Three things we learned from the weekend’s Rugby World Cup action

Three things we learned from the weekend’s Rugby World Cup action

01) New Zealand looking dangerous ahead of quarter-finals

Pundits were quick to criticise New Zealand after their opening round defeat to France. It’s been a tricky few years for the All Blacks under head coach Ian Foster and it’s true that they’ve failed to hit the heights of previous teams. To write them off though, or suggest that they will be convenient quarter-final opponents for Ireland, is jumping the gun.

With Joe Schmidt among their ranks, the Kiwis will have incredible insight into both the Irish players and the tactics of head coach Andy Farrell. That alone always meant that New Zealand would prove a potentially difficult hurdle for Ireland. That was the case whether they were in form or not.

After the weekend’s action though, it seems as though they are bang at it. Any fears about confidence in the New Zealand camp were destroyed by a frightening 96-17 demolition of group opponents Italy. The last two times Ireland faced Italy, Farrell’s men won by less than 17 points – a 34-20 win in the Six Nations and then a 33-17 World Cup warm-up victory. This is an Italy side which beat Australia last November and only lost to France by five points in February.

Sure, Italy aren’t the best acid test of a New Zealand team who need to knock out the World’s number one country, but their ruthless thirst for tries did trigger flashbacks to their 46-14 hammering of Ireland at the last World Cup. I don’t expect a repeat quarter-final this time, but Ireland need to be wary.

02) Springbok attack lacks with Pollard back

Rassie Erasmus would have been thrilled to welcome back first-choice goalkicker Handre Pollard, playmaking fullback Willie Le Roux and veteran number eight Duane Vermeulen to his South Africa team for their match against Tonga. All three players were conspicuous by their absence against Ireland in Paris so supporters expected the boosted ‘Boks to hit new heights on Sunday night.

That wasn’t the case. Although Pollard’s accuracy from the tee was a refreshing sight after the cringe-worthy struggles of Manie Libbok in recent months, his contribution in open play had South Africa looking back to their unimaginative 2019 selves. There was a disjointedness to their attacking play that caused them to slog their way to a flattering 49-18 win.

It was by no means a disastrous performance (as the scoreboard would tell you) but many would have expected them to score more tries against the Pacific Islanders after watching some of their exciting attacks against Ireland. Perhaps the South African power game plus a reliable kicker will help them get to the final of this competition but it will be a shame if their entertainment value is diminished by Pollard’s return.

03) Scotland come into Ireland game brimming with confidence

If New Zealand’s win over Italy and South Africa’s win over Tonga don’t count for much because of the calibre of opposition then Scotland’s 84-0 thrashing Romania definitely doesn’t. We learned next to nothing about Scotland from what was a non-contest but don’t believe them when they tell you it has no bearings on next week’s contest.

Scotland’s pre-tournament enthusiasm was subdued by an 18-3 opening weekend defeat to South Africa but confidence is surely back in a good place again after consecutive wins over Tonga (45-17) and Romania (84-0). They will know that playing against Ireland will be like playing a different sport, but the positive energy generated by scoring so many tries will surely feed into the psyche of this Scotland team which is so dependent on playing brave creative rugby.

It’s do-or-die for Townsend’s tartan army against Ireland so the favourites will somehow need to reproduce the standards they showed against the Springboks or risk being overturned. Unbelievably, if Ireland fail to take a point from Saturday’s contest they will be eliminated from the tournament by virtue of their head-to-head record against the Scots, but even a losing bonus point would see them through.