours west and back on the M4, listening to a Kiwi called Marlon Williams and, yes, the latest news from Westminster. Amidst all this misery (not Marlon, he is good), my keys were there, glistening on a side street in Chiswick, middle of the road, still in shape... Anyway, this column, better late than never.
1. Were the World Cup warm ups a money-making waste of time? If you think the management has everything prepared to a T, maybe. But if you have started to wonder whether the four-year planning cycle is in fact, four months, four weeks...then they make sense. England took 35 minutes to look good against a weakened Italy team.
On the flip side, Italy defended well for 35 minutes against a strong England. It was definitely a handy run out for Italy. I think it was for England, too. They lacked direction, shape, same old niggling worries until Eddie Jones brought Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler into play at 35 minutes. England drove tighter to the fringes, and when George Ford came on, they turned midfield pressure into wider opportunities absent - as was space - in the first half. Whether England or Eddie sorted out the problems, the net result was England worked their way through a modest opening half. That's what these warm ups are for.
2. I'm glad England didn't field all 31 players. I have no problem with the idea (other than it was too late), but Newcastle sports fans paid for a match, not a glorified training session. It certainly wasn't the greatest of games, but it was more test than practice. By full time, England were purring along well enough. As for Italy, they were spirited and well organised without the ball, but with it, they remain hopelessly blunt. Namibia and Canada will give them a chance to show that Italy can attack as well as defend.
3. I hope for the sake of Italian rugby (although I equally wish no misfortune on Canada or Namibia) they get those good performances early on. South Africa and New Zealand are not the ideal opposition for a team that has forgotten how to win - except against Russia.
Let's start with South Africa. In recent Rugby Evenings I have hosted in Dublin and London, everyone wants to tip the Springboks. A 41-7 victory against quietly-fancied Japan on Friday morning UK time gently reminded the world that Rassie Erasmus has a team who can go close. The 41 points are impressive enough, but what caught my eye was the lowly seven conceded. Japan are a clever attacking team. This was no mean effort.
4. An aside before we get to New Zealand. Eddie Jones commented on the Japan game. He mentioned the amount of spillage in the humid conditions and the potential for lots of kicking, especially in defensive positions. For four years, he has talked up New Zealand's kicking game. We are warned. Looking at England, there's more to this team than blunderbuss power. At nine, ten, potentially twelve, and fifteen, there are excellent kickers. That is if he opts for Ford, Farrell and Daly outside Youngs. If Manu Tuilagi is twelve, Henry Slade (hopefully fully fit) maintains the balance of the boot from 13.
5. Where were we? Hamilton. New Zealand 92 Tonga 7. Should we all just give up and turn around before Okinawa? The All Blacks looked the part. The support lines are majestic, a different class to any other team, but Tonga did allow them the sort of space South Africa and possibly Wales won't grant. Lovely as it was to see those cutting lines, I wouldn't give up on your nation (if it's not New Zealand) quite yet.
6. Watching the game unfold, it struck me that if New Zealand make a monkey of me and win the tournament, the key man is going to be Ryan Crotty. The Crusaders inside centre isn't the biggest, quickest, or most skilful of them, but he will be the eyes and ears of his ten, playing the role of Ma'a Nonu in 2015. But who will be the New Zealand outside half?
7. A big call for Steve Hansen. New Zealand are worried about Beauden Barrett as a goal kicker. He isn't and will never be a trustworthy kicker under pressure. He's too mercurial - something I have touched on frequently in the past. Yet he can change the way the All Blacks play, the pace at which they play. Play the good but infinitely lesser Richie Mo'unga in the pivotal position and New Zealand lose more than they gain if Barrett plays full-back. Be true to yourselves and go for it, Steve!
8. Australia, with a weakened team, looked good in the first half against Samoa. Samoa had a splendid period mid-game with the Blues' (Cardiff, that is) Ray Lee Lo, exceptional. I saw enough to think Australia could trouble Wales and maybe England, while Samoa have it in them - once a little more organised - to worry one of Ireland, Scotland, and Japan in what is fast becoming my favourite pool.
9. Ireland and Wales were more in grind mode. Ireland beat them in Dublin and made it three from four in the warm ups. They looked assured in defence, structured in attack. They are officially World Ranked Number One. Was Twickenham a blip...only if the England and Wales games were in the Six Nations?
Only if you take it on trust that the world's best half backs in 2018 can get anywhere near that level again. There is depth all right but cutting edge. Ireland could lose to Scotland yet beat the All Blacks...but I don't think they can win the World Cup. And they are not the world's best team.
10. And Wales, briefly Number One themselves but now three defeats in four. Is the Old Master, Warren Gatland, holding their attacking arsenal back or are they struggling under Rob Howley as they have for a few years too many? They appear slightly overrated on current form, but defences so often hold sway at World Cups. A strong Welsh performance remains expected, at least from me, but Rob, we need some old fashioned Welsh instinct behind the scrum if Welshmen can dare to dream.