CASTRES, FRANCE – Why England rugby fans are rapidly rediscovering their long-forgotten Celtic heritage after the Rugby World Cup hosts crashed out in embarrassing fashion, how Japan remain in the mix for the quarter-finals following a second impressive win in Pool B, and what ruthless South Africa did against Scotland… it’s all here in your Rugby Wrap Up round-up of the weekend’s Pool A and Pool B matches.
England 13 – 33 Australia
Shock, horror. The morning after the nightmare of England’s Rugby World Cup exit before, the sun still rose. Birds still sang. Supermarkets still opened. Life went on.
Unless, that is, you’re a member of the England set-up. In which case, you opened your dream-shredded eyes on to a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The sun, if it rose at all, was a pitiful, watery distant disc in a howling, blood-red sky. No birds sang. Any brutal, savage, life on Earth that had survived the night wanted blood. Your blood. Supermarkets still opened, of course, but not even the end of days can change everything.
A week after Wales dug deep to squeeze past England at Twickenham, the hosts crashed out of the tournament with one round of pool matches to go, having been comprehensively outclassed by Australia.
England, privileged, puffed-up, and bigged-up England, had forgotten that even World Cup host nations must earn quarter-final qualification. It is not a right. Not even for the nation that invented the game.
They were blown away by a near-perfect storm of scintillating rugby. For Australia, the first 40 minutes of the game were at least as good as the 1991 semi-final against New Zealand. Which was also in England.
In fact, whisper it quietly lest New Zealand fans are listening, both of Australia’s World Cup wins have come on UK soil. Coach Michael Cheika may, yet again, pull his innocent ‘I know nothing about anything that isn’t precisely to do with Australia and I’m not saying much about that either’ face when quizzed on the subject, but he can’t be the only one quietly wondering if lightning can strike three times.
If fly-half Bernard Foley and flankers David Pocock and Michael Hooper, in particular, continue to tap the rich vein of form they have so far shown, the answer has to be a very definite maybe.
Foley scored two superb tries and kicked 18 points as Australia left the remnants of English ambition shattered and broken on the pitch. His opener demonstrated the gulf in class between the two sides. Sekope Kepu’s delightful offload gave him all the time and space he needed – and more.
By this time, Mike Brown had already made a last-ditch try-saving tackle, coming in off his drift to stop Israel Folau man-and-ball when Australia had an overlap so huge it flapped over English Premiership side Harlequins’ nearby Stoop ground.
If Foley’s first try was good, his second – following a neat exchange of passes with Kurtley Beale, on earlier than he should have been after Rob Horne was injured – was sublime. It was running, swaggering, attacking rugby at its best.
The big difference, though, was up front. For most of the past decade, the ground staff at Twickenham have used the remains of Wallaby front rows to fertilise the grass. Australia were overpowered in the scrum when they played England at Headquarters in November, so they were expecting more of the same.
But it didn’t happen. Meanwhile, Pocock and Hooper ruled the breakdown, as attack after England attack – nine in total on the night – was turned over.
The game was good as won by the end of the first half, but England kept coming, as they had to, and the opportunism of their try-scorer Anthony Watson, who still had plenty to do when he received the ball just inside Australia’s 22, together with Owen Farrell’s boot briefly hinted that a comeback was possible. There were seven points in it with 15 minutes left.
But it didn’t last. England’s faint hopes flickered out when Farrell saw yellow for taking out Matt Giteau off the ball. It was a frustrated act of petulance and the England man was lucky not to see red – as was Sam Burgess, who hit Hooper hard and high at the same time.
It is Hooper who has been cited for alleged foul play at this earlier incident, while Burgess has escaped with a warning for his tackle.
In the end, Giteau made England pay, scoring with the last move of the game to complete the humiliation. It was a sumptuous, flowing move down the right and it added the final emphatic punctuation to a defeat that saw England become the first hosts in the 28-year history of the World Cup to go out of the tournament in the group stages.
Still. There’s always Uruguay next week. Small mercies, and all that.
Japan in Quarter-Final Mix
Samoa 5 – 26 Japan
Such is the complexion of Pool B that Japan could become the first side in Rugby World Cup history to win three Pool matches and fail to reach the quarter-finals.
They are doing everything they can to qualify. After their South Africa glory on the opening weekend of the tournament, they hammered Samoa by 21 points on Saturday, and will be confident of beating USA, who have yet to pick up a point. Yet they remain two points behind rivals Scotland – and their defeat against Vern Cotter’s men could be the deciding factor, such is the way Pool standings are decided.
The margin of Japan’s victory probably should have been more than the 21 points it finally was. As it was, the unerring boot of Ayumu Goromaru and the sheer tenacity of Japan’s pack prevailed. Their high-tempo, direct approach was sprinkled with a dash of Akihito Yamada stardust, who bounced off Alesana Tuilagi, spun and finished spectacularly in the corner to complete a brilliant move on the stroke of half-time.
There was no luck involved. Japan were 20-0 up at the break, thanks also to a deserved penalty try early on after Samoa, three-time World Cup quarter-finalists, were temporarily reduced to 13 men.
Full-back Goromaru, making his 50th start, sandwiched a penalty between the two first-half tries before slotting twice more through the posts early in the second half to put his side 26-0 ahead.
Samoan centre Paul Perez, who had looked their most potent threat all match, finally got his side on the board when he went over in the corner after a fast break.
Japan surely have the team of the tournament crown – but what they really want, now their Super Rugby franchise has been confirmed – is a place in the last eight at England 2015.
Indiscipline could still cost Boks: Meyer
South Africa 34 – 16 Scotland
If Heyneke Meyer had his way, the world would continue to write off South Africa as possible World Champions, despite the fact that they have recovered from ‘Japan’ to top Pool B after three games, and will surely start as favourites against USA this week.
But he also conceded that discipline remains a problem that he will have to tackle. South Africa gave up 12 penalties against Japan, 11 against Samoa, and 15 against Scotland.
They even got away with a yellow card against Scotland. Jannie du Plessis spent 10 minutes in the bin for a senseless shoulder charge and, although South Africa did not concede a point during his absence, Meyer stressed that discipline is likely to cost the team further down the line.
He even suggested that one or two players may be punished following some senseless transgressions in the match at St James’ Park, in Newcastle.
“Good discipline is non-negotiable,” he told reporters after the match. “I’m going to be hard on players, because you can’t play with 14 men. It’s unacceptable. I’m ready to make tough decisions.”
The match ran pretty much to script. It was a savage exhibition of Springbok power, a demonstration that South African intensity is now at fever pitch following ‘Japan’, a defeat so tumultuous, so shocking that it has been distilled to just the single word.
The first score came after 13 minutes when a combination of Schalk Burger, Bismarck du Plessis and Duane Vermeulen mauled their way through reed-like Scottish defence. Burger was credited with the final touch in a muddle of hands.
When they’re in this mood, the Springboks don’t do pretty, scintillating rugby. They beat out results with lineout precision, scrummaging ferocity, and brute force. Lots and lots of brute force. As Scotland discovered to their cost. They were too easily beaten down in the lineouts, at the breakdown, at the scrum. And what they lost on the swings, they also lost on the roundabouts.
For the third game in a row, Scotland were slow out of the blocks. Against Japan and USA, they were able to recover well enough to score tries and pick up bonus points. Against direct, brutal and unyielding South Africa, that was never going to happen.
Time and again, they were simply mauled off St James’ Park. JP Pietersen’s touchdown, South Africa’s second try, at the end of a one-sided first 40 and with du Plessis in the bin, followed yet another menacing rumble from the forwards.
The Scots were 17 points behind at halftime and staring down a barrel. Then, Duncan Weir intercepted a loose pass, and raced up the pitch. Two passes later and Tommy Seymour crossed to cut the deficit to seven.
But as fast as it came, the comeback was over. Scotland made a horlicks of the restart, and Greig Laidlaw was binned for a foul on Bryan Habana. In truth, South Africa were always in control. The ice-cool Handre Pollard added a drop goal to restore their lead – and Habana stretched over late on to give the scoreboard the gloss their dominance deserved.
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