Rugby World Cup 2015: Group Stage Overview
There is always that fear when you have been looking forward to something that it won't quite deliver. This was definitely how I felt as the 2015 Rugby World Cup kicked off just over three weeks ago as I write this. I first wrote my overview hub on the tournament in the days of Squidoo and can trace back my excitement long before that. However, as England kicked off against Fiji, I couldn't help but worry it would be a bit of a damp affair.
Halfway through the tournament as the pool stages have now finished, I thought it was a good time to look back on what we have learnt so far and also make some (probably ill-fated) predictions.
I could hardly do a review of the group stages of this tournament without starting on one of the biggest shocks. As host nation the expectation was there that England would perform with some people even tipping the team to go all of the way and win. Indeed they were second favourites according to the bookies. Warm up wins against France and Ireland pre-tournament meant thing looked to be going to plan and even though the first match of the tournament against Fiji was a little edgy, this could have easily been put down to nerves.
However, Group A was not known as the Group of Death for any old reason and where England were going to rise or fall was with the double header of fixtures against Wales and Australia. I will never understand why the draw was made so far in advance when Wales had had a poor run and we were always going to lose a big name.
I was at my Welsh in-laws house on matchday for England v Wales and as England grew a healthy lead it all looked good. And then things started to go wrong. People much more qualified than myself have commented on the mistakes England made but unbelievably as we approached the final minutes England found themselves three points down and then what was possibly the most pivotal moment in England's tournament arrived. A penalty was awarded that could have easily tied the game up but instead the England captain, Chris Robshaw, elected to try and score a try instead to win the game. He has received a lot of flack post-match for this call as the try was not scored but in my opinion he was in an impossible situation. Had England won he would have been hailed a hero and had he just gone for the draw, he would have been criticised for not being adventurous enough. Just days earlier Japan had made the same call and had been rightly lauded when it had been successful in them causing one of the biggest shocks ever in the game by beating South Africa.
This put the game against Australia as a must win but in the days leading up to the match I was confident we would overcome the odds and still qualify for the quarter finals. However, nothing quite gelled on the night and any hopes of a comeback were dashed 10mins from the end when Owen Farrell was sin-binned. To rub salt in wounds the Australians scored a last minute try and England failed to reach the quarter finals for the first time ever. A real disappointment.
Dust will have to settle and questions will be raised about the manager and some of the squad as this was an utter embarrassment. However, I feel there is still some basis for optimism for the next 6 nations and the next World Cup in 4yrs in Japan after some confident displays from the likes of Henry Slade and Jack Nowell in the 2nd half of the final game against Uruguay.
Improvement of Tier 2
In Rugby, nations are classed in a tier system. The top 10 nations being tier one, another 13 are in tier 2 and all other nations are tier 3. Somewhat unsurprisingly the eight quarter finalists are all from Tier 1 and the other two tier one nations have both finished third in their groups to pre-qualify for 2019.
However, I don't think that tells the full picture and have been really impressed by the improvement of several tier 2 nations. The tournament kicked off with one of the biggest shocks ever when Japan beat former champions South Africa. Throughout the remainder of the group stages there were many occasions when, even though the result went with expectations, the score was very close. Canada were very unlucky to lose to Italy in a game I was fortunate to attend, Romania showed very well against France and Italy and Samoa pushed Scotland all of the way. Even Namibia picked up their first ever RWC point. In previous tournaments there were regular routs but this time round the scores were often closer and there was only one game that scored to nil.
I can't help but think this is a really good thing for the sport. It doesn't yet have the same wide appeal of sports like football but with this improvement the sport should start to grow around the world. I loved it when I tagged Canadian family on Facebook when I was watching the Italy v Canada match and they responded straight away saying they were watching on TV. They are sporting mad but the simple fact they were aware of the event and could watch was a great step forward for me.
The next tournament is being held in a tier 2 nation, Japan, in 2019 and I would love to see further improvement and maybe even the emergence of a tier three nation (Hong Kong got close this time). Just hope it isn't against England as we have struggled enough!
Fans, Fans, Fans
Pre-tournament I was a little worried that maybe the nation was not as enthused as I was. In the build up to the Olympics in 2012 everyone seemed to be talking about it, was the nation just nt as exccited?
I shouldn't have been fearful though as the group stages have been so well supported. Every day I look on Facebook and friends have been at games across the country. A cursory look at the numbers and I calculate (based on wikipedia numbers) that overall attendance at group stage games was 1,881,023, this is more than attended any game at the previous world cup in New Zealand. You could argue that this was because England used several larger stadium but overall the attendance was about 94.5% which is better than any tournament to date (wikipedia source). We Brits do love our sport.
I think the best thing has been how the crowds have adopted the various nations, usually getting well behind the underdog. I was definitely one of a majority wearing Canada colours at the match I attended and I heard that in Gloucester they sold out of Japan shirts before the game there against Scotland. If you want passion in the crowds then you need to hold your event here.
So as we move in to the final eight, I thought I would have a go at making some predictions. I promise I won't change any of these no matter how good or bad they are once results are known!
South Africa started the tournament poorly with an embarrassing defeat to Japan but since they have looked very strong and I think they will be too much for Wales in the quarters. Meanwhile New Zealand haven't really been pushed in the group stages but I think they are fortunate as France have not played well in my opinion with weaknesses shown by smaller nations like Canada and Romania so I think NZ will have enough to carry on through. This would set up an interesting semi final that I think NZ will just edge but I would have liked to see these two play in the final.
On the other side of the draw I cannot see past Australia and Ireland easily getting past Scotland and Argentina respectively to meet in the semi finals. Before Ireland had played France I would have gone with an easy Australian win but this result made it harder to call. However, on reflection I think Australia will just edge it to set up a final against their old foes.
So who will win on October 31st as I celebrate my wedding anniversary? Historically NZ have fallen foul in overseas tournaments, even when favourites but this time round I think they will live up to their pre-tournament favourite tag and scrape through to become the first three-time champions.
Do you agree with me or not? Would love to hear your views in the comments!