The Rugby World Cup pool stages are nearly over. That’s probably a good thing, given that towards the end it’s beginning to feel a bit like a non-event — which is really what we expected after a handful of key encounters kicked things off.
Still, before we can look forward to the quarter-finals, there’s a few housekeeping issues that need to be resolved this weekend. How the games finish may also have a lasting effect on how the group stages play out.
After failing to achieve Plan A by beating New Zealand, Rassie Erasmus made no mistake in carrying out Plan B: build momentum with a few thumpings while rotating the deck to maintain a fresh and hungry side.
The Springboks capped that approach off nicely with a 66-7 win over Canada on Tuesday and can now rest easy over the next few days.
“I think it went as predicted,” former Bok coach and national selector Ian McIntosh weighed in. “Apart from our opening game against the All Blacks, if we’re being honest the others should have been easy, and they have been.
“But I don’t care what the opposition is like, in that first 20-30 minutes [of the Canada game], the execution was very good and that’s what counts. It’s a pity it fell away a bit in the second half. Whether you’re playing a weak side or a strong side, if you let the ball do the work and get the basics right like we did, then you can beat any side.”
Erasmus would be remiss to forget that first game, however. No matter how good his side are from this point, they’ll still likely have to beat New Zealand if they’re to make it all the way.
“From the loss we must learn something,” says former Springbok and Blue Bulls assistant Tim Dlulane. “On attack we’re not sharp enough. Going into the knockout stages we have to be spot on, we have to be clinical.Defence, yes, we’re able to defend, but going forward it’s necessary to be sharper.”
Off the field, things haven’t gone quite so smoothly for Erasmus. For the past two weeks, he has had to advertise a united front, as more evidence emerges to back-up allegations of racist behaviour by Eben Etzebeth.
To make things worse, the head coach would find himself preoccupied with dismissing suggestions that Francois Steyn “shooed away” Makazole Mapimpi —an incident that caught fire on social media back home.
Erasmus’s staff will be doing everything it can to ensure the outside noise does not permeate the camp and affect player psyche — something they could ill afford as their next opponents come into vision.
Which could be Japan. Here’s one side that have ensured the pool stages represent more than just a race to get a preferred position for the quarters. Of the third to fifth seeds, they are the only ones to make a genuine go at qualification.
By beating Ireland, their second massive upset in as many World Cups, the hosts have set themselves up beautifully to not only make it into the knockouts, but do so atop their group. All that stands in their way is Scotland — the step-child of British rugby at the moment.
That’s assuming they even get to the match. World Rugby on Thursday morning made the unprecedented decision to cancel two matches — New Zealand v Italy and France v England — due to the imminent super-typhoon Hagibis. The move won’t affect the positioning of the latter two while Italy, who technically could qualify, would honestly not have expected to beat the world champions. There will be major ramifications, however, should the final Pool A match be cancelled, which will be decided on Sunday morning. It will render the Scots’ 61-0 hiding of Russia irrelevant and will see them knocked out (assuming Ireland beat Samoa). In such a scenario Ireland will likely shoot to the top with a bonus point victory. Games that are called off are chalked up as 0-0 draws.
Weather permitting, the Scots will of course fancy their chances of going through — a bonus point victory will see them step over the Brave Blossoms. The multiple potential outcomes of Sunday and meaty stakes make Pool A by far the most intriguing.
The Springboks will face Japan next if the hosts win, and likely the Irish if not — although that too is on the assumption that Ireland get a bonus point in their game, as theoretically Scotland could finish on top.
Still, Erasmus can probably prepare for either Japan or Ireland. The latter is the harder game on paper, but the dismal events of Brighton 2015 still burn too brightly in South Africa’s collective memory for them to be overjoyed with the other option.
“I’ll be quite frank with you, I’m not too worried about Ireland,” McIntosh asserts. “Japan … all right we beat them convincingly in a warm-up, but some of these coaches don’t show their full hands in such games, because since then they’ve played some very good rugby. I honestly believe that either way — as we carry more momentum and become acclimatised — we’ll go through.”
“I’d rather face Japan in the quarters,” he says “Yes, they will come with everything but I think we’d be better prepared because we lost to them before.
“Ireland is one of the top performing nations. As a player I think I’d prefer to face Japan, knowing you are preparing yourself better on your attack.”
With convincing pool stage wins, it’s hard to think Erasmus cares too much who he faces. He knows that anything but a final appearance — with the quality at his disposal — will likely be seen a flop and he will have to beat the best of the rest either way. It’s a compliment that perhaps the bigger question is: who can avoid the Springboks?