Another weekend, another round of thought-provoking rugby. Some have said that we saw the best and worst of the World Cup, with Ireland’s stirring win over Australia counterbalancing England’s performance against Georgia. Whilst I agree with the first part, however, I am not at all convinced by the latter.
What is certain is that Ireland have provided an excellent blueprint for beating Southern Hemisphere sides in the World Cup. Australia were most people’s pick as New Zealand’s opponents in the final, as the TriNations finale saw them combine their usual attacking flair with a new-found physicality. As so often in the past, however, one good performance from Australia’s forwards hath not a good pack made. Ireland bullied the Wallabies up front, especially in the scrum, and questions will again be asked about their front row and ability at the breakdown in the absence of the preeminent David Pocock.
The really encouraging thing for other Northern Hemisphere sides is that Ireland were not brilliant. They blew several good try-scoring opportunities, Sexton was poor with the boot and their outside backs failed to find or create space. The one thing that they got absolutely right, however, was their defence. Much like England in 2007, Ireland recognised the threat of the Wallaby backline and worked overtime on stifling it, creating a blanket of green which enveloped any attacks. As long as this defensive system was working, they were always confident that they could manage Australia’s forwards and drag the Southern Hemisphere side into a kicking contest, which could only be to Ireland’s advantage. The Australian pack did not manage to create momentum (always a hard ask against a pack which contains Sean O’Brien, Paul O’Connell, Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris) and Cooper was reduced to trying trick passes as he strived for an opening. When one of these went straight to Tommy Bowe, wasting the last meaningful field position that Australia gained, it was not a lucky escape, but a testament to the suffocating nature of the Irish defensive game.
There is an extent to which we should be cautious about saying that this game plan will beat any Sourthern Hemisphere side. Australia are particularly vulnerable to it, because their forwards don’t make a lot of yards with their carrying and because they lack a rock solid goalkicker. New Zealand are more muscular and have Dan Carter to punish any transgressions, and South Africa would relish a blood-and-guts battle of ten man rugby (indeed, the carrying of inside centre Frans Steyn against Fiji probably surpassed that of Australia’s front five). I do think, though, that the Southern Hemisphere sides are less comfortable in tight games. Their much-vaunted attacking rugby thrives in the Super 15, where some of the tackling is laughably poor, and in the TriNations, where two sides will come out fully expecting to score four tries each. If a side comes out looking to kick their way to victory, however, even New Zealand’s game seems to suffer, as was shown in the Investec International against England last autumn. This could be why the mercurial Welsh have such a poor record against the antipodes, where England in particular have had more success.
Which brings us to England, who supposedly delivered another performance of stultifying ineptitude. Now it’s worth noting that I haven’t seen the whole game, because ITV Player was only able to deliver 16 minutes of poor quality footage before looping me back to the beginning again (if anyone from ITV is reading this – I tried two laptops and three browsers, so it’s not me, it’s you. Sort it out, it’s a worldwide spectacle, and you had sufficient warning in the 2010 football World Cup, which you also butchered). However, I have managed to track down the tries and I think a sense of perspective is needed.
England were, as the coaches and players have recognised, not as fluent as they would have liked. They also continue to give away penalties like they’re on special offer, which will seriously hurt them later in the tournament if it is not rectified. On the other hand, just about every learned commentator has spent the whole World Cup stating that the days of cannon-fodder minnows are over. Even Pieter de Villiers has noticed it, a man for whom common sense and clarity of thought are as rare as a Mike Tindall sidestep. Anyone who was expecting another 80-point drubbing, therefore, was already in the wrong ball park.
Georgia, in fact, were initially very good. They had easily the best half of World Cup rugby in their history, with their outstanding physicality and England’s indiscipline keeping them more than in touch. As the game wore on, England’s greater skill levels and superior conditioning saw them gain the upper-hand, and they ended up scoring six tries. Both sides should really be satisfied, especially given that the Scots failed even to cross the try-line against the same outfit just four days earlier.
So yes, England will want to improve and, yes, their indiscipline is a serious problem. But you still wouldn’t bet against them in the latter stages – especially if they can emulate Ireland’s inspirational example.