RWC 2019

And then there were four

In truth, Ireland really didn’t come very far from their humiliating loss in Twickenham back in August. The aftermath has been predictable in that defensive, dare we say naive, fans have taken the ‘leave our rugby-heroes alone’ approach while the begrudgers and, those who simply don’t like rugby, have been generous with their contempt after the beatdown from New Zealand. The main stick to beat the team is that after all the garlands bestowed upon them, they were unable to break a 32-year drought without a semi-final appearance.

It’s still puzzling as to why a semi-final appearance would sate everyone. If we had the same draw as Wales, we too would have probably limped past a self-destructive French side into a potentially winnable semi-final against South Africa. In a tournament where there are never more than four potential winners at any given time, surely the minimum standards for a high-achieving, ambitious side would be an appearance in the final?

Irish rugby and, indeed, where this team stands need to considered with objectivity and on a number of levels after this latest World Cup failing. And make no bones about it, 2019’s abject showing was far worse than the exit suffered in 2011 under the tutelage of the latterly maligned, Declan Kidney.

At World Rugby’s behest, and in service of their financial needs, the World Cup has taken on enormous importance. The Six Nations, however, is the IRFU’s great cash-cow. Under Joe Schmidt, the Aviva Stadium has generally been packed out and assisted by the totalitarian edicts of David Nucifora, almost all Irish players have continued to ply their trade domestically.

Isa Nacewa offered an interesting, if half-cocked, criticism of Schmidt this week when he said, amongst other things, Ireland were prevented from playing the attacking game Johnny Sexton likes due to a lack of players required to fit this creative template. Last weekend Sexton had both the Leinster centre pairing and Rob Kearney, so it’s hard to see how the personnel referred to by Nacewa were the problem.

Additionally, Ireland’s failings last week were often self-imposed so if you can identify the causal link between the “unstructured chaos” promoted by Lancaster, the rigidity of Schmidt’s regime and Johnny Sexton missing two handy touches then fair play to you.

Incidentally, Simon Zebo’s absence has never been more keenly felt. Sure, he could do with keeping schtum at times and he probably has too much personality for an authoritarian regime but Ireland left Japan as, unquestionably, one of the least impressive attacking teams in the tournament.

While the IRFU and Nucifora will probably never allow it, would it be the worst thing in the world if Ireland chose to pick players who ply their trade away from home? Ultimately, few would make the move as any shortfall in wages would be offset by the Irish game management system which does afford great protection to Irish internationals. It’s just a thought and it’s not like the departure of Zebo – who was unquestionably the star draw in Munster – has had an effect on attendances in Thomond Park and Musgrave Park.

Andy Farrell must be allowed introduce his own style of rugby which, admittedly, we aren’t familiar with yet. Mike Catt’s appointment doesn’t exactly fill one with joy and it’s a shame Ireland couldn’t do something to get former Otago and outgoing Japan attack-coach, Tony Brown on the new ticket. Hindsight comes into play here, of course.

Add in a dash of media-driven xenophobia if the all-English ticket struggles and it makes for an uncertain near future. Still, like it or not, Ireland need to change for the next World Cup and more importantly they need to adapt in the year leading up to the tournament.

It’s also particularly galling to note how much of a psychological impact the English defeat in February seemed to imprint on the Irish players psyche. Aside from the fact that Enda McNulty was in Japan to feed the players Deepak Chopra-isms – fair enough it works for some – it’s concerning that a team who appeared so ebullient less than 12 months ago could become so turgid and almost frightened to play. Why are other teams able to bounce back so quickly from inevitable setbacks that competitive sport brings?

Also, with the exception of the injured Dan Leavy, Sean O’ Brien and the erstwhile, Zebo, these are the best players currently available to Ireland. Some might make an argument for Devin Toner or even ,Donnacha Ryan but, in all reality, they wouldn’t have made a significant difference to the outcome in Toyo last weekend.

Conversely, we have just enjoyed the most successful era in Irish rugby so it will take measured consideration to establish just whwt went wrong.

If annoyance springs from a once overly sympathetic media, some annoyingly protective fans or presumptuous, twee advertising campaigns, the removal of these issues will not have any direct positive effect on the performance of the Irish team.

Ever since the supremely talented and successful, Roy Keane, questioned the defeatist attitude of Irish supporters, a disjointed, non-sensical ‘Why settle for second?’ attitude developed amongst Irish sports fans. True, punching above our weight is not a measurable achievement, and in any event Ireland don’t in fact punch their weight in rugby. And anyway, if McNulty can’t motivate the team to win, then who can?

If Farrell expands the Irish game plan, and his team struggle for a couple of years, sections of the clickbait, populist media will, no doubt, find cause for complaint. Nevertheless, if Ireland arrive at France 2023 with a cohesive attacking unit and the 36-year wait to reach a semi-final – which still seems a very unusual end-goal in a tournament with six potential winners – is finally ended, then surely everything will be rosy in the garden once more? .

On to this weekend’s semi-final previews.

New Zealand v England – Saturday 26th October, 9:00am (Irish Time)

Though not directly opposite each other, Owen Farrell and Beauden Barrett should have a huge say in the outcome of tomorrow’s semi-final.

Eddie Jones is in heaven right now.  England are rolling, he’s having a pretty amicable war of words with Steve Hansen and, most importantly, his English side look primed to hand New Zealand their first Rugby World Cup defeat since 2007.

If New Zealand had the alarmingly messy Irish put out of commission after 30 minutes last week, they know the opening salvo of Saturday’s contest will be extremely combative. As a precursor to this semi-final, we can cast our minds back to the tournament’s opening weekend and the breathless confrontation between South Africa and New Zealand. Hell for leather for an hour, South Africa walked off knowing that night that they’d likely be around come November, while the reigning champions immediately drew a line in the sand.

England, on the other hand, have worked their way efficiently through the tournament, before ruthlessly putting Australia away last week after the Wallabies had threatened to make a contest of it. With the greatest respect to the other semi-finalists, this is the game Jones will have been looking to since he took the English job, even when heads may have dropped imperceptibly low after the series defeat in South Africa in 2018. Oh, how some teams can bounce back in such a short period of time.

Jones, of course, is one of only two coaches this century to mastermind victory over a New Zealand side in the global showpiece, – Bernard Laporte in 2007 the other – leading Australia in 2003 to a 22-10 victory over the nation that many moons – a decade or so ago – were labelled bottlers on the biggest stage.

By a strange twist of fate, the man who lost his job as New Zealand coach that day, John Mitchell, is now Jones’ defensive coach. It’s intriguing, if little more than a notable historical footnote, that Mitchell could now be pivotal in the downfall of his own country’s attempt to achieve what will never be seen again, a hat trick of World Cup successes.

New Zealand have gone with Scott Barrett in the back row, clearly mindful of the dual threat offered by the English lineout either off the top or through their brutish, dominant maul. England have resisted the temptation to include George Kruis, who you imagine would be a locked in – no pun intended – starter in most sides.

What England do now possess, in addition to an unusual clean bill of health, is the exceptional back row tandem of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill. Underhill was missed in the Six Nations but fully rejuvenated, this high-energy, multi-faceted duo complement and facilitate the more destructive work of their man in the middle, Billy Vunipola.

Comparatively, New Zealand’s back-row were outstanding against Ireland, Kieran Read and Ardie Sa’vea imperious, in the best sense of the word. Sam Cane is gine but Hansen has his reasons. It’s difficult to say who will have the upper but while Ireland hoped for an unlikely return to 2018, England’s recent performances are proof that we can expect a ferocious and evenly fought contest from the opposing loose forwards.

There will be so many intriguing mini-battles throughout the field: Manu Tuilagi versus Jack Goodhue, George Ford versus Richie Mo’unga, Read and Vunipola and, though not directly opposite each other, Owen Farrell and Beauden Barrett

While New Zealand have long since shed the sense of trepidation that often shrouded them in World Cup knock-out games, they have acknowledged an English strength by selecting Barrett. However, in the same way New Zealand manipulate observers into thinking they kick far less than other teams, they also bandy the idea that they only focus on themselves. Which is a load of nonsense really as they’re far too intelligent and well-prepared to ignore the perceived strengths of the opposition.  

While there is very little between the sides, England, though comprehensive victors on the scoreboard were cut apart by Australia regularly only to be saved by excellent scramble defence and failure to capitalise by what was admittedly one of the most average Australian sides in recent memory.

And, while their defence has been excellent under the watchful eye of Mitchell, if you’re scrambling against New Zealand, it usually means you’ll be in a team huddle under your posts in a minute or so.

These are definitely the two best sides left in the tournament and we’ve little hesitation in saying that the tournament winner will come from this semi-final. Both sides have quality strewn throughout and while England are no doubt confident, it’s New Zeland’s unparalleled competence that will get over the line.

S.U.S. Prediction: New Zealand by 4

SUS Tips: England +7 @ Evens

Jordie Barrett anytime try scorer @ 5/2

South Africa v Wales – Sunday 27th October – 9:00 am (Irish Time)

It seems a little ridiculous to suggest the meeting of the The Rugby Championship and Grand Slam winners, South Africa and Wales, is the weaker of the semi-finals but all results to date suggest as much.

South Africa, to their credit, pushed New Zealand hard five weeks ago but at no point did it look like Rassie Erasmus’s side would pull off the relative upset. And yet, as South Africa walked off the pitch that night in Yokohama you knew no one was going to prevent them from pitching up this weekend.

Wales rightly joined the short list of contenders after an outstanding 2019 Six Nations, relying on belligerent defence, undying loyalty to Warren Gatland’s emotion based game and the world class incisions of Liam Williams.

Allied to Williams’ power, game-breaking ability and outstanding aerial skills was the craft and creativity of Gareth Anscombe, who recently provided a subtle alternative to the more direct, Dan Biggar. Sadly for Wales, Anscombe never made in to Japan and Williams injury, suffered in training this week, appears to have ruled out one of the world’s finest players from the tournament’s denouement.

Without these two, Wales revert to Biggar, an excellent replacement, and Leigh Halfpenny, another who has excelled in the Welsh red for over a decade now. Neither of these seasoned big-game performers will disappoint but, in a team full of honest robustness, Wales will desperately miss the extra attacking options that those absentees would have brought. Josh Navidi’s all-action game will also be missed.

While South Africa will be dealing from an almost full deck, they will, sadly for all onlookers, have to play with without their wild-card, Cheslin Kolbe. The diminutive winger lit up this year’s Heineken Cup and he has been a marvel at this World Cup. In the way that Lionel Messi mystifies with his balance and footwork, so too does Kolbe. His interjections lit up the opening weekend’s contest but it appears his race is run for the 2019 World Cup.

Kolbe will most certainly be missed but Makazole Mapimpi further confirmed his finishing prowess last weekend and, as ever, South Africa will rely first on their bruising go forward game, of which Damien de Allende forms such a key part. The massive centre was singled out for criticism four years ago when South Africa were memorably upset by Japan but he is now one of the finest number 12s in world rugby.

Where Ireland failed in recent times tying to impose a physical game on Wales, South Africa should have no such worries. The second row pairing of Lood de Jager and Eden Edzebeth are as imposing a duo as exists and the supporting cast of captain, Siya Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph Du Toit will not be overwhelmed by the relentless, high-energy Welsh pack. In addition, the South African lineout, particularly in defence, is near peerless so it’s difficult to see where Wales will get the upper hand.

With a bit of data banked now, Wales opening victory over Australia looks far less impressive than it appeared at the time. And, frankly, they only won last weekend due to a gross lack of indiscipline that seems to be deeply ingrained in the psyche of French rugby.

Due to their attitude, a lot of which seems to be emotion-led, and admitted quality, Wales will never be blown out of a game and, therefore, will likely be in the contest into the last 10 minutes.

Wales, like Ireland, probably needed to be fully loaded to reach this World Cup final and shorn of their attacking fulcrums, they appear to lack the quality to overcome the challenge of this ever-improving Springbok side. South Africa can bombard you like no other side and, eventually, the Welsh house will come crumbling down.

SUS Prediction – South Africa by 9

Handicap Draw @ 25/1

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Ireland v New Zealand, Irish Rugby, Rugby, RWC 2019

Time to end the streak

After six weeks of admittedly variable quality, we’re finally at the business end of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Having been lucky enough to spend the first two weeks out there, we can say that Japan has delivered beyond our wildest expectations.

This, of course, should be considered in the context of the devastating Typhoon Hagibis. The typhoon caused untold damage to the island of Honshu and makes the self-absorbed threats of the SRU look increasingly laughable.

Unfortunately, as with the 2011 iteration in New Zealand, the time difference makes it very difficult for the public at home to really immerse themselves in the tournament. And, while it was easy to forget the rugby while travelling around that extraordinary country – like the rest of the Irish in Japan we had the audacity to enjoy ourselves even in the wake of defeat to Japan –  the degree of negativity surrounding the team following that unexpected defeat has been proven to be excessive.

Scotland were torn apart for 60 minutes last Sunday, in far less trying conditions than Ireland faced in Shizuoka, and while it was most certainly the result Ireland didn’t want, it was difficult not to be won over by Japan. Certainly, we’ve been caught in the frenzy and instantly fell in love with the country, and if say England or New Zealand had performed as Japan have to date, pundits would be slobbering over them.

Kotaro Matsushima and Kenki Fukuoka have provided moments of magic akin to those of Cheslin Kolbe, and, their pack, led by their adored captain, Michael Leitch, have provided quick ball on foot of outstanding, manic rucking. They move the ball with the same speed and accuracy as the reigning champions and their fans have been extraordinary.

It was incredible to hear that volunteers whose homes had been destroyed by Hagibis still turned up early on Sunday morning to ensure the final group match would go ahead. There are some snide critics of the unquestioning self-discipline of the Japanese but their sense of duty and generosity was never so vividly displayed than as last Sunday.

Japan are deemed to have played their final already by many but there’s a sense that the hulking – massively hulking – South Africans won’t have it all their own way on Sunday. The real winners on that side of the draw are Wales, however.

Warren Gatland’s side were brilliant for 60 minutes against Australia before the northern hemisphere’s great enemy, the humidity, kicked in and they were really holding on by the end. They were fitful against Fiji but now find themselves with the perceived easiest quarter final opponent in France.

Gatland, French unknowns, rampant South Africans and the exuberant Japanese are the least of Ireland’s worries right now though, as the back-to-back word champions and presumptive saviours of humanity, New Zealand, await on Saturday.

We all know at this stage that good All-Blacks, including Sevu Reece apparently, make good people and that the sun shines out of everyone of them. Incidentally, while Guinness and Vodafone have been wildly successful on turning people off the Irish team, New Zealand’s sponsors have been churning out this bile-inducing shite for years to little or no criticism.

Undefeated in the World Cup in 12 years, New Zealand go into Saturday’s quarter final as red-hot favourites and rightly so. While they are not the supreme side of four years ago – who admittedly scraped by South Africa in the semi-final – they are the best in the world and their ability to succeed in high leverage situations is unmatched.

Ireland did beat them last November but that seems like an eternity ago now. There is a cautionary tale that nobody beats New Zealand back-to-back but given this is knock out rugby past results are largely irrelevant. The last and only time these sides met at a World Cup, young phenom Jonah Lomu erupted on to the scene, shortly after Gary Halpin gave the most ill-advised middle finger in sporting history. For many, this writer included, Lomu remains the most exhilarating, electrifying player to ever grave the field, rugby’s equivalent of The Rock.

While Lomu’s New Zealand side never managed to get their hands on the William Webb Ellis trophy, the current side, captained by all-time great, Kieran Read, look well primed to reel off a hat-trick of tournament victories. And yet this side, more than ever, have shown vulnerability over the past 18 months.

Notwithstanding the quality of the incumbents, the New Zealand back row and midfield are simply brilliant, and not the standard bearers as was the case four years ago. Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Richie McCaw were generational talents and Sonny-Bill Williams 2019 is, unsurprisngly, a lesser version of the younger model. This is not to say that this is a weak by any stretch New Zealand but they simply do not hold the aura of their predecessors who, admittedly, may have been the best side of all time.

Because you never get tired of watching this man in full flight.

On the tournament’s opening weekend, New Zealand prevailed over South Africa in a thrilling contest while Ireland delivered a dominant victory over an appalling Scottish side. Watching both games, you would hazard that Ireland were never going to live with the Kiwis. The events in the forests of Shizuoka a week later – aside from providing fuel for bell ends like Ewan McKenna and Colm Parkinson – did little to dispel the notion that Ireland were nowhere nearer to breaking their World Cup quarter-final hoodoo.

And yet….. Ireland have probably produced four of their eight best performances during Schmidt’s reign against New Zealand. Perhaps, psychologically, the Kiwis bring Ireland up to their level, or Ireland know anything far from their best will mean humiliation. Whatever the reason, the last six years have provided four superb matches between the sides, each side winning tough in low scoring affairs while also coming away victorious after free-flowing contests.

New Zealand, as is often the case, are being credited with reinventing the wheel by placing their outstanding out-half, Beauden Barrett, at full-back to allow him chime into the line at will. Aside from the fact that this has been the practice in rugby league for years, a friend pointed out that New Zealand were already doing this with Damien McKenzie prior to his injury. Admittedly, when Barrett moves to number 10 after 60 minutes, the game is liable to open up but Ireland can starve him of ball if they kick with intelligence. That said New Zealand are outstanding at pressurising possession and making you put the ball where they want it.

If Barrett is crucial to New Zealand in various guises, no one player is more important to Ireland’s chance of success than Jonathan Sexton. Joey Carberry and Jack Carty may be the future but right now Ireland’s game revolves so completely around Sexton that it is almost worrying, in the sense that if New Zealand can shut him down then the Irish team will be back in Dublin by next Tuesday night. Injury and stark conservatism have prevented Ireland from finding a creative option outside of Sexton and with Schmidt opting for Rob Kearney, there is no sense of Ireland’s out-half being able to rely on an extra layer of playmaking from the back field.

Given the nature of Schmidt’s selction policies, no one really expected Jordan Larmour to start so you can expect conservative, high-intensiy rugby from Ireland. Ireland need Conor Murray and Peter O’ Mahony to perform at their peak while Iain Henderson needs to prove why Devin Toner has been left back home. One player from the Chicago victory is conspicuous by his absence but as we have learned under Schmidt, all players are equal but some players – who play out-half for Ireland and Leinster – are more equal than others.

Ireland may not be at the heights of November but, frankly, they don’t need to be. South Africa found cracks on the opening weekend and Ireland have absolutely no reason to fear this side. Yes, we’ve found various ways to lose at the quarter final stage and the route to tournament victory is extremely tough but like the MLB playoffs, Ireland need only care about the next game up.

The Gods have gathered in Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine for the month of October for their Kamuhakari. While we’re not partiacurlay religious in this neck of the woods, we find the Shinto religion fascinating. The Kamigami – all eight million of them – held their Kamiari Sai last week where they decided on the outcome of certain major events throughout the coming year. Ideally, they’ll have a word with Nigel Owens and ask him to ref the game properly and not for maximum entertainment levels.

An unprecedetned era of success for Irish rugby will end shortly when Joe Schmidt and his family return home. This would be some feather to add to the cap. Ireland, just.

Straight Up Sport prediction – Ireland to win @ 5/1

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