Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Rugby World Cup 2019: Stuart Barnes' talking points
Last Updated: 08/10/19 11:06am
Stuart Barnes runs the rule over England's performance, the impact of George Ford as well as looking at a big week for Ireland, Japan and Scotland.
1. England were the first team to make it past the pool stages in 2019. In doing so they began the process of exorcising the demons from 2015 when Stuart Lancaster's team crashed out with two pool-stage defeats at Twickenham. But the process has only begun. Given that Eddie Jones has constantly reiterated the fact he was hired to win the World Cup, England remain a long way from their objective.
A little under four weeks and a maximum four games. It doesn't seem far off, either way but there are high hurdles to overcome. Argentina were the first of the top tier teams to be beaten. Sending off or not, England had too much for Argentina.
Marks out of 10? I'd give them something between 6.5 to 7. That leaves room for improvement. The question is now whether they have the improvement within them to play near the perfect 10 they will need as we head towards the end of October and that date, November 2.
2. George Ford is in as good form as any Englishman. A few critics are looking at the stagnant current form of Owen Farrell. As one of these fly-half friends rises, the other falls. It is a lovely fit for a column but I think Farrell is just having a sloppy spell. It can happen. In tournaments like the World Cup, form spikes and drops all over the place. Dan Carter was on dodgy form in 2015 until the knock-outs!
As for Ford, his tactical control is the dominant aspect of England's offensive game. His first five second-half minutes of string pulling kicks to the corner was a fulfilment of the manager's tactical dream.
If he is the small man making a big difference, the squat Sam Underhill is the broad-shouldered bruiser making the anything but small plays. England's top tackler, as dynamic in each collision as Jones could hope. The Curry/Underhill axis is working well.
3. The same cannot be said for Billy Vunipola. The plan to play his way back to his best form isn't working at the moment. The power isn't turned full on. The substitution at half-time against Argentina actually ended up with a more dynamic back row as Lewis Ludlam's rough and tumble fairy tale continues. If England can fire up the Vunipola brothers simultaneously, few will fancy facing them. If one or the other doesn't make it through the competition, it will be a test of what is, let us not forget, a deep and powerful squad.
4. Japan don't have many men of Billy Vunipola's stature. But in terms of heart and head, this is quite some team. The effort is immense and the manner in which they maintain their composure in key moments, most impressive. They were the giant-killing heroes who didn't make it through to the last eight in 2015 despite winning three of their four pool games. Scotland were their nemesis on an exciting afternoon in Gloucester. Will Japan wreak a long-awaited revenge on Scotland this Sunday?
5. Conditions have played their part in helping Japan. By all accounts the humidity levels should soon start to drop off but these first few weeks of the competition have been notable for the unprecedented number of handling errors. When the All Blacks and Beauden Barrett cannot hang onto the ball against badly beaten teams like Canada, you know there is an issue. You can prepare for conditions all you like but there's no substitute for the real thing. Japan play in these conditions week after week. As their impressively cool coach, Jamie Joseph, says, they don't need to practise with a soapy ball.
6. It is some week for Ireland. They have to secure a five-point bonus-point win to absolutely guarantee their place in the quarter-finals. Samoa were much improved against Japan on Saturday but I cannot conceive of a second Irish defeat at pool stage. They are not looking likely winners.
As I thought and have said often, they seem a year or so past their prime but they have the experience to see off Samoa and wait to see what happens in the Japan game against Scotland. Qualification is very much in their hands; the opponent, New Zealand or South Africa, is not. Ireland might just have one stunning effort left in them.
7. Wales are heading for the last eight but their game against Fiji on Wednesday is an important game. Victory and they face the loser between England and France. Right now, France appear much the easier route to the semi-finals. Yes, I know. France have a superb World Cup record and Wales will not be fazed by the English power but, few teams would choose to play England and not France.
Fiji are the stumbling block. They have beaten Wales, famously in Nantes in 2007. More tellingly, they gave Australia the runaround for 40 minutes in 2019 and their second half against Georgia was Fiji at their flying, fabulous best. Semi Radradra delivered a dauntingly good performance, the best by any individual to date in this tournament. Wales will not want to see him running at them.
8. As for France, they were always in control against Tonga but not much more than that. There have been moments of magical play, powerful passages but the overall tale is one of inconsistency and long, worrying periods of flatness. Camille Lopez has been the better 10 but whoever starts, expect England to get at him.
On the plus side for France, Antoine Dupont made an immediate mark off the bench. He'll not be starting there against England. Odd bounces of the ball make fools of us all but shall we settle for saying, all logic makes England favourites to top their pool and face an old adversary either way, in Wales or Australia.
9. On the subject of the Wallabies, I am not sure exactly what their game plan is. Their front five is up to holding its own in the set piece but it lacks carrying power up front. Stacks of that behind the scrum but where is the kicking game to get them into the parts of the field where damage is greatest? These are not the conditions to win a World Cup running from your own 22. Australia are unexposed but have a lot of improvement required.
10. Lastly, good luck to Scotland. I am sure they will do what they must against Russia before that game with Japan. It seems most of the world is hoping the bigger country with conditional advantage and extra rest days pulls off an expected win to make the last eight and a quarter-final with South Africa.
I always thought this pool would boil down to this game but not with Japan in control. Scotland are up against the odds; the outsiders, the underdogs, it will be an immense achievement for Scotland to win. I wish Japan - who have been brilliant - only the best but here's a voice hoping that Gregor Townsend's team make the final pool match a memorable one. Good luck to the referee as well. It will be a tough call with Japan and the rest of the world willing the Brave Blossoms on.