The two World Rugby Executives next to me could not suppress a smile as Japan scored the winning try against the Springboks. It was not so much because they were supporters of the Cherry Blossom and Whites, but more because they knew that rugby fever would hit that country as a result. Gone are the ticketing challenges for the next World Cup, bring on rugby as a National sport!
As can only happen in Japan, a major critic of Eddie Jones selection policy of picking too many overseas players actually appeared on national TV to apologise formally and offer his wholehearted support. In addition, one of those smiling Executives was Scottish, whose grin soon turned to nervousness as he realised that they were next in line.
Who knows what awaits Scotland at Kingsholm this afternoon. As a Bath player I knew exactly what to expect from the Cherry and Whites, and it generally hurt. Japan conversely have only one way to play due to their size, and mighty impressive it is too. They showed that the bash smash approach can be countered, and reminded rugby fans around the world that great running lines and swift ball transfer can beat the best teams, and indeed is the secret to big wins -ask Australia and especially the All Blacks ( dare I mention England V France in this years’ Six Nations?). Japan of course are not the underdogs, because they now sit above Scotland in the world rankings! But can they reproduce this performance only four days later against a fresh Scottish team, who also know how to run the ball. Glasgow’s back line was a revelation last year, and forms the nucleus of Scotland’s attacking play. In what has become a mini pool of death, I take Scotland to win this match because they know exactly what to expect and have two ways of playing. However they will have to be at the top of their game and in the last couple of years they have promised plenty but delivered little…now is the time, no excuses.
Let us celebrate nonetheless how Japan have lit up the tournament with their style as well as the result. Let us also not forget the Georgian win over Tonga, galvanised by the giant that is Mamuka Gorgodze, their dream of two wins looks likely with Namibia in the group.
As for the Springboks, two bonus points means that they can recover from this, but we were all shocked by their lack of confidence and snap. They looked a very old team in places, which they are and all this talk of needing many hundreds of caps to win a World Cup looks misplaced. Well informed sources tell of a rumble of discontent within the camp, and in a tournament of fine margins there is a race against time. Shades of England in 2007 who took control of their own destiny after a thumping by SA in the first match, and scraped their way to the Final. A player led reboot can only happen if they have the required fitness and hunger, which looked in short supply down in Brighton. Their pre tournament form was indeed an indicator then, but I would still like to see them in the final stages. A strong South Africa can only be a positive for the competition.
Before I come to England, a word on the best match so far. Argentina played out of their Puma skins against the newly branded All Blacks with the Arrowhead Haka – highly impressive. In front of a full house at Wembley – wow- they would have beaten any other side in the RWC quite comfortably with the exception of Australia (who we haven’t seen yet!). Their defence was aggressive, and they looked menacing with the ball in hand, both forwards and backs. Inducing two yellow cards from the World Champions was a feat in itself, and yet all this was nowhere near enough. Two dropped balls just before the try line and at least one other gilt edged chance would have seen the All Blacks into the 40’s if not more as they turned up the heat, irresistibly. Journalists who thought that they looked ‘beatable’ must have been wearing rose-tinted spectacles.
And so, the inevitable has happened in England’s midfield. 4 years of experiment has resulted in an unashamed power play. Stop for a second, this was always likely to happen once Burgess was selected for the squad and in case of injury, this time Joseph who’s rumoured to be doubtful for Australia too. As I indicated in my previous blog, England will employ short range power plays around their robust but one paced back row, and create smash and grab raids for the back three, who are in the form of their lives. This is their strategy for the tournament now in my opinion and has been in the offing for a while. Lancaster likes to drop hints, and it’s Andy Farrells dreamworld. Will it be enough for Wales and if it is, can we go on to win the bigger games down the line?
England’s plan then will be to out power Wales at every level, delivering a scrum and line out performance which is long overdue, squeezing penalties and a couple of tries from planned short side plays involving our speedy and talented back three. Mike Brown was sensational against Fiji- thankfully, because there was little else to sing about but in World Cups you simply avoid banana skins. Ask South Africa!
Putting myself in the shoes of the Welsh coaching team, they will be desperate to isolate Burgess in defence who most centres would love to play against as his blitz approach can be unravelled so easily. Mind you, I wouldn’t be thanking my inside backs for lining me up because if he gets in a big hit its lethal and breathtaking! Centres of my era also dealt in self preservation at times, whereas Jamie Roberts plays big in every way. We are about to see whether he is still the real deal because this England selection is a direct challenge to him personally. He and George North have the physicality to match, the rest of the Welsh backs are quick of hand and light on their feet. Meantime Alex Cuthbert has some real form issues. On balance then, I think that England has taken the view that the Welsh backs can be outmuscled.
Fascinating stuff – take shelter in the comfort of the stands and watch on. I think England will be too strong for Wales on the day, particularly if the crowd come alive, which they will. Further than that, who knows although let’s not be naive to think it’s the last we see of Ford and Joseph…class is permanent.
Meantime, roll on Kingsholm for some World Cup romance.