Sports Writer, Sam Bryan comments on the the current status of each remaining team of the Rugby World Cup as the competition enters the knock-out stages.
The pool stages of this year’s Rugby World Cup have been nothing short of fantastic to watch. The last three weeks have produced some of the most iconic moments in the sports recent history, from France’s almost one hundred point dominance of Namibia, Henry Arundel’s five tries against Chilli, Ireland beating South Africa, Eddie Jones’ disastrous take over of Australia and the shock injury of star player Antoine Dupont. The tournament is hotly contested from all pools so it is difficult to analyse the strengths of the leading teams but let me walk though what we already know.
As mentioned in my previous article, France really are the team to watch at the moment. Home advantage, fantastic coaching from Fabien Galithe and some of the finest on field talent seen since the 2015 All Blacks have set Les Bleus up to dominate their pool. A historic 96 point massacre against Namibia really showed the world who the French are. Unrelenting, hungry players with only one goal in mind, to win. Beating historic powerhouses New Zealand 27-12 and Uruguay 27-13 France are set to easily come up on top of their pool and breeze through to the quarterfinals. The only thing standing in their way is a well balanced and determined Italy, who beat Uruguay by a greater margin (38-17) and also beat Namibia.
France’s greatest challenge this tournament has been the injury of star player and skipper of the team Antoine Dupont. Dupont received an unlucky head contact with Namibia captain Johan Deyezel in a high tackle which left him with a fractured jaw. Deyezel has been handed a somewhat hefy ban of six games for head to head contact, quite possibly because he dared touch the golden boy of rugby and has received copious hate online for his actions. The so-called ‘Dupont Tax’ was justified because of his injury, however the recklessness and the fact Dupont was in a vulnerable position after passing have also affected the decision.
Dupont’s injury spells trouble for France, he has been a key playmaker for the team and the glue between the forwards and backs, a key stone of sorts for the arch of the French attack. While France has undeniable talent as a whole and very competent replacements, it begs the question of how well they really would’ve done without Dupont and how far they will go until he recovers. A fracture typically takes 3-6 weeks to heal depending on the severity which leaves time for the finals, however will France even go that far? There is some hope however as he went into surgery the day after the match, and has made a gradual (non contact) return to training this week.
In Lille, England have been enjoying a relatively comfortable ride in pool D. Unlike the warzone which is Pool B (featuring Scotland, South Africa and Ireland), England have cruised to a qualifying spot after beating Chilli 71-0, Argentina 27-10 and Japan 34-12. George Ford’s beautiful right foot slotted three drop goals against the Pumas, beating their biggest threat right off the bat. Henry Arundel scored a legendary five tries against Chilli, solidifying his status in the squad and breaking a personal record for most tries in a game.
It was however against the worst team in the tournament and watching the game in person, at least four of his tries could’ve been achieved by any competent premiership winger (bar the brilliant chip and chase) as he kind of stood out wide and let Marcus Smith create the space for him. The score also speaks volumes about what England may have to face in the quarters and semis, against the worst team in the tournament England had a slow start and could ‘only’ put up 70 odd points. Not even coming within 20 points of France-Namibia and less than Ireland-Romania’s score of 82-8, the pastings of tier two nations can be indicative of how teams will perform in the quarters and semis. If England are struggling in the first 15 against Chilli (I’m not just bashing on Chilli by the way it’s just a good example for my point) they’re going to have a much harder time against top 5 nations who could crush similar sides.
The game of the tournament so far has to go to Ireland against South Africa, the world number one team against the defending champions. It was a true clash of the titans, and much to the delight of my Irish friends, Ireland came out on top with a historic victory of 13-8, setting themselves up for the rest of the tournament as a team to watch. But is this the end for South Africa? Historically speaking losing in the pool stages does not mean defeat, the Boks lost to New Zealand 23-13 in 2019 and still won the tournament, meaning there is still a significant chance of them winning. However, amidst the crowds rendition of ‘Zombie’ by the Cranberries I could see this game meant everything to SA. I have a strong feeling that even though they are top of their group, the momentum has just been lost by such a defeat. The Boks have however managed to pull themselves back against tonga, beating them 49-18 which is a silver lining for the last month of play. In contrast Ireland seem to be in fantastic form, a smooth and well designed attacking strategy headed by their greatest all time points scorer may be the most terrifying in the world right now. But will they break their quarter final curse and actually advance into the main stages of the tournament? I simply couldn’t say to be honest, only time will tell.
Eddie Jones, much to my delight, is struggling. Those of you who read my previous article will remember my analysis of his grand strategy and gameplans and how I’m not very confident in his ability to whip the Wallabies into shape. Well I was right. Australia have struggled to make even the slightest impact in their pool, embarrassingly losing to both Wales and Fiji within two weeks and only beating Georgia at the time of writing. Jones’ teams just don’t seem to be working well together, maybe it’s the fact they are all exhausted by Jones outrageously voluminous workout routines or just are not impressed by his leadership. Regardless Australia are in the same position England was in 2015, broken, tired, and ready to move on to a new leadership structure. Jones however is remaining hopeful, stating ‘The results have not been great guys (referring to the conference room), I understand that, but they are a good bunch of young players and I think we have the best players in each position here…We’ve trained really well but we’re not getting the results, sometimes the scoreboard is the last thing to change.’ Australia are still in a position to advance to the quarter finals, however at the time of writing two other nations in their pool are yet to play their final games which could knock them out of contention.