Expert Witness: RWC #6

Date published: October 21 2015

With the semi-final line up complete we’re joined this week by England number eight Nick Easter, to cast a critical eye on the World Cup that just keeps giving and giving.

The World turned upside down

It’s a sad indictment of the fortunes of the northern hemisphere sides that, at the semi-final stage there’s no representatives left in the tournament, thus leaving it as a repeat of the Rugby Championship, albeit with a bigger prize. Are the southern hemisphere teams that much better than the north? Nick Easter believes that this a matter of calibration and defining the question posed:

“There’s two questions here; are the southern hemisphere that much better than the northern hemisphere, and then, crucially, are New Zealand better than the rest of the rugby world?” asked Easter.

“Dealing with the southern hemisphere v northern hemisphere debate, no, there’s so little in it’s unbelievable, Scotland lost by one point to Australia, Wales by two to South Africa and only Ireland’s crippling injury list prevented them from extending the Pumas more than they did. We had the group of death, made two errors that cost us our group and we’re now out on our backsides,” he noted.

“Maybe there’s slightly better speed and execution at times in the southern hemisphere sides but it’s marginal.

“But there is a difference and only a fool would say there isn’t.

“It’s no surprise given the northern hemisphere record against the southern hemisphere over the last eight years or so. Yes, the margins are slim but top level sport is all about fine margins and it’s also all about the end result.

“However take the All Blacks out of it and look at the skillsets of the Springbok forwards, Wallaby forwards and so on and compare them to ours, there’s very little to choose. The physicality and fitness is on a par but the execution at times in the southern hemisphere sides is above and the execution is always at pace, most definitely born out of a superior Rugby Championship in terms of top level rugby than the Six Nations.

“However, where the biggest difference and the area where these World Cups have been won and lost time and time again is in our breakdown skills.

“The southern hemisphere are generally far superior in that area right now across the team, their decision making of when to attack a breakdown or not allied to the technical accuracy means when those counter attacking opportunities come it’s against unstructured defences.

“Breakdown turnover ball is the best attacking ball in the game; it catches opponents in deep alignment, wrong-footed and with slow ball carriers around rucks ready for gas men to go around,” he noted.

“In short, it’s a combination of many small issues, the referee interpretation, firmer ground and a general willingness to play more (be comfortable with the ball rather than without) rather than any one big thing, and they all need addressing and quickly,” said Easter.

Peerless New Zealand

“The second part of the question is about how good are the All Blacks against the rest of the world. Here’s the thing; we’re not talking about an excellent New Zealand, or even a great New Zealand side; but we’re talking about one of the greatest sides ever to represent a country that are consistently the strongest nation in the game and have been for a period of more than 100 years. That puts them right up there, a pinnacle of excellence most can only aspire to,” admired Easter.

“People ask what is it that they do that sets them apart? Where’s the magic dust? The truth is there is none, their patterns and plays are the same they’ve been for a very long time. they’re just particularly good at execution.

“They also have an understanding of the game, each other and the tactics and structures that no other side can match, and that’s built on having an average of 70 or 80 caps in each position on the pitch,” said the England loose forward.

“People have observed the space and numbers they always seem to have in the outside channels. What they’re doing is using some huge backs like Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea and Sonny Bill Williams able to beat defenders in that space.

“Watch how (Dan) Carter time and time again is both the man igniting the move and the man looping around into the 13/14 to take the fourth pass. It’s textbook support play.

“Other sides try to play the same shape and they’ll crab a lot more. The All Blacks take, step and straighten better than any other side I’ve seen and that’s what gives them the space,” enthused Easter.

“My fundamental belief of why the understanding, handling and support play is so good always amongst any Kiwi team is what they do throughout the country at grass roots. To start, a lot of touch rugby is played; the sport is a religion out there so lunch times and after work or school is filled with touch with anyone joining in.

“The other important difference is the weight limit rather than age limit rule at school level so instead of early developed big players bowling people over, those lads would be moved up to players with a similar weight and vice versa. This creates players that have to understand how to create space for others and develops their own evasive skills so they don’t have to just rely on brute force.

“My last point: when people discuss the set-piece and defensive excellence, we think of South Africa, maybe Ireland’s line out, the Pumas’ scrum. But look back to New Zealand’s performance at the weekend and their set-piece and defence were as good as anything they did ball in hand, which something they aren’t always recognised for,” noted Easter.

“Frankly, they’re the side to beat right now by some distance, and if they play at 100 per cent of their ability you’ll need to be at 135 per cent of yours to beat them, which is impossible! It’ll take something major to upset them this time around and I can’t quite see it happening.”

A game of 80 minutes

“As I said earlier, there’s very little to choose between the following pack to New Zealand and I hold that’s true,” he maintained.

“France, well, the less said the better, other than the fact Guy Novès cannot start a moment too soon. The cliché is that we don’t know which France will turn up; well as far as I could see no-one turned up at all and bearing in mind the caliber of those players, I find that unfathomable.

“Ireland simply out ran of steam, energy and players. When you’ve lost so many bodies and the ones left are also carrying knocks there’s a point when it just ceases to happen, and that’s what happened to Ireland. They, to a man, were out on their feet.

“Scotland were monumentally unlucky and, with Japan in the pool stages, put in the performance of the tournament. I’m not going to get drawn into the Craig Joubert debate as it’s not at all noble when current players are discussing or judging fellow professionals, and, in Craig’s case, he’s a superb official I have the greatest respect and time for.

“However, the simple fact is World Rugby need to consult with their officials in terms of protocols for the TMO and to make sure they’ve the right tools to give a certainty of result and there’s not an intelligent man in the game who’d argue with me about that.

“Wales will rue the control of that final scrum. Put simply, there never should have been the room in the wide channel for Duane Vermeulen’s sublime offload and, as with the Wallabies, the Springboks were matched and probably beaten right until the final moment.

“But again, regarding reference points, playing for 80 minutes is an absolute key for any Test side and, being harsh but fair, Wales’ concentration in those closing seconds let them down as did Scotland’s,” he noted.

South Africa v New Zealand

“I said earlier New Zealand are peerless. I still hold that, but South Africa are the one side still left in the competition that have the power up front to beat them,” said Easter.

“If you want to beat them, you need to occupy their pack, tie them in, disturb their rhythm, niggle their shape and intent, not make one error and above all keep the board rolling. South Africa will counter precision with power and have the skill, nous and intellect to do all of those and part of me says they may, but a lot of me says that New Zealand are pretty untouchable right now.

“However, the Springboks are the one side that are close to New Zealand’s rugby heritage and also, crucially, Test match caps. Like 1995 it will take a superhuman effort from the back five of the pack combined with total control by the Springbok half-backs, all positions where South Africa excel, but I can’t see anything but New Zealand, and by 10 to 12 points.”

Argentina v Australia

“This is a much harder one to call; Los Pumas have been magnificent, so let’s put some perspective on this; would Ireland have shipped 40 points against the Wallabies? That I doubt, which simply underlines how far the Argentineans have travelled. They were outstanding in putting away a tired, bruised and battered Irish team, but put them away they did and with some style,” observed Easter.

“The pace they have in their back three is as good as most in world rugby right now but I go back to the point I made about stability and caps; the Wallabies are right up there in terms of both. They’ve got a great set-piece and a magnificent trio at the breakdown and David Pocock has been as good a back rower as any in the tournament.

“The Argentineans are entering new territory for this side, whereas Australia have been there before. It’ll be close but with their breakdown trio and midfield excellence, I’d be doing the Wallaby skills a disservice if I didn’t say Australia by eight.”

Once again we thank Nick, a regular on our column, for his time. Expert Witness will be back next week to look at the big one – the Final as the biggest tournament of all draws to a fitting climax.

Nick Easter has played 54 times for England and has scored 13 tries, including two hat-tricks, one in the current World Cup. A skillful number eight with cricketer’s hands, his offloading and distribution are hallmarks of a rounded game. Please see for details of his final benefit event on November 5th. Tickets available online.

Nick Easter spoke to James While.

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