Alex Goode, the Saracens and England full-back, discusses how teams are shaping up at the Rugby World Cup in Japan – and the ongoing controversy surrounding high tackles
England and South Africa to meet in the final, predicts Alex Goode
England and South Africa will contest the 2019 Rugby World Cup final – according to Saracens star Alex Goode.
England face the Wallabies on Saturday for the right to meet Ireland or New Zealand in the semi-finals, while South Africa must overcome hosts Japan before a probable date with Wales.
However, Goode believes the physicality of England and the Springboks will be the determining factor in both sides reaching the 2 November final in Yokohama, which would be a reprisal of the 2007 final in Paris that the Boks won 15-6.
“England are looking good, tactically they’re in a good place. They’ve had some highs over the last four years, some lows that they’ve learnt from. And they’ve grown as a squad quite a bit,” says Goode, the current European Player of the Year.
“If England meet New Zealand, with the humid conditions out in Japan, it will be hard for New Zealand to throw the ball around as much. You see how slippery the ball is.
“I think England will go for them, they’ll do what Ireland did in Chicago, they’ll go for them in the skies, aerially go for their wingers. Jonny May and Anthony Watson are two of the best in the world at catching high balls. And they’ll go for their lineout and go for them up front.
“They wouldn’t play a lot of rugby, they would have Owen Farrell’s kicking, and Underhill, Curry, Maro, they would batter them. I don’t mean batter them on the scoreline, they would physically go for them.
“It might not be the prettiest game but I think they will go for the scrum, the lineout, they’ll bully them physically; the English pack will be too strong for them in that sense. England want to be the most brutal team at this World Cup and for me they would have a very good chance against New Zealand.”
Goode, 31, feels that same physical assertiveness will stand the Boks in good stead on the other half of the draw.
“South Africa is a worse match-up for England than New Zealand. It would be harder because South Africa can match them physically, and so England would have to play a bit differently.
“I think the final will be between South Africa and England. And then, with similar sides, it would be very interesting. I’d love to see England win it. Obviously I have a lot of friends there, it would be fantastic.”
Most observers believe Goode should be part of England’s squad in Japan, instead of preparing for this weekend’s opening round of the 2019-20 Gallagher Premiership. With Farrell away and Max Malins injured, the full-back is expected to begin a stint at fly-half as the champions open their league campaign against Northampton.
Goode was speaking to Rugby World ahead of the final round of World Cup pool matches during an event held by Stonegate Pub Company in London. The UK pub operator has launched a ‘We Love Sport’ app that allows fans to see which venues are showing their favourite sports and even reserve tables.
The World Cup has already produced a record seven red cards, along with 26 yellows, as match officials crack down on high tackles at the behest of World Rugby.
Inevitably perhaps, the hard-line approach has led to inconsistency and confusion; some tackles with contact to the head have produced a red card, some a yellow card and some no sanction at all. The issue erupted after Wallaby Reece Hodge’s high tackle on Fijian Peceli Yato went unpunished on day two of the tournament – he later got banned for three weeks – and has thundered on without pause.
Scotland’s Jonny Gray clattered into Japan’s Shota Horie, head on head, on Sunday and it was deemed a rugby accident. The previous day, Brian O’Driscoll was left aghast after seeing Samoa hooker Seilala Lam sin-binned for a tackle on Jacob Stockdale.
“I don’t know what the tackler is meant to do. In my eyes he’s done everything right,” O’Driscoll said on ITV.
“Look at how bent those knees are on collision; it’s almost impossible to dip lower than that. The only conclusion for the future is that the big hit is gone. It’s going to be all about leg tackling. The big shot will be ruled out of our game.”
Goode says the game is going through teething problems and there will be a lot of pain ahead before players are able to successfully adapt to the new strictures.
“It’s a difficult time. We had the referees in at Saracens and they were talking to us about what’s going to happen. Basically if you go high now, you are running a risk – simple as that.
“The stuff Reece Hodge said I thought was pretty ridiculous; to say he doesn’t know the framework is absolutely mental to me, it’s mind-blowing. From my point of view, you just have to be careful, the players that are running in going for a big hit are running a risk.
“In the next few months there’s going to be some issues (in domestic competitions), a lot of players will get yellows and reds. But we’ve had it with the TMO, you get used to it, those are the rules and you move forward. It’s just a bit of a surprise (to players) at this stage.
“Rugby’s a brutal game and you’ve got to look after the welfare of players. Everyone’s getting stronger, faster, bigger and yet your neck and head can’t do that.
“It’s difficult for referees, difficult for players. We don’t want to see the physicality taken away from rugby. I think we start very strict and then things will get slightly adjusted. It’s a shame it’s come in so close to the World Cup because I don’t think it’s great spectator-wise.”
There will always be a degree of subjectivity in decisions. For example, Goode’s verdict on the two Samoan tackles on Russia captain Vasily Artemyev early in the tournament is one red and one yellow card, and whilst discussing his thinking he enacts tackle scenarios with RW to show how easy it is for a tackler to either slip up and make contact with the head or for it to appear as if there is such contact when there is not.
“It’s a very tough job ultimately. Referees are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Sanctions are coming in, it’s the World Cup, they’re just trying to get those grey areas sorted.
“All you hope is that the referees aren’t impacting the big games. We haven’t seen it just yet but in the knockout stages we don’t want to be talking about the referees, we want to be talking about how good the rugby is. So it will be interesting to see how that goes.
“You need to have consistency in the decision-making and a level of empathy from the referee as well. To understand that players are slipping or that there’s no malice there. It will be interesting but hopefully it won’t overshadow the World Cup and we’ll be talking about what a wonderful World Cup it’s been.”
Have Saracens been adjusting their tackle height in training?
“We’ve always been a low-tackle team, our phrase has always been ‘Go high you die’. And we do a lot of practice, making low tackles, second man in, where he goes. We’ll see how it goes in these first four Premiership games and then see if we have to make a decision to adapt.”