19 Sep 2011

Rugby World Cup 2011: what lessons so far?

At half-way through the pool stages of this competion now under way in New Zealand, what conclusions can we draw as to the next major stage, which will be the qualifications for the quarter-finals after two more pool games for each side? For those who do not follow the competition, you should know that from 4 pools, each containing 5 national teams, the top two teams from each pool will go through to a knock-out competition with quarter and semi-finals before the final. In the pool stage, 4 points are awarded for a win, and 2 for a draw. In addition, a team can earn bonus points in the following situations: 1 point attacking bonus by scoring 4 or more tries, and 1 point defensive bonus by not losing by more than 7 points.  



Before the competition started on September 9th, I had said that the favourites were New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and France, and that the 4 semi-finalists should come from these 5 teams. I made no predictions as to the other 3 quarter-finalists, although Argentina, Wales and Ireland had to be the most likely candidates. Let's look at the situation now.


In Pool A, New Zealand, the favourites to win in this competition played on their soil, made a clear demonstration of their rugby skills in beating Japan 83-7 in their second game. They were very impressive and remain clear favourites, although they have yet to be seen against any strong opposition, having defeated Tonga 41-10 in the opening game. They will play France, who lie at 2nd place in the same pool, next weekend and that should be an interesting game for both sides, as France has, in the past, defeated New Zealand on several occasions (and also taken a few hammerings). The French game has not been too impressive so far.


France struggled to beat Japan, although they dd manage 4 tries in the game, and only defeated Canada this weekend by a clear margin (46-19) when the Canadians tired in the last 15 minutes, having had 4 days less than the French to recover from theur previous match. It is possible that France will not, tactically speaking, want to win the pool game against New Zealand in order to find less arduous opposition in the quarter-finals. This is only an option because their opposition (not yet fully determined) would normally be England if France comes second in Pool A and England 1st in Pool B, as they will probably prefer to play their historical rivals in the Northern Hemisphere than one of the Southern Hemisphere teams that they would meet if they win their pool. So I think that we can safely bet on New Zealand and France qualifying froom Pool A, in that order. The France vs New Zealand pool game will be interesting to measure the relative levels of the 2 teams.


Martin Johnson, the English manager (see above), cannot be fully pleased with his team's first two games, although they are just top of Pool B, having won both of them. They had a close game against Argentina and struggled for a while against some ferocious Georgian opposition before scoring 6 tries in their 41-10 win this weekend. In fact Johnson has described this performance as "sloppy". Second in the pool is Scotland, although I will still take Argentina as the future second team to qualify from this pool, behind England. Scotland would create a surprise if they beat the South American team.


Chris Ashton's 1st try against Georgia in the game at Dunedin. I expect that Johnson has given up trying to stop him pretending to be a bird


In Pool C we have had the only true surprise from the major teams so far, with Ireland defeating Australia 15-6. (see below) The Irish perfectly blocked the very creative Australian back line and deprived them of space and the ball to win a tight game by their precision and determination. It was effective if not spectacular. Ireland and Australia should both qualify from this pool, but, with Ireland probably coming first, this will re-distribute the cards for the final stages and maybe allow teams from Europe into both semi-finals. The Australians, initially favourites to reach the final against New Zealand, have so far failed to put their best game in place. Their scrum is still as bad as it has been for some time, and we have yet to see their beautifully fluid and fast game for more than 30 minutes in their first 2 games.




Pool D is clearly dominated by the current world champions, South Africa. After a very close call against Wales in their opening game, they looked very impressive against Fiji in their 49-3 win on Friday. Apart from the blacks (New Zealand), this was the most fluid and convicing rugby that I have seen so far in this competition (and I am NOT a Springbok supporter!). In fact I cannot remember ever seeing the Boks play such attractive and practically faultless rugby. Fiji are not a bad team and this game was impressive in the control that South Africa showed in all departments of the game. They should go far in this competition if they can play like this regularly. Wales should get through in second place, but this is the closest of all 4 pools so far, and either Samoa or Fiji could create a surprise.


Apart from the so far disappointing performances of the Australians, the main lesson so far for me has been the improvement in the level of rugby played by the less favoured teams. Georgia, Canada, Fiji and Japan, for example, have all performed way above their levels of 4 years ago. You only have to look at the score differentials between them and the major nations on each of these 2 occasions to see that. The gap is closing, and that can only be a good thing for the future of rugby as an international sport.