Expert Witness: World Cup #4

Date published: October 8 2015

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Expert Witness is joined by two former England skippers and World Cup winners, Martin Corry and Lewis Moody, to examine the embers of a catastrophic campaign for the Rugby World Cup hosts and an exciting one for visiting nations.

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Brilliant Wallabies

"The way Australia played was absolutely outstanding," hailed Martin Corry, a man that beat Australia in two successive World Cups.

"However, it was hardly unexpected. The Wallabies have been ripping it up in the Rugby Championship and put in some really defining performances in the last few months. Yes, they were brilliant and compelling, but England also have to have a look at how they allowed Australia to play," he added.

Lewis Moody, who led England to the quarter-finals in 2011, recognises that the Wallaby effort was led by two traditional sevens:

"Both Michael Hooper and David Pocock are exceptional players, as good as there is in the game right now. They both thrive on deconstructed rugby and I have to admire how Pocock can still be even playing after the all the knee issues he’s faced.

"With ten minutes to go, when I realised we were pretty much out, I had an overwhelming sense of sadness and devastation. No tournament should be without its hosts at this point in the competition. It’s rather like the guy running the party going to bed early!

"However, I honestly am under no illusion in regards to what this group of players put into this tournament, the absolute effort, the commitment. None of that should be questioned or faulted in the analysis of the game. They are good men and I know first-hand exactly the pain they are experiencing right now. No words can articulate it.

"But there was an edge missing, both to thought and to discipline, that seemed to let us down both here and against Wales," observed the former England openside.

"Let’s not either denude the brilliance of Bernard Foley and his backs outside. They used the ball clinically, as we know Wallaby sides are capable of. We knew their scrum was greatly improved so to arrive at a game relying on scrum dominance and penalties was never going to be enough to secure a win."

Breakdown of the Breakdown

Last week, Julian Salvi observed that bossing the contact zone would be the key to winning this game and was proven absolutely correct. Martin Corry believes that England simply didn't do enough preparation work in this area:

"We knew exactly how good these guys are; they've both done this to us before. We had no ability or vision to target the ruck, to strip out their work early, as either hit contact. Nor did we have the tactic to use ‘spotters’ to almost man-mark and counter them at ruck-time, which was a real oversight," he observed.

"A case in point was the opening Bernard Foley try. It was a move of brilliance finished superbly. But look at the build up and note the speed of ruck ball during the phases leading up to it. It was lightening rucking and that pressure reduced England's defensive numbers, leaving a fly-half and wing attacking a lock two on one.

"In the second half, Australia made the same in-to-out move that produced the Foley try, but this time off slow ball due to England’s spoiling of the ruck. This time it failed, and that was down to the comparative slowness of the initial breakdown ball," explained Corry.

Moody, a player who played at both six and seven for England refuses to be drawn on the Steffon Armitage debate but points out that England rarely produce the traditional seven so prevalent in Australia and New Zealand:

"How many pure world-class opensides have we produced?" he asked.

"Neil Back, Peter Winterbottom and maybe, even though well before my time, Tony Neary? I certainly am a six and half, as was Richard Hill, and the difference seems to be that the Southern Hemisphere produce specialists whilst we produce all-rounders," he noted.

"I do think that the different refereeing styles, with a breakdown contest of equality more favoured in the Southern Hemisphere, means that in the Rugby Championship and other tournaments it is easier to evolve those skills whilst the interpretations up here are leading to a more power-orientated style of back row forward," observed Moody.

"But even by saying that, there was a lack of disruptive influence, a man doing the dog work and getting into the faces of the opposition, something that despite not being a traditional seven, was always one of my key personal aims," he explained.

Ramifications

With inquiries threatened post World Cup, axes being sharpened and pens being poisoned hither and thither, England must not lose the learning or structure that has evolved under Lancaster, but equally both former British and Irish Lions believe that something is missing.

"We must examine the resources we have and make sure we've got the best men, structure and tactics available. We cannot avoid the fact there’s a lot of big questions to be asked," noted Corry.

Lewis Moody is upbeat about the World Cup overall and, whilst disappointed, believes the tournament is healthy:

"Yes, there’s always going to be a media backlash, we all know that.

"But look elsewhere in the competition and there’s so much that’s going on that is so good for the game," he noted.

"It is very disappointing we are out and whichever way you cut it, it’s not great for the game in England or the Cup itself. But losing sight of the brilliance of the other sides and the spirit in which the players, fans and media have embraced the competition would be a great shame and I really hope that does not happen."

Boxing above their weight

"People have mentioned before the contribution of the so-called minnows of the World Cup," he continued.

"The spirit, the passion and the excellence the likes of Tonga, Japan and Fiji have shown is exceptional. They're playing a great brand of rugby- exciting, passionate and skillful- and I am delighted to see how much the game has moved on even in the three years since I retired," he enthused.

"Argentina, a side previously noted for the simple tactics of beating sides up in the tight and playing a power game, are now producing thrilling 15-man rugby performances, with huge mobility in their pack and pace outside," noted Moody.

"Even Georgia’s power has a thing of natural beauty about it, especially when New Zealand came up against it! It was brilliant for the game again," he chuckled.

Corry added: "Japan, as an example, have always had superb commitment and a really great skill level. Importing Steve Borthwick’s technical skills to their forwards has paid huge dividends and the results speak for themselves. Any top-tier nation is happy to achieve parity in those areas against South Africa. For Japan to have done it is outstanding if not unbelievable.

"Coaching and exposure to the big tournaments have both been key for these smaller nations. Witness Tonga’s multi-phase attacking ambition at the weekend and the subsequent Argentinean reply, and you can see, as Lewis says, just how far these guys have come even in three years." 

The Big Guns

With England out, Wales depleted by injuries, France infuriatingly inconsistent, Ireland perhaps not hitting their top form quite yet and Scotland failing to build upon their good work against the smaller nations, the World Cup looks destined to remain in the Southern Hemisphere once more. What do our experts make of the potential quarter-final line up?

"Australia have easily put in the most impressive display so far and have great form in the lead up," explained Moody.

"It will be interesting to see if they can replicate that against a Welsh side depleted by injury but with some big characters in it.

"New Zealand are in a strange place at the moment; they are not  anywhere near the level of execution you associate with the All Blacks; 19 unforced errors versus Georgia is not what we expect from them. However, peaking at the right time is an art and you can bet that they'll absorb the lessons and, worryingly for other teams, improve even further," said Moody.

Corry believes that South Africa, wounded after the Japan game, have lost a major weapon in Jean de Villiers: "The Springbok game relies a lot around Jean’s directness but also his ability to vary the attacking points in the 12 channel," he explained.

"I don't think they're quite the side without him," concluded Corry.

Who could have predicted it?

With one weekend to go, it is almost unthinkable to think Japan have a chance of qualifying whilst England have perished and Scotland could follow suit if events conspire against them.

The big match ups of the weekend feature Wales and Australia, and Ireland versus France.

Moody believes embracing the tournament without the hosts is still key and is relishing the battles ahead:

"Purely on a rugby level, the standard, as I said before, has been so wonderful it’s breathtaking to watch.

"How can you not enjoy the challenges we've seen? It’s the World Cup that just keeps on giving! Even when England were being beaten, I still admired the superb display of the Australians, and I can't wait to see the Pool A top table clash (Australia v Wales) on Saturday, something that will really calibrate both sides’ efforts.

"Elsewhere Tonga will challenge even New Zealand’s defence if their showing against Argentina was a measure, and Ireland/France is crucial as both teams need to put a marker down, and neither have quite done than yet," explained Moody.

"As I said before, in the three years since I have retired, the change in ambition and standard of all the sides has moved forward, and that’s the thing this Rugby World Cup should be remembered for; the excellence of the rugby."

Expert Witness will be back next week to comment on the final round of the dramatic pool stages of the 2015 Rugby World Cup

Martin Corry MBE, a powerful back-row forward, played 64 times for England and won seven British and Irish Lions Test caps. An iconic figure in the colours of Leicester Tigers, he skippered England 16 times and won a World Cup winners medal in 2003.

Lewis Moody MBE, a tearaway flanker, played 71 times for England, winning the World Cup in 2003 and skippering England in the 2011 RWC. He will always be remembered for winning the lineout that led to ‘that drop goal’. He now spends his free time promoting his children’s charity.

Corry and Moody spoke to James While. 

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