With the Rugby World Cup stages complete, Expert Witness is joined by three former Internationals: Frenchman Brian Liebenberg and Irish stars Geordan Murphy and Shane Byrne, to examine an historic week in the tournament.
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The 23 Man Game
"This Rugby World Cup so far has really shown the importance of the strength of your squad," noted former Ireland full-back Murphy.
"As an Irishman, I look back at the French game on Sunday and the key difference between the two sides was the way the bench performed.
"If you’d have told me that we would lose Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Keith Earls and Johnny Sexton, all in one match through injury, I’d have not expected a victory. It says a huge amount about Joe Schmidt and the way he’s implemented a pattern and system into the Irish game, that players like Ian Madigan, Chris Henry and company could enter the fray and put in such huge performances.
"It highlights the need for strength in depth across all 23 matchday players and showed this is fast becoming a squad based tournament, as Wales, Australia, South Africa and Ireland have all clearly demonstrated."
Brian Liebenberg, a powerful centre for both Stade Français and France, concurs: "I agree with Geordan and conversely there was a real lack of impact from the French bench and almost an acceptance that we’d lost the match. Worryingly, we seemed to shut down mentally," he explained.
France have typically proven to be New Zealand’s biggest hurdle in knock-out rugby; was there perhaps a sense that the French would genuinely prefer the All Blacks in the quarter-finals rather than their old foes, Argentina?
"Ha! I don’t think you ever go into a game looking to do anything other to win," observed Liebenberg.
"But, there is a degree of truth in this; kids are brought up in France watching the brilliance of Blanco, Benazzi, and Dominici in the World Cup against the All Blacks, and I think it’s fair to say that we fear them less than perhaps other nations do. And some might say that France need a game where they’ve got nothing to lose in order to bring the best out in us, as we’ve seen on quite a few occasions."
Elsewhere, Welsh injury woes continued in their loss to Australia and Scotland huffed and puffed to overcome a spirited Samoa led by a virtuoso performance by Kahn Fotuali'i. Again, the depth of squad was highlighted to all.
"Wales have really been unfortunate in the lead up and during the tournament," said Murphy.
"But, they’ve some wise heads and some serious Test match performers in their team and that knowledge has pulled them through, beaten and battered, into the quarter finals.
"Wales, like Ireland, have a clearly defined and mature system and this allows players to slot into a system rather than struggle to bring their own identity into the team.
"Again, not many sides could afford to lose the dominant Michael Hooper from a starting XV, but just look at how Scott Fardy and Sean McMahon stepped up to the plate. Both are more of a physical presence than Hooper and Australia adjusted their game plan to allow those guys to go into contact, Pocock to lead the recycle and produce the fast ball the Wallabies crave. Textbook stuff, and Australia really look to be the form side right now."
The Perfect World Cup!
"This is quickly panning out to be almost the perfect World Cup for everyone, bar the hosts," smiled Liebenberg.
"The quarter-finals have a real feeling of ‘old scores to be settled’.
"So far, the tournament has been so memorable for many reasons, but above all, it will be the year the mice roared, with some amazing performances from the Tier Two nations, led by the Brave Blossoms, Japan, but also with notable advances by Georgia, Romania, Tonga and Fiji.
"You also have to admire the fortitude of the hosts, who, after seeing their side dumped out, have circled the wagons and just supported the game, the tournament and the spirit of rugby; it’s been quite incredible," he added.
Geordan Murphy, Leicester Tigers’ Attack and Skills Coach, believes that time is the key to producing good teams and that the emerging nations have benefitted from their extended time together:
"The opportunity for these sides to spend 12 weeks or more together can’t be underestimated," he explained.
"Normally they might have four or five days together before a Test, but the extended periods have allowed coaches like Eddie Jones to really work on the two pillars of winning rugby – the set-piece and the defence. As a result you’ve seen far fewer ‘blow-out’ games like some of the 100-0 drubbings we’ve seen in the past.
"They’ve really been a credit to the tournament, and the world cannot wait to see the fortunes of the tournament in Japan in 2019," he said.
Shane Byrne on the Japanese Set Piece
Former Ireland and British Lions Hooker Shane Byrne was a noted scrummage and line-out technician and examines the Japanese set-piece in detail:
"The first thing to notice about the Japanese scrum is the low height of all eight- it really is paper height, which is ideal, especially considering they’re generally not the biggest side around. The key to this is low, straight hips on engagement, string arms by both props, with a straight back. On the hit, they extend low to high to get a small nudge in the tighthead, all that’s needed. Their position is so low it allows the tighthead to lead all of the power with his right shoulder, with a slight wheel on his side so the number eight can protect the ball.
"Contrary to popular fashion, the hooker is now in an ideal position to actually strike, rather than just drive over the ball and the Japanese strike rather than drive.
"The combination of the height, strike and wheel allows the ball to arrive down channel one, with the number eight wheeled away from the opposition scrumhalf.
"Result: a speed of ball and restart of such cleanness and speed the backs will send you Birthday Cards," laughed Byrne.
"Nothing defined the Japanese excellence quite as well as the Mafi try at Kingholm versus the USA.
"Classic middle ball, with the middle pod walking and lifting the jumper infield to take a lob, toward the 15m line, thus opening a hole at the front; then the backrow peel to the front, take the caught ball, and form a maul to send Mafi scampering over through the hole."
"Absolute perfection in scrummaging and lineout and every single team should learn from it."
The Form Book
With just 240 minutes of rugby left for any of the competing sides, we asked our Experts to read the tea-leaves and examine the form book for the games ahead:
Australia v Scotland:
Geordan Murphy: "Australia are playing complete, fast rugby. They’re rightly the favourites and have shored up any question marks over their scrummage. The speed of their breakdown is exceptional and they’ve the gas and skill outside through Foley, Giteau and Folau to beat the best."
Brian Liebenberg: "Vern Cotter has really bolted down the basics of Scottish Rugby and made them competitive. Stuart Hogg excites me time and time again with his incursions and Greg Laidlaw is the classic nuggety scrum-half in the mould of Laidlaw and Armstrong before him."
Verdict: The Wallabies just have too much in all departments for the well-organised Scots: Australia by 14.
France v New Zealand:
Geordan Murphy: "New Zealand are nowhere near their best, but they just keep winning! Jason Leonard always said ‘never peak too early’ and they’ve taken his advice. The truth is the world better beware as they can only get better, and a lot better."
Brian Liebenberg: "As I said before, France don’t fear the All Blacks quite as other sides do. It’s a huge mountain to climb and discipline is key, but I know the French will throw the kitchen sink at them and I reckon it’ll be a classic, but in the end, New Zealand will have just too much skill and pace."
Verdict: All Blacks to take their game up a gear and prepare for the semis: New Zealand by 10.
Ireland v Argentina:
Geordan Murphy: "A real tough one to call; if Ireland hadn’t so many walking wounded, I’d be confident, but injuries and the Pumas' form dictate this one will be very close. Ireland will play to strengths, use a kicking game and a gain line game to pressure the Pumas and I think that might be enough."
Brian Liebenberg: "Argentina have played a style of rugby that defies people’s perception of them as a 10-man game team. They’ve been expansive, creative and powerful in the tight. Ireland are going into this game on the back foot with injury and also past results, and I really believe the Pumas can pull this one off."
Verdict: A split decision from our experts.
Wales v South Africa:
Geordan Murphy: "Another plum fixture! Both sides play powerful route one rugby, but I cannot help but conclude that the Springbok power in the scrum and lineout will see them home."
Brian Liebenberg: "If Wales had all available, this one would be too close to call but with the casualty list reaching epic proportions, I believe that South Africa will have just that bit too much power, despite the character and sheer will to win of the Welsh side."
Verdict: A close match with the South African tight game proving the difference: South Africa by eight.
We thank Brian, Geordan and Shane for their time once more in putting together this piece. Next week’s Expert Witness will feature the oldest player ever to score a hat-trick at a Rugby World Cup when England’s veteran back rower, Nick Easter, joins us for more analysis.
Shane Byrne played 41 times for Ireland and twice for the British and Irish Lions. A great technical hooker, he represented Saracens and Leinster.
Geordan Murphy played 74 times for Ireland and twice for the British and Irish Lions and is now Backs and Skills Coach at Leicester Tigers, a club he represented for 10 years.
Former Stade Français Brian Liebenburg played 14 times for France, scoring a hat-trick in the 2003 RWC. He now owns his own coaching products company and remains active in coaching and mentoring the next generation of players in France.
Byrne, Liebenberg and Murphy spoke to James While.
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