One of the many things to savour about a high-octane tournament like the World Cup is embedding yourself in the post-match scenarios of several countries. Imagining the training vibe.
If you are in Camp Argentina, Monday and Tuesday this week feels like operating in a pressurised chamber. Already the Pumas can’t help looking beyond Tonga to their D-Day on October 5th against England in Tokyo. I don’t see them suppressing Eddie Jones’ side, and that, my friends, will be that.
In terms of the opening weekend in Japan, France’s late late show against the Pumas was the most significant result across all pools. Many a truth spoken in jest, but when the Sporting Director at La Rochelle said last Friday to me that France are poor, except at World Cups, he said a mouthful.
People tend to forget just how bad the recent record of the national team has been and to bag a win, any sort of a win, in such a pivotal opening World Cup pool game lifts an enormous psychological burden off the French squad. They could face Wales in a World Cup quarter-final now and I wouldn’t bet against them.
France are no longer used to winning. How much of a lift is that 23-21 victory on Saturday going to provide? Think of a manhole cover being lifted off your shoulders, and multiply that effect by 30 players.
How liberating is that?
Waking up Sunday, and into recovery Monday and Tuesday, the French will be bouncing into their second pool game against the USA. They do not meet England until the final pool fixture, and Lord knows what level of self-belief they may have accumulated by that stage. There is a bizarre psychology at play in French rugby, and that they dug out a win with a late Camille Lopez drop goal will only give them greater encouragement and will be their predominant takeaway from Sapporo – not the fact they gave up a 20-3 half time lead.
The outlook for Rassie Erasmus and South Africa is nowhere as bleak as Argentina’s, but there were disappointing aspects to the Springboks on Saturday against New Zealand. When they get ahead, yes, they are difficult to play against with the power and intensity of a suffocating defence. But when the Boks had to force it after the break, they didn’t have the answers, they kicked poorly, and were limited to the spark of Cheslin Kolbe on the right wing. Steve Hansen won’t be altogether pleased by the fact that at 17-3, they could have kicked on and made it a statement win. The Boks found a way back into the game, as most Tier 1 teams will do via an equitable share of territory and possession.
But there was enough about the All Blacks to confirm them as the form horse, and the one with the knowhow and nous to prevail in a tight test match struggle. Scott Barrett was immense and his brother Beauden is pure and simple a brilliant rugby player. Even if the oval ball isn’t your thing and you are just aboard because it’s the World Cup, you’re still watching this fella and thinking ‘who’s yer man at 15 for the All Blacks? Jeez, he can play’. On any list of rugby players, you would happily pay money to watch, Barrett is top three.
As dominant as Ireland were in Yokohama Sunday, had Scotland got back to 19-10 in the first half, it might have asked different questions of Joe Schmidt’s side. The way of test rugby now, any Tier 1 side, even on a bad night like Scotland's, will have periods of dominance but the huge disappointment for Gregor Townsend is that they couldn't consistently challenge Ireland’s defence.
What separates great teams from good ones is the killer instinct the elite possess. That’s where New Zealand put down a statement. No impact for the first 20 minutes, but off two half-chances across three minutes, they put 14 points on South Africa. They had a dry ball too, remember.
When Ireland had a dry ball against the Scots, they were almost as clinical. But the over-riding imperative for Schmidt’s players was a victory of any sort. They didn’t actually need a bonus point; the demand was to manage the game in the second 40, which they did. Clinical in the first period, Ireland were accurate in the second.
Conor Murray was at his best; the accuracy of Murray in the lead-up to the fourth try, dropping a box kick one metre outside the 22, the organised chase, a 40-60 ball that Conway gets a hand to, Larmour picking up the scraps, making good decisions and Murray puts a pass into Conway to finish – that’s accuracy in seriously challenging conditions.
The scene this week in Irish camp is an absolute beaut for the coaching staff. The quartet of backs who came in excelled - from Garry Ringrose to Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway and the pick of them, Chris Farrell. You can just imagine backline against backline in training this week.
Farrell delivered his most influential performance for Ireland and was probably the best back on the pitch. The beauty of Larmour and Stockdale’s defensive efforts was the ability to deliver under the most intense scrutiny. Larmour performed in the areas that had question marks over him – the high ball, putting his body on the line and his capacity to put his head in a hard place. Ringrose looked very sharp and Stockdale gave his best defensive performance in a test environment. That's the difference between England in a warm-up game and Scotland in a World Cup - Stockdale did it when we needed it.
Man of the match might have been either of the second rows, but my shout is Greg Feek for getting the Irish scrum – and our five front rows – to a perfect pitch on game-day. When it matters more than ever. Rory Best still trotting around in the 80th minute? Rarely do you see such a dominant – I would nearly say demolition – of another Tier 1 nation in the scrum. Joe Schmidt looked a happy man Sunday night, but he will reserve a special pat on the back for Feek and Andy Farrell. The stat to please those lads most? The three points accumulated by Scotland.
Jack Carty delivered an authoritative cameo, but Johnny Sexton still needs game time. 58 minutes on Sunday needs to be backed up by another 60 next Saturday against Japan. He’ll be eager this week, and so will Keith Earls, Joey Carbery, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Kearney. Eager, energised and sightly edgy.