It was a momentous weekend of Test rugby – here are Paul Williams’s reflections
Wales the most improved Tier One team
It may seem paradoxical to big up Ireland, as I do below, and say that Wales are the most improved Tier One team in the world. However, Ireland have been playing at an extremely high level for two seasons; Wales’ improvement over the past 12 months has been rapid.
Wales’ 74-24 victory over Tonga was their eighth on the bounce and barring a slow 20-minute period, they made light work of Tonga over 80 minutes. Wales have always had a reasonable first XV, but now they appear to have a genuine squad of 30, which is what all of the best nations have always had.
Wales have six legitimate front-row forwards, six locks, three scrum-halves, three Test standard outside-halves and a back three of six. Even the worries over depth in the centre would have been eased after Owen Watkin’s performance. He was remarkably strong in the tackle, but with a subtlety of hand that not only delivers perfect spiral passes off both sides but has taken pick-pocketing back to a standard not seen since the days of Fagin – his rip and strips against the Tongan’s were brilliant.
Dan Biggar’s performance at ten means that Wales now have a situation where one of the genuine Test level outside-halves may not even be travelling on the bus. Add this to the performances of Jake Ball and a back-line that burned more people than an 16th century witch trial (31 in total) and you have a depth of squad that pro rugby in Wales has never had.
Ireland dominate the All Blacks
One victory against the All Blacks could be misconstrued as a fluke, but two victories in two years is a pattern. And it’s a pattern that has made the World Cup a genuine contest.
Ireland were awesome against the All Blacks. There is no other word for it. We could trawl through a list of statistics to illustrate their dominance, but to keep the ABs tryless is all you need to know – only the second time a northern hemisphere team has managed it since the game went pro.
The Irish scrum was impeccable; at times they pushed the Kiwis around like they were a trolley in Lidl. Rob Kearney was immaculate under the high ball and defensively the Irish midfield was packed tighter than a six-month-old box of Sugar Puffs – Ryan Crotty was reduced to just five carries.
Jacob Stockdale looked like a World Player of the Year in waiting and the Irish locks made Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick look like squad players. But it was, as always, Peter O’Mahony for whom the greatest praise must be showered.
Every now and again you come across the alpha male of alpha males. The sort of bloke who’s so rugged that you’d let him build your new house, even if he’d never done it before. But O’Mahony goes a level beyond even this. I wouldn’t want my house built by him, I would want it built from him. He is wood and concrete made flesh and the best six playing the game.
Well played Ireland, this wasn’t a game-changing performance, this was a sport-altering performance.
Scotland playing well, but not winning
Tradition dictates that if a team loses, then all is lost. The team is doomed, the dressing room is septic and the coaches need to be beheaded in the city centre. But that isn’t always the case and it certainly isn’t the case with Scotland. They may have lost 26-20 to South Africa, but it was a good performance.
There was near parity at the scrum, lineout, line breaks and defenders beaten, and let’s not forget that these numbers were achieved against a Springbok team who have already beaten the All Blacks this season.
But whilst Scotland’s core game was solid, it was the creativity that once again caught the eye. Not just creativity with the ball, but also at the set-piece. Their front-ball lineout, for Hamish Watson, was gorgeous and showed how a little bit of thought can catch even the best maul defences off guard.
In a modern game where five-metre catch-and-drives have become so hard to stop and therefore ubiquitous, ignoring all of the pods and throwing it short and low is a tactic that more should use.
Add to that Huw Jones delivering pirouetting passes/breaking from underneath his own posts and Stuart Hogg carving up the wide channels and Scotland look every inch a top-five team. Next year’s Six Nations will be belting.
Experimental England got what was to be expected
The displeasure with England’s victory was clear. Clear in the pundits’ voices and the supporters’ chatter. Some feel that a 35-15 victory over Japan isn’t worthy of this England team. But there are two things to consider.
Firstly, Japan aren’t really a Tier Two nation anymore, but they’re not Tier One either. They’re a Tier 1.5. This Japanese team scored five tries against the All Blacks a matter of weeks ago, although admittedly against the Kiwis’ second string, and 50-point margins against Japan don’t really happen anymore.
What Japan lack in weight and height, they make up for with the precision and speed of passing that you would expect from a country with a Super Rugby franchise.
The second thing that we need to remember is this was an experimental England team. New centre combinations, changes in the back three and a new back row don’t exactly make for a cohesive game plan, nor the associated high scoreline.
It wasn’t until Owen Farrell came on that England had any fluidity in midfield and why would they? George Ford, Alex Lozowski and Jack Nowell have never played together before – Nowell has never played Test rugby at centre.
England selected an experimental team and got an experimental scoreline. It was to be expected.
Stop kick-off times overlapping
As the on-field aspects of rugby march forward at a terrifyingly professional rate, on occasions the administrative side of the game still appears very amateur. Quite why the Scotland v South Africa and Ireland v New Zealand games overlapped is naive at best, stupid at worst.
Rugby matches never run to time, it is the nature of the sport. With injuries and the increased use of the TMO, 80-minute rugby matches are anything but. So, to play the two biggest games of the weekend so close together makes no sense.
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It’s not just an issue about respecting supporters; it’s commercial suicide. The whole point of Channel 4 buying the Ireland rights was so that people watch their adverts. But with Scotland within six points of the Boks, no neutrals saw the first eight minutes of the Ireland game and probably missed the first two commercial breaks. Half an hour between high-profile matches should be the norm from now on.
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