The Rugby World Cup quarter-finals have come and gone, leaving four teams left to battle one another in order to have a shot at the coveted Webb Ellis trophy; but what have we learnt about the likes
Mo’unga and Barrett combo is finally working
Leading up to the World Cup, the All Blacks didn’t need to cater for Crusaders star Richie Mo’unga, but his tantalising skill was too valuable to neglect. While the initial trials with Mo’unga taking the flyhalf jersey and All Black talisman Beauden Barrett being moved to 15 didn’t seem to work, the experiment has finally paid off. Mo’unga and Barrett put on a dynamic and lethal attacking symphony against Ireland, offering New Zealand dual first-receivers, two kicking options, and a new game-breaking duo when things open up. More than anything, the addition of Mo’unga has alleviated Barrett of pressure to perform and an overburden of responsibility, allowing him to focus on producing moments of brilliance for the Kiwis.
Boks are far more comfortable without the ball
The Springboks have made it clear that they will prioritise their defence over attack, and it couldn’t have been more clear in practice against Japan. Rassie Erasmus’ side is far happier without the ball than with it, using the opponent’s possession against them with some brutal defence. While the mindset could be a little more balanced, Erasmus obviously knows what his team is capable of, and he’s not going to try and force them into an uncomfortable strategy by trying to secure possession. The Boks are happy to rack up 130 tackles per game and grind a win, and while it may not be the prettiest of tactics, it works.
Boks need a secondary playmaker and better kick-attack
While the above point is valid, the Boks do need to consider a second playmaking option in the backline. Willie le Roux’s original role seemed to fall within this philosophy, but Le Roux has had a tough time in making decisions on attack and balancing his positional play at the back on defence. A ball-playing outside centre would add an unpredictable element to the backline, and provide some dynamic attacking options once the ball moves past Handré Pollard. The Springboks will only improve and continue to rack up wins with their approach of sheer force, but if they want to be No. 1, they need to evolve the backline. Having an attacking kicking game will enhance South Africa tremendously (an area Pollard lacks in). With more and more teams implementing a blitz defence (note how Japan closed down South Africa’s line multiple times), teams have to have a few kick-attack options in their arsenal. This is going from being an ‘option’ to becoming a necessity for any side that wants to counter the always-learning and adapting defensive patterns.
England are the most well-prepared team in the competition
While it’s fair to say that the All Blacks appear to be the best team in the tournament (though not unbeatable), the most well prepared team is surely England. There is a confidence and pinpoint execution with everything they do, whether it’s a rolling maul, loop move, or simply kicking to the corner. Every player knows their role and the substitutes add a spark just when their gameplan needs it. Eddie Jones has crafted a strong team with a clinical territory-based plan, putting pressure on every kick of their own and capitalising on any opportunity they can (Jonny May’s opening try and Anthony Watson’s intercept being great examples of forcing errors on the opposition).
Wales aren’t up to scratch
Wales managed to pull off a Houdini trick against France, edging them in a one-point thriller that saw the Welshmen secure their quarter-final spot against the Springboks, but it wasn’t without its concerns. Wales barely strung together any comprehensive phases throughout the entirety of the 80 minutes, actually looking on the back-foot to France for a majority of the game, and luckily being on the positive side of some unexplainably-French moments from Les Bleus. Warren Gatland’s men seemed to struggle against just 14 men (thanks to a brain-explosion from Sébastien Vahaamahina) and were beneficiaries of a match-winning try via a dubious forward-rip from Welsh scrumhalf Tomos Williams. We all know Wales are a good side, but we’ve only seen glimmers of it in the pool stages, and the Welsh will need to up their game dramatically if they’re to put up a fight against South Africa in the semis.