We were all led to believe the Rugby Championship was due to be shortened in 2015 in order to accommodate the Rugby World Cup. In actual fact, it was merely paused in August, to be resumed in Twickenham this October.
Despite Scotland’s gallant efforts to prevent a clean sweep on Sunday afternoon, for the first time in World Cup history the final four in rugby’s global tournament will come from south of the equator.
After a riveting weekend where eight teams were halved to four, here are five reflections from a thrilling weekend.
- Bashing ‘Boks
It took a spark of genius from one of the game’s quickest thinkers to pull South Africa over the line against an obdurate Welsh side on Saturday afternoon. With a player like Fourie du Preez pulling the strings from scrum-half the Springboks will always have a chance, but throughout the 80 minutes at Twickenham they were one dimensional and predictable in attack.
Against a Welsh side blighted by injuries, who lack an attacking threat of their own, one try was enough to compliment Handre Pollard’s penalties, but down the line that won’t suffice. Time and again South Africa carried the ball straight into the arms of the awaiting Welsh defence, offering nothing in the way of creativity of imagination.
South Africa have the best array of young, talented ball playing backs they’ve possibly ever had, but they failed to stretch the Welsh defence and create gaps to exploit due to their limited approach. Having lost to Japan on the first weekend, South Africa regrouped well during their pool and played some excellent rugby, and won their remaining fixtures comprehensively and in style. Having seen the expansive games played by all the other semi-finalists this weekend, the ‘Boks will need to widen their own playbook, and come out of their shell if they hope to proceed to the final.
- Pool Sharks
The All-Blacks have been in billiard halls for the last month, heading up to strangers looking for a game. They’ve been miscuing shots, asking for a refresher of the rules and potting the white like there was no tomorrow. Saturday night showed them up to be the hustlers they are. All it took was for some perceived hot shot to come up to them and offer them a pay for play game. They duly accepted. From the first minute to the 80th, New Zealand set aside their inaccuracies, their apparent rust and sluggishness from the pool stages to blow the French out of the water and make an incredible statement of power.
Dan Carter was at his imperious best at 10, Ma’a Nonu made ground at will outside him, Jerome Kaino was devastating in defence and Brodie Retallick was a whir of activity in the engine room. And that’s before mentioning the rampaging hat-trick hero Julian Savea on the left wing, and the dancing Nehe Milner-Skudder on the right. Whenever Nehe moves it seems like he’s in fast forward while the defence in front of him is stuck on pause. The 62-13 victory was the Kiwis’ most impressive showing of 2015 to date. If they reproduce this form over the next two weekends they’ll be nigh on unstoppable. Ominous.
- Pulsating Pumas
They’ve never been whipping boys, but Argentina have never been so good. Hardened by four years in the Rugby Championship, Los Pumas handed the best the Northern Hemisphere have to offer a real paddling in Cardiff. Argentina scored more points during the pool stages than any other nation at this World Cup, and wasted no time getting the ball into the hands of their dangerous wide men from the off on Sunday. They exploited Ireland’s tendency to defend narrowly and stretched the game from side to side picking offensive mismatches all across the field. Coupled with near total dominance at the break down, the Pumas had no shortage of ball as they raced into a 20-3 lead early doors.
Traditionally Argentina have tired when playing top nations, and when Ireland had a chance to level on the hour the plucky loser articles were being penned.
However, it was the Pumas who upped the ante and ran Ireland off their feet by outscoring them 20-0 in the final quarter. Ireland are at their best when leading and dictating the pace, but never had that chance in the Millennium Stadium. Argentina made 623 meters with ball in hand to Ireland’s 340. An indication of their intent is reflected in the fact that each of their back three ran for over 73 meters with ball in hand while only Irish substitute Luke Fitzgerald hit that figure.
- Withering Wallabies
Perhaps coming through the pool stages so thoroughly road-tested may not be the best way forward after all. Having impressed so many during their dominance in pool of death, Australia crept into the semi-final at the last second, by the bare minimum. In what was widely regarded as the most straightforward of all the quarters, Scotland pushed the second favourites for the tournament outright to the pin of their collar and beyond. Having conceded a mere 35 points in four pool games, the Aussies leaked 34 on Sunday alone, and but for a few moments of magic courtesy of their outside backs they would have been the sole Rugby Championship side not to make the last four.
With David Pocock missing through injury, Australia were a poor imitation of the side that have dominated the competition thus far. With the scrum reeling and Bernard Foley floundering at out half, it appeared the Wallabies were doing their best to avoid victory. Visibly lacking the spark and intensity they have shown to date during the World Cup, Australia did show great character to clinch the victory in the final minute, having struggled in all facets of his game Foley showed terrific composure to slot the game winning penalty. Victory achieved, but Australia have a lot of improving to do ahead of next weekend to prove this was a blip rather than the start of a decline.
- Kiwi Curse
In previous World Cups, New Zealand have entered tournaments as almost unbackable favourites, yet have been scuppered, or nearly scuppered, by freakish incidents (think pre final illness in ’95, the unpredictable French in ’99 and ’07 or even the out-half crisis in ’11).
The All-Blacks showed on Saturday they are in no mood to let anything derail their bid to become the first team to retain the William Webb Ellis trophy. However the ‘Kiwi Curse’ will not abate. This time though it is coaches of Kiwi extraction involved with other nations feeling the pinch. Both Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt will be wondering what mirror they broke, or what ladder the walked under in recent weeks. Both of their squads have been decimated with injury.
To reel off a list of players injured in the lead up to, and during this competition is akin to naming the front runners for a Lions team if they were touring next week. Combined, these two Celtic quarter finalists were deprived of 14 players, ten of which would be genuine first choice selections. Rugby is an highly attritional sport, no more so than when you are faced with a punishing schedule of such intense games in close proximity to each other, yet even at that, the severity of injuries picked up by the Welsh and Irish is more than bad luck.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena.