Analysis: It may have been vanilla week for World Cup action, but there was still plenty to ponder after the second round of clashes. Scotty Stevenson breaks down his five key talking points.
1. South Africa are the experiment kings of this World Cup
South Africa has earned a reputation as a one-trick pony over the years (it’s a handy trick, mind you) but Rassie Erasmus and his merry band could never be accused of resting on their laurels. If the Romanian rout proved one thing, it is that this Springbok side will continue to try things most teams wouldn’t, and possibly couldn’t, even consider.
Halfback Faf de Klerk playing first-five? Check. Halfback Grant Williams on the wing? Check. How about 36-year-old World Cup debutant, Deon Fourie, switching from loose forward to hooker? Okay then.
It is hard to imagine any other side, quality of opposition notwithstanding, being so bold and so trusting of the entire squad. If there’s one thing the always unorthodox Erasmus brings to the party, it’s a puff of smoke and a rabbit in a hat. He was captain double bluff in the last World Cup and he is once again on the end of the marionette strings at this one, despite not being the ‘official’ head coach. Come on, we know he is, really.
After pulverising Scotland last week, South Africa romped to victory without breaking a sweat this morning, expressing themselves in three dimensions when the rugby world only sees them in two. Next week’s assignment against Ireland will be one to savour and, with a touch more at stake, will likely see them return to game plan A. Don’t be surprised, however, if there are a few more tricks up this Bok side’s collective sleeve.
2. England continue to confound the critics
They limped into France with all the backing of a Shetland pony in the Grand National, but this England team, packed with experience and galvanised by an incredible first up display against Argentina, are the masters of the grind.
Their dissection of Japan, a surgically prosaic performance, was further evidence of a team playing to its natural strengths. They kicked often, and not always brilliantly, but they dominated the gain line and the key territorial battles, and scored four tries to earn a vital bonus point. Samoa may beg to differ but, essentially, England’s toughest pool opponents are now behind them.
There are several keys to the England strategy that reflect coach Steve Borthwick’s bone deep knowledge of his players.
The first is a halves combination that expertly and adroitly plays the percentages. Mitchell and Ford are ideologically pre-disposed to put their pack on the front foot, but they keep the other elements of their games on ice until the right opportunity presents. The loose forward combination – today Ludlow, Lawes and Earl – have clearly defined roles and are therefore able to play to their strengths, and the midfield defensive set up is rarely misaligned.
Then there is Joe Marler’s mohawk try assist for Courtney Lawes, perhaps the most productive falcon in the history of the sport.
England should not be taken lightly by any team drawn to face them in a quarter-final showdown.
3. New Zealand’s bye week comes at the best possible time
A loss to France and an easy win against Nambia. It’s been a mixed bag for the New Zealanders but we’ve come to expect mixed bags from this team. Much has been said about the discipline issues that have plagued the side – four yellow and two red cards in the last three tests to sit alongside a poultice of penalties – but those issues can be resolved over the next fortnight with the team hopefully prepared for a psychological reset.
In rugby it is often noted that pressure creates points, but pressure also creates penalties. For the All Blacks, most of the ‘discipline’ issues stem from a desperation to win the collision and breakdown areas, something the side has long prided itself on. When that desperation gets in the way of clear thinking, the result is invariably a push too far through the margin of error.
It is no surprise to see this team in full search mode. If there is any constant to be found in this iteration of the All Blacks, it is the continual ad nauseum references to expectation and pressure. We are what we think, I suppose, but other teams feel expectation and pressure, too. They just don’t use those terms as catch phrase. The more the All Blacks talk about it, the more they seem to feel it.
Privately, one hopes the playing squad is embracing the experience of a World Cup, more than the expectation of a title. This next two weeks should be just as much a lesson in joie de vivre as it is a whiteboard session on the proper way to enter a ruck and an appropriate adjustment of tackle height.
4. Fiji can flip the script
Last week they did their level best to play enough rugby for both teams but came up short against Wales but it was a different story, and a different result, this morning against an Australia as the Flying Fijians beat the Wallabies for the first time since 1954.
Eddie Jones’ Australia is no great shakes as a test team, but the way the Fijians attacked the breakdown rattled and rolled them. If you think the All Blacks are the infringement kings of the World Cup, consider the 18 penalties conceded by the team in yellow today.
This was a much more measured performance from Fiji. Last week they produced a kick-pass ratio of 1:10, this week they dropped it to 1:4. That is more in line with the current success model in a close contest. They also focussed their attentions on the breakdown rather than the stadium show fans might have expected.
There are still underlying issues that will undo the Fijians if they are to make it through the pool stage. The scrum and lineout are still misfiring badly, and they conceded almost as many turnovers as the Australians. The difference here lay in what Fiji did with the turnover ball they won.
If anyone had picked this Fijian side to kick five penalties and score just one try then I doff my cap. That said, today’s result is further evidence of the hard-nosed attitude that head coach Simon Raiwalui is welding to the freedom of expression this team thrives on.
5. The best referee this weekend was a guy you’ve never heard of
Given the nature of most contests this week, the match officials have largely enjoyed a delightful break from the spotlight. But if we’re going to throw brickbats, allow me to chuck a bouquet the way of Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli.
Amashukeli took control of the England-Japan match and then let the game speak for itself. He was clear, concise, played exquisite scrum advantages and allowed the game to be decided by the players rather than the lawbook. It was a lesson in poise and game-feel.
There were two clear moments that demonstrated his grasp of the game. A first half scrum penalty to England was rescinded after it was noted that the Nice turf had rolled away like a carpet under the Japanese feet. Instead of the penalty the scrum was reset (I can barely recount another reset in the game). It was an empathetic and correct decision that others may not have made.
The second was the Courtney Lawes try, coming as it did from what appeared at first blush to be a double knock on from England props Will Stuart and Joe Marler. Lawes duly scored under the bar and immediately pointed to his head to let the referee know there was more to the play than met the eye. Amashukeli reacted like a pro. He immediately called for the TMO intervention and had the vision to call the play an on-field try.
This contest was not as lopsided as the final 34-12 scoreline would suggest and Amashukeli’s assignment was not a simple one. He passed it with flying colours and deserves other big clashes at this tournament.