A curmudgeon's Rugby World Cup diary: Week 14

1:31 pm on 29 October 2019

Opinion - Turned out to be quite a weekend at the Rugby World Cup.

2019 Rugby World Cup Semi-Final, International Stadium Yokohama, Yokohama, Japan 26/10/2019
England vs New Zealand
England's Maro Itoje tackles New Zealand's Anton Lienert-Brown

Man of the Match Maro Itoje tackles Anton Lienert-Brown during the Rugby World Cup semifinal. Photo: NPHO/James Crombie / www.photosport.nz

First England annihilate the All Blacks and then South Africa and Wales send the sport back to the stone age. Honestly, what an absolute bore that second semifinal was.

Missing the moral high ground already

New Zealand's 19-7 defeat to England will have various repercussions, not least that we Kiwis can no longer be the arbiters or what's good rugby or bad.

That Wales against South Africa match really was an appalling advertisement for rugby, made worse by the fact the Springboks could be so much better.

Wales' arsenal doesn't extend much beyond kicking and chasing, but South Africa have the players and talent to play an exciting 15-man game.

They showed that as recently as this year's Rugby Championship, when they went to Salta and thrashed Argentina 46-13, having already beaten Australia 35-17 in Johannesburg.

Yes, there was some kicking and, yes, there was still an emphasis on scrummaging and lineout driving, but there were also some thrilling tries scored.

South Africa's Handre Pollard scores the team's first penalty during the first half of the Semi-Finals in the 2019 Rugby World Cup Japan against Wales.

Sunday's semifinal between South Africa and Wales turned into a kicking contest. Photo: AFP

The team's 23-13 loss to New Zealand in world cup pool play represented an unexpected turn for the worse. Had South Africa opted to play that night, rather than just kick, then they might well have won.

But, hey, who are any of us to criticise them now.

The Springboks are in the final and the All Blacks aren't, meaning none of us are in much position to pour scorn on South Africa's methods.

Unlike England

None of us wanted New Zealand to lose to England.

There's always been a perception that the media welcome defeats. That they're an industry filled with small, bitter men, eager to see their betters brought down to size.

The truth is nothing beats covering a winning team. It means not having to write harsh things about people, always getting good quotes and good access because the blokes you cover are happy and successful.

Life's easy when teams win.

But this time the All Blacks lost and it was hard not to take a satisfaction in that. Not because they were beaten, but because of how England achieved victory.

They didn't just kick. It wasn't only rolling mauls and dropped goals. They played at pace and used the ball and, frankly, shocked the lot of us with their skill and intensity.

It was great to watch and no one with any degree of objectivity would say England didn't thoroughly deserve to qualify for the final.

Now you'd just like to see them do more of the same against the Springboks.

The All Blacks failed, just the same

There's no disgrace in losing. In a two-horse race, it's actually pretty hard to avoid.

What was so disappointing from a New Zealand perspective was how inept their attempts to counter England's defence were.

Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett and Jack Goodhue on the bench as the All Blacks lose to England.

Sam Whitelock watching on as his side gets beaten by England in the Rugby World Cup semifinal. Photo: Photosport

The All Blacks must've known what was coming. Ireland have enjoyed success against New Zealand in recent times, but you felt the seeds of England's semifinal win were sown during the British and Irish Lions series of 2017.

The Lions, as Ireland have in Test rugby and the Crusaders at Super level, were able to shut Beauden Barrett down. They hit him with linespeed and, once again, it felt as if he was unable to combat it.

Richie Mo'unga replaced Barrett at first five-eighth this year on the basis he was better against linespeed but, with Mo'unga ineffective against England, fullback Barrett became the primary playmaker again.

Trying to go around England didn't work and neither did kicking in behind them, leaving the All Blacks with no real avenue to attack.

That's not Barrett's failure, but one of coaching and selection. First, in terms of methods to counter England's tactics.

If New Zealand have settled on a workable strategy since 2017, it wasn't evident in this semifinal. England coach Eddie Jones said the win was the product of two years of planning. What have the All Blacks' coaches spent those two years doing?

The other issue was personnel. Ngani Laumape isn't at this world cup because his talk isn't good enough, according to All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

Barrett, we're told, has struggled to combat linespeed at the Hurricanes, because Laumape hasn't given him a good enough steer from second five-eighth.

Fair enough. Only Ryan Crotty's said to be the best of the second-fives in terms of communication and, while he is in Japan, he wasn't in New Zealand's 23.

This is the same Crotty whose talk at the Crusaders helped elevate Mo'unga above Barrett in the playmaking pecking order.

As England's defence continued to drive the All Blacks backwards, you couldn't help thinking Barrett and Mo'unga hadn't been given much opportunity to succeed by their coaches.

New Zealand's Ryan Crotty with Richie Mo'unga after their 23-13 victory at theRugby World Cup.

Hamish Bidwell has questioned why Ryan Crotty didn't feature in the semifinal. Photo: PhotoSport

The future

There's no such thing as unanimous approval anymore. No matter who ends up replacing Hansen as head coach, there will inevitably be people who are unhappy.

In some ways it doesn't matter. It would be nice if the new boss had a bit of charisma and could connect with the public but, ultimately, the successful candidate will still pick from a player pool that's always going to win about 80 percent of their Test matches.

Grassroots rugby might be struggling in New Zealand but, at the high performance end, there's still a wealth of playing and coaching talent.

While the current pathway continues to exist, the All Blacks will always be strong regardless of who the head coach is.

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