Continuing where we left off last week, Expert Witness looks to uncover the themes emerging from the eighth Rugby World Cup.
Joining us this week is the towering figure of former England, British and Irish Lions and Wasps lock, Simon Shaw.
They say a week is a long time in politics. In the Rugby World Cup, that week seemed endless with a twist, a surprise and a sub-plot in virtually ever match we witnessed.
Top of the pile of course, are the courageous Japanese, whose sun rose to the full meridian as they, against all odds, beat the double world champions South Africa.
Fitness v Age
Shaw, a man who played well into his late 30s believes a few common themes are emerging:
"The first thing I have noticed is the fitness levels of the emerging nations are on parity with the big guns. They've really upped their power and cardio ability, and this had been the reason why we've not seen some of the big scores of yore," explained the former Wasps powerhouse.
"Fitness is the one thing in your control. It’s a simple one; you know how fit you are, you know how fit you need to be, you know exactly what to do to get there and you have the support to help you there. It is then down to you. There is no excuse for anything less than exceptional levels these days.
"Japan saw an aging side in front of them. They were quicker, lower, more dynamic and Michael Leitch put in a performance of the highest class. In short, the Springboks were out-thought, out-run and out-played, and it’s exactly the result needed to light the fire under this year’s competition and to inspire the world to watch the tournament."
Elsewhere, New Zealand received a wake up call from an outstanding Pumas outfit, led by their durable front row.
"The All Blacks set every standard," mused Shaw.
"Fitness, execution, culture, skillset, they have the lot. Yes, Argentina pushed them hard, but how many times do you see NZ pull away in the last 15 minutes of the game? They know how long the battle lasts and they are the most patient side around, with an almost macabre sense of timing as to when to execute the killer blow, whether that be in the first or 80th minute.
"With regards to themes, one small concern I have, is out of the games I saw, every one had a slightly different interpretation of the tackler releasing and jackaling.
"Now, all the coaches study the refs and legislate how to work with them; we know Craig Joubert loves early release whereas others will allow more of a contest. However, the differing interpretation does not assist any side preparing for the long haul. I'm not criticizing any ref, but greater consistency is needed in these issues," warned Shaw.
With push and blitz defences so effective, another theme of the first weekend was the cross-field kick to the openside wing. Shaw harks back to his days with Jonny Wilkinson and suggests that, when executed properly, it’s an almost impossible tactic to defend:
"The first key to this is to get a couple of defending backs tied into the contact area on one of the sides of the field. The moment you do that, the full-back is forced to cover the holes in the defensive line," he noted.
"Once the defending winger steps inside to cover the runners, any kick means the defender is turning blind to catch the kick, whereas the attacking wing is running onto the ball with a full sight of it. If both are of size parity and the kick is good, you've a 70 percent chance of scoring, as we saw on a number of occasions.
"I see this continuing, especially with the size of some of the wingers in the tournament. Nadolo is big enough to play at lock, and even Antony Watson is a tall guy with great aerial skills."
Last week we cited the turnover as being a key to match domination. England’s victory over Fiji, might, on the face of it, seem like a low margin. Shaw begs to differ, pointing out just how professional Fiji have become.
"13 of those guys are plying their trade in the French Top 14," he explained.
"You learn all about the tight side of the game there and whilst Fiji have always had incredible handling skills, their experiences in the big leagues has forged a strong set piece and improved discipline no end.
"England; well it was a curate’s egg of a game for them, with a cameo from Mike Brown and Tom Wood displaying industry and work-rate that was impeccable.
"My biggest worry is not one unit in that team is settled. England do not know their best XV and they have no time to find out. The lineout is creaking; People have lambasted Marler’s performance, but study the tape and you will see that Lawes, behind him, is far too high on engagement. The moment Joe tries to get an angle on the tighthead, Lawes is skewing him out because he simply is not low enough.
"Support runners off the shoulder are not happening at all and that’s going to cost us.
"We all know that set-pieces, defences and gainline dominance wins World Cups. As things stand, with Sam Burgess and Billy Vunipola certain to be selected, England may, by default, find better combinations. I also expect Joe Launchbury to return; he is England’s breakdown boss and we need him badly," suggested Shaw.
"Worst of all for England, and as highlighted last week by Peter Winterbottom, to lose the turnover battle three to 11 is criminal. We will not progress with stats like that and that, out of all of the issues, this is the single biggest one. It needs sorting, and fast," explained Shaw.
Injuries are also set to become a theme, and perhaps is the cruellest mistress of fortune to the various teams:
"As a professional, you know just how hard your opponents have worked to get to this level. I wish no-body ill will and I'd rather beat the best XV around than win a game because the opposition is missing half its side. My heart goes out to Cory Allen, who was superb for Wales and it’s tragic for the tournament to be robbed of the skills of Yohan Huget, one of the world’s most exciting players," said the Lions lock.
"However the key here is there will be injuries and a lot more. The teams that have the strength in depth are the teams that will come out on the other side.
There were many other strong performances; Georgia were inspirational whilst Ireland were clinical. France blew hot and cold before their powerful pack and Nicolas Mas ensured a win.
However, the last word must go to the fans, the opening ceremony and the support of the weekend.
"It was breathtaking in every way. The ceremony wasn't milked, it wasn't overly long, but it had huge impact. It really was a goosebump moment for all concerned," observed Shaw.
"However, out of all the things that happened at the weekend, the story that will remain with me the longest is the humility of the South Africans in defeat. As the fan train pulled into Victoria station, rammed with supporters from both nations, the South Africans, as if choreographed, formed a guard of honour along the platform and applauded every single Japanese fan off the train and insisted they go through the ticket gates first.
"If that doesn't sum up the spirit of rugby, the meaning of true sportsmanship and the impact of this tournament, I don't know what does. It was tear-jerking and an exceptional gesture from a very proud rugby nation."
Simon Shaw MBE played in three World Cups and was a losing finalist in 2007. With a career spanning almost 20 years he won 71 caps for England and 2 for the British Lions. He is now a Director of Set Piece Events.
Simon Shaw spoke to James While
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