With one round of pool matches to go, the shape of the quarter finals is starting to appear through the smoke and lasers of the pre-match build ups! Sadly, for European rugby, the shape is depressingly familiar. On Friday night the All Blacks put in a very disjointed performance and still saw off the challenge of Georgia by 43 – 10. The tournament favourites had a relatively straight forward pool and have been able to rest key players in the easier games meaning that they should be fresh for the knock-out stages. On Saturday Japan continued their upward trajectory with an excellent 26 – 5 victory over Samoa. The Pacific islanders had been tipped as one of the ‘dark horses’ of the tournament but Japan, once again the epitome of teamwork, swept them aside with relative ease. Sadly for the Japanese it seems that, unless the Samoans can raise themselves to beat Scotland next week, the defeat that they suffered at Scottish hands, after a short turnaround of only four days following their stunning defeat of South Africa, will see them eliminated. The Scots were unable to cope with the brutal physicality of the Springboks who ran out comfortable 34 -16 winners at St James’ Park, Newcastle. On paper they should beat the Samoans and continue to the quarter finals but with their pride severely bruised, who knows what mood the Samoans will be in when they walk out for their final game of the tournament. There could still be a sting in the tail.
On Sunday, Argentine overcame Tonga in a highly entertaining, fast-paced match. The final score of 45 – 16 showed how far the Pumas have come from their traditional power based scrum, drive and kick game since joining the Southern hemisphere’s rugby championship and playing the All Blacks, Springboks and wallabies on an annual basis. It’s a regular menagerie down there! In one of the tournament’s duller encounters, Ireland saw off a robust Italian challenge 16 – 9.
The big talking point of the weekend was England’s 33 – 13 humbling at the hands of the Australians. The Australians are usually the rapier to England’s broadsword, all nimble footwork and agile thinking. On this occasion they outmuscled their hosts as well as leading them a merry dance in the brain department, a total annihilation. The Aussies had done their homework and knew exactly where, when, and how to hurt the men in white. England, on the other hand, having had equal time to study and prepare, apparently hadn’t taken any steps whatsoever to counter Australian strengths. In fact they looked like a team who had only met each other for the first time on the way to the ground. Passes were dropped, runs were mis-timed, and the ideas cupboard was bare after the first couple of phases. It seems that the home ‘game plan’ more or less amounted to ‘trying really, really hard at pushing and stuff’. Oh well, there’s always next time.
The fact is that it looks increasingly as though the winner will be one of Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa. Of the remaining European challengers Wales only have half a team left standing, Ireland’s game-plan relies more on their opponents being pressurised into errors so that Jonny Sexton can kick penalties, than on any real ambition on their part to score tries. Seeing as any of the southern hemisphere giants will almost certainly score two, and possibly three, tries against them and knock over a few penalties, that’s an awful lot of errors that the Irish will need them to make in return, in order to stand any hope of winning. The French are capable of beating any of the ‘big three’ in a ‘one off’ game, but unlikely to manage it on consecutive weekends to win a quarter final, semi- final and final. Les Bleus are ridiculously inconsistent, they will give ferocity unbounded one week, and a Gallic shrug the next. So I’m off to find my bush hat, G’Day.