Expert Witness: World Cup # 3

Date published: September 30 2015

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After a week of upset and controversy, this week's Expert Witnesses are former Ireland full-back and now Harlequins Director of Rugby, Conor O'Shea, along with Exeter Chiefs and former Australia A openside flanker, Julian Salvi.

They say a week is a long time in politics but at this year's Rugby World Cup it seems to go by in the blink of an eye.

The headline is without doubt host nation England's loss to Wales and their forthcoming match with old foes Australia on Saturday, and we make no apologies for that being the focus of this week's column:

No Hindsight Coaching!

"It's now knock out rugby for England," said O'Shea.

"Focus now on next weekend not last weekend is utterly key; you cannot 'hindsight coach' and nor, in a game of 80 minutes, can you spend your time highlighting granular decisions or incidents.

"The simple truism is that England, when on top, failed to control what became a very disjointed and disrupted second half.

"People are harshly criticising the penalty call, but there's three parts to this: the decision itself; Chris (Robshaw) made that call and there is no wrong or right answer to his choice; if the second part, execution, had worked, then we'd not be having the debate. The third part is control, both of the match situation, the execution itself and the outcome, and it's the control, over the last 40 minutes, not just that line out, that let England down. 

"As long as the thought process to make a call is right, you don't criticise on outcome as so many people have done," explained the Quins" coach.

"Do you reflect, discuss and learn? Yes you do. But you don't 'hindsight coach' because the next challenge is in front of you, not behind you," he explained.

"What we should be applauding is the desire and performance of the Welsh. They are a side of massive character and have a lot of caps and that, together with a remarkable performance from Dan Biggar, and also Alun-Wyn Jones who was immense, saw them through."

The Red Zone

"England will be concerned about the penalty count, for sure. In previous EW columns we've said keeping the red zone scoreboard rolling is the absolute key to survival and winning matches; Wales did this better than England," said O"Shea.

"People are also highlighting turnover count as an issue for England, but forget that if you have greater possession than the opposition, simply, you've more time and more ball to be turned over, whether that be at line out, scrum, contact, wherever.

"If you look at the effort Argentina put in against New Zealand and also how Vern Cotter's Scotland have just chipped away at the scoreboard, then you'll see elements of good practice from both," he observed.

Turnovers and Ball Quality

Julian Salvi, a king of turnover ball whether in colours of the Brumbies, Leicester or Exeter, sees that Australia will trouble England at the breakdown, but highlights that in order to win, Australia will have to also match England's formidable set piece:

"Australia have always been the side that has relied upon invention and creativity to win matches. In the majority of Tests we play against major nations, we will come off second in possession stats. It happened when we beat the All Blacks in July and it happens often," said Salvi.

"What people often don't see is that when we get the ball we tend get quality fast ball and we have the firepower to use it. 

"Conor highlighted that the more ball you have the more you can get turned over. Factor in then that the Australian breakdown effort is exceptional and our backrow in particular have proven their prowess as a unit in this area, then my feeling is, if we can subdue the English setpiece and power, we can take the match. 

"We're happy to back our system and defence, and use the breakdown dominance and creativity of our players to do the rest," explained Salvi.

"As a traditional seven myself, I do see, especially in England's case, a lack of true "over the ball" opensides emerging. The sides doing well in international rugby have a man in this role, but are predominantly Southern Hemisphere nations. 

"Sadly we're a dying breed up here, so it seems, but ironically it could be precisely the reason why Australia, South Africa and New Zealand are prospering," commented Salvi.

O'Shea, a keen rugby intellect, added:

"67 percent of tries have come from lineouts or turnover ball in this World Cup, two areas where Australia excel," he explained.

"England's selections will be interesting. Frankly, the lack game time of Burgess and Barritt together at this level will have the likes of Matt Giteau licking their lips with anticipation and I have a suspicion Australia might have a field day if they're retained. I'd add that Giteau alone has almost four times as many caps as the England pairing put together (97 versus 29)

"Equally, I also expect Joe Launchbury to return as he's exceptional at the breakdown and will counter the Wallaby threat there," he observed.

Impact and Replacement

"Of most worry to England is the relative lack of impact their changes made," noted Salvi

"Some were obviously injury enforced, but if you then look at the difference Charteris, whose presence alone forced England into a decision to throw to the front of the line at the end, and Justin Tipuric made, then they were a world apart from the efforts of the English substitutions," he said.

Fitness: Mental and Physical

Moving on to the other matches, both O"Shea and Salvi are delighted at the efforts of the so-called second tier nations and believes that the World Cup could still throw up some surprises:

"Ironically Wales, battered and bruised, have a huge banana skin ahead in Fiji," chuckled O'Shea.

"They have three enforced changes and are playing a side with skill levels and fitness way above Fijian sides of previous tournaments. However, look back at Saturday and you'll say Wales had the fitness edge, both physical and mental, whether through adrenalin, sheer will to win or conditioning, to be the stronger side at the end.

"There's also the notion that some sides have yet to have their fitness and mental toughness tests. As an Irishman I am concerned that Ireland, whilst looking good, haven't been close to being extended. 

"They're a great and experienced team but they've not faced any real ferocity or intensity yet and there's a part of me that needs to see them really challenged if I believe they'll progress to the wire, although you could argue that France are in exactly the same boat too," he remarked.

"You can coast against the smaller nations, build flattering scorelines, but sometimes that leaves you very undercooked when the huge match comes up.  Argentina did New Zealand a huge favour by extended them in the opening fixture and that's really what you need," said O'Shea.

"Wales, paradoxically, may have done England a big courtesy," countered Salvi. 

"England go into Australia with seven days rest, the experience of an intense Test match the weekend before, and an absolute need to win to survive. Those are big motivators and England will come flying out of the traps at us.

"But fitness is both mental and physical; only the final whistle will tell us if England have the mental power to win," he noted.

Dark Horses

"Firstly, I have to say I like the way the Pumas are thinking and looking," observed O'Shea.

"We've highlighted Marcos Ayerza previously in this column, but the others now have hardened Test match experience from the Rugby Championship and I'll tell you no-one will relish a quarter final against them. 

"Ironically, as ultimate winners, I see South Africa as a dark horse now, something that is hard to believe, but they looked hungry and powerful in their demolition of a dangerous Samoa, contrasting hugely with their first night nerves in the defeat by Japan. Like England, failure is not an option now for this proud rugby nation and they know anything but winning the Cup will result in ridicule when they go back home," said O'Shea.

Injuries

Injuries have yet again become the biggest talking point other than England this week, with some big names literally crashing out of competition. Wales' woes have already been covered, but losing the talents of Billy Vunipola and Jean de Villiers robs the tournament of some serious class.

Salvi is quick to hail the impact of de Villiers in particular:

"I had the privilege of playing against him a few times in Super Rugby and win or lose, he had such a balanced and sporting outlook.

"He's a real gent of the sport and played it in the right way and he'll be missed by everyone in the game," noted Salvi.

England's back rower Billy Vunipola will be replaced by O'Shea"s right hand man of some ten seasons, the evergreen Nick Easter. How does the Quins Director of Rugby feel about losing one of his key men?

"I am delighted for Nick, truly. He worked his backside off to be at this tournament despite a nagging back injury and I can quite honestly say his omission devastated him. I know what he'll give and what he'll bring – 100 percent in every facet of his game," concluded O'Shea.

We thank both Julian and Conor for their time in speaking with us and Expert Witness will be back next week to rake over the coals of what promises to be another tremendous weekend of rugby.

Conor O'Shea played 35 times for Ireland and is now Director of Rugby at Harlequins. Julian Salvi played 63 times for the Brumbies before taking up the colours of Leicester Tigers, and latterly, Exeter Chiefs. Julian is an ambassador for the famous Matt Hampson Foundation, supporting injured players around the sport. 

Conor O’Shea and Julian Salvi spoke to James While

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