So it is under four weeks until Japan play Russia in Tokyo and the Rugby World Cup (RWC) 2019 gets underway. The final round of competitive matches have taken place, and the major nations have started their preparations.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the Rugby Championship has finished with South Africa being victorious and the Bledisloe Cup staying in New Zealand, while in the North, Wales have knocked New Zealand off the top spot of the World Rankings
The RWC wam up matches are really a phoney war (especially in the North), as the matches that are being played do not have the full competitive edge of Summer and Autumn tours. Many teams are playing experimental sides, looking at combinations that they would not normally try. With England, the only NH team that has announced their squad, there is still a lot of places up for grabs for the other nations.
Wales have bounced back from defeat at Twickenham to top the world rankings, and their big plus was the performance of Dan Biggar. He seemed to play without the shackles of being in Gareth Anscombe’s shadow in the test in Cardiff. I thought the chance of Wales to make a major impact at the RWC, would be based on Anscombe being fit. However, with him being ruled out, and it happening early in the preparation, it may be a blessing, as Biggar will be the foci for Wales and he has the experience to keep Wales on the right track.
However, I felt that England, while they made mistakes, were the equal of Wales and probably deserved to win. They rectified the mistakes last Saturday, and put in an almost complete performance in blowing Ireland away. Their big time players really put on a show, and if they remain fit they will be a major contender come Japan. Eddie Jones, is a shrewd customer and he will have been building for Japan, and that will have been his sole focus. He has adopted the Australian outlook, as no matter how poor Australia have been between World Cups, they always peak for the RWC year. Having said that Australia have not been as good during 2019!
What will be interesting will be Ireland’s response to their record defeat to England’s at Lansdowne Road this weekend. While this was only their second warm up game, it was the first hit out of their main players, as the match against Italy, was the proverbial pre-season training match. They have a lot to work to do, especially their set piece, ball retention and defensive line, which have all been their mainstays when they have had successful campaigns. These are rectifiable, but whether they will be able to do that in the next two matches will be key, as they start their Japan campaign with their ‘Big’ game against Scotland. The double header with Wales, should be a good guide for both teams as they fine tune their preparation.
As for Scotland! I really don’t know what to make of them. On their day, they can beat any team (with the exception of New Zealand), but they are not able to perform consistently, even within a game, let alone across a series of matches. Their old weaknesses were there to see in Nice, where France scored their tries without much effort. Many unforced errors and a game plan, that I am not sure the players knew what it was (or weren’t able to perform it). Scotland play like their coach Gregor Townsend played. A mercurial talent, that on his day was world class (Paris, 1995), but also capable of being the most frustrating player, ever to play for Scotland. The return match last weekend, in the first 30 minutes, Scotland were poor, but for the rest of the game, they showed what the team was capable of. While both French tries were from Scotland mistakes, they came about through Scotland trying to play Barbarians rugby so early in the game. When they started to play basic style (in the first few phases), they created the space to play a more expansive game, and then the errors were reduced. I feel Scotland have lost the hardness that Vern Cotter had instilled in them. I still am unsure why they got rid of Cotter midway through a RWC cycle, but that is for another blog.
Overall, England are best placed fro RWC, with Wales not far behind. Scotland and Ireland have loads of work to do, but as they are in the same group, they may have a bot of breathing space as long as hosts, Japan, don’t upset either of them.
There are three points that I have gleaned from the first three weeks of Pre RWC rugby!
- Have England made a mistake naming their squad so early, and only having two scrum halves! If one is off form or injured, they may struggle.
- What exactly is the laws regarding no arms! Ken Owens came into a ruck, no arms and cleared out! Thought that was a Yellow Card at least. Also, George Kruis making contact with the head (even though accidental) may be considered a Red. Eddie Jones mentioned tongue in cheek, that he felt that the referees may influence the RWC (inferring the Southern Hemisphere teams may get the benefit), but if the referees are not following the exact protocols for Red and Yellow cards, I fear he may be right.
- Why did England play Wales in a warm up series? It is not outwith the realms of possibility that they will meet in the QFs! The fact that they both won their home matches, negates this, but had either team won both, the decision to play in the warm up, may have appeared incorrect. At least Scotland and Ireland, are only playing teams they may potentially meet in the SFs
So its all to play for in the build up to September 20th in Tokyo.