Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' Rugby World Cup talking points
Last Updated: 16/10/19 10:57am
Japan's historic pool stage performance and a look ahead to the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals feature in Stuart Barnes' talking points this week...
1. Everyone is talking Japan. This was one of the most thrilling games of rugby since...well...since Japan beat South Africa four years ago.
The precision of their passing was something from another time, when coaches seemed to value an accurate pass. But the speed and fitness belonged very much in the here and now. A non-stop wave of attacking play was the response to Scotland's opening try. That final 30 minutes of the first half was rugby to test any side. South Africa have been put on alert ahead of Sunday's quarter-final.
2. The emotional outpouring in the stadium was all the greater for the typhoon that did so much damage only hours before. Thoughts, as Jamie Joseph said post-match, are first and foremost with those who died. The triumph, however, has not swept away some of the questions in need of answering.
Japan were awarded the World Cup with the tournament to take place in typhoon season. Climate crisis isn't creating more typhoons but it amplifies them. This has been known since before Greta Thunberg made the front pages.
The problem is the compromise that had to be reached with the powerhouse club game, especially within France and England. Played outside the eye of the storm would have lessened the chances of a Hagibis hitting the host nation in the middle of the tournament. Had World Rugby revealed its contingencies for the competition, that too would have been acceptable but losing three games was not. The criticism is being deflected but the real problem isn't what happened a few days ago but what didn't happen many years ago.
3. Form lines? Throw them out the window. It has taken me a few World Cups to understand what a stand-alone tournament this is, with its own rugby microclimate. What teams achieved in terms of results earlier in 2019 can be forgotten, as can those warm-up games; even much of the pool stages.
If anyone thinks Wales will play against France in the quarter-final as they did against Uruguay (credit by the way to Uruguay who finished the tournament with great credit) they can think again. If Wales do play as they did against Uruguay...
4. At least Wales got their final game in. Or should that read something other than 'at least'. Eddie Jones seems perfectly content for England to jet away from the typhoon and spend time on beer, beef and extra training. Is a rest period in the middle of the tournament good or bad news? Maybe it depends on the manager's coaching style, the strength in depth of a squad, the relative form at the time of the enforced rest.
One of the issues must be one less chance to get selection right. In England's case, the French game would have been an ideal opportunity to run the rule over the fitness of men like Mako Vunipola, Henry Slade, Jack Nowell etc. As for France, they have 80 fewer minutes to make the right call about who plays fly-half. The better option is Camille Lopez but I am hearing it will be Roman Ntamack. Good news for Wales.
5. England's opponents, Australia, are in an unusual shape for the Wallabies. The front five can compete with any team in this tournament. Yet the back-row balance is dividing the (relatively small) rugby nation.
Normally such a strong part of their game, it has struggled to influence proceedings to date. Wales outplayed them at the breakdown while indecision holds sway at nine and 10. To coin a Michael Cheika phrase, if Australia don't know what they're doing, neither can England. We shall see.
6. Logic suggests England will make it seven out of seven against Australia in the Jones era. England have not clicked completely but the quality of their kicking game has been unquestionable. The assumption must be that George Ford and Owen Farrell fill the 10/12 positions.
The plan is a basic one: to pressurise opposition with territorial control and force an error. Either a loose kick from deep to allow England to counter or a turnover in dangerous parts of the field. Australia squeezed Argentina in the World Cup semi-final four years ago in just this manner. England, with Tom Curry and Sam Underhill leading the confident breakdown game, can take advantage of an Australian team that loves to run and kicks poorly. That's the logic anyway.
7. Ireland were better against Samoa. Better but hardly brilliant. They will hope the definite signs of improvement at half-back can continue. If Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton click, they have men to put them in the right part of the field to pressurise a New Zealand team who play some scintillating rugby but are not unbeatable. Psychologically, Ireland are in a good place. Two recent victories and a narrow defeat gives them the belief to beat New Zealand.
The All Blacks were impressive against South Africa but haven't played a meaningful game in a while. They should have too much in their repertoire for an Ireland team who do not look nearly as good as the 2018 vintage but what did I say about form lines? An Irish win would be more shock than mere surprise but it is no 50-1 shot.
8. France beating Wales would be more of a shock. Yes, France have a cracking World Cup record and were dazzling for 40 minutes against Argentina but Wales are a tough nut to crack and battle-hardened like none but Australia, courtesy of their pool where Fiji offered substantial problems for both qualifiers.
If the rumours are true and Ntamack starts, I will write off France...unless Dan Biggar is ruled out. Will this game, I wonder, be the tale of two 10s, the one that started and the influential one that missed out? Let's hope Biggar is fit to play.
9. And finally, Japan versus South Africa. Not again, surely? South Africa are a superior team to the one which was hijacked by Japan in Brighton four years ago (although that team beat Wales and pushed New Zealand all the way in the semi-final) and will certainly not be complacent. But Japan have a nation to roar them on, together with a bundle of self-belief that comes with the victories over Ireland and Scotland.
South Africa were my tip to win the tournament. I didn't desert them when New Zealand beat them and I will not panic in the face of growing Japanese confidence, but wouldn't it be a story were the home team to consign my tip to its usual place in the dustbin? I'll stand by the Springboks but expect an almighty effort from Japan.
10. Which referees have impressed, and who would I like to see officiate the final? Ben O'Keefe, the 30-year-old Kiwi, was masterful at the breakdown in the Scotland loss to Japan. The breakdown was a real battle with players encouraged to compete for the ball, on their legs, in numbers, driving over the ball. Almost good old fashioned rucking. He played his part in the most attractive game of the tournament to date. Wayne Barnes has been the most consistent, his management of the officials superb.
One of these men could find their team in the final, however, so the favourite is Jerome Garces. The French contingent have taken plenty of stick of late but Garces has been refereeing the big games for a few years now and France are not going to make the final.
The powers that be like him (so do I, he's a super bloke) maybe France might just be represented in the 2019 World Cup final.