The RWC2019 Debrief: Uruguay

The RWC2019 Debrief: Uruguay

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.

In my penultimate post in this series, I will be looking at Uruguay.

RWC2019 Qualification

Following Canada’s aggregate loss to the USA for the Americas 1 spot, they faced Uruguay in the Americas Repechage play-off. Uruguay won both legs 29-38 and 32-31 to win the Americas 2 spot.

2019 Form

Uruguay finished 2ⁿᵈ in the Americas Rugby Championship, with a loss at Argentina XV but wins against the other 4 nations. They then took part in the Nations Cup, where a loss to Namibia but wins over Russia and Argentina B saw them emerge top of the pile. For their World Cup warm-up matches, they lost 21-41 to Spain, beat Sudamérica XV 24-20, beat Brazil XV 43-5 and lost to Argentina 24-35.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (5ᵗʰ in Pool D)
    • Fiji 27-30 Uruguay
    • Georgia 33-7 Uruguay
    • Australia 45-10 Uruguay
    • Wales 35-13 Uruguay

When I felt that Fiji would be involved in the first upset of the tournament, I was thinking against Australia rather than Uruguay. Though Fiji came in off a short turnaround and played too loose, full credit must be given to Los Teros for their victory, as they played an open and exciting game and contested everything to stop Fiji building into the match, while Santiago Arata controlled the game well along with Felipe Berchesi, whose accuracy off the tee proved crucial.

Unfortunately, the short turnaround to their match against Georgia hurt them and though Arata continued to control the game and Rodrigo Silva put in a big game on the wing, they could not hold with the power of the Georgians. They fought hard against the Wallabies with flanker Juan Diego Ormaechea fighting for every yard and winger Nicolás Freitas making incisive runs. Though they had a try disallowed for offside, they deservedly finished the match with a try for back row Manuel Diana. Finally against Wales, they put in a monumental defensive performance, with Freitas again starring on the wing and keeping his opposite number quiet throughout.

Though they came away with just the one victory and finished bottom of the pool, this tournament showed a vast improvement from 2015, as they scored twice as many points while conceding the least points ever in their World Cup history (excluding 1999, when they played a game less).

Looking Ahead

This is a good time for Uruguay. Canada’s drop has opened up a spot for them to be one of the top American teams and the win over Fiji will have got them attention, which will hopefully see them getting more chances against higher level opposition. This is also a relatively young team, with just 7 of the squad from this tournament in their 30s, and almost half of the squad will still be in their 20s come the next tournament, so this group have a chance to grow together and look to build on this success.

The key right now for Uruguay’s players is to get regular rugby at a higher level. Uruguay does not have a professional league, so either the union needs to try to get a Major League Rugby franchise, or they need to look to get as many players as possible moving to other leagues. You just need to look at the performances of players like Freitas and Arata, who did not look like they would be out of place in one of the elite leagues! Likewise Berchesi looked like he should be on a team far higher than Fédérale 1, the French 3ʳᵈ tier! It is good to have seen a handful of players picked up by MLR teams and hopefully more will follow in their wake, while it would be great to see the Jaguares look at some players too, though I find this unlikely as it would reduce the space for potential Argentina internationals.

Los Teros are in a strong position right now, and this cycle will be huge for their future.

The RWC2019 Debrief: USA

The RWC2019 Debrief: USA

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 near the end of this journey, today I will be looking at the USA.

RWC2019 Qualification

The Eagles qualified as Americas 1 for the first time in their history by beating Canada on aggregate, drawing 28-28 in Canada before winning 52-16 at home.

2019 Form

The USA started the year with a 3ʳᵈ place finish in the Americas Rugby Championship, winning against Chile, Canada and Brasil but losing to Argentina XV and Uruguay. They again finished 3ʳᵈ in the Pacific Nations Cup with wins over Canada and Samoa but a loss to Japan. They managed one final victory over Canada prior to the World Cup, beating them 15-20.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (5ᵗʰ in Pool C)
    • England 45-7 USA
    • France 33-9 USA
    • Argentina 47-17 USA
    • USA 19-31 Tonga

Playing in a pool with 3 Tier 1 nations was always going to be difficult for the USA, but I think they would have hoped for a better reward. Their campaign could not have started any worse, losing young prop David Ainu’u to injury just a couple of minutes into their match against England, with George Ford scoring the opening try just minutes later and Piers Francis inexplicably avoiding a red card for a high tackle with the first contact of the game! They recovered well to put in a strong defensive performance. While they recovered well, the second half proved too much for them, not helped by a failed HIA for Will Hooley and a late red card for a stupid high tackle from John Quill (which ruled him out for the rest of the tournament).

Against the French, the Eagles gave as good as they got, with their maul proving a real weapon, but again they fell away in the final 15 minutes to concede 3 late tries, without managing to cross the whitewash themselves. A decision to swap Marcel Brache from 13 to wing proved costly against Argentina, as it left them defensively weak in the midfield, which Argentina (who changed things up as they were already mathematically unable to qualify for the knockouts) took advantage of.

Finally was the match they would have been targeting: against Tonga. An initial defensive, territory-based approach was not working for them, but the introduction of Mike Te’o and a switch to a more open attack paid dividends and got them back in the match, at which point they reverted to their more defensive style and fell away again.

Through the tournament, strong running from hooker Joe Taufete’e and Paul Lasike helped but them on the front foot with regularity, while Marcel Brache was a key part of the defence when at 13. AJ MacGinty also looked good for the USA, but his impact was limited as too often he ended up being involved in contact, which severely hindered the team’s cohesiveness in attack.

Looking Ahead

Of all the Tier 2 nations, I think that the Eagles are one of the teams in the best position to grow over this 4 year cycle. Though it has plenty of competition from other sports, rugby is getting bigger in America, which will only be helped by the success of the 7s team in recent years, which is going to be a key development tool for some of the stars of the future.

Meanwhile, and perhaps even more important, is the growth of Major League Rugby, which is about to enter its 3ʳᵈ season and expand from 9 teams to 12, with 11 of them being based in the US. This is giving the potential internationals a chance to grow with a regular high level of rugby, and the level is just going to continue improving as superstars like Mathieu Bastareaud, Rene Ranger, Ma’a Nonu and Digby Ioane join Samu Manoa, Ben Foden and Osea Kolinisau in the league. Stars like these will not just improve the quality of opposition the players are facing, but be monumental in developing the elite ethics, skills and tactics within their own franchises and – most importantly in the long term – get more people watching the league and getting into the sport.

In terms of personnel, the USA are in a relatively strong position. There are very few players from this tournaments squad who feel like they will be too old to feature again in 4 years, while a number of less experienced players have the chance to become key figures in the squad over the next couple of seasons, such as Ainu’u, Saracens’ Titi Lamositeli, Hanco Germishuys, Mike Teo’o and Ruben de Haas. Moreover, they have the benefit of having a good number of players also playing in the Premiership, Championship and even a couple in France and the Southern Hemisphere, which will again help to improve the quality of the overall squad.

The key thing for the USA now is to start getting more matches against top opponents. This World Cup showed that they were able to hold their own against Tier 1 nations, but were just dropping off in the final quarter. If they could start playing against elite teams on the regular, this is something that they would be able to work on and I think that we could start to see them pulling off some upsets. I continue to believe that the USA could be the next rugby superpower, they just need to be given the chance.

The RWC2019 Debrief: Tonga

The RWC2019 Debrief: Tonga

Happy New Year and 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 near the end of this journey, today I will be looking at Tonga.

RWC2019 Qualification

Tonga qualified as Oceania 2 by finishing 2ⁿᵈ overall in the Oceania regional qualifier, made up of the 2016 and 2017 Pacific Nations Cup tournaments.

2019 Form

The Ikale Tahi did not come into the tournament on the best of form. A win against Japan but losses to Samoa and Japan saw Tonga finish 5ᵗʰ in the Pacific Nations Cup. In their warm-up matches ahead of the World Cup, they defeated the Western Force, but lost to Fiji before being blown out by New Zealand in a match that saw the All Blacks willingly play a man down for the final chunk of the game.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (4ᵗʰ in Pool C)
    • England 35-3 Tonga
    • Argentina 28-12 Tonga
    • France 23-21 Tonga
    • USA 19-31 Tonga

Coming into a pool with 3 Tier 1 nations meant that it was always going to be difficult for Tonga, but they certainly fought hard and in a slightly different world could have found themselves qualifying for the knockouts.

Opening their campaign against England, Tonga put in a supremely physical performance – led by the big-hitting flanker Zane Kapeli – to cause England issues, but while fly half Kurt Morath controlled the game well, they struggled to create anything of note in attack.

Injury meant that Morath played no further part in their campaign and it took a while for his replacement James Faiva to grow into the tournament. Tonga looked like they were going to be blown out early by Argentina, going 28-0 down, but they recovered strongly and arguably should have had a penalty try for a no-arms tackle from Tomás Lavanini that was unbelievably deemed legal by referee Jaco Peyper. They started slowly again when taking on France, finding themselves 17-0 down after a very disjointed first half performance, but a strong platform at the scrum helped them recover well in the second half, just running out of time in their comeback.

With qualification for the knockouts behind them, they again started poorly against the USA, creating chances but not finishing them due to inaccuracies. They sorted things out int he second half, however, and were able to run away with things in the second half to finish the tournament on a high.

Looking Ahead

This is a very interesting time for Tonga. They have a squad that is far from perfect but still ran a couple of Tier 1 nations close. However, a number of their influential players from this squad have probably just played in their last world cup, including captain Siale Piutau, David Halaifonua, Cooper Vuna, Kurt Morath, Sione Kalamafoni and Siua Halanukonuka. There are certainly still some star players who have the chance to still be around in 4 years – Kapeli, Sam Lousi, Steve Mafi, Telusa Veainu, James Faiva and Sonatane Takulua – but they need to find the young talent to build up this squad and replace the outgoing players in order to push on.

What is very interesting when you look at Tonga’s RWC2019 squad is just how spread out the players are. The players are spread over 11 different countries, with just a handful of players in the “elite” leagues – and a couple of those are at Leicester Tigers, who look like their days in the Premiership could be numbered! Faiva looks like he could be the future at fly half for the next cycle, but can a player in the top league of Spanish rugby really play against the right level of opposition to run an international back line? Tonga needs to get more players into the top leagues, and they need to get to a state where they can play together more often, as the national team doesn’t play anywhere near as many matches as the Tier 1 nations.

As well as getting more matches against Tier 1 opposition – including home matches! – Tonga would benefit so much from having a franchise in Super Rugby, as players would be able to build chemistry together while also taking on an elite level of competition. I feel that Tonga are in a better place right now than Samoa, but the next 4 years will be crucial for Pacific Island rugby.

The RWC2019 Debrief: South Africa

The RWC2019 Debrief: South Africa

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 South Africa.

RWC2019 Qualification

As the team who finished 3ʳᵈ at RWC2015, South Africa automatically qualified for the 2019 tournament.

2019 Form

While things were not looking great earlier in the cycle, the move to get rid of Allister Coetzee and have SARU Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus take over the head coach role started to improve performances and results.

Coming into 2019, South Africa won the shortened Rugby Championship with wins at home to Australia and away to Argentina, to add to a draw in New Zealand. In their final warm-up matches ahead of the World Cup, they managed a victory at home to Argentina and demolished Japan 7-41.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (2ⁿᵈ in Pool B)
    • New Zealand 23-13 South Africa
    • South Africa 57-3 Namibia
    • South Africa 49-3 Italy
    • South Africa 66-7 Canada
  • Quarterfinal
    • Japan 3-26 South Africa
  • Semifinal
    • Wales 16-19 South Africa
  • Final
    • England 12-32 South Africa

Looking at their pool before the tournament, South Africa would have been confident that they would make it out of their pool, with their opener against New Zealand likely deciding who came first. Despite coming in looking on better form, South Africa came off second best against New Zealand, with their mistakes being punished by a clinical All Blacks side, though there were some very strong performances from winger Cheslin Kolbe and back rowers Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph du Toit.

With the hard match out of the way, the rest of the pool stage was about spreading the minutes throughout the squad to keep everyone fresh while remaining dominant. This chopping and changing of players did lead to some sloppy moments that cost them points, but never enough to put the win at risk. While Faf de Klerk didn’t have the best of pool stages, Herschel Jantjies and Cobus Reinach showed the depth at 9 in this squad, while the pack did an incredible job of dominating at mauls and scrums. Against Italy, this physical advantage was nullified by early Italian injuries resulting in uncontested scrums less than 20 minutes into the match, but a red card for Andrea Lovotti soon after halftime helped the Springboks pull away. They finished off their pool stage with a strong 66-7 win over Canada, but after putting on 40 points in the first 30 minutes, they failed to push on after Josh Larsen’s 36ᵗʰ minute red card.

If there was any worries that this limited second half against Canada hinted at problems to come, the Springboks quickly proved that would not be the case, as they got revenge for Japan’s win in Brighton. The pack was dominant from the first minute and this, combined with some great defence from Lukhanyo Am in midfield, nullified the Japan attack and created an incredible platform to attack off. De Klerk was starting to come back to form by this point and with his job made so easy by the pack, he was able to control the attack and get a try of his own, well playing an important role in the defence.

De Klerk’s game management – along with that of fly half Handré Pollard – proved important in a tight semifinal against Wales. Again, the Springbok pack gained an advantage and the defence held strong to stop the Welsh, while a combination of the halfback’s tactical kicking and Damian de Allende’s hard running (and deserved try) were enough to pull out a narrow victory.

Going into the final with England, we were given a clash of 2 great packs, but the South African forwards earned the dominance and another strong tactical game, with the team eventually breaking down England for a couple of late tries, earning the Springboks their 3ʳᵈ World Cup title to pull level with New Zealand.

Looking Ahead

This is a squad in a very good position. Coming into the tournament, only 7 of the squad were in their 30s, so a very high number should still be available come 2023, while a number of younger players who are maybe on the fringes of the XV and 23 at the moment are set to become regulars over the next few years, such as RG Snyman, Damian Willemse, S’busiso Nkosi, Herschel Jantjies and Kwagga Smith.

The key thing right now is not cutting off any options. A few years ago, the preference was clearly towards players based in South Africa, but so many of the squad and other potential internationals like the du Preez brothers are moving abroad. Players like Faf de Klerk and Cobus Reinach can point to playing abroad as having revitalised their career, so it could be that by allowing other players to move outside of South Africa, it allows them to learn different playing styles while also opening up spots back home for the talent coming through.

Right now, there are a few places that maybe need some attention. In the back row, it Francois Louw and Vermeulen will have both played their last World Cups, while flankers Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit will also both be in their 30s. Kwagga Smith is an incredible talent, great at the breakdown while his 7s background makes him dangerous in the loose. Dan de Preez looked fantastic for the Sharks and has carried that form into his early days at Sale. At 24 years old, this is the perfect time to bring him into the national squad and build him into the next star in the back row. Fly half also needs a look, as Elton Jantjies will be 33 come the next tournament and does not appear international standard to me anyway, while Handré Pollard can be a great player for a defensive territory-focused gameplan, he does not have the same level of expertise when running a more expansive attack. Curwin Bosch and Damian Willemse need to decide now if they want to play fly half or full back internationally and focus on the position, while the next generation of fly halves needs to start making its way through in Super Rugby too.

The other key thing right now is the man in charge. With the World Cup over, Rassie Erasmus has left his role as head coach to focus on his duties as SARU Director of Rugby. We saw in the Allister Coetzee reign just how badly things can go with the wrong man in charge, so the union need to make sure that they get in someone who can build on Erasmus’ good work. Johan Ackermann is a name that has been mentioned and while I completely agree with the quality of his work with the Lions and Gloucester, as a Gloucester fan I hope that the Springboks job will be his in the far future.

Assuming they get the right person in charge, this is a team that will be hard to beat over the coming years.

The RWC2019 Debrief: Scotland

The RWC2019 Debrief: Scotland

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 near the end of the alphabetical list, today I will be looking at Scotland.

RWC2019 Qualification

Having reached the quarterfinals of RWC2015, the Scots automatically qualified for the 2019 tournament.

2019 Form

Scotland finished 5ᵗʰ in the Six Nations, with their only win in the tournament a 33-20 win at home to Italy. They did, however come back from a 31-0 deficit at Twickenham to draw 38-38 with England – a match where they almost won but for a converted try from George Ford on the final play. In their warm-up matches, they won home and away against Georgia and won at home to France, while Les Bleus dominated the reverse fixture for a 32-3 win.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (3ʳᵈ in Pool A)
    • Ireland 27-3 Scotland
    • Scotland 34-0 Samoa
    • Scotland 61-0 Russia
    • Japan 28-21 Scotland

It may sound harsh to say, but Scotland’s World Cup was all-but over just 25 minutes into their opening match. They were completely manhandled by the Irish pack and by that point were already 3 tries down, while things soon got even worse as one of their elite players, Hamish Watson, suffered a knee injury that brought his tournament to an end after just 38 minutes. The team started well with a high-tempo attack but had no answer for the Irish physicality.

Changes in the back row led to a more physical performance against Samoa, which arguably gave their team a better balance, while they used the set pieces as weapons on their way to a convincing win over an ill-disciplined Samoan team. Against the Russians, the Scots let loose with a more attack-minded team that probably couldn’t have held up against stronger opposition, but was able to put Russia to the sword, with Adam Hastings contributing 26 points.

Other results in the pool meant that their game against Japan would see the winner qualify for the knockouts at the expense of the other team. What followed was one of the most exciting matches in the tournament as both teams went all-out with high-tempo attacking performances. While Jamie Ritchie (who was one of the stars of the tournament) put in a huge defensive effort and earned a number of turnovers, the team on the whole could not sufficiently halt the Japanese attack, while the Scots were unable to control the game effectively enough against a high pressure defence from the Brave Blossoms.

Looking Ahead

For so long now, Scotland have been a team that look like they are on the up, only to disappoint. However, I still feel confident that they are going in the right direction. While some influential players of recent years have reached the end of their international careers (such as John Barclay and Tommy Seymour), there are young players already establishing themselves in this squad who will be entering their prime come the next tournament, such as Ritchie, Magnus Bradbury, Darcy Graham, Zander Fagerson, George Horne, Blair Kinghorn, Adam Hastings and Rory Hutchinson – who in hindsight should have definitely been in the World Cup squad.

Scotland have the skillful players to run a high-tempo attack that teams will struggle to deal with, but they have not balanced that over the last couple of years with the more physical runners to make the hard yards to initially put them on the front foot. In players like Magnus Bradbury, Hamish Watson and Blade Thomson, they have players who should be regulars over the next 4 years and can carry the team forward and give them the physical edge they need to take their game to the next level.

The key right now is getting that balance between physical players and faster, lighter players over the next couple of seasons. Greig Laidlaw is a quality player, but Ali Price and George Horne are much better fits for the style of play, while Ryan Wilson will likely take on more of a supporting role as the team build leaders. Key will also be finding the right centre combination to get the best out of Finn Russell and the rest of the back line, creating a solid defensive midfield that will not leak tries, but also causing teams issues when they attack. If Hutchinson is not starting for Scotland in the Six Nations, I will be in shock!

The RWC2019 Debrief: Samoa

The RWC2019 Debrief: Samoa

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 Samoa.

RWC2019 Qualification

Using the 2016 & 2017 Pacific Nations Cup as the regional qualifying tournament, Samoa missed out to Tonga and Fiji in the race for the Oceania 1 & Oceania 2 spots. Entering into the Europe/Oceania playoff, they qualified by beating Germany 66-15 and 28-42.

2019 Form

Samoa finished 4ᵗʰ in the 2019 Pacific Nations Cup, with a win against Tonga but losses to the USA and at Fiji. They lost 34-15 to Australia but after a poor first half, they fought back well to make it a contest.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (4ᵗʰ in Pool A)
    • Russia 9-34 Samoa
    • Scotland 34-0 Samoa
    • Japan 38-19 Samoa
    • Ireland 47-5 Samoa

How the mighty have fallen. Samoa used to be one of the teams you thought capable of beating out a Tier 1 nation for a spot in the knockouts, but that never really looked a possibility here.

While their outside backs looked very impressive against Russia, they had the advantage of being fresh and taking on a Russian team who were on a short turnaround, while they were also incredibly lucky that Romain Poite and his officials interpreted the high tackle framework different to the rest of the rugby world, leading to Ray Lee-Lo and Motu Matu’u only receiving 1ˢᵗ half yellow cards for high tackles on Vasily Artemyev that should have been reds.

Their discipline didn’t improve as the tournament went on, with 2 penalty tries and 2 yellow cards for Ed Fidow against Scotland, a yellow card for TJ Ioane against Japan and yellows for Ioane and Jack Lam against Ireland. With the issues keeping 15 men on the pitch and multiple offences making it hard to keep territory and possession, it’s no real surprise that the team struggled to beat anyone else in the pool, with the Ireland match in particular being a largely defensive effort.

They should however take some solace from a performance against Japan that saw them win a number of turnovers at the breakdown – an area where the Brave Blossoms had been very strong through the tournament – while they did have some moments when they showed their quality in attack.

Looking Ahead

So I’m going to start by making very clear: I am far from an expert in Pacific Island rugby. Over the years I have heard plenty of negative information about the way the Samoan Rugby Union is run and I think the drop-off in the team’s performances over the last couple of cycles has highlighted that. So first things first, the governance needs sorting to make sure that the priority of the people at the top is in the right place.

Also very important is the need to get someone in who can sort out the discipline of the squad. Samoa have long had the reputation of a physical team with big hitters like Brian Lima and the Tuilagi brothers, but now the big hits are often illegal, while the team consistently struggles to keep the penalty count down and all 15 men on the pitch. If they can’t improve their discipline, they will always struggle against decent opposition. Further to that, I noticed how the team appeared to start losing their heads in matches as decisions (often the right call) went against them. From the way they were acting it looked as if they felt it was them against the world and rational thinking would give way to emotion. It is vital that Samoa gets in someone who will work with them to understand first of all why these decisions are going against them and then how to cut them out. Cut out the penalties and an improvement will begin straight away.

More than this though, it’s important to make sure the opportunities are there for the players to play against elite opposition. As with all the Pacific Island nations, Samoa need to be getting regular games against Tier 1 opposition… both at home and away. Similarly, their players need to be playing in elite competitions but also having the freedom to represent their country.. While a large number of the players from the World Cup squad are in top leagues, there are also a number who are currently unattached, including winger Belgium Tuatagaloa, who was the leading try scorer in the French third tier last season as his team Valence Romans Drôme Rugby earned promotion to Pro D2 but did not have his contract renewed as he wished to represent his country at the World Cup, limiting his availability. Similarly, there have been suggestions for a while that other players are being forced by their clubs to choose between a club contract that will pay their bills or an international career… This needs to change!

The big worry right now is that due to all of this, the Samoan squad is getting on in age. Only 4 of the squad will be under 30 when the next tournament starts, and there currently appears to be limited players of equivalent quality coming through to replace them. Between players going over to the elite leagues (and ending up playing for their new adopted nation) and limited options at home, the players coming through are not getting the chances needed to reach the quality needed for the national team to improve.

Ideally, a Samoan Super Rugby franchise would go a long way to sorting all of this. There would be an opportunity to play elite rugby without having to move abroad (which some players could still do in order to make a larger pool of eligible players in elite leagues), while having the franchise ran by the union means that there would not be the worry of a club v country dilemma. It would also give the added benefit of improving the national team’s chemistry, as currently it is very rare that the squad is able to get together, while having the majority training together at club level weekly would go a long way to improving this.

Do I see any of this happening any time soon? Not really, but something needs to be done or our days of seeing Samoa at the Rugby World Cup could soon come to an end.

The RWC2019 Debrief: Russia

The RWC2019 Debrief: Russia

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 Russia.

RWC2019 Qualification

Russia had probably the craziest qualification that a team has faced. With Georgia automatically qualified, the other 5 teams in the 2017 and 2018 Rugby Europe Championships were competing for the Europe 1 spot, with their results from those 2 tournaments – excluding the matches against Georgia – creating their own table and the most successful team qualifying.

Russia’s 4 wins and 4 losses should have left them in 3rd, behind Romania and Spain, who both managed 6 wins. However, points deductions for Romania, Spain and Belgium for fielding ineligible players saw the Russians elevated to the top spot. Following appeals, it was confirmed on 7th June 2018 that the points deductions would remain and that Russia would be appearing at the World Cup as Europe 1.

2019 Form

Considering that on pure results Russia were not expected to appear in the World Cup, it is probably no surprise that their build-up to the tournament had limited success. They finished 4th in the 2019 Rugby Europe Championship with wins against just Belgium and Germany. In the 2019 Nations Cup, they lost in Uruguay but won at Argentina B and Namibia to finish 2nd. In their final warm-up matches, they were hammered 85-15 away to Italy before losing 22-35 to Jersey and 14-42 to Connacht, however they did manage a 40-0 victory over a Russian Club XV.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (5th in Pool A)
    • Japan 30-10 Russia
    • Russia 9-34 Samoa
    • Ireland 35-0 Russia
    • Scotland 61-0 Russia

While Russia did not come close to winning a match, they were certainly able to come away from the tournament with their heads held high, especially considering they weren’t expecting to compete in the tournament.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one expecting them to get routed in their matches following their poor warm-up performances, but in the tournament opener against Japan, they looked very dangerous and it was only late on that they fell off in the game, while a number of their attacks came to premature ends due to the heat and humidity leading to handling errors. Despite a short turnaround, they put in another strong performance against a fresh Samoan squad and can feel aggrieved that they did not play over half of the match against 13 men after Ray Lee-Lo and Motu Matu’u both got away with yellow cards for clear red card offences.

Despite Ireland fielding a heavily changed lineup, after 2 tries in the opening 15 minutes it looked like the Irish would run away with it. However, despite not making many chances of their own, the Bears made themselves incredibly hard to break down and limited their opponents to just 5 tries. Unfortunately, the Scotland match was a step too far and an overly passive defence was ripped to shreds by a free-flowing, attack-minded team.

Throughout the tournament, there were some fantastic performances, most notably from Tagir Gadzhiev, who was monumental throughout the tournament with great all-round performances. Wingers Kirill Golosnitskiy and German Davydov consistently made metres while also looking good in defence and int he kicking game, while captain Vasily Artemyev led the team with good performances, even if I feel that he struggled at times when forced to kick.

Looking Ahead

This is certainly an interesting time for Russia. Their squad for the tournament was the oldest in this year’s edition of the competition – almost half of the squad were aged over 31 – with no players from their last 5 years’ worth of U20s squads. It feels like this is a squad that could be about to enter a hard time. Of course, following recent news, it may be that Russia are unable to compete at RWC2023 anyway, as Russia has been given a 4-year ban from all major sporting events, so it may be that the next 4 years becomes about rebuilding with a view to qualifying for the 2027 tournament.

Whether they are aiming for 2023 or 2027, they have some great players to build a team around. Fly half Yuri Kushnarev may be reaching the end of his career, but they still have an experienced option in the form of Ramil Gaisin, who put in some strong performances in Japan. Gadzhiev, Davydov and Golosnitskiy are some of the youngest members of the squad, who the team should be built around over the coming years, as is prop Valery Morozov – the only member of the squad currently playing in one of the top European leagues.

While the youth needs to start coming through from the U20s and the 7s pathways, Russia needs more players playing in the elite leagues if they are to have any chance of being competitive in the World Cups and when pushing for qualification. It’s hard to imagine that teams would not have Gadzhiev on their radar and players like him could excel if they can get regular minutes in the Pro14, Premiership or Top 14. However, much like Georgia, I feel that for more long-term success, Russia needs to look at getting a franchise into the Pro14. Enisei-STM (7 wins) and Krasny Yar (2 wins) have won the Russian domestic league between them for the last 9 years and have both appeared in the European Rugby Challenge Cup over recent years, so one of these would be an ideal candidate, unless they wished to create an entirely new franchise. Regular rugby would allow Russia’s top players to compete at an elite level against the best of the best and, while it may take a while for them to be super competitive, I can’t help but feel that right now this would be more beneficial for the growth of the game than having the Southern Kings taking up space in the Pro14.

Are we seeing the end of Russia as a competitive team for the near future? I hope no, but only time will tell.

The RWC2019 Debrief: New Zealand

The RWC2019 Debrief: New Zealand

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 New Zealand.

RWC2019 Qualification

As defending champions, New Zealand qualified automatically for the tournament.

2019 Form

It was a mixed year for New Zealand. They shockingly finished 3rd in the shortened Rugby Championship, with just the 1 win in Argentina, while they also drew 16-16 at home to South Africa and were stunned by a 47-26 loss to Australia in Perth.

They did however get their own back on the Wallabies with a 36-0 victory at home, before defeating Tonga 92-7 in a warm-up match that saw them willingly go down to 14 men for the final 15 minutes.

During the year, a number of regular starters began to find their places at risk, with Reiko Ioane and Ben Smith being replaced by George Bridge and Sevu Reece, while Damian McKenzie’s injury suffered representing the Chiefs in Super Rugby eventually saw Beauden Barrett moved to fullback, with Richie Mo’unga coming in at flyhalf.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (1st in Pool B)
    • New Zealand 23-13 South Africa
    • New Zealand 63-0 Canada
    • New Zealand 71-9 Namibia
    • New Zealand C-C Italy
  • Quarterfinal
    • New Zealand 46-14 Ireland
  • Semifinal
    • England 19-7 New Zealand
  • Bronze Final
    • New Zealand 40-17 Wales

To start the tournament facing off against one of their biggest rivals was always going to be a hard match, but the All Blacks got off to a perfect start with a victory that left them highly likely to finish top of the pool. The Mo’unga/Barrett 10/15 axis and the change of personnel on the wings really began to function well, with Reece especially causing real issues for the Springbok defence, while the team also looked to capitalise on their opponents errors and punish them with tries. Against Canada and Namibia, they controlled the game well and built a platform to excel off regardless of the personnel on the pitch – just look at TJ Perenara’s try while he played on the wing against Namibia – though they did take a while to get going against Namibia, with a number of penalties (including 2 first half yellow cards for high tackles) and inaccuracies. Though the cancellation of their match against Italy due to Typhoon Hagibis put them through at the expense of the Italians, who were still mathematically able to qualify for the knockouts, I think that on the form shown in the previous 3 matches, the All Blacks would have qualified regardless.

Against Ireland, the All Blacks put in a performance that was terrifying and probably made many people feel that they were set to complete the three-peat. New Zealand played Ireland off the park, with Mo’unga controlling the game, Aaron Smith having one of his best performances in a while and hugely impressive performances from Reece and Ardie Savea too. Against England, however, they found themselves on the receiving end of a dominant performance, with the team struggling to deal with England’s quick defensive line and a lineout that was out to steal as much ball as possible. The additions of Perenara and Sonny Bill Williams brought an improvement to the performance, but too late to turn the game around.

With the Bronze final being a match that neither team appeared fully committed to, New Zealand ran riot against the Welsh. Mo’unga controlling the game and scoring a try, while Ben Smith looked back on form while scoring 2 tries as they took advantage of a Welsh defence that was over-chasing.

Not the best tournament for the All Blacks, but only one match that they should really look back on as a missed opportunity.

Looking Ahead

Let’s be honest, this cycle’s All Blacks squad was not the same quality of the last couple, but there were signs this year that the next cycle will see another top quality team coming through.

For so long, they have stuck to just Beauden Barrett at 10, but I have felt for a while that Mo’unga gives more control at flyhalf, while moving Barrett to 15 allows him to be even more dangerous. If they want to stick to the 10/15 playmaking combo, then they will be spoiled for choice when McKenzie returns from injury, while young fly halves like Josh Ioane, Stephen Perofeta and Tiaan Falcon will also be looking to put in huge performances in Super Rugby to break into the squad. While Williams and Ryan Crotty have likely played their last games in the black jersey, in Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown and Ngani Laumape (who I will continue to argue should have been in the squad), they have 3 world class centres to build the squad around, while Reiko Ioane is also a potential option in the centre and may look to revitalise his All Blacks career there with the quality of wingers coming through.

In the pack, Kieran Read will clearly be a loss, but the decision to use Ardie Savea at any available back row position has brought a great new dimension to the pack, allowing a more specialist fetcher like Sam Cane and then another player who can vary depending on the tactics, for example Shannon Frizell, Dalton Papalii, Luke Jacobson, Vaea Fifita and Akira Ioane, while injuries and suspensions for New Zealand’s main second rows over recent years have also allowed players like Patrick Tuipulotu and Jackson Hemopo to get some time in the squad, while Fifita is also an option there. Finally, in the front row, the majority of players are in their mid-late twenties so likely have another World Cup in them, while there are already young talented players coming through who will be pushing into the squad with a couple of good seasons in Super Rugby.

This is not a squad that will suddenly drop in quality anytime soon. The only thing that needs sorting right now is a replacement for Steve Hansen. While results and performances may suggest that he stayed in the role a season or 2 too long, he is still a highly experienced coach that has been with the team for so long. It is vital that New Zealand Rugby get the right man in to replace him, otherwise the improvements of the other teams around them over the last few years could see them come under pressure to stay in the top 3 of the World Rankings.

The RWC2019 Debrief: Namibia

The RWC2019 Debrief: Namibia

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 Namibia.

RWC2019 Qualification

Namibia qualified as Africa 1 by winning the 2018 Africa Gold Cup, winning all 5 games in the process.

2019 Form

Namibia finished bottom of the Nations Cup with losses to Argentina B and Russia, though they did manage to beat Uruguay. They won all 3 of their warm-up games, however these were not against internationals: facing a Sharks Invitational XV and the Southern Kings twice.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (4th in Pool B)
    • Italy 47-22 Namibia
    • South Africa 57-3 Namibia
    • New Zealand 71-9 Namibia
    • Namibia C-C Canada

With 2 of the tournament favourites and another Tier 1 nation in Italy all in this pool, things were never going to be easy for the Welwitschias. They put up a good fight against the Italians and scores a couple of good tries, but they tired as the game went on and it let Italy build up a scoreline that could have been even more damaging had their handling not been better. Moving onto their highly vaunted neighbours, they were unable to deal with the physicality of the Springboks pack and were dominated at the set piece, which made it easy for them to be manipulated by the back line. Despite this – and 2 yellow cards – though, the team again fought hard throughout to stop the scoreline getting too one-sided.

With the All Blacks next up, it was easy to imagine that we would be witnessing a rout from the first minute. However, Namibia shocked everyone by putting in a big performance that held New Zealand to just a 10-9 lead after 30 minutes. Though the All Blacks eventually ran away with the match to score more than in the same fixture in the 2015 tournament, the match statistics showed just how much Namibia had improved, with far better stats for possession and metres made.

Going into the tournament, I imagine that Namibia were targeting their final match against Canada as their best chance of a win. Sadly, the impact of Typhoon Hagibis resulted in the match being cancelled, though earlier results meant that they finished above the North Americans courtesy of points difference.

Looking Ahead

This is a good time for Namibia. While there are some players in their 30s who have likely played their last World Cup, the majority of the squad are young enough to have a good chance of representing their country again in France in 2023, while key players like halfbacks Damian Stevens and Cliven Loubser, who have a combined age of 46. In Johan Deysel, JC Greyling and Johann Tromp, they have some fantastic players who will bring great experience to any side – the kind of star players that a team of Namibia’s level needs.

While Namibia look set to continue pushing for that Africa 1 spot, they are a long way from pulling off a result against Tier 1 opposition. Only a couple of the squad are playing in the top flight European leagues, with the majority of the players part of the Welwitschias Currie Cup squad. If Namibia are to continue improving, they need to have more representation in Super Rugby and other top flight competition. With the lack of success the Southern Kings have been having (and the relative lack of focus on them compared to the Super Rugby franchises), I can’t help but feel that the Welwitschias would find more benefit from competing in the Pro14, though I feel that Georgia (at least) should be ahead of them in the list of possible Pro14 franchises.

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.