The RWC2019 Debrief: Japan

The RWC2019 Debrief: Japan

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

As I continue down the list alphabetically, today I will be looking at Japan.

RWC2019 Qualification

As hosts, Japan automatically qualified for the tournament, however they would have also qualified through finishing 3rd in Pool B during the 2015 campaign.

2019 Form

Wins over Fiji, Tonga and the USA saw Japan finish top of the Pacific Nations Cup, but they came into the World Cup on the back of a 7-41 loss to South Africa.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (1st in Pool A)
    • Japan 30-10 Russia
    • Japan 19-12 Ireland
    • Japan 38-19 Samoa
    • Japan 28-21 Scotland
  • Quarterfinal
    • Japan 3-26 South Africa

Japanese rugby is far from my strength, so when I was predicting the pool standings, I did not expect them to make the top 2, largely based on the lack of success the Sunwolves (who were playing a lot of non-Japanese players). So imagine my surprise watching them in the pools.

The Brave Blossoms won fans in 2015 with their miraculous win over South Africa, and those fans were multiplying exponentially as this year’s tournament went on, courtesy of the way that they played the attractive high-tempo rugby that we all love to see, but also did it well enough to not just be competitive, but to win their games. Kotaru Matsushima made himself an instant celebrity with a hattrick in the tournament opener against Japan and carried on with his strong performances to finish the tournament with 5 tries, the bounce of a ball narrowly denying him a couple as well.

The back row were also sensational through the pools – despite my pick of players to watch, Amanaki Mafi missing most of the tournament through injury – with Michael Leitch, Lappies Labuschagné and Kazuki Himeno being some of their biggest stars with their incredible engines, hard carrying, endless tackling and numerous turnovers, while hooker Shota Horie threw his hat in the mix for being one of the best in the world at his position.

With each match, the Japanese tactics appeared to be all-but impossible for their opponents to deal with. Not even defensively solid Ireland could find a way to stop them, and but for the bounce of the ball, Japan’s winning margin could have been considerably more. And it wasn’t just the attack that caused problems, as they played a high-pressing defence that limited their opposition’s time on the ball and helped Japan stay on the front foot to win turnovers. Their pool victory – and subsequent first ever qualification for the knockout stages – was fully deserved.

Things were always going to get tougher entering the quarterfinals, as they faced South Africa. The match ahead of the tournament had already suggested that a repeat of “the Miracle of Brighton” was unlikely, and that soon proved the case as they were unable to cope with the incredible physicality of the Springboks. Credit to Japan: they held in it as long as they could, and their stars didn’t perform badly, they just had no answer for a Springbok pack that was putting heavy pressure on their lineout and powering through them at every opportunity. A disappointing end, but a tournament with so much to praise for Japan.

Looking Ahead

This is a very interesting time for Japan. The team is clearly on the up, and the World Cup will have created so many more rugby fans, but now Japan need to build off this. Key to that is what I discussed with Georgia: finding a way to get regular Test matches against Tier 1 opposition. Beating Scotland and Ireland was no fluke, but if the Brave Blossoms are to continue growing, they need to be added to one of the Tier 1 international tournaments – for geographical reasons I would say the Rugby Championship.

Beyond that, though, they need to keep developing the talent. While stars like Timothy Lafaele, Matsushima and Himeno should have another World Cup in them, there will be question marks surrounding a number of the other big names from this squad. Horie, Leitch, Labuschagné, fly half Yu Tamura, and winger Lomano Lemeki are already in their 30s, while star winger Kenki Fukuoka is stepping away from rugby to become a doctor. After the hard work Japan have put in to get international recognition, they need to make sure they have the quality coming through to avoid a massive drop-off the moment their aging stars disappear, as arguably happened with Italy. And herein lies the issue as the Sunwolves have arguably not been used right, with so many foreign players filling the squad instead of Japanese players, and now they are entering their last season before being cut from Super Rugby. Meanwhile the Top League is seeing an influx of former internationals from other countries coming in for one last big paycheck before they retire, which may be bringing some extra quality to the league to learn off, but is also blocking off spaces for homegrown talent to come through.

Japan needs to look at its domestic game to ensure the talent is able to make its way up to the national team, while the national team needs to build on their success with regular Tier 1 matches. If this can happen, Japan are in a great spot to remain competitive for the coming years.

The RWC2019 Debrief: Italy

The RWC2019 Debrief: Italy

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Italy.

RWC2019 Qualification

Italy automatically qualified for this year’s tournament by finishing 3rd in Pool D during the 2015 tournament.

2019 Form

The Azzurri failed to win any matches on their way to finishing bottom of the Six Nations table. They lost again to Ireland, France and England in their warm-up matches, but managed a comprehensive 85-15 victory over Russia. Though the results weren’t going their way, there were some signs of improvement throughout he squad, while back rowers Braam Steyn and Seb Negri had very good seasons to cement their place in the back row. Sadly, Leonardo Ghiraldini suffered a serious injury that eventually saw him miss out on making an appearance at the World Cup.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (3rd in Pool B)
    • Italy 47-22 Namibia
    • Italy 48-7 Canada
    • South Africa 49-3 Italy
    • New Zealand C-C Italy

Coming into a pool that contained 2 of the tournament favourites and 2 clearly weaker teams, it would have been a shock for Italy to finish anywhere other than 3rd, though they had the perfect schedule of games to build into the tournament.

Against Namibia, they had a clear dominance in the scrum and arguably should have won by a much more flattering scoreline, except for a raft of handling errors that killed a number of chances. Against Canada, they were a bit more clinical and tore the Canadians apart, with the back row trio of Seb Negri, Jake Polledri and Braam Steyn running hard and strong to give the backs a platform. Building into the tournament after missing most of the preceding season through injury, Matteo Minozzi looked like a superstar for Italy with good smart defending and a varied attack.

Finally taking on a greater test, things quickly went horribly wrong as they could not keep their props on the field. Simone Ferrari was off injured after just 2 minutes and his replacement, Marco Riccioni didn’t even make it to the 20 minute mark before injury ruled him  out too. Then just after halftime, starting loosehead Andrea Lovotti got himself sent off for spearing Duane Vermeulen in a clearout – an offence that sole remaining prop Nicola Quaglio was lucky to also not be dismissed for. While Steyn continued to be a star in this game, the extra man made the difference as South Africa added 5 tries to the 2 scored before the red card.

Qualification to the knockouts was still mathematically possible (though highly unlikely) if they could beat New Zealand, but their tournament came to a premature end as Typhoon Hagibis caused disruption to the tournament and led to the match being cancelled.

Looking Ahead

Well first things first, Italy need to find someone to replace head coach Conor O’Shea, who left the post after the World Cup. While results on the whole didn’t go the Azzurri’s way during his tenure (9 wins from 40 Tests), O’Shea’s job was so much more important than that, working on Italian Rugby as a whole. Under his watch, the Italian Pro14 franchises have improved so much, the U20s are on the rise and an new generation of superstars have started to emerge, led by Negri, Polledri and Minozzi. This work must continue in order for Italian rugby to continue to grow so that they can jump to the next level.

As with many nations, these next few years will see some transition in the playing group, with Ghiraldini and Alessandro Zanni unlikely to feature for the Azzurri again and Sergio Parisse likely bowing out in the Six Nations. Even if these players do continue to play for a while longer, their time in the starting XV is surely done. Parisse is a superstar, but the trio of Negri, Polledri and Steyn have already developed a fantastic balance and it feels that the team performs better when the trio are all on the pitch. In the back line, there is plenty of quality coming through, while the vast majority of the backs are young enough to have at least 1 more World Cup in them. What they do still need to find, in my opinion, is a top level fly half. Tommaso Allan has definitely improved over the last couple of seasons, but I still don’t think he has the quality to utilise the quality of the players outside him in the way needed to get more regular victories.

The tight five has been a weak point for Italy in the last few seasons, but it looks like there is quality coming through there who will grow into great players over the coming years, with Federico Ruzza, David Sisi and Simone Ferrari likely leaders in the engine room over the coming years.

The important thing right now is to continue getting regular rugby against Tier 1 nations. There has been so much talk amongst fans and pundits of how Georgia should enter the Six Nations at Italy’s expense, but that is not fair to a team that is clearly on the up. If the improvements of the last few years can continue and they can continue to regularly play against top-level opposition, then this is a team that could surprise people in 2023.

The RWC2019 Debrief: Ireland

The RWC2019 Debrief: Ireland

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Ireland.

RWC2019 Qualification

Ireland automatically qualified by topping Pool D at RWC2015, a tournament that saw them go out at the quarterfinals.

2019 Form

After looking so strong in 2018, things started going wrong almost straight away this year, with a number of their big names looking far from their best. They were manhandled by England at home to start off the Six Nations, where they eventually finished 3rd after wins against France, Scotland and Italy.

In the World Cup warm-up matches, they were again manhandled by England, but beat Italy and did the business against Wales both at home and away, with their pack in particular coming on strong at he set piece.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (2nd in Pool A)
    • Ireland 27-3 Scotland
    • Japan 19-12 Ireland
    • Ireland 35-0 Russia
    • Ireland 47-5 Samoa
  • Quarterfinal
    • New Zealand 46-14 Ireland

I think it’s safe to call this a pretty mixed tournament for Ireland. Coming into the tournament, I felt that the opener against Scotland would be the pool decider. Maybe Ireland thought so too as they came out the gates hard. The forwards were too physical for Scotland to deal with and the backs took advantage of the space they were creating to dominate the game.

They seemed unable to reach the same heights in their next match, however. Taking on hosts Japan, they started strongly in the first half hour, but faded off as they found themselves unable to sufficiently break down an impressive Japanese defence and struggled to cope with an attack that kept possession and played a high tempo, with Joey Carbery eventually kicking the ball out at the end to preserve a losing bonus point rather than push for a win. A 5-try victory over Russia felt better than they deserved as they lacked creativity on the whole against one of the lowest-ranked teams in the tournament, though they did a good job to stay defensively solid and keep a clean sheet. Against Samoa, they took a big lead early on with 3 tries in the first quarter, which set them up well against a poor Samoa team to hold on for a victory despite losing Bundee Aki to a red card after 30 minutes, dominating possession and territory.

The Scotland match aside, there was very little to suggest they were hitting form going into the knockouts, and sadly for Irish fans, that proved the case. Against New Zealand, it’s hard t even suggest there were 2 teams in the game as they were thoroughly outclassed by the defending champions. Ireland didn’t turn up at all in the opening 40 minutes and it could be argued that it wasn’t until Jordan Larmour and Joey Carbery replaced Rob Kearney and Johnny Sexton  respectively that the Ireland attack appeared to have any teeth… too late to do anything more than give Joe Schmidt a little consolation in his final match coaching the team.

Looking Ahead

Ireland are in a very interesting position right now. With the 4 provinces all looking good, and with the IRFU’s player management policy, there is plenty of talent coming through to add to the stars already at the top of the game. Already in this squad, there are established players like Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery, Tadhg Furlong, Luke McGrath, Andrew Porter and Jacob Stockdale who are already incredible talents but are arguably still to hit their peak.

The interesting thing will be at the other end of the age scale. Rory Best has hung up his boots, which will make space for the other great talents at the position. It’s hard to imagine Sexton or Kearney carrying on much longer as they head into their mid-thirties, so now would be the perfect time to move on to the younger talents who are pushing through.

Even if they are not moved on immediately, I think that too many of Ireland’s 2018 stars were being picked on the strength of their name in 2019, so players like Sexton, Kearney, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Keith Earls and Conor Murray need to earn their spots in the squad with so much depth behind them. Will new head coach Andy Farrell stick with the tried and trusted for his Six Nations, or will he start looking to the future straight away and building a squad with a view to glory in 2023? We’ll find out in a couple of months.

The RWC2019 Debrief: Georgia

The RWC2019 Debrief: Georgia

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Georgia.

RWC2019 Qualification

Georgia automatically qualified by finishing 3rd in Pool C during the 2015 tournament, finishing behind semifinalists Argentina and champions New Zealand.

2019 Form

The Lelos won the Rugby European Championship for the 10th time in 13 years. They lost to Scotland both at home and away in the warm-up matches but put in good performances, while also managing a 24-20 victory over the Southern Kings.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (4th in Pool D)
    • Wales 43-14 Georgia
    • Georgia 33-7 Uruguay
    • Georgia 10-45 Fiji
    • Australia 27-8 Georgia

Looking at the strength of Pool D, it was always going to be difficult for Georgia to manage another top 3 finish in their pool. They certainly gave it every go, though. Against Wales, they came out fighting and were deserving of their 14-14 halftime score. Though they couldn’t hold with the depth of the Welsh squad, they never gave up fighting and there were some great individual performances. Against Uruguay, the Lelos took advantage of their powerful pack to dominate the scrums and maul on their way to their first ever 4-try bonus point.

Unfortunately for Georgia, that was the last point they were able to earn in the pool, as they came up against a Fijian squad that were looking to make up for their loss to Uruguay. The Fijians managed to negate the Georgian scrum and though the Lelos again did well to hold with their opponents for as long as they did, they fell away in the second half. In their final match against Australia, they struggled to put together too much in attack but put in a highly impressive defensive performance, with just a pair of late tries tipping the scoreboard heavily in the Wallabies’ favour.

Looking Ahead

Georgia are in a really difficult position right now.

They have a super strong and experienced pack to build a platform off, while they are in the process of developing a set of young backs to take advantage of the forward dominance. In Vasil Lobzhanidze and Gela Aprasidze, they have 2 of the best young scrum halves in international rugby, while Tedo Abzhandadze looks to be the future at fly half and will benefit from playing with Lobzhanidze at Brive. The quality of youngsters coming through will keep the Georgian national team building as their inspirational leaders like Mamuka Gorgodze bow out, providing the right person comes in to replace Milton Haig.

The only worries right now for Georgia should be the opportunities they are getting to develop. The Lelos have clearly outgrown the Rugby European Championship in its current format but are currently blocked off from rising any higher in terms of an annual tournament. Their warm-up match against Scotland was the first time they had ever hosted a Tier 1 nation, which just isn’t good enough. While I don’t feel they should be replacing Italy in the Six Nations, something needs to be done so that Georgia can play the Tier 1 nations regularly and build on their success this decade. Similarly, I really think that the Georgians need to be able to build at a club level. So many top flight clubs will try to get hold of a Georgian front rower, but the options are much more limited for other positions. Personally, I would love to see a Georgian franchise added to the Pro14. We are starting to see some growth for Italy due to Benetton and Zebre competing against the best of Wales, Ireland and Scotland; I think that having a Georgian franchise and then other Georgians interspersed through other top flight clubs would put the Lelos in a very good position.

The RWC2019 Debrief: France

The RWC2019 Debrief: France

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over France.

RWC2019 Qualification

France qualified automatically by qualifying for the knockouts of the 2015 tournament, losing to New Zealand in the quarterfinals

2019 Form

Les Bleus finished 4th in the Six Nations this year with victories over Scotland and Italy, while they lost at home to Wales and away to England and Ireland. In their 3 warm-up games, home advantage was key as they beat Scotland and Italy, but lost at Murrayfield.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (2nd in Pool C)
    • France 23-21 Argentina
    • France 33-9 USA
    • France 23-21 Tonga
    • England C-C France
  • Quarterfinal
    • Wales 20-19 France

This World Cup performance was positively French in every clichéd way possible. It is usually said that you never know what French team will turn up for each game, but in this tournament you could replace “game” with “half”. Against Argentina, they led 20-3 at half time, only to require a late long-range penalty miss to hold onto the win. It was the reverse against the USA, as they struggled to a 12-6 halftime lead before pulling away late on. They may argue that they were the losers from Typhoon Hagibis causing heir match against England to be cancelled, but it’s hard to argue they would have won to take the top spot in the pool.

Building towards the tournament, I did question France’s discipline in matches and that often proved an issue in the pool stages, with that being a big factor in Argentina’s resurgence and the team being relatively fortunate to not lose a man to the bin for persistent offending.

Those disciplinary issues remained in their quarterfinal as a match that they had been on top of fell away from them following Sébastien Vahaamahina unbelievable brain fart, elbowing Aaron Wainwright in the head when France had possession in a great position. Until then, France had been by far the better team in the game, with a big defensive effort (that continued once down to 14 men) and some great attacking from broken play, while Camille Lopez struggled to cause the Welsh issues in the same way Romain Ntamack had prior to his injury.

Looking Ahead

As I pointed out coming into the tournament, France are in a very strong position looking ahead to the 2023 tournament. The core of this squad is made of young, exciting talent with options in every position. Ntamack may not even be the regular fly half for Toulouse, but he appears to be making the 10 shirt his own for Les Bleus, with other young talents also coming through at the position, while players like Camille Chat, Demba Bamba, Emerick Setiano, Gregory Alldritt and Damian Penaud will have gained so much from this experience and future stars like Jordan Joseph will soon be making their way into the senior ranks.

The big thing for France now is coaching. Too often we see the team rebelling against their coaches and there were rumours of Jacques Brunel falling out with captain Guilhem Guirado and some other senior players. They need to make sure that whoever takes the lead is strong enough to hold control, but also willing to work with everyone else so that the entire squad is working as a unit. The word is that Shaun Edwards will be joining the coaching set-up as defence coach, which is a scary thought as he has done such a great job of making the Wales defence so solid and disciplined. If he can repeat the process with France, watch out!

The RWC2019 Debrief: Fiji

The RWC2019 Debrief: Fiji

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over Fiji.

RWC2019 Qualification

The Fijians qualified as Oceania 1, having won all 4 games over the 2016 and 2017 Pacific Nations Cups, finishing top of the aggregated standings over the 2 tournaments.

2019 Form

A loss away to Japan saw the Fijians finish 2nd of 6 teams in the 2019 edition of the Pacific Nations Cup. Their final warm-up game was a 29-19 victory over Pacific rivals Tonga.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (3rd in Pool D)
    • Australia 39-21 Fiji
    • Fiji 27-30 Uruguay
    • Georgia 10-45 Fiji
    • Wales 29-17 Fiji

This was a very disappointing tournament for Fiji. When making my predictions for the tournament, I thought that they had the best chance of pulling off an upset and making it into the knockouts, but instead they had to settle for just 1 win and were on the wrong end of an upset themselves, losing to Uruguay in a quick turnaround following the Australia game.

Though results didn’t go their way, they were by far one of the most exciting teams to watch in the pool stages. The Fijians are famous for their highly attacking, unstructured play, full of power, pace and insane handling abilities, but they have started to add more structure to their play when Ben Volavola is at fly half, putting them in the right parts of the field. Against Uruguay, some of this structure was lost as they played too loose (leading to a high number of handling errors and turnovers) and struggled with their kicking from the tee, which proved costly.

In the other games, however, they caused their opponents some real problems. They were arguably the better team against Australia before Peceli Yato – who until that point was their star player – was taken out, while the first 15 minutes against Wales saw them score 2 tries and have another disallowed. Semi Radradra was one of the stars of the tournament despite an early exit, while a number of other Fijians also showed their quality on the biggest stage.

One of the biggest downsides to Fiji for a while has been their discipline and unfortunately that was the case once again in this tournament. A high penalty count and yellow card to Levani Botia in the second half helped Australia gain the upper hand, while they spent a quarter of the match against Wales down to 14 men due to yellow cards for Tevita Cavubati for a moronic dangerous clear-out and Semi Kunatani.

Looking Ahead

Though they may have only got the one win, their performances against Australia and Wales, combined with a dominant run over recent years in the Pacific Nations Cup, showed just how important it is that Fiji stat playing Tier 1 opposition on a regular basis. They need to be playing at least a couple of Tier 1 Nations during the international windows, but more than that, I feel they need to get the Argentina treatment and be added to the Rugby Championship as soon as possible.

They also need to try and get to the stage where they an pick an entire squad of players who are in top flight competition, as a number of players (especially in the front row) are playing in lower tiers or – as with star scrum half Frank Lomani – back home in Fiji. Backs and back rowers may be the more attractive players when looking at Fijian players to sign, but there is quality at every position. Ideally, a Super Rugby franchise would help the national team get all their players top flight experience while also giving a top flight option for players that doesn’t involve moving abroad and potentially getting poached by another nation, but given the current state of the league, that does not look likely anytime soon.

What is clear is that there is a great squad here that is improving, and with automatic qualification secured for RWC2023 they can focus on preparing for the next tournament, so as long as they can continue to bring through the talent to replace the players reaching the end of their international career, there is no reason they can’t challenge for a place in the knockouts next time around.

The RWC2019 Debrief: England

The RWC2019 Debrief: England

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over England.

RWC2019 Qualification

Though they failed to make it out of the pools in 2015, England still qualified for the tournament by finishing 3rd in their pool.

2019 Form

After a pretty awful 2018, England finished 2nd in the Six Nations with a loss away to Wales and a draw against Scotland (in a match that they had led 31-7 at half time. In their warm-up matches, England lost narrowly in Wales, but won comfortably at home against Wales, Ireland and Italy, holding the Azzurri scoreless.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (1st in Pool C)
    • England 35-3 Tonga
    • England 45-7 USA
    • England 39-10 Argentina
    • England C-C France
  • Quarterfinal
    • England 40-16 Australia
  • Semifinal
    • England 19-7 New Zealand
  • Final
    • England 12-32 South Africa

It was a bit of an odd tournament for England, as the challenge they faced in the pools was very limited, leaving a number of questions as to how prepared they were for the knockouts. Tonga provided a physical opposition, but the challenge that they and the USA could present was always going to struggle against an improved England defence that conceded just 1 try in 3 matches (against Italy, Tonga and the USA). Then against Argentina, the challenge was over when Tomás Lavanini got himself red carded early in the first half, leaving England to pick off 14 men. While England showed some dominance in these games, especially in the scrums and mauls, they were far from inspiring and struggled to get regular cohesiveness in their attacking play. Typhoon Hagibis led to the cancellation of their match against France which would have been an interesting challenge and decided the pool standings.

Moving into the knockouts, it looked like the extra rest actually helped England find their groove. Their victories against Australia and New Zealand were both built on incredible defensive work and flankers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill thoroughly outplaying their more experienced rivals, while the attack finally hit its stride in these games.

Unfortunately, England were unable to do it 3 weeks running as they faced a much more physical outfit who there were unable to bully off the ball. Kyle Sinckler had done a great job of establishing himself as one of the best tightheads in the world through this tournament, so to lose him after just 3 minutes and require Dan Cole to play basically an entire game was always going to be hard. England were pushed around almost at will by the Springbok scrums and mauls, while their defence did a great job of shutting down everything England could produce. Meanwhile, England’s own defence conceded 2 late tries to end the game, the first highlighting risk that had been taken all year of playing Elliot Daly (who was caught in no-man’s land for the first try) at 15 in place of more recognised fullbacks Mike Brown and Alex Goode – who weren’t selected for the squad – or Anthony Watson, who was selected on the wing.

Was this a good tournament for England? I didn’t think they had a chance of beating New Zealand to make the final, so yes it was. It’s just ended on a sour note tinged with what-ifs.

Looking Ahead

The good news for this team is that the core of this team are so young. Their 3 biggest stars from this tournament – Tom Cury, Maro Itoje and Sam Underhill – will only be 25, 28 and 27 respectively when the next tournament comes around, while a number of the other big names will be in their early 30s at most. Add to that the way that young English talent continues to come through at club level and the squad will be brimming with stars in 4 years. Personally, I would love to see a return for the England Saxons in order to help the young talent get more international experience, perhaps playing Tier 2 nations like the Pacific Islanders.

The big question for me right now is coaching. While Eddie Jones did a great job of turning around a team at their lowest following the 2015 tournament, I feel that his public attitude is abysmal, while a number of players who arguably could and should have been in contention for the squad (perhaps even the starting XV) were not even considered for a spot on the plane, while some players appeared undroppable regardless of how their form deteriorated. The Elliot Daly at 15 experiment needs to end as he is a defensive liability and struggles to compete in the air, putting the team at risk against teams with a strong kicking game. Right now, Jones is contracted to England until 2021, but I would rather see the RFU thank him for creating the platform for success and move onto someone else, who can then spend the next 4 years building a young team for glory in France.