Write off teams at your peril. New Zealand’s decline has blatantly been overstated, and with resounding, if hard fought, wins for Ireland and Wales too, it seems they too look set to prove World Cup warm up games really are a poor indicator of form. In spite of all three sides having the world number one status at some point this year, none have been totally convincing, but despite the crows circling all three pulled decisive victories out of the bag.
New Zealand in particular, although dominated for the first twenty minutes looked as brutally efficient and incisive as a scalpel ball in hand. Their quickfire two tries in the first half demonstrated all that is good about this All Blacks side: a fit, intelligent and technically excellent forward pack adept at operating in the five metre tramlines, devastating pace in the back division, and a seemingly unflappable collective ability to select the right option under pressure, whether it be run, kick or pass. Their discipline and accuracy were also a cut above other teams.
Tonga, having been utterly embarrassed by the All Blacks earlier this month also proved how transformative time in camp can be; their performance against England was far more competitive and coherent.
That in mind, South Africa will not be derailed by defeat. Lesser sides than the Springboks would have folded after receiving such a sucker punch from the All Blacks. The two tries they conceded in quick succession are the kind of winding, against the run of play scores the All Blacks specialise in. Kolesi’s men though, inspired by the hardnosed persistence of Pieter-Steph Du Toit and electric footwork (and seemingly boundless energy) of Cheslin Kolbe, fought back admirably. Though unable to complete the comeback, the Springboks demonstrated in the first twenty minutes of both halves exactly what it is so many commentators love about them.
In a game of fine margins (Pollard’s missed kick immediately before the first All Blacks try, Willie Le Roux poor pass to Kolbe when racing through) it could have easily gone the other way. The Springboks will rue those missed opportunities but will still be targeting a reunion with the All Blacks in the final; betting against them becoming the first side to lose a pool game and win the tournament, breaking the world cup year super rugby curse in the process, would not be wise. The South Africans are likely to have an easier route through the knockouts should they finish second in the pool anyway.
Both France and Argentina will pose a genuine threat to a bruised England. After a gruelling win against Tonga, in which the bonus point try came late and only as a result of Jonathan Joseph’s brilliance, England will look eminently beatable to France and Argentina. That’s not a prediction, to clarify, but it is definitely a possibility. Both France and Argentina looked excellent in parts of their clash on Saturday (the game of the weekend in the view of this writer) and if England have an off day, they’re both well capable of beating Eddie Jones’ men. They were also though, quite predictably maddening, infuriating and error strewn in other periods of the match too.
France’s centre partnership in particular looked dangerous, with Fickou’s well balanced guile and Vakatawa’s raw, unpredictable ability working well in tandem. For their part, Argentina set about the game as if possessed by a burning desire to prove commentators who had questioned the quality of their pack were misinformed. Their scrum functioned well and their forwards, driven on by their fearsome partnership at lock, nearly dragged them to victory. Argentinian fans, along with Fijians, are perhaps those on the losing side with most to be optimistic about.
It is impossible to judge Japan yet. Despite a series of convincing wins this year, Japan started the game against Russia sluggishly and clearly ridden with nerves. Despite going on to play some of the fluid, attacking rugby we have become accustomed to them delivering, it remained a match in which Japan failed to find their accuracy and composure. Their next match up, against Ireland, will give us a far better understanding of where they’re at, although beating Scotland seems a more realistic target.
Written by Joe Ronan