After three weeks and thirty-seven matches, Rugby World Cup 2019 has reached the half-way stage in Japan.
As the tournament kicks on into the knockout stages, twelve sides head home in Japan – amongst them some big names (Scotland, Argentina) – as the final eight teams prepare to go head-to-head in pursuit of the Webb Ellis Trophy.
So with that in mind here’s a few things we’ve learnt from the action so far…..
Inconsistency amongst referees still rife
Such has been the radical changes to the tackle law in recent times, it can be no surprise that the red cards dished out in Japan 2019 have far exceeded that of its tournament predecessors. Before this World Cup, the highest number of red cards in one tournament had come in 1999 with four, yet at the half-way stage in Japan that figure has already been surpassed with seven players sent off. Changes to the law meant this was always going to be inevitable, yet in a time when technology and rule changes in sport are supposed to make match officials jobs easier, the same inconsistencies remain. The introduction of VAR in Premier League football has not been without its own controversy and debate, and the same could be said for the discrepancy between what is deemed a yellow or red card at this World Cup.
The first red card of the tournament arrived in the twelfth match, yet there were clear incidents in the matches gone before where players could and perhaps should have been sent off. Australia’s Reece Hodge could count himself lucky he wasn’t sent from the field for his shoulder-led hit on Fiji’s Peceli Yato, in a match Australia eventually won 39-21. Subsequently after a citing charge Hodge was banned for three games and should he play against England this weekend it will be his first game back after a three-match ban. In the Samoa-Russia game there were two incidents back-to-back where Samoan players produced tackles that by the letter of the law were worthy of red cards. Yet in both cases referee Romain Poite decided yellow cards were sufficient, which particularly in the case of Motu Matuu’s attempted tackle seemed the wrong call. Since then we have seen many close calls that are often open to debate and by and large the match officials in charge have made the right call, yet there have still been many incidences where players could perhaps count themselves lucky that the colour card received was yellow and not red.
The standard of refereeing at this tournament has been where it should be, however when even a world-class referee like Poite seems to be making the wrong decision you see how challenging the changes to the tackle laws are becoming. The hope is that having seen the offences that have been deemed worthy of red cards, players will be more aware of what is deemed a legal tackle but there is every chance that one of the coming knock-out games may be decided by a marginal decision that leads to a contentious sending off.
Greater fixture turn-arounds needed for Tier Two nations
The Rugby World Cup is no stranger to mismatches in the pool stages, and once again Japan 2019 has thrown up several games where the top sides have ran up big scores against some of the Tier Two nations. New Zealand’s 71-9 win over Namibia and Scotland’s 61-0 thrashing of Russia are just two examples of matches where the gulf in class between opponents has been just too much. However despite these bruising defeats there have been signs of improvement with Russia producing some spirited defiant performances against Japan and Ireland, whilst Uruguay provided the shock of the tournament by humbling Fiji in their opening game before producing a valiant display against Wales in their final game. Nations like Russia and Uruguay will quite rightfully leave Japan with their heads held high, but neither of these sides or their fellow Tier Two nations are helped by the short turn-around of fixtures that encompasses the pool stages.
Russia – the weakest team in Pool A – had just a four-day turn-around between their opening match against hosts Japan before their second game against Samoa. Having given Australia a fright in the opening match, Fiji had only four days to recover from a bruising test match before their next game against Uruguay, a match that saw a much-changed Fijian side succumb to a defeat that effectively knocked them out of the competition in the first week. Of course the schedules have been much the same for every nation with each side having benefitted at some point from a long turn-around between games, but the likes of Wales, England and New Zealand have the depth in their squads to be able to manage these situations far better than their Tier Two rivals. Tier Two nations simply do not have the depth within their squads to chop-and-change line-ups and still remain competitive amongst often bigger nations.
Russia may not have stood much chance of qualifying but giving them such a short time between matches to recover gave them a huge challenge before a ball was even kicked in Japan. Fiji on the other hand have more cause for anger given that they stood a far better chance of qualifying from their pool but again were undermined by the lack of recovery time that ultimately sent them packing. Fitting in so many games in a short time is always a challenge, but in order for Tier Two nations to progress on this stage World Rugby needs to put frameworks in place for them to have the best possible chance of competing against elite opposition. Only then will we see a more competitive tournament right from the first whistle.
Would extra matches for 3rd-placed teams add greater value to competition?
After what has at times been a rather dull and predictable pool stages, the hope and expectation for World Rugby and fans alike will be that the quality of rugby increases in the knockout stages as we see more competitive match-ups. Yet some of the best rugby matches played so far have included sides who are already on their way out of Japan.
Fiji’s unstructured, loose, chaotic style of running rugby has seen them thrill many supporters across Japan and produced two great contests of rugby with their matches against Australia and Wales. Gregor Townsend’s Scotland recovered from a poor start against Ireland to create a winner-takes-all clash with hosts Japan in which the victors would secure a place in the quarter-finals, with Japan edging a titanic test match 28-21 that ultimately saw Scotland come up short and finish 3rd in their pool. Both Fiji and Scotland served up some great rugby during this tournament and along with Argentina and Italy – who also finished 3rd in their respective pools – wouldn’t contests between these sides produce exciting matches similar to the ones about to unfold in the quarter-finals. Wouldn’t many neutrals enjoy this free-flowing Fijian side tackle an Argentina side – no longer the force of old – that some might say are there for the taking?
In a couple of weeks the losing semi-finalists will take part in the Bronze ‘final’ – a meaningless and pointless game to see who finishes third in the tournament. You can bet after just missing out on a place in the final, neither side’s players and coaches will be that bothered about the match. So why don’t World Rugby scrap the match itself and replace it with a Plate series for the sides that finish 3rd in each pool. Such a system would help the progress of Tier Two nations by exposing them to more test matches against the so-called elite, and give fans more opportunities to watch some of the great rugby served up by the sides who just miss out on the quarter-finals. It would also present an opportunity for Tier Two nations like Fiji to return home with a more tangible reward for their efforts. As things stand a third-place finish in one of the four pools guarantees automatic qualification for the next World Cup, but does that alone really do enough to help Tier Two nations progress and become more competitive.
In a tournament where the cancellation of three matches has led to some questioning the integrity of the World Cup, wouldn’t such a system of fixtures add value to the competition and increase the global profile of the sport?
By Jon Davies