Here we are then, the knockouts. Three-and-a-half weeks of rugby later and 20 has become eight. The pool stages provided great spectacle, as much off the pitch as on it. Ireland have experienced an upset; the Scots have got upset and England haven’t quite got going, yet. So, with all that said, here are the five takeaways from the pool stages.

Japan have been the consummate hosts

 It’d been a tough week for Japan. Anger amongst players and fans who’d had games called off coupled with frustration at the quality of some of the playing surfaces. It was the first time Japan had faced any real scrutiny as host nation. A tough week that is, until Sunday’s scintillating performance against Scotland. It combined everything the rugby world loves about a nation that’s new to the sport but has taken to it like a duck to water. Passion, confidence, desire and heart; the Scots were blown away within the first forty minutes. It’s not only fitting but deserved that they’ve reached the quarter-finals, and the cherry blossoms know they’ll have the rest of the world cheering for them when they run out against the Springboks on Sunday.

Tackling changes are going to take some getting used to, but are worth it

 It caused contention, it caused frustration, it caused more red cards than any other World Cup has seen; but the changes to tackling implemented by World Rugby four months prior to the World Cup have sent the right message to players at all levels of the game. Players now know they have no leeway for dangerous tackles regardless of intent and, whilst this will take some getting used to as techniques change, it will ultimately make the game safer for all.

The best is yet to come for England

 Maybe I was a bit harsh when I said England were unconvincing but effective. I mean you’d rather that than looking great but losing games, and England remain unbeaten World Cup. The game against France would have been a nice test against a more established rugby-playing nation, but that postponement was out of anyone’s control. Now, they look to Australia, who themselves have looked rusty at the best-of-times and pretty poor at the worst. If England play like we all know they can, then they could go a long way in this competition. If not, and the occasion or the rivalry get the better of them, then this side with heaps of talent will crash out without ever having really shown what they’re capable of. Fingers crossed for the former.

The jury’s still out on the Northern/Southern Hemisphere divide

 After the wilderness years at the start of the decade and up to the 2015 World Cup in England, the Northern Hemisphere teams have been building in confidence and quality whilst the big three in the Southern Hemisphere (South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) have somewhat taken their foot off the pedal. This was most clearly exemplified by Ireland’s win over the seemingly indomitable All Blacks in last year’s Autumn Internationals. However, so far in this World Cup we are yet to see a big inter-hemispheric clash, so it’s been hard to gage where the teams stand in comparison to each other. Who knows…? It could very well be the case that after the quarters Wales are the only Northern Hemisphere team in the competition, and only because they’re playing France.

New Zealand remain the ones to beat

 Doing a three-peat of anything is hard. First time comes the novelty, second comes the confirmation of your dominance, but a third… how do you maintain the drive and the heart? I’ve only ever three-peated one thing in my life – Breaking Bad, whilst that remains a cause of pride on my part it’s not quite the rugby World Cup. This would be New Zealand’s achievement if they successfully retain the World Cup on the second of November. They’ve looked dominant so far this tournament scoring 157 points in three games, conceding only 22. It will take a lot for any team to beat them, however, one final thing we should learn from the pool stages is that you’d be a fool to follow the script.

 

 By Will Sewell.

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