World Rugby’s decision to permit players who had not played international rugby for 36 months to play for another country for whom they were eligible was always going to have ramifications for the World Cup, the hope being that it would positively impact the chances of several countries at the tournament.
Tonga and Samoa have been the main beneficiaries of this law change, although the evidence wasn’t as clear cut as perhaps anticipated in their respective opening matches.
Samoa produced an underwhelming performance against Chile despite the victory, while Tonga will have several regrets about the defeat to Ireland.
Fiji’s win over Australia has a different context. The presence of Fijian Drua in Super Rugby has greatly assisted in the rise of the national team. There has always been a strong suspicion that Fiji should do more on the international stage than just excel at Sevens.
Under Fijian head coach Simon Raiwalui, an incredibly talented group of internationals have come together as a team on the world’s biggest stage and, combined with a genuine player pathway at club level, it feels like Fiji can quickly progress in the 15s game.
Outhalf Isaiah Armstrong-Ravula and outside back Epeli Waqaicece (brother of Clermont winger Napolioni Nalaga) opted to represent Fiji rather than New Zealand or Australia. In the context of the World Cup Fiji now control their destiny, requiring two bonus point wins against Georgia and Portugal to qualify for the knockout stages.
Andy Farrell’s decision to select a strong team for the game against Tonga was thoroughly vindicated not least in the opening 20-minutes as Ireland initially struggled to come to grips with the assignment.
Last week I wrote how valuable squad rotation is provided there is no drop in performance levels but as head coaches Fabien Galthie (France) and Warren Gatland (Wales) found out, it can be tricky to balance selection against getting the requisite return from the match day 23 in terms of quality. Time will reveal whether the inconsistencies in performance have a legacy in momentum terms.
I am in no doubt that Ireland’s insipid display against Samoa in a World Cup warm-up game in Bayonne coloured Farrell’s thoughts on selection for Tonga. He trusted his gut feeling and was rewarded. He isn’t worried about tomorrow’s problems today. He has prioritised the next task, to win a match. There isn’t a coaching manual or syllabus for that approach, it’s down to trust, feel.
Tonga gave Ireland a few early problems, they didn’t let them escape on the scoreboard and were combative at the breakdown. Toutai Kefu’s team were aligned in defence and offered a poach threat at rucks. Ireland had to problem solve on the fly and if they can replicate that intuition it will stand them in good stead against South Africa at the Stade de France this Saturday.
You must be able to solve the puzzle that your opponents present. Tonga looked to dominate physically at the collision points so to counter Ireland adopted a simple attack structure during the opening quarter that centred on Bundee Aki, with the next phase of play oriented in the same direction.
After 20-minutes or so Farrell’s team changed the picture, using Aki as a decoy to honeypot tacklers and slipping Garry Ringrose into the primary playmaking role. The Tongans’ instinct to overfold in defence left them vulnerable around the rucks. Caelan Doris found and exploited that defensive seam; Tonga’s aggressive line-speed so impressive and effective was now a weakness.
Ireland were patient and composed in manipulating Tonga. It was a well thought-out plan, executed ruthlessly to a point where Ireland had enough of a buffer on the scoreboard to make four changes at the interval.
South Africa will have learned very little from their run-out against a careworn and ill-disciplined Romania, who offered up 18 penalties, which the Springboks used to build a strong lineout footprint as a foundation stone.
Ireland’s win over Tonga had a little more match relevant content when weighed against this weekend’s clash at the Stade de France, albeit acknowledging that Farrell’s side will have to improve in every single aspect to be successful against South Africa.
The Irish lineout was much improved and will serve as a timely confidence boost, a facet of the game that is intrinsic to nearly all of Ireland’s attack. Most of the areas that Ireland will look to improve are within their own control, such as the numbers and accuracy at the ruck and the speed of the ball. The returning Jamison Gibson-Park will have a positive impact on both areas.
In many ways this weekend’s game in Paris pits two teams with similar mindsets, strong and focused, but vastly different styles to oppose one another. Ireland employ a fast, high tempo approach predicated on lots of short passes and primarily looking to retain possession in making territorial gains.
South Africa also seek to dominate possession but primarily through their set piece and in building pressure by winning all the collision points. Selection for the most part looks reasonably straightforward for both coaches, Farrell addressing a preference for the backup to Johnny Sexton and Tadhg Furlong.
Finlay Belham is likely to feature as he has passed the return to play protocols following his head injury in Nantes, albeit a little short on game time, and while my feeling is that the attack is more potent with Jack Crowley at the helm, it will be interesting to see if Ross Byrne did enough in his 40 minutes against to secure the backup spot for the weekend.
South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber’s selection issues are more nuanced, and with a 7-1 split on the bench means there is very little room to stray from plan A as there won’t be much in the way of tactical substitutions. A preference for robustness in the centre with Jesse Kriel and Damien De Allande would back up the notion that the Springboks are here to win not to play, so to speak.
The individual threat across both back threes may be a point of difference. The South African trio can beat defenders with sheer pace and evasion, so loose kicking is a “no-no”. The Irish back three mix their own intuitive involvement with finishing from Ireland’s build-up play.
The introverted focus from both teams, each fully subscribing to their respective game plans, promises a fascinating clash of styles. It should be a contest for the ages.