Ripple effect

by Paul Thomas / 15 October, 2015
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen should have kept mum on his RWC master plan.
Wallabies England Scrum
The scrum is the new breakdown: England versus Australia in a pool match. Photo/Getty Images

It’s now win or go home or, as long-serving Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson memorably put it, “squeaky bum time”.

Although we don’t know what lies ahead, here are five things we’ve learned so far.

1.  The teams formerly known as “minnows” ­warrant a more respectful term. Professionalism and imported coaches have lifted the second- and third-tier nations whose physical presence, fitness, organisation and execution of the unit drills that can be endlessly rehearsed on the training paddock approach those of the leading teams. Some remain deficient in skill and rugby instinct, but that’s not the case with the Pacific Island teams, which makes their lack of impact all the more surprising. Fiji, of course, had the excuse of being in the so-called “Pool of Death”.

2. For all the angst it generated, the Pool of Death has been the making of the tournament. World Rugby seems resolved to ensure it doesn’t happen again, but for everyone who wasn’t supporting England, the Pool A dogfight was riveting viewing. Indeed, without it, the tournament thus far would have been a tad ho-hum. The comparative lack of drama elsewhere was rather brutally emphasised by coach Steve Hansen’s admission that the All Blacks used their pool games against Namibia, Georgia and Tonga as glorified training exercises. Call it hope scoring a rare triumph over cynicism, but I choose to believe Hansen’s claim that the All Blacks were holding back in pool play to avoid showing their hand to future opponents. That does, however, raise a question: if you’re trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes, doesn’t it rather defeat the purpose of the exercise if you rock up to a press conference and reveal what you’re up to? Isn’t the whole point of foxing to fox?

3. Hansen’s master plan seems to boil down to avoiding a repeat of the 2007 campaign in which the All Blacks stormed through pool play before coming a cropper in the quarter-final against France in Cardiff.

Given the All Blacks are again in a quarter-final against France in Cardiff, that seems a sound plan. There are various versions of the formula that begins “the key to winning the World Cup is …” One is “timing your run” or, as 1991 World Cup winning Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer used to put it, having your off-days when it doesn’t matter.

4. The scrum is the new breakdown: a lottery; a mystery even to people who have followed the game closely for decades; a turn-off, one imagines, for many of the uninitiated; a phase of the game that enables referees, who often appear to be officiating by numbers or on a whim, to exercise far too much influence. As has been the case with the breakdown for some years now, what is penalisable at one scrum is permissible at the next. What’s more, some referees seem to operate on the principle that for a scrum to go backwards is, in and of itself, a penalisable offence. That would amount to a new and liberal interpretation of the laws of the game.

5. Speaking of which, sometime in the past six months, the Australian scrum went into a phone box as Clark Kent and emerged as Superman. It has long been a byword of inter­national rugby that the scrum is the Wallabies’ Achilles heel. Alternatively, the periods in which the Wallabies have been able to field a compe­titive scrum – the mid 1980s, the early 1990s and the late 1990s – coincided with their greatest successes, including two World Cups.

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