England v Tonga - Rugby World Cup 2019: Group C
England v Tonga - Rugby World Cup 2019: Group C

England, Wallabies soar as semi-finalist stalls

NEVER has there been such a competitive Rugby World Cup where quarter-final match-ups could be radically flipped on the busiest weekend in Japan.

Standings in two of the four pools will go down to the wire with Saturday's traditional collision between England v France and Sunday's emotional crunch game between Japan v Scotland.

Yokohama's stadium will be filled by 70,000-plus fans back-to-back and there's the success of this tournament in a nutshell and we are only 28 matches into the 48-game schedule.

 

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Wallabies titan David Pocock summed it up well ahead of a weekend with seven matches in all to round off the pool stages.

"As a player, I sometimes find it a bit disrespectful people expecting massive margins at the World Cup," Pocock said.

"Some of the tier two nations have put a massive amount of prep into the last four years and you can see the big improvements.

"Obviously, Japan lead the way but Namibia also held their own in the first half against the All Blacks."

David Pocock has praised the Tier Two nations for their performances. Picture: Getty
David Pocock has praised the Tier Two nations for their performances. Picture: Getty

Tonga's bold showing to just be shaded 23-21 by France, Uruguay's upset of Fiji, Japan's three wins on the bounce amid delirious scenes from local fans and Namibia being just 10-9 down to the champion All Blacks after 35 minutes is testament.

The 20 nations may be playing a tournament of four pools but rugby writer JIM TUCKER has deconstructed those boundaries to update his Power Rankings on just how each team is tracking towards the ultimate prize...the Webb Ellis Cup on November 2.

1 NEW ZEALAND (3-0 win-loss). Eyes on bigger things. Coach Steve Hansen gave his team a rev when they "didn't turn up with the right attitude" in the first half against minnows Namibia. They'd snapped out some cracking second-half tries to reach 71-9 including a snapshot of why the quick feet of two-try winger Sevu Reece are so dangerous. The classy high-percentage offloads by Matt Todd and Anton Lienert-Brown for the second Ben Smith try is why the All Blacks are better than the Wallabies. Clinical and safe-handed. The All Blacks are the alpha-force at the tournament again and showed it right from the first giant match-up of the tournament. They repelled South Africa's periods of strength to win that one 23-13. Beauden Barrett is proving danger-plus for all rivals. Tracking towards a quarter-final against Ireland or Japan.

▲▲▲ 2 WALES (2-0). Challenging schedule. The 29-25 overthrow of the Wallabies was the one pool challenge they had to meet and they did it magnificently. They'll now avoid the All Blacks in the semi-finals if they roll that far. Bleat all you like about Welsh halfback Gareth Davies being offside for the intercept try that helped sink the Australians. The fact remains, he intercepted two passes and grassed another. He was coached expertly for just that mission knowing the flat passing ways of the Australians. Two games in four days to finish the pool phase is the most taxing schedule of any of the big Cup fancies before quarter-final week begins. That's a challenge for a team even this well coached.

▲▲▲ 3 JAPAN (3-0). Epic energy for a whole nation. The 19-12 win over Ireland was one of the great days in Test rugby for pure atmosphere and meaning in a cauldron of 47,000-plus fans. The tournament found its soul right there. Chop tackling around the ankles, faultless handling for long periods, a top game plan from coach Jamie Joseph and heroic performances created an epic. The hosts are already creating World Cup stars. Winger Kotaro Matsushima's hat-trick of tries on opening night against Russia was followed by a beauty on full-time for the bonus point win over Samoa (38-19). The Japanese have beaten a more physically imposing rival (Samoa) and outsmarted a Six Nations power (Ireland) by simply being better. Accurate throws to the back of lineouts, the big-moment acts of flanker Michael Leitch and the rise of No.8 Kazuki Himeno make them a fast, precise team to enjoy.

England head coach Eddie Jones has a laugh after his team’s demolition of Tonga. Picture: Getty
England head coach Eddie Jones has a laugh after his team’s demolition of Tonga. Picture: Getty

▲▲▲ 4 ENGLAND (3-0). Swing High Sweet Chariot. England were out of the 2015 World Cup by this stage. Eddie Jones and his crew are still keeping plenty of killer plays well hidden. They easily beat Tonga (35-3) and the US (45-7) without showing much but the 39-10 win over Argentina was a step up. Backrowers Sam Underhill and Tom Curry are a force tackling and menacing at the breakdown. The English will enjoy another jump of level against France on Saturday.

5 SOUTH AFRICA (2-1). Beware. There were moments against the All Blacks in the 23-13 pool loss where you thought the Springboks were coming. Powerful, bonded and with strike power. The Boks will have a say in who wins this tournament or indeed reach the final. Could be headed into a big quarter-final against Ireland but will avoid the All Blacks until the final if they are good enough to earn a second shot. Pocket rocket Cheslin Kolbe is already one of the stars of the tournament, including that neat-stepping to evade two Italian defenders for a try.

▲▲▲ 6 AUSTRALIA (2-1). Finding momentum again. There is no doubt the Wallabies are a happy, bonded team. You only had to look at how teammates celebrated young gun Jordan Petaia's first Test try and the drought-breaker for James Slipper in his 94th Test. Still need to find a cure to the slow-start curse and the ill discipline that cost two yellow cards for high tackles against Uruguay. Still exactly as they entered the tournament...patches of superb play but also too many errors early. Forwards like prop Allan Alaalatoa and Michael Hooper have been excellent while Matt Toomua has been consistently sharp for the backs. The likely quarter-final against England will be huge.

Adam Ashley-Cooper dashes downfield against Uruguay, in a win which got Australia’s campaign back on track. Picture: Getty
Adam Ashley-Cooper dashes downfield against Uruguay, in a win which got Australia’s campaign back on track. Picture: Getty

▼▼▼ 7 FRANCE (3-0). Typically unpredictable. The French dealt with fast-finishing Argentina 23-21 in their opener but have been less imposing since. Only winning 23-21 was a reflection on how well the Tongans played against the French. The World Cup format suits the unpredictable French because it can reward epic one-night stands and streaks of momentum and emotion. The France v England pool clash in Yokohama on Saturday will be huge.

8 IRELAND (2-1). Fingers crossed in Dublin. The top nation with the least World Cup history of success to draw on. It showed too against Japan. The Irish never risked enough to beat the host country and star Jacob Stockdale starved on his wing. What do the Titanic and Irish rugby have in common? Both went down 1912. Need to beat Samoa convincingly on Saturday to give fans some hope.

▲▲▲ 9 URUGUAY (1-2). Improvers. The greatest moment in the South American nation's rugby rise was upsetting Fiji 30-27. So much heart and so against the odds. Brilliant defence at times. The World Cup became a success for Uruguay with that one afternoon in Kamaishi. Their breakdown work and defence early shackled the Wallabies before that one was lost 45-10. Great benefits from sending a group of their amateur players to Major League Rugby in the US to train as professionals.

It’s World Cup over for Argentina, who have been underachievers. Picture: Getty
It’s World Cup over for Argentina, who have been underachievers. Picture: Getty

▼▼▼ 10 ARGENTINA (1-2) Cup over. Jolted by the loss to France, they never had a shot against England when a red card left them with 14 men for more than an hour. Extremely disappointing tournament for the 2015 World Cup semi-finalists.

▲▲▲ 11 FIJI (1-2). One last chance. The Fijians were so good against the Wallabies but were emotionally flat and dropped the game to Uruguay four days later. The match against Wales in Oita on Wednesday will still be big but not as big as it could have been. Semi Radradra was a beast in the confidence-lifting win over Georgia. Great to watch. If only...

▼▼▼ 12 ITALY (2-1). Never fired a shot. Any chance of the Italians pulling off an upset with so much Six Nations experience? Nope. The 49-3 loss to South Africa was typical albeit they were ruined by an early injury to a key prop and red card to another Andrea Lovotti. So much has been invested in the Italians with no World Cup statement to show for it. Two bonus point wins over lesser nations.

13 SCOTLAND (1-1). Smokey. Losing to Ireland (27-3) so badly might have been the end of their World Cup just two days into the tournament. Will beat Russia on Wednesday and then all Scottish fingers will be crossed for a bonus point win over Japan on Sunday which might provide a route into the quarters.

▲▲▲ 14 TONGA (0-3). Uplifting. The Pacific islanders came close to upsetting France when beaten 23-21. Coach Toutai Kefu was right to demand more Tests against major nations to make such a performance more common. Brave and physical when beaten by England (35-3) and Argentina (28-12). Toppling the US on Sunday would be a worthy finish.

▼▼▼ 15 SAMOA (1-2). Reality check. There is so much talent in the side but getting the full-strength team together so rarely is too much of a handbrake these days. The upset kings of previous World Cups have lost that mantle.

▼▼▼ 16 GEORGIA (1-2). Stout. Traditional strengths at scrum and with mauling paid off with a 33-7 win over Uruguay. The win they had to grab. Never a quarter-finals chance.

▲▲▲ 17 NAMIBIA (1-2). Heroic first half. Someone will have taken a photo of the scoreboard: "NEW ZEALAND 10, NAMIBIA 9" after 35 minutes of their match. Came to play and deserved their applause before the score ran to 71-9.

▼▼▼ 18 UNITED STATES (0-2). Outclassed. The World Cup has been waiting since 1987 for an American team to produce an eye-popping upset that would put rugby on the map even for a day in the US. And still we wait. Losing to England (45-7) and France (33-9) doesn't suggest the Americans are getting any closer.

▼▼▼ 19 CANADA (0-2). Off the pace. There was a time when the Canadians physically ripped into top nations at the World Cup. Those days seem gone. Plenty of teams have felt the cold edge of class at the hands of the All Blacks (63-0) but much better was expected in the heavy loss to Italy (48-7).

▼▼▼ 20 RUSSIA (0-3). Minnows. The Russians have battled let's be honest. They will always have memories of playing the World Cup opener against Japan in front of a full house in Tokyo.

News Corp Australia


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