Sunday, 1 November 2015

Reflections on the Rugby World Cup 2015

Firstly, on looking back at the Rugby World cup, I have to give hearty congratulations to hosts England, and to everybody who was involved in putting on what was, in general, a fantastic tournament. What most characterised its success for me was the success of the 'smaller' rugby nations in improving their competitiveness across the board. Japan, Namibia, Georgia, etc. should be congratulated on their hard work, as indeed should everyone in World Rugby for the efforts that have clearly been put in to spreading and improving the game outside of the traditional heartland nations. On the strength of this tournament, it would be hard to say that Rugby Union has anything other than a bright future as a worldwide sport.

On the subject of those developing rugby nations, one idea that really caught me as a positive move would be to include a 'plate' competition at the next world cup for teams knocked out at the pool stage, rather than just sending them home. Getting those players is a huge commitment for them and their Rugby Unions, and the more that can be made of it the better it is for everyone, and for the sport as a whole. That plate competition would see them continue for at least one more game, and could also include the automatic qualification for the following World Cup as part of the incentive for teams to really have something to play for. There has also been talk of increasing the size of the 6 Nations and its Southern Hemisphere equivalent, or having second tier competitions with promotion and relegation to those top tournaments. I would favour the latter type of option, otherwise we'll end up with international players in a tournament so long that they virtually no longer play domestic rugby, which I think would be a mess! I'm not sure that we are quite there yet in terms of promotion and relegation, but I do think World Rugby should now be looking at creating stronger formal 'second tier' annual competitions on a regional basis, with a view to having a system of play-off qualifications to get into the top tournament at some point a few years down the line. Initially, I would suggest that it be an 'extra' team in each competition rather than including relegation - while developing the sport in other countries, I don't really think it would be a good idea to risk the profile of the sport within the existing nations.

Having congratulated England on their hosting, I next obviously have to commiserate them on being the first hosts ever to go out of the cup in the pool stages. This fact will obviously be hurting them a lot, but I think they need to be very wary of overreacting - there seems to be something akin to a panicked witch-hunt going on in the RFU, and it's not only potentially very divisive and damaging to the English game, but also pretty unnecessary. Ultimately, we all knew that the 'Pool of Death' was going to result in one of three 'top' rugby nations going out, and it really could have been any one of the three. That it was England came down to one probably poor decision, and a few points, at the end of a very tight and even game that could easily have gone either way. There has to be a review of what happened, as there should be for every nation at the tournament, but the level of panic and recrimination that seems to be hitting the whole England set up seems to me to be over the top. The team, RFU and the fans have to be philosophical about it - the team were in many way a young and 'transitional' group who, realistically, were not really going to be in a position to win the tournament. England needs to accept that (though accepting perceived 'under-performance' as being anything other than catastrophic and unjustified failure seems to be a feature of English sport, unfortunately) and move on - yes, look at how things can be improved, but don't start wielding axes and blame here, there and everywhere, and also don't (as some seem to be suggesting) try to roll the clock back to 2003 in some kind of rose-tinted, UKIP style 'make us great again' campaign. The game has moved on, and will continue to move on, so moving backwards isn't likely to improve things much.

Of course, England's loss was Wales's gain. All of us in Wales feared for a team that was hit by some very key injuries on the cusp of the tournament. The replacements who came in, though, along with the rest of the team, certainly did their nation proud. Had all of the players been fit, we could certainly speculate that we could have gone further, and perhaps indeed all the way - that's mere speculation, of course, but I think we did suffer somewhat as a result of the missing players, especially in attack. To put it bluntly, when you're camped on the opposition line for 10 minutes when they are down to 13 men and you still can't get over the line, something ain't right. Not to take anything away from the defenders for their efforts, of course, but we lacked that cutting edge in attack. It's been a problem for some years now - undoubtedly one of the best defences in international rugby, but a lack of imagination and clinical operations in attack. We don't seem to have anyone able to run those clever lines that break through defences, even when everyone is fit (and when we do, we all too often drop the ball anyway!) - oh for an Alan Bateman! It's not just a player issues, though - those things can be planned and coached, and they don't seem to be. It's still 'Plan A' or 'Plan A'. There has been talk about Wales possibly not holding on to the defensive coach, and possibly looking at some coaching changes - it's quite clearly, I would say, in attack that we need to try something new.

Still, overall I think we should celebrate a tournament that was more successful for Wales than it certainly could have been given the context of injuries and pool draws, and the players should be hailed for a mammoth effort and putting everything on the line - I don't want to go mad with identifying individuals (frankly, I could go through the whole team and praise the lot of them!), but it would be wrong to not mention the incredible work of Dan Biggar throughout - he was not alone, of course, but he was immense. Also Alun Wyn Jones - as good as ever, and deservedly up for 'World Player of the Year' consideration. I'd also like to mention Alex Cuthbert, who has come in for a great deal of stick, and even abuse, from some. He was out of form - we knew that, and he knew that - had we not had so many injuries, he probably wouldn't have played. I've never been his biggest fan as a player anyway, I must admit, but while he wasn't 'perfect' in the tournament, he certainly put in a shift and put in maximum effort. He gave absolutely everything when I'm sure he knew that he wasn't at his best, and I don't think he can be criticised at all for that. He certainly did not 'let the side down' at all. Overall, those that came in to replace the injured showed that we have a little more strength in depth in Wales that we sometimes seem to think, and there are some great young players coming through too. There's no reason for Wales to fear for the future at all.

Now we come to the strange case of collapsing Ireland. What happened there? They should have been, on form, the Northern Hemisphere side with the best chance of getting to the final at least. They were motoring along quietly through the pool stages, and seemed to be almost cruising. Maybe that was the problem - perhaps they underestimated the new Argentina, and just didn't pick themselves up enough for the serious challenge they presented. They also, of course, lost a couple of key 'leaders' for that game, but an international side with the level of experience that they have in their ranks should really have been able to cope with that. The fact that they didn't has to be something of a worry for them. Ireland seem, for some reason, to be a team that 'chokes' on some big occasions, and this is the worst example of it. Even with their injuries, they should have been the better side, or at least able to compete more than effectively - on the day, they were comprehensively outclassed. Some of those senior players are heading towards the end of their international careers now, so the next few years could be tough if they don't learn from the experience and bounce back straight away in the Six Nations.

And so on to Scotland. Poor Scotland, but what an incredible effort they put in. That was a game that, let's be honest, nobody seriously thought they would produce in this tournament. Of all the Northern Hemisphere sides, Scotland were the ones written off as 'most likely to go out in the pool stages'. There have for a few years been glimpses of what the team might be capable of in the slightly longer term, but nothing to suggest that they could do what they would have done if it weren't for one or two critical decisions (more about that in a moment!). I see that Greig Laidlaw is also up for consideration as World Player of the Year, and rightly so - he had an immense tournament of calm control, as did so many others in that Scotland side. They confounded all expectations, and, along with Argentina and Japan, have to be hailed as the surprise packages of the tournament. There's so much for Scotland to build on now, and they should be very positive for the future if they can keep building on this platform.

Having mentioned Scotland, we have to talk about the elephant in the room. The refereeing. There were some really bad examples over the tournament as a whole, but that Scotland result was one made by refereeing error. I think we can conclusively say that Scotland should have gone through. I'm not going to go into details about the penalty that shouldn't have been and the TMO that couldn't have been consulted in those circumstances - that is something that World Rugby has to look at very carefully. For my money, if there is any doubt about a decision when play has already stopped, then the ref should be able to go to the TMO. More critical for me was the late hit on Hogg a minute or two before that that was missed by both on-field officials and the TMO, and as much as questions are being sked about Joubert, there also has to be an examination of why TMO Ben Skeen missed such an obvious example of foul play - as TMO, he should be reviewing something like that. It's quite clear to me that the player hit late, could have easily pulled out, and led with his shoulder - that, for me, is a clear yellow card and, according to the rules, a penalty where the ball landed (and that was a big kick), 15 metres in. That would have changed everything, and before we even got to the supposed deliberate offside decision it would probably have been game over. Referees are human - they will always make the odd mistake (even Nigel Owens in the Final, along with Wayne Barnes, managed to miss a glaring forward pass). That's fine - part of the game that should even out. However, when such refereeing decisions will actually clearly change the result of a game in the last minute or two, everything has to be done to make sure that the decision made is the right one. That's something that the authorities need to get a tighter grip on - it's not the first time it's happened.

Finally, I want to just say a few words about the UK's TV coverage from ITV. Frankly, it was awful. The choice of 'experts' was far from universally good, but more than that it was far from balanced. It relied very heavily throughout on ex-England people, some of whom felt it was appropriate to always be turning the conversation towards England in games where they weren't playing, and even after they had packed their bags and gone home (and some of whom were barely coherent at times - does anybody know that Wilkinson was waffling on about after the final?!). The UK is not England, and, more than that, in an international tournament you are also hosting fans from all over the world - there has to be a more balanced view, with input from each nation playing as well as a 'neutral'. It's fair enough to have an English (host) neutral, of course, but they did not have, as far as I could tell, any analyst (commentary or studio) from any non-English speaking country. You need that input - there are many ex-players who will speak reasonable English, of course, and people are actually able to cope with hearing a 'foreign accent'. Rugby coverage is not a UKIP conference! Many of the 'experts' (the commentary analysts during the final, for example - both English) seemed to have little idea of what to say or how to say it in such a way that it was a useful or illuminating comment. On top of that, directors often seemed to have little idea about the use of replays during the game - what to replay and when. On the Friday evening before the Third Place Play-off match, I watched a Pro12 game between the Scarlets and the Dragons. Not only was it a much better game (the 3rd place match was probably the least good of the tournament, IMO!), but the TV coverage and commentary were such a massive relief from what ITV had been offering.  ITV should really sit down and watch (and listen to - in particular to a superb commentary team like Gareth Charles and Jonathan Davies) such BBC coverage before they do any more - just do it like that, because they actually know what they are doing!

So there we have it - my comments on the Rugby World Cup 2015. There were some frustrations and annoyances, but overall it was a fantastic spectacle filled with great rugby and a wonderful advert for the game. Bring on 2019!

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