The pool stage of the world cup ended amidst tears, songs and medical bulletins. The fantastic crowds who have turned up to watch the matches featuring the tournament’s less fancied sides have been treated to some thrilling matches and a genuine rugby party. This was epitomized once more by the glorious Japanese side. The first side in world cup history to be eliminated in spite of winning three of their four pool matches, including toppling the giants of South Africa. They have brought a delight to the event and demonstrated, as you would expect of the Japanese, that team work, mastery of the basic skills, intelligence and efficiency can overcome sheer physical power. A fact which seems to have been lost on the European sides.
Wales were beaten by Australia in a physically charged contest, but were the architects of their own downfall. During a crucial eight minute passage of play, Australia were reduced to thirteen players after they’d had two men sent to the sin bin. Logic dictates that in this situation the team with the superior numbers makes a series of drives at the heart of their opponents’ defence, forcing them to commit ‘all hands’ to stop the charge. Once the defence has been thus ‘sucked in’ you suddenly pass the ball out to the flanks where you should now outnumber the defenders and have a simple task of passing to somebody unmarked who can just stroll in for a try. Not Wales! They seemed to think that as Australia only had thirteen players on the pitch it meant that there were fewer to bash through! For eight minutes they charged headlong at Australian defenders instead of trying to find the gaps where there weren’t any. As a result Australia held out, won the match 15 – 6, topped the group and earned a quarter final against Scotland next Sunday. Wales will face the physical onslaught of the Springboks on Saturday.
Scotland’s game against Samoa was an even clearer indication of this different approach. Once again Scotland rode a veritable four lane motorway of luck to win this game. While the Samoans played fast attacking rugby and scored some great tries, the Scots looked to the bulk and power of their forwards to keep them in the game and ground out their scores through driving lineouts and heaving scrums. In the end a huge slice of good fortune with refereeing decisions saw them win 36 -33 and qualify at Japan’s expense.
Ireland and France contested a brutal encounter to decide the winner of pool D. Ireland won 24 – 9, but it was a pyrrhic victory with captain Paul O’Connell, flankers O’Mahony and O’Brien, and fly half Sexton, all possible casualties for their quarter final against Argentina next Sunday. The Argentinian side looks very accomplished and has clearly benefitted from competing in the annual Rugby Championship against South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. With such important players missing from the team Ireland might well find them a very tough opponent indeed. The French, meanwhile will be served up to the All Blacks next Saturday. On their day we all know that the French can produce brilliant rugby but the Kiwis will start the match as favourites.
Next weekend’s results could well demonstrate how far off the pace the northern nations really are. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a last four of Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It’s brains, not just brawn, that matters.