The Rugby World Cup Final.

Jonny. Pre-game. Almost worryingly earnest, as so often. Turning his analysis into yoga, players out there behind him. Then ‘that wry smile’ – Farrell’s, not Wilkinson’s and a ‘break’. ITV: okaaay but also weird.

But what a good, solid and sometimes *actually inspiring* tournament this has been. Japan the clear winner, for their childlike embrace of the thing, for their politesse and their Proper Rugby Passion too. (Oh – and their team played arguably the most entertaining rugby in the tournament).

Rugby, World Cup Finals, in Japan. Strange how intelligent administration, free from bias or bung can turn out well, eh FIFA, eh ICC? You get to expand the game and enrich the experiences of everybody, pretty much, from spectator to waiter. The sport benefits.

The sight of Japanese, young and old, belting out the beautiful but relatively inaccessible Welsh national anthem has felt wonderfully symbolic of the potential richnesses – rarely located but found here – that the confluence of sport and peoples can aspire to. Simply, rugby does goodwill particularly well. Japan seems to have done it magnificently.

To the game.

Unusually for me, no live updates. Wanted to watch. What follows is therefore some abstracted thoughts…

 

South Africa and England may be high on the list of unloved rugby nations but ultimately there was a heartwarming bundle of That Good Stuff washing around Yokohama and the airwaves, at the whistle. The Boks had freed themselves up and begun to cut deep and wide, as England, disconsolate, near-humiliated England slipped into hopelessness.

The scenes at the culmination of an emphatic win – the rainbow of joy and wider-spread satisfaction around the host nation for a supremely hospitable tournament – may camouflage the fact that this was a game in which only one team turned up: South Africa.

Questions will inevitably be asked about tactical matters: how could the Boks dominate so completely a game that they entered as underdogs? Was this not an obvious case of one coaching team out-thinking another? Did Jones not know the go-to strengths of Erasmus’s side? Of course he did. But this was a World. Cup. Final.

England looked overawed from the start. Arguably not every player, of course but there was that awful error/contagion/überangst coursing right through them. Painful for Eddie Jones and his backroom staff to see, as they will surely have wanted and quite possibly expected to replicate the carousel of brilliant, confident attacking that characterised their start against the ABs. Instead there was simple error after dubious choice: they were more woeful than mixed, as exemplified by Youngs, on ten minutes, hurling a pass metres high and wide of any colleague, metres into touch. Wow. Shocker.

For Sinckler, the young English prop, there was barely time for nerves. Pre-game, I had a hunch that his personality, his wit, indeed, may have a real influence on this encounter. The fella’s sparky and spunky in a good way: strong but also somehow nimble. He left the pitch, cruelly accidentally concussed, on four minutes: England would miss both his bulk and his capacity to defy, to intervene.

Apologies. This may all underestimate the early power and control of South Africa – who were immediately ahead on the board and looked likely to stretch that lead further the more the first half continued. (Pollard missed a straightforward kick/there was a pret-ty continual siege going on against the England defence, albeit all over the park, as opposed to close to the danger zone).

In the ether, much had been made of the Erasmus plan to stifle and smother but without being electrifyingly expansive in the first period, South Africa went through a certain level of positive phases competently enough – unlike England. Continually and consistently, often via de Allende or Le Roux, the Springboks threaten to threaten.

The men in white, by contrast, for whom I thought Daly (most obviously) and both halfbacks underachieved, either through error or conceding possession too cheaply, were unrecognisable from the week previous. The opposition today were magnificently robust, it’s true but if Game Plan A for England was to hoist (without effectively chasing down) and re-set, as soon as this was patently neutered, surely the halfbacks must initiate another challenge, or twelve?

Youngs and Ford disappointed, in this respect. And yes I know they my have put many man-hours into that Plan A, and that the coaches may have over-egged the need to keep faith with it, but when Am, de Allende, Etzebeth, Kolisi and co are smashing you back decisively on nearly every contact, surely it makes sense (when it’s a known strength of your own) to look to play at pace and with width?

Instead, Pollard and wee Faf could dictate the nature of the play… because they had both momentum and – courtesy those box-kicks and ‘clearances’ – possession of the ball!

Simplistic? Maybe. Less arguable was the palpable superiority of the Boks, not just around contacts but notably and maybe surprisingly at line-out and scrum. Even accepting that the reffing of scrums often seems arbitrary, the concession of penalties by England in this facet of play was both a) remarkable b) completely reflective of Springbok dominance. England were repeatedly smashed.

In line-outs, too, the English were alarmingly out of synch, given their previous high standards. If the throw from George was caught, the movement around – the development – was clunky. The fizz from Underhill, Curry and Vunipola(s) remained well and truly corked.

England escaped the first forty within range, somehow. (6-12). But the imagery was set: blurs and errors and lack of flow from men of The North, and a deep, formidable squeeze from t’other side.

For a few minutes, into the second half, we almost had a game: England almost roared. After the inevitable fifty-odd minute personnel changes, the South African scrum was almost shockingly vulnerable – momentarily, as it turned out – as Marler or Cole or somebody similarly heave-tastic forced a pen. Farrell profited, bringing the scores to 9-15 but then crucially (possibly) failed with a toughish but kickable effort from about 45 metres. Before any meaningful momentum could be gathered, Daly sliced poorly into touch, England conceded a further pen after the line-out and Pollard pinged over.

If those exchanges settled the match, it was the two South African tries in a delirious and exhilarating last fifteen minutes that delivered the flourish. Am threw a peach of a no-looker to put Mapimpi in, then Kolbe danced with some ease round a somewhat movement-restricted Farrell, following a crunching, ball-spilling tackle on Slade. The South Africans (and maybe the competition?) got what they deserved: a stylish, joyful kindofa win.

I’m not big on stagey celebrations or presentations but how could we not enjoy the Bok Party? With its *stories*. How could we not raise a glass to Kolisi and to the idea of shared, enlightened progress? And also how could we not note the South African skipper’s gracious acknowledgement for the stricken Sinckler, moments before rising to collect the World Cup, himself?

Wow. Rugby can be great; sport can be great; people can be great. Nice work, Japan – nice work.

Quarter-finals. Facts & fascinations.

  • Ok. That’s done then. Probably, the best four teams are through – though around that the Irish might do whatever the Irish equivalent of quibbling is.
  • Just now, unloved South Africa squished the wunnerful-joyful hosts, once the early carousel had been closed-down. Disappointing for neutrals, given the electrifying entertainment Japan have provided but guess we do want the strongest teams in there at the death. (Don’t we?)
  • South Africa looked strong, in the same way Wales have been strong, over the last eighteen months or more. More durable than delectable: more efficient than effervescent.
  • The Springboks – are they still called the Springboks; feels somehow vaguely politically unsound? – will play Wales in a semi which could either be a reactionary bore-fest or a full-hearted classic.
  • Two wee interjections, at this point. 1. I’ve lived in Wales most of my life and want them to win the tournament. 2. Some of this stuff, below, which fascinates me 👇🏻.
  • Short memories. Almost everyone in Wales was actually rather contemptuous of Gatland & ‘Gatlandball’ a couple of years ago. He & it were dinosaur-tastic in a profoundly unattractive way.
  • The miserable Welsh performance in a medium-dramatic but poorish quality game against a fitfully revitalised France was a disappointment on several counts. Chief amongst them was the Welsh retreat into box-kicking/set/defend.
  • Wales have played some rugby in this tournament but they are plainly primarily concerned with playing within themselves, to a limited game-plan. They believe it’s a way to win: the evidence would suggest they are right.
  • In defence of arguable Welsh defensiveness, notably against France, they were without one of the great players of the modern era – Jonathan Davies. Davies is ‘class’, with and without the ball. I suspect he is more critical to Wales’ defensive shape than we give him credit for and his rare mixture of intelligence, subtlety and raw courage in attack is often powerfully, often discreetly influential.
  • I am also pret-ty convinced that Biggar is playing with restricted movement – playing hurt. (Wags might say Danny Boy always looks that way; him being the relatively fixed point of the whole Gatlandball organisation. He can’t sprint, we know that but he looks unusually sluggish, just now, to me).
  • *See also Liam Williams*. Picked for his lion-heartedness and inspirational qualities. Should be under genuine pressure now, for a place, from Halfpenny.
  • Next weekend Gatlandball II will face-off against another side likely to play conservatively. Understand that approach but am I/is anybody else looking forward to seeing that kind of game? God no; we’d rather watch Japan any day of the week.
  • Except this is Tournament Play. And much of the drama is/was always going to be of the nail-biting kind. And though my preference for glorious, expansive rugby holds fast, I’ll be as feebly hypocritical as the next man in the moments that matter. 
  • *Plus*, Wales’ obstinate refusal to get beat is, in its own way, magbloodynificent, yes? Romantic, even. It smacks of old-school, matey defiance as well as cultivated belief. I like that – the former.
  • On the subject of match-defining moments, mind, how many thought the TMO and ref swept past the possible forward, as the ball was ripped, immediately before Moriarty’s killer try? I had a slight sense that the adjudicators didn’t really fancy getting caught up in too much scrutiny of that. In short, France may have been robbed. (Discuss over sake/beers).
  • That drama aside, the Wales France game was almost shockingly ordinary in comparison to the first hour of England Aus. (Yes! I am going to do that thing where you mindlessly compare how A played against B and then judge how T (playing U) would have done if they played at that same level… against A, (assuming A retained their B standard, as it were).
  • If Wales had played like they did against France, against either England or Australia, they would have  been battered. There was simply no comparison in intensity or quality. Gatland must and will lift his posse before the ‘Boks.
  • Yes. England versus Australia, for an hour, was scarily, magnificently competitive to an extraordinary degree. It was a fierce, fierce, structured rampage. It was awesomely modern. Both teams looked Absolutely Top Level – and neither France nor Wales did. Know what’s great, though? This prob’ly means nothing.
  • The All Blacks, expected to win, destroyed Ireland. De-stroyed them. Their skills, their power, their athleticism was simply unanswered. All Ireland felt hollowed-out as the absurdly dominant ABs ran all over Schmidt’s men. If clinical can be beautiful, it was that.
  • The watching world took a breath, looked again at the draw, almost felt sorry for England (almost) – and resigned itself, actually, to another New Zealand tournament win. Who will they beat? Wales, I reckon.

Enter the North?

The foibles and fateful wotsits have begun to weave their magic and so, in truth , have the Celts. The World Cup Draw, that dull calendar formerly only notable in terms of the scramble to avoid the All Blacks, is now animated; a northern beacon being run across its landscape. Following just a few tweaks of the original presumptions – Ireland and Argentina and Tonga having been arguably the chief protagonists – firstly the balance of the draw and now we hope its democracy, its capacity to permit open challenges has been transformed.

Because Wales should have beaten South Africa; because Ireland did beat Australia and Tonga did beat France, the possibilities swung wide as the draw narrowed against the Tri-Nations. Australia’s defeat effected an unfortunate consequence; they joined South Africa and the home nation in the Quarters. With the Wallabies facing the Springboks for a place in the semi’s and the All Blacks facing Argentina not Scotland (no great surprise, that one) only one of the great Southern powers can reach the final. One the one hand this is a clear affront to sporting justice – the Tri-Nations still providing 3 of the top 4 rugby-playing nations – but on the other this also means that a Six Nations side must make the final, thereby providing a true all-world centrepiece.

I imagine the residents of Sydney or Darwin and possibly Jo’burg berating this freak of fortune; but the truth is a) if the Aussies had beaten Ireland they would have faced Wales not the Springboks and b) Wales punctured most of the arguments for Southern superiority during their group match against the ‘boks, which they contrived to lose (again) from a position of clear … superiority. Wales have now gone on to produce the most fluent and complete performance of the tournament by annihilating Fiji – Fiji, mark you, not Russia or Namibia! – 66 points to nil. In doing so, the names of Warburton and North have been beamed powerfully into the consciousness of the event; Warburton for his inspired leadership and supremely athletic presence all round the pitch and North for his joyful bursts to the line. Wales suddenly have a right to believe they may earn a place in the final. Only Ireland and then perhaps England stand in their way.

The Irish have risen from nowhere to join their Celtic brothers in the Quarter-final. For a year or more prior to this tournament, despite the presence of powerful and experienced players throughout their squad, the Irish have seemed frankly a bit lost. Unable to convincingly raise the traditional fires or play expansively with any consistency, it seemed they arrived in New Zealand as makeweights. But the outstanding win against the Wallabies, plus today’s pasting of the Italians makes a nonsense of former blandness. They may be only muttering quietly and darkly in the corner, but Ireland too believe.

England remain both an enigma and a bore. Miraculously shapeless and uninspired – given the awesome proportions and reputation of the Man (very much) At The Top – they have bundled through like the Leeds United of old, knowing they are generally loathed but, unlike Revie’s mob, unable to use that for motivation. But they are immensely durable. Their recent World Cup history is of impeccable over-achievement. They really might play near-shocking ‘winning rugby’ to another final, having bored France and Wales out of the way; a sort of dull parity around the pitch followed by rare interventions by Foden or Ashton really might do it. Possibly even with Wilkinson miscuing – although I fancy his position may genuinely be under review. As should the manager’s, if France beat them.

France have been more French than the French, having gone largely and directly from worse to worse. And this time their propensity for gallic squandering seems likely to fully express itself; following a dour defeat by England they will surely miss the flight home and be found sobbing in isolated clumps in the cheapest of local nightclubs. There to be hugged generously by Mike Tindall.

So – sticking my neck out – New Zealand or Australia or South Africa will meet Wales or Ireland or England for ultimate glory. It’s as simple as that. That, mind you, is discounting the Pumas. But surely the All Blacks couldn’t..? No… no… no.

Rugby World Cup Fantasy

Level One – where our daft fandom spills over like beer…

  • England qualify top of their group / Scotland do…
  • New Zealand get a grip / the grip is tenuous and the choke potential merely rises…
  • Wales go out following tragically breathtaking defeat against Fiji/Samoa or both / Wales beat South Africa in the final
  • Brian Habana refuses to play following spat with the management / Habana gets a pass
  • Argentina second to England in group / After a Puma prop takes over kicking duties
  • Elsom and Pocock guide Australia to glory / Wallaby pack implodes against England
  • Above the other way round
  • Richie McCaw breaks turnover records / McCaw sinbinned in final for persistent offending
  • France make 15 changes to team for quarter final / they get beat by England
  • Ireland proceed as dark horses / O’Driscoll magnificent in quarters victory over South Africa
  • Scottish back row rampages through tournament / Then they wake up
  • Kiwi’s turn on an absolute exhibition in each of the knock-out games and a nation rejoices / the world smiles with them and applauds

Level Two – where surely we must be drunk…

  • Wales qualify top of their group following Springbok implosion / England commit to 15 man rugby
  • Shane Williams scores hat-trick as Wales crush All Blacks / James Hook plays 10 and joins the pantheon of world stars
  • Martin Thomas wins a late call-up for Wales and dives over to win final / Then converts
  • France blitz Australia in magnificent semi / Australia steal it from France
  • Argentina beat All Blacks in quarters
  • Guest appearances from Lomu and Carling / Carling stops Lomu in his tracks
  • Lomu gets up and tramples entire English defence / But McCaw penalised for use of hands

Level Three – where spookily things reflect what might really happen…

  • England All Blacks final
  • Australia New Zealand final
  • Wales beat Aus and Eng but fall to All Blacks
  • South Africa have it relatively easy until clash with NZ in semi
  • Italy make knockout stages
  • Argentina really do beat the All Blacks in the quarters!

‘Real World’ likely fixtures and results…

Quarter Finals

Australia 20 Wales 16

England 16 France 12

S. Africa 19 Ireland 9

NZ 30 Argentina 16

Semi Finals

Australia 16 England 19

South Africa 17 NZ 23

Final

England 18 NZ 30

And what do you think?