This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with questions of identity and system…
On the World Cup train rolls, with Loose Pass set up in Lille and Nice this week while desperately trying to keep an eye on matches elsewhere.
The hosts have not made that easy. There are no screens to be found in the areas around the stadia and being as most of the cities involved seem to be having a competition as to who can make the journey to the stadium the most arduous, there’s rarely time to take in all of preceding or succeeding games on matchday.
By the time Loose Pass got back to the Nice rugby village after the Wales game, Ireland already had a bonus point try, making the Ireland-watching experience in town particularly anti-climactic.
Some challenges at the global showpiece
Nor is everything easy in the rugby villages themselves. We can accept there are challenges involved in providing the requisite quantities of beer and food to large numbers of big men with hearty appetites and strong livers but facing a 45-minute wait for a burger/beer from a miniscule food van/overheating beer pump should not be a part of the World Cup experience.
The food truck concept especially, while absolutely reflecting a good diversity of choice (vive la difference, you know?), has left a lot to be desired in terms of efficiency, while the time pressure put on the trucks by the sheer weight of numbers pretty much annihilates any trace of the artisanal craftmanship such trucks might otherwise provide. The eventual food cost following said wait amplifies the disappointment. The beer prices are on the outer edge of tolerable, the food truck prices are often well beyond.
Continuing on a theme of vive la difference was the ongoing saga of the wildly inconsistent opinions of the various TMOs of what constitutes foul play and what does not when it comes to the ubiquitous head contact review decisions. There are so many to be picked through that it’s a waste of space to itemise each one, but how Ethan de Groot saw red while Romain Taofifenua avoided it was beyond all the French I watched the New Zealand game with. And let’s not get started on poor Vincent Pinto, nor on Ulupano Seuteni, yellow-carded for buying a sumptuous dummy. Both he and Lima Sopoaga were spotted after hours on the Bordeaux turf, the latter looking for a kicking tee, Seuteni still looking for Inaki Ayarza’s pass.
Could whoever took my goal kicking tee from the field please give it back to me. I’ll even pay you for it. I’ve had it since I was 14 years old.
— Lima Sopoaga (@LimaSopoaga) September 16, 2023
There was an understandable dip in food truck consumption/queuing time on Friday night as a screen shot of Le Roux Malan’s broken leg swiftly did the rounds that the television producers sensibly avoided encouraging. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Namibia, who must fit their pool games into the shortest timespan of all the teams at the tournament. Four matches in 18 days seems extremely harsh on a team with perhaps the most limited resources of all the competitors, even more so when the second of the four is against an angry All Blacks and the third is a mere six days later against the hosts. The stuffing was clearly knocked out of Namibia when Malan’s injury occurred, but at least, unlike the woefully disappointing Romania, they did not lose to nil.
If the French food vendors were inefficient when clinical efficiency was most needed, it could well be said to reflect the on-pitch display of the hosts, who looked ragged at best. The public in Lille was furious after the game.
Yet both that game and the display by Portugal should also reflect positively on the development of the tier two teams. In old tournaments, even the tier one dirt-trackers would be able to inflict never-ending pain on the minnows, but nowadays, as more than one fan remarked, the major difference is far more the conditioning than the skills or ability. By definition, dirt-tracker teams get less intense playing system preparation time, which partly explains the disjointed displays by France and Wales, but the progress made by both Portugal and Uruguay and, to a lesser extent, Chile, must on no account be forgotten when World Rugby reshapes its tiers in the coming years.
Whether the All Blacks team that ran out against Namibia counted as a dirt-tracker team or not is moot, but despite the scoreline, it was not a classic New Zealand performance. Four years ago New Zealand would have run lines, found passes, accelerated rucks, created overloads and sliced Namibia apart. This time the final quarter was remarkable only for the number of times the ball was kicked ahead by the New Zealand outside players. Maybe it was a specific identified tactic, but in terms of efficient return it was pretty poor.
Nice on Saturday was awash. Both with the mingling colours of England, Wales, Japan and Portugal and, as the game approached, an hour of heavy rain which further exacerbated the lack of surrounding relaxation facilities for fans hoping to beat the hour-long crowded tram ride up the valley from town. The IKEA neighbouring the stadium may never sell as many meatballs again, while the eight-degree drop in temperature means sales of cold remedies in the city could go through the roof this week.
The peculiarities involved in selling tickets as city packs also caused some furrowing of eyebrows at both games; many English were present to roar for Portugal on Saturday, more than a few Welsh were present to shout for Japan on Sunday. Even in downtime and without national colours, the two sets of home nation fans were easy to pick out: polo shirts and tailored shorts = English, anything else = Welsh. The Japanese fans were also distinguishable both for the unlimited happiness beaming from every smile and the fanciness of the transport limousines that many used to get from place to place. Portugal fans were harder to pick out – not least because like the Welsh, they mostly wore red – but many Welsh fans were unstoppable in their desperation to find one and congratulate them on the Portuguese performance after the game.
All were united in the rugby village on Saturday evening and on Sunday afternoon in cheering on both Tonga and Fiji, with even Welsh fans cheering on their pool C counterparts despite the fact a Fiji defeat would virtually guarantee them safe passage to the quarter-finals. Ireland and South Africa remained the only two teams to really look on track for the whole tournament (and that is a possible final), while England and Australia looked anything but.
Eddie Jones said afterwards that fans should be throwing baguettes and croissants at him after Australia’s performance. That’s unlikely for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most damning one at the moment is that neither he nor his teams look important enough to care that much any more. The media soundbites are a lot more tedious as a result. His philosophy of ‘rugby is chaos’ and ‘every moment is a competition’ remain valid as guidelines, but it looks increasingly as though he coaches teams to do little beyond play what’s in front of them and test the referee’s patience. Of system and shape there was not a lot to be seen – the same criticism was often levelled at his latter-stage England team.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) September 18, 2023
Criticisms now being levelled at the post-Jones England are of an entirely different nature. Four tries to nil and a near-certain quarter-final berth is one version of the story, the other version involves one try gifted to them by an error, another the bizarre result of a comedy of errors, another from yet another kick (the kicks per minute of game-time neared two overall in the England-Japan game) and one goal-line lunge in garbage time at the end. England fans asked before the game believed that the team needed to play more heads-up rugby, but Joe Marler’s try assist was probably not what they meant. England have gone from zero structure to only structure: glory lies somewhere in between, and with the addition of some actuall skill. Still, in terms of efficiency, 30 points per match in two games that loomed as banana-skins is also a good return. Ask the French which result they’d have preferred.
Japan lurch from bad luck to misfortune; twice in two games now the brave Blossoms have seen tries scored from situations where everything looks wrong but nothing actually is. ‘Play to the whistle’ should be a staple mantra, but it’s hard to do that when even the attacking team is flapping arms in frustration because it thinks it has knocked on. Still, it is hard to ignore the downturn in Japanese performance levels since 2019.
Flying Fijians steal the show
France uncertain, New Zealand and Japan still waning, Ireland and South Africa cruising, Wales, Samoa and England unconvincing, Portugal, Chile and Uruguay praiseworthy, Australia and Romania well off their respective pace then, so the weekend belonged to Fiji.
It has not gone unnoticed among many that were Australia to rediscover their mojo against Wales next week, the Welsh could yet crash out and Fiji could quite easily top their group. Whatever happens, a quarter-final is now close to nailed-on. Nobody will begrudge them. By some distance the story of this World Cup, they’ve also become the second team of nearly every neutral, while given the evident balanced combination of structure, skill, in-game intelligence and heads-up ability, they are streets ahead of almost all the other teams in their half of the draw. A semi-final is definitely achievable and it has brightened up this World Cup immeasurably.
But when you look at the progress made by Portugal, Uruguay and Chile (and we await the real Georgia), framed in the context of how Fiji have developed since the onset of the Fijian Drua, you need to keep asking, too, about how we can better improve the opportunities and foundations of these teams for the future. These teams have become the identity of this World Cup, the system needs an overhaul to keep them involved.