And so the 2015 Rugby World Cup has begun. Given the recent near blanket back-page coverage – someone within the heart of World Rugby and the RFU’s 2015 World Cup organising committee must either be thanking their lucky stars or else receiving due tribute and congratulations for the excellence of their PR campaign – regular Rusters will hopefully forgive me for opting to avoid blow-by-blow reviews of daily developments.
Instead I propose to spend the duration limiting myself to occasional observations upon results, influences and issues that have come to mind.
With domestic duties prevailing last Friday night, as they always must, I caught only snatches of the tournament’s opening ceremony on television whilst I was preparing a family meal.
Generally-speaking the host nations of FIFA World Cups and summer Olympics (for my sins I don’t recall ever watching an example of the winter version) tend to feel that they must spend about 40% of their budget seeking to make a suitably-impressive impact upon the watching global billions lest otherwise their place in history be consigned to a footnote in comparison with their predecessor, and perhaps more extravagant, peers.
In this respect the first thing they got right was to limit the ‘production’ to (by my watch) 37 minutes, instead of say something approaching three times that.
The second plus with Friday’s 2015 RWC opening ceremony was a direct consequence. If you’re going for ‘brief’ … and can manage to make it sufficiently intense and spectacular … you tend not only hold the audience’s attention but render the lasting impression greater.
The third thing that someone got right was to stick to a relatively simply narrative, tick all the right boxes (viz. choose general participators as diverse and inclusive as possible, sprinkle stardust in the form of bringing out some former ‘greats’ and/or celebrities, add in some spectacular pyrotechnics – but not too many – and, if you can, field a minor member of the British royalty) and keep things moving.
The overall impression was pretty positive.
In particular, hats off to the newly-bearded Prince Harry. How much of a hand he personally had in writing his short speech I know not, but for me it scored a near bulls-eye. In particular, the ruse of mentioning a couple of immortal RWC moments (Nelson Mandela handing Francois Pienaar the William Webb Ellis trophy in 1995 and ‘a certain drop goal in 2003’) almost in passing had the twin effects of avoiding cliché and yet simultaneously ‘registering’ them with the onlookers and underscoring rugby union’s camaraderie and team-driven humility.
Finally, his sign off words (“… We’re ready. Game on …!”) set the best possible tone.
As for the opening match of the tournament (result England 35 – Fiji 11), it demonstrated a little of what we may expect over the next six weeks, i.e. that in this day and age – commendably – the sometimes slow and reluctant strategy of World Rugby to ‘spread the jam’ to developing nations is finally paying off in that there are far fewer patsy fall guys who will roll over to the extent of 50-plus points per game at a Rugby World Cup.
Without doubt nerves, adrenalin and the rain showers affected the game, causing handling errors and occasional inelegant confusion.
I was slightly embarrassed that the 82,000 crowd managed to virtually drown out the Fijian version of the ‘haka’ – in my view, if as an organiser you’re going to allow teams to perform these moments of theatre [and whether they should or not is no doubt a moot point for another occasion] then you should at least respect them. In this particular case they should have arranged sufficient microphones and amplifiers for the ‘war cry’ to at least be heard, irrespective of whether the crowd at the ground is overwhelming it.
Concentrating upon England’s performance for a spell, it was a bit of a curate’s egg. It does not bode at all well that the much-vaunted Red Rose pack was regularly discomforted by the Fijians at scrum-time.
There was little midfield penetration until the game broke up in the second half as players began to tire and Sam Burgess came on as an impact sub.
My biggest concern is – and has always been, if readers can recall my previous columns – England’s performance at the breakdown.
On Friday night I cannot recall the exact number, but Fiji’s accredited turnovers total was about three times that of England’s. The Pacific Islanders slowed things up, they nicked the ball and they generally messed up proceedings. Good for them – it shows that they’ve been learning fast and hard from their Southern Hemisphere coaches.
But it highlights a recurring England weakness. Nowhere in its 31-man squad does England have an out-and-out groundhog pest at 7 (the openside flanker position). Captain Chris Robshaw is many things but, even if he wears the number on his back, he is not a 7. You need only wait until the Kiwis and Aussies play their first games to see what I’m talking about.
From yesterday’s games – Tonga v Georgia, Ireland v Canada, South Africa v Japan and France v Italy – all of which I watched to some degree, we were privileged to see two major upsets – both, as mentioned above, courtesy of development money shelled out by World Rugby.
This sort of thing warms the cockles of the heart. Tonga must have been expecting to run Georgia off their feet and indeed bullock through them. It was never going to happen. Next after Argentina – a recurring producer of large, teak-tough front rows who ply their trade around the world – the size and uncompromising nature of Georgia’s menfolk is legendary. In the last decade and a half they have gained much by being schooled by top First Tier nation coaches and the pay-off was evident at Kingsholm yesterday.
The Georgian ‘hits’ all over the park suffered nothing in comparison with their opponents’. Furthermore their skill-sets, ability to think on their feet and willingness to switch strategies were superior on the day and they thoroughly deserved their 17-10 win. The significance of their achievement was there to be seen in the celebrations of their players and supporters – never mind how the news was being received back home, in wherever Georgia is.
Which brings me to South Africa versus Japan at the Brighton Community Stadium, which I must confess I only joined via television at half-time, when the pundits were marvelling at the slender nature of the Saffers’ 12-10 lead.
The second half was one of the most extraordinary rugby slices I have ever witnessed – on several occasions, marvelling at the determination, commitment, skills and sheer verve of the underdogs in the face of the gargantuan South Africans, I found my eyes moistening and bottom lip quivering with emotion and disbelief as they took the kind of onslaught on the chin that would have downed Rocky Marciano, let alone a mule, and then gave it back and more.
The one thing you’ve been able to say about the Japs is their spirit – eternally epitomised by their legendary former player/coach/manager/administrator Shogo Mukai who bought bigtime into all rugby’s myths, camaraderie and culture – is eternally never-say-die.
He – and the Japanese nation generally – never had any truck at all with those offering sympathy for their natural lack of physical size. They relied upon speed, verve and skill and they never let their heads drop, even when being thrashed by Top Tier nations by anything up to three figure margins.
These days, of course, the issue is partly circumvented by the short nature of qualification periods for ‘naturalisation’ in terms of qualifying to play international rugby, with ex-Pacific Islanders and Southern Hemisphere ‘cast offs’ often finding second careers in the land of the Rising Sun. This influx has not changed the Japanese approach one jot, as South Africa found out to their cost yesterday.
For them to turn down three opportunities to kick penalties for a draw in the dying minutes … and go for the win instead by kicking for the corner and/or a scrum five metres out … and then achieve the impossible some four minutes into over-time, was truly astounding.
What a feat! What an upset! What a way to get a World Cup tournament started!
I tried and failed to speak to my fellow Rust columnist Ivan Conway last night in order to celebrate the event. I knew that he had bought tickets to the game, largely on sufferance because it was a supposedly ‘must do’ one-off for many living on the south coast.
Ivan is an out-and-out soccer man who frequently joshes me with jibes about rugby’s ‘muddied oafs’ and/or ‘hooligans playing a game for hooligans’. I am keen to discover his reaction to yesterday’s match and indeed of anyone else who may be coming to the oval ball game for the first time.
What I can say on this score is that – in terms of effort, courage, fortitude, skill, determination and physicality – nobody who watched Japan’s victory over South Africa could doubt that rugby players give their all every time they venture onto the pitch. In this sport there is no hiding place for any individual player. Furthermore, without doubt it is patently self-evident that in rugby success or failure can depend as much upon collective team spirit as it can upon talent and advance off-pitch preparation.
Lastly, a word upon the controversy surrounding the use of the TMO or video referee. There has been many views expressed, not least about the referee’s responsibility to make decision and not ‘pass the buck upstairs’, and a fair amount of heat generated.
For what it’s worth, the only aspect with which I have some sympathy is the speed at which decisions are reached – or rather perhaps I should say ‘the lack of speed’.
I’m fully behind the concept that if the video technology is sufficiently advanced then it should be used. In this regard I cite in evidence the large proportion of decisions, even already at this 2105 Rugby World Cup, which have been ‘corrected’ and/or confirmed by this method.
However I agree that far too much time is being taken up by referees consulting ‘upstairs’ and/or the fourth official in the video truck calling up the referee, out of the blue, to stop play and go back to spend several minutes reviewing some off-the-ball incident, forward pass or off-side which may have been committed.
My short-term improvement – if anyone within the tournament’s administration is reading – would be firstly, to stop video technology being used to review incidents in the ongoing game. These should be left to the referee and his linesmen – as they always were in the days of yore. By all means, a video referee perhaps can and should review the entire game afterwards and, if there are serious offences committed that the referees on the day did not pick up, then let the offenders be cited and punished as necessary if they are ‘convicted’.
Secondly, again just for the duration of the tournament, I would order referees to blow their whistle and ‘go upstairs every time a try may have been scored, with the implied query attached “Firstly, has a try been properly scored and secondly, if so, is there any reason why it should be disallowed?” The video referee would then review the touchdown and (say) the last three phases of play – and his decision would the be final. It make take a minute or so, but it would be far better than the injustice of an improperly touched-down try affecting the final result.