Wednesday, November 04, 2015

#RWC2015 - one final post to bring closure


This is a post meant to do exactly what it says in the title.

Time, tide and the screwball European rugby calendar wait for no man so before turning the site’s attention fully to matters domestic, I thought I’d scrawl one final post on RWC2015 to wrap things up, and to achieve this I’ll scatter a few headings down the page and project a few thoughts underneath each one.

TEAM HARPIN

First things first - while I run this site myself from an admin standpoint, there’s no way I could churn out the amount of content you see here all on my own, and over the World Cup period in particular I have to thank immensely those who chipped in.

Doing a bang-up job writing “8-0-reviews” covering the entire pool phase we had Big Joe Shep on Pool A, Ciarán Duffy on Pool B and Emma McGarry on Pool C - they went on to cover the knockout stages admirably as well as other posts throughout the tournament.

A wonderful added bonus was the “Team of the Week” post by Mark Jackson every Tuesday as well as offerings from Kristian Ross, Kevin O’Brien and Neil Keegan.

Then we have the sponsors...many thanks to the IRFU, Heineken Ireland, IrishFreeBet.com, Front Up Rugby, Dtwo Nightclub & Bar, Mercier Press, O’Brien Press and Coolbaby.ie for their help with both keeping the lights on here at Harpin Manor and running competitions for the readers.

And speaking of readers, I also must thank you for coming back, sharing, liking, posting, commenting; hey, I even don’t mind the trolling as much as I used to ;-) Mahoosive thumbs up to you all.

THE FINAL

One match we never got around to harping on yet was, ironically, the final itself, so what say I cover that here.

No doubt whatsoever that the right team won both the day and the tournament. That said, I thought they were a LITTLE fortunate towards the end of the first half. A forward pass was missed on the way to the penalty that made it 9-3, then in the build up to the Milner-Skudder try we had Ma’a Nonu running into Dan Carter who was ahead of him while I felt many refs would have rewarded Scott Fardy’s efforts at a breakdown under his posts with a penalty yet the All Blacks were given a few crucial extra seconds to win the ball.

Again - I’m not saying NZ didn’t deserve to win on the day, and there is no doubt Nigel Owens was the best official in the tournament and deserved the final. I just can’t write about the final without pointing out those 10 points before the interval which put a huge dent in the Wallabies’ chances.

The second half started with the superb Nonu try created by Sonny Bill’s improbable offloading skills and it looked that that was all she wrote, but then a Ben Smith brainfart (he had another, if only by NZ standards, with a knock on in the first half) put him in the bin and say what you like about a man advantage, it still takes a hell of a team to put 14 points even on just 14 All Blacks and much like Ireland got some credit for getting within 3 of the Pumas, so should Cheika’s men for reducing the deficit to just 4.

But then we had “that” drop goal from man of the match Dan Carter. Some say it’s a dying art and it’s true we don’t see much of it in test rugby anymore. When I watched this effort live I was a bit cynical saying “well since he wasn’t in the pocket there wouldn’t have been any blockers”. On seeing the replay I was proven way wrong. It was an awesome strike. Then he followed that up with an almighty thump of a placekick which dropped perfectly over the crossbar. It was a dream final display for a true legend of the game.

And as if that wasn’t enough to rub the All Blacks’ dominance in our faces, the cherry on the icing on the cake was provided by Carter’s heir apparent Beauden Barrett. His nifty footwork showed us all (as if we needed telling mind you) that they’ll also be the team to beat in 2019.

NORTH v SOUTH

One of the reasons I want to put this post out today is that the European rugby season is being launched over in London as this is published, and for me that speaks volumes for why the hemispheric gap in test rugby seems wider now than it ever was.

I mean - the bunting is barely down from Twickenham for the final and already we’re looking at the biggest domestic competition in Europe? Am I the only one who thinks that’s just plain nuts? Particularly when the English & French clubs went so far out of their way to make the competition mimic football’s Champions League.

As much as we rugby types love to lord it over our round-ball rivals for having the superior product, I’m afraid they have us bang to rights when it comes to balancing out the calendar so that international coaches can spend the maximum amount of time with their players. And within rugby, it’s the southern hemisphere that has the north bang to rights in the same area. Nothing will change until the European calendar does, and in the meantime the south will continue ruling test rugby while the north holds sway over the uber-rich club version.

SWINGING LOWER THAN EVER

The English - wonderful at organizing rugby off the pitch, not so much on it these days.

Everyone who was physically there for the tournament seems to be saying it was the best ever so I have to believe them. Ticket prices were a “tad” high, but then again the crowd numbers suggest the levels were vindicated.

As for the team’s early exit, well...I think it’s grossly unfair to Stuart Lancaster for the press to be linking different names with his job while he still holds it, though I suppose that’s inevitable. It’s a pity they weren’t questioning his decisions before the World Cup failure, however.

I’m not saying they should have gone full tabloid on him, but while there were have been some good results during his reign, there were also some bad ones which seem to have been airbrushed out of history and this, along with some big decisions that went wrong, have led to their disappointment in my book.

Uppermost among those decisions is the freezing out of foreign-based players like Steffon Afrmitage. In a way I can’t fully blame the RFU for this as it relates to the calendar point I make above, but even with those limitations, I can’t condone leaving out players based on where they ply their trade. Just look how doing the exact opposite worked for Australia.

Finally there’s Slammin Sam Burgess. Many column inches being filled these days with much speculation on his future. I have one question - I’m not sure if anyone else has asked this and I’d be very surprised if we’ll ever know the answer but I still want to put this out there…was he guaranteed a spot in England’s World Cup squad as a part of the deal that lured him away from the NRL? Of course I can’t prove it, and it’s probably your classic blogger's conspiracy theory, but I think he was.

But anyway...whether he was or not, there can be no doubting it was a gamble that failed. Flippin eck they couldn’t even fully work out whether he should be a forward or a back? Not the sort of uncertainty you want surrounding any of your 31 squad members shortly before a RWC.

I am not happy England failed. I want them to be tough to beat so that Ireland can feel even better when we beat them. But they definitely need to look at how they structure their game and perhaps now after a decade of Irish & French clubs repeatedly beating them to European titles, Ireland and Wales repeatedly beating them to Six Nations titles and southern hemisphere teams repeatedly beating them to World Cups, they’ll take stock and make changes.

TIER 2 NATIONS

Japan beat South Africa. I will never forget that game as long as I live. It could well be the most memorable World Cup game of all time. BUT...when it comes to the gap between Tiers 1 and 2 in World Rugby, that result is, to coin a phrase, the “exception that proves the rule”. Look at the final tables across the pool stage at RWC2015.

Apart from that one amazing Saturday evening in Brighton, all of the pools have one team that won all their matches, one that won all but one, one that won all but two, all the way down to the bottom team which lost all four.

And although we were told that the “turnaround” problem at Rugby World Cups was solved, it clearly wasn’t. Ireland were spoiled having a match every weekend but not all 20 nations were so lucky and more often than not it was a Tier 2 nation hard done by.

The Tier 2 nations need more than just lip service. They need definite action by the newly-branded World Rugby that befits its name. For me, they have no remit more important than to close the gap between the Six Nations/SANZAR cartel and the rest of the World. Yes, that could well mean Ireland dropping a ranking place or two. It might even make it tougher for us to reach our holy grail of an RWC semifinal.

But the way I see it, if you’re true rugby fan, you want to spread the word everywhere not keep it to yourself like a naughty secret.

LAWS OF THE GAME

Always a topic of conversation around World Cup time, and for me the weeks after these tournaments provide the perfect opportunity to look at where changes need to be made.

One thing I will note from this competition - all hail the scrum!!!! Nowhere near the passion-killing topic it has been in recent years, and I suppose we have to thank the tweaks to the Laws for this. Of course not everything is perfect - props will always chance their binding arm whatever the sequence of calls, 9s will always hide their crooked feeds, and one that is rarely mentioned, flankers will always either break too early or bind illegally to help their side’s cause.

I was also pretty impressed by the way dangerous play was handled for the most part - they were looking for the “neck rolls”, we saw the “tip tackle” dealt with in the final amid little complaint, and you saw evidence throughout the tournament that the sport is paying mind to concussion a lot more than it used to.

TMO usage is definitely one area that needs looking at. Though to be fair I think people are criticizing the protocols based on individual incidents rather than looking at the big picture. It is an extremely difficult area to get the legislation perfect and I actually think rugby union should be commended for travelling down such an uncertain road in the first place. Still a lot of distance to travel though.

Overall, though the Scots won’t thank me for this, I’d say that if the tournament’s biggest controversy was over whether or not a player was in an offside position, then that’s a result for the Laws as they stand right now.

*SIGH* IRELAND’S FALL

Do I have to? Oh, alright. “Gutted” is an overused phrase these days when it comes to sport but ten minutes into that quarterfinal, I was (metaphorically of course!).

Up to that point, I really thought this was our year to at least crack the final four, and I wasn’t alone. However, what heightened the disappointment was the fact that I felt my confidence was somehow naive, somehow totally wrong.

Since then, though it has been a hard slog to get to this point, I understand I wasn’t wrong to have those expectations. I wanted to find reasons beyond the injuries but I just couldn’t find them. I know that’s tough on the 23 that played in Cardiff but you can’t lose the core players you built your squad around and expect things to go well no matter what happens.

Joe Schmidt took the helm 2 years into a RWC cycle and had BOD’s farewell tour to navigate. He came up with a plan, it was a very well-thought-out one, and it was one that brought success in the Six Nations. But it was also a high-risk plan and one that couldn’t afford to lose too many key components.
And the players we relied on most for leadership, offence, defence and aggression were a whole lot of key components to lose - with O’Mahony and Bowe thrown in for good measure.

Yes Argentina were awesome, yes we made mistakes. But for me the above paragraph lies front and centre in how things fell apart for us. So where do we go from here?

A fun fact about David Nucifora - he was on the bench for the Wallabies at Lansdowne Road back in 1991 when we came closer than ever to the RWC semis. Now he is charged with not only getting us there, but also with ensuring the general well being of the game on this island. He has been in his job for about 16 months now, and I for one wouldn’t have expected anything more than observation from him up to this point. Now, however, having observed, I’m expecting him to show his worth.

Beaurocracy can often be a curse, but Nucifora’s first big test will be the report following our World Cup campaign. We need it to be thorough, we need it to be frank and most of all, we need it to provide a blueprint for the future. Whether we get to read it or not is another matter, but for me once it centers around keeping Joe in situ (even if he needs to sit out the 2017 Six Nations for Lions purposes) and adequately replacing Les Kiss (even if that means Kurt McQuilkin’s return to Leinster being short-lived) then I’ll be happy.

Then, assuming nothing will be done about need for change in the European rugby calendar, we can knuckle down to clearing a path for RWC2019 that focuses on keeping our players fit, expanding our options for when they’re not, and developing our style to such a point that we really can challenge the almighty southern hemisphere when it counts.

See? I’ve cracked it. No need for that report after all David, eh?

On a more serious note, while from an Irish standpoint was a disappointing World Cup, knowing the state of the game here these days as I do having been harping on it for a year or two, I’m certainly of a “glass-half-full” mind when it comes to the way forward. And from a wider standpoint, while the sport of rugby union still has many issues to address, I think it’s fair to say that #RWC2015 has done a decent enough job of bringing the sport forward, so kudos to all involved.

It will be interesting to see how much further we can bring the game ahead of the next incarnation of the tournament in Japan. JLP
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