DONAL LENIHAN: Rugby World Cup lift-off: Four things to watch for

Irish Examiner rugby columnist, Donal Lenihan, highlights the things to look out for as you enjoy the opening weekend of Rugby World Cup 2015.

1 What specific areas will referees focus on?

No different to the players they officiate, referees tend to be a competitive bunch. For them success at this tournament is defined by retention for the knockout phase at the least. Appointment to the final is the ultimate honour.

All the officials will be under intense scrutiny from a team of assessors and will have to strictly adhere to the guidelines set down by World Rugby.

The areas likely to attract special focus include the following:

  • Straight scrum feed: In particular the referee will watch to see that the scrum half’s shoulders are parallel to the two front rows. If not he will award a free kick. Persistent infringement will lead to a penalty and eventually a yellow card.
  • High tackles and any neck contact will be heavily penalised. Teams have developed judo manoeuvres to clean out opposition players with the ‘crocodile roll’ a new favourite. That will not be tolerated.
  • Mauling: Any player joining the maul from in front of the ball carrier will be penalised. Also the player who rips the ball off the catcher in the line-out needs to be bound to the maul for accidental offside to be avoided.
  • Challenges for the ball in the air must be fair and realistic with both players in a position to catch the ball: In such instances, referees are encouraged to carry on regardless of how players land. If however a player is guilty of poor timing but executes a fair challenge for the ball he will only be penalised. If it’s not a fair challenge and the catcher is pulled and lands on his back or side it’s a yellow. If he lands on his neck, shoulder or head it will be a red card.
  • Simulation or Exaggeration: After a few isolated incidents last season, any player guilty of feigning, exaggerating the extent of an injury or diving will be yellow carded. No soccer histrionics at this World Cup.

Have France continued the upward trajectory?

While Irish eyes will be focused on Cardiff in the hope that Joe Schmidt’s men hit the ground running against Canada, events up the road later on at Twickenham should prove equally instructive.

Our main pool rivals, France, open their campaign against a familiar foe in Italy, a side they have struggled to put away in recent outings.

That however was in the Six Nations where, let’s be honest, the French have been a pale shadow of the side that dominated the tournament for years.

Recent evidence suggests that Philippe Saint-Andre’s men are beginning to rediscover their mojo. After 10 weeks free of interference from their clubs, the recent outings against England and Scotland suggest a sleeping giant may be about to stir again.

The Rugby World Cup has brought the best out of the French from the outset when they contested the first ever final back in Auckland in 1987. With six semi-finals and three final appearances to their credit, nothing motivates them more than pursuing their quest for the Webb Ellis trophy.

There is a feeling out there, amongst the Irish public especially, that the French are there for the taking and that Ireland appear certain to top Pool D.

Their forwards in particular look sharp and menacing and their tournament opener against the Italians promises to be very revealing.

By this evening we will have a clearer picture of the challenge facing Ireland in their attempt to win this pool thus avoiding a potential quarter-final against New Zealand.

Chasing tries and points differential

It has escaped most casual observers that a Champions Cup format attaches to the pool stages with bonus points and points differential in operation to adjudicate who finishes on top.

While it may not prove crucial in Ireland’s pool, it could well come into play in at least two of the others.

With the potential for England, Australia and Wales to beat each other in Pool A for example, it may well come down to the winning margins or who registers more tries against the hapless Uruguayans to separate the top three.

The fact that England play Uruguay in the final game offers the hosts a big advantage as they will know exactly what is required.

The recent spate of injuries that have rocked the Welsh camp means that their reserve strength, not overly impressive even with a full deck as we saw in their opening warm up game against Ireland at the beginning of August, may struggle against the ever improving Fijians.

That could prove crucial.

How will the minnows fare?

With rugby’s leading nations now bigger, stronger and faster than at any stage since the game went professional 20 years ago, how will the Tier 2 nations survive?

With specialist coaching funded by the IRB at the time of the last World Cup in 2011, the annihilation suffered by the likes of Namibia and Japan in the past never materialised.

Will that trend continue or will the sides forced to select amateur players to supplement their professional brethren be on the receiving end of massive hammerings once again?

This opening weekend of action should prove enlightening on that front.

For openers, Japan come face to face with the most experienced Springbok side ever fielded with a staggering 880 caps included by Heyneke Mayer in their starting line up.

With a first choice front row comprising ‘The Beast; Mtawarira and the du Plessis brothers, a locking partnership of the giant de Jäger and Matfield and a back row of Alberts, Burger and Louw, the Japanese pack will have to be ultra inventive to generate any ball for their pocket sized backs. It could get ugly.

Uruguay face the first of their mountainous challenges against a Welsh side which has to rack up the points to have any chance of advancing while, after losing their last seven tests against teams outside the game’s top eight, Canada can’t be looking forward with any degree of relish to their clash against back to back Six Nations champions Ireland.

Namibia get a reprieve on the opening weekend but face the might of New Zealand first up next Thursday while Romania will be able to sit back and observe the French in action against Italy before meeting them at the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday.

With the physical toll likely to mount on the minnows as the tournament progresses, it is vital that they take something positive from their maiden outings.

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