Just two weeks into the World Cup and we are already starting to see the main contenders emerging. New Zealand, England, Wales and South Africa all look strong, while France, Australia and even Japan can’t be overlooked. What about Ireland?
The World Cup is certainly living up to expectations so far. Two weeks in and we’ve seen some tremendous rugby, full of pace and power. The quarter-final line-up is starting to take shape, with most pools playing out according to expectations.
The exception to that is, of course, Ireland’s pool where our defeat to Japan has well and truly put the cat among the pigeons. Any hopes we had of avoiding a potential last eight clash with tournament favourites New Zealand are now out of our hands following the events in Shizuoka last Saturday morning.
Joe Schmidt’s men responded to the setback with a bonus point 35-0 victory over minnows Russia in difficult conditions in Kobe yesterday, but the performance was less than convincing. The second half in particular was littered with handling errors that better opposition would have exploited. We were also turned over in possession on several occasions, something that is sure to have irked Schmidt. That said, the result was more important than the performance and we achieved what we needed to.
Unquestionably there is plenty to work on ahead of our final pool game against Samoa next Saturday where anything less than another bonus point win would be looked upon as a failure. Should we secure five points from the game in Fukuoka (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 11.15am), we will be in the quarter-finals. However, who our opposition will be could well depend on the outcome of the Japan v Scotland clash in Yokohama on Sunday (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 11.30am).
Overall, it must be said, we look like a team that is low on confidence and anything beyond the last eight would appear to be wishful thinking based on what we have seen so far. However, over the years we have seen that this squad of players is capable of producing big performances on big occasions, so don't write them off just yet.
Business as usual
While Ireland may appear to be in some disarray, it is business as usual so far for pre-tournament favourites New Zealand and England. Both have looked very strong in their two outings so far, although England had an easier start and must face main pool rivals Argentina and France in their next two outings tomorrow and next Saturday (both games EXCLUSIVELY LIVE on eir sport). Victory over the Pumas should be enough to secure a place in the last eight where they will more than likely face either Australia or Wales. After that a potential semi-final against New Zealand awaits.
Steve Hansen’s side, meanwhile, looked relentless as they destroyed Canada 63-0 in their last game after beating main pool rivals South Africa in their opener. They are surely a shoe-in for the last eight, most likely as pool winners where they would play the second-placed team from our pool - here’s hoping that Scotland can do us and perhaps even themselves a favour!
Wales are also starting to look like a major force following their dramatic 29-25 victory over main pool rivals Australia in Tokyo. If the remainder of the pool games go according to form, they will play the runners-up from England’s pool in the last eight. It’s an added incentive for England to win their last two games as you can be sure that both Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland will be keen to avoid each other at this juncture if possible.
It’s hard to know what to make of France, Australia or even Japan at this stage. The host nation’s deserved victory over Ireland last weekend has raised expectations to what may prove to be unrealistic levels. They caught Ireland on a bad day and enjoyed the benefit of some suspect refereeing. Will they be that lucky again? Probably not. Either way, it’s hard to see them going beyond the quarter-finals.
Both France and Australia are looking good for quarter-final slots and could face each other if Jacques Brunel's side beat England next weekend to secure top spot in Pool C. The head coach is set to be replaced by Fabien Galthie after the tournament, so will be keen to go out on a high if possible. Can they match the heroics of the 1987 and 2011 campaigns where they went all the way to the final? Possibly not.
Australia are another unknown quantity following an indifferent Rugby Championship, although they did manage to beat the All Blacks in Perth. They came through what was expected to be a tough test against Fiji in their opening game with flying colours but, while they showed plenty of grit and determination in their defeat to Wales on Sunday, that result could see them set on a tougher course in the knock-out stages where a last four place may be too much to ask.
The quality of the refereeing has left something to be desired at this tournament and is a major issue for the sport going forward. It simply isn’t good enough for professional players to be subject to the interpretation of individual referees who may have very different views on what constitutes an offence at the breakdown and what doesn’t.
World Rugby actually took the unprecedented step of criticising what it saw as some poor officiating after the first weekend and indicated to Ireland that three out of four decisions given against Ireland for offside in the game against Japan were incorrect. That is simply shocking at this level. Two of those were given by an assistant referee who also took charge of our game against Russia and has shown questionable judgment in Ireland games in the past.
World Rugby, as the sport’s governing body, has to deal with this. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I would suggest removing officials who keep making poor decisions from the elite panel so that they don’t get big games for starters. Something has to change as this inconsistency is damaging the sport.
When the dust settles on this tournament we don’t want the rugby’s greatest showcase to be remembered for some poor call that changed the outcome of a crucial match. The stakes are too high.
Right, that’s my moan taken care of…..! In other, much happier, news, the PRO14 is back and there were bonus point wins for Munster, Leinster and Ulster on matchday one last weekend, while Connacht lost 18-10 at Scarlets.
Join us for FIVE LIVE matchday two games this weekend starting tonight with Leinster v Ospreys (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 7.15pm) and Glasgow Warriors v Scarlets (LIVE on eir sport 2 from 7.30pm) followed on Saturday by Southern Kings v Munster (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 2.55pm), Cheetahs v Ulster (LIVE on eir sport 1 from 5.10pm) and Cardiff Blues v Edinburgh (LIVE on eir sport 2 from 5.10pm).
By Kieran O’Daly
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