From Kolisi to Hagibis: 10 key themes as World Cup says sayonara to Japan

Paul Rees in Tokyo
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Matthew Childs/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Matthew Childs/Reuters

1) New Zealand v South Africa

It looked like advantage to the holders after they effectively decided the pool pecking order on the opening weekend, but it prompted South Africa’s head coach, Rassie Erasmus, to make a significant change. The Springboks conceded only four tries in the tournament, two against the All Blacks. Erasmus used a conventional split of five forwards and three backs on the bench on that evening, but he changed it to six-two for the pool match against Italy and the three knockout games, giving him an alternative tight five to maintain physical power and mental sharpness.

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2) End game

A World Cup normally completes a four-year cycle, but arguably only two of the contenders were at that stage – Ireland and Wales. The former had lost momentum after beating New Zealand last November and looked stale while Wales were ultimately undone by injuries. England and New Zealand had changed course a year before, South Africa had appointed a new coach at the beginning of 2018 while Australia and France looked all over the place. Japan were settled, but were they considered likely winners? The position of fly-half summed up the state of flux; that South Africa were settled there was a factor in their success.

3) Low high

The organisers said before the start of the tournament that high and dangerous challenges would warrant a red card unless there were mitigating circumstances. But after an opening weekend in which several such tackles went unpunished, officials agreed there had been undue leniency. Tolerance was reduced to near zero and the intended consequence, to force coaches to ensure their players went into tackles lower, was largely met. The only red card in the knockout stage was for an act of crass stupidity by France’s Sébastien Vahaamahina that would have received the same sanction early on. Everybody else went low.

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4) Japan v Ireland

The Brave Blossoms’ stunning victory over the team that led the world rankings at the start of the tournament captured the attention and imagination of the host nation. Their victory over South Africa in the 2015 World Cup had been more than a water-cooler moment, but it was ultimately a one-off. This was different. The winning try against the Springboks four years ago – and it was ironic that the country that caused their greatest humiliation on the field should be where they won the trophy for the third time – came at the end of the match, an act of plunder. Their victory over Ireland in Shizuoka was a tactical triumph built on a much firmer foundation and that resonated.

5) Siya Kolisi

The captain from humble beginnings maintained his humility at the moment of his greatest triumph. It was notable how relaxed the South Africa coaches and players who performed media duties last week were, but none more so than Kolisi on Friday afternoon. He could have been taking part in an end-of-term sack race, smiling often and leaning back in his chair as he was again asked about his upbringing, what victory would mean for a country in need of a lift and how the Springboks were a squad no longer defined by race or colour but one that celebrated and exploited their different backgrounds. Like his head coach, Erasmus, he was hugely impressive after the final, even minutes after it finished when he had to do a flash interview. Erasmus has made many smart decisions since taking over last year but the best was his first: his choice of captain.

6) Not blown off course

Typhoon Hagibis could have taken an even greater toll on the tournament than the cancellation of three matches. Only one of these, Italy against New Zealand, had any relevance on the quarter-final shake-up and then only mathematically as Italy needed to beat the holders and secure a bonus point. Had the final group match between Japan and Scotland fallen victim to it, the fall-out could have far-reaching after the Scottish Rugby Union made a series of demands and took legal advice. An army of staff and volunteers at the stadium in Yokohama, some of whom had had to evacuate their homes in the worst storm here for 60 years, made sure it went ahead, many working through the night, and this was, by some way, the friendliest of the World Cups.

<span class="element-image__caption">Rescue workers in Nagano prefecture after Typhoon Hagibis struck Japan.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters</span>
Rescue workers in Nagano prefecture after Typhoon Hagibis struck Japan. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

7) Momentum shifts

The theory in tournaments used to be that it was all about momentum: get on a roll and no one can stand in your path. Here, New Zealand trounced Ireland one week and were dismantled by England the next. England, seven days later, were put through the mincer by South Africa. It is not as if New Zealand or England were confronted by the unexpected after their triumphs, although the sustained brilliance of Eddie Jones’s team may have caught out the All Blacks. England knew what was coming their way in the final but did not do enough to build their defences. South Africa played at a consistent level throughout the tournament: they did not hit the highs of New Zealand or England, even Wales maybe, but neither did they go as low. In an era of almost celebrity coaches, have players lost the capacity to think when a plan is not working out?

8) Not to be forgotten

It was a time of farewells. Steve Hansen and Warren Gatland reached the end of their long stints with New Zealand and Wales respectively going for bronze rather than gold, Joe Schmidt was unable to end Ireland’s record of never having made the last four, Jacques Brunel looked to be here in name only, there seemed to be a new name to succeed Italy’s Conor O’Shea every day and Michael Cheika’s five years with Australia came to an acrimonious end after elimination by England. Coaches now tend to be given time and, given intense analysis and the importance of man-management, they have never been more influential. Gatland said after Wales finished fourth that he would be heartbroken if all the gains made during his 12 years were lost and Wales returned to the doldrums. His successor, Wayne Pivac, will change style while needing to remain on the same course.

9) Tier stained

Every World Cup prompts a debate about the access emerging nations (tier two) should have to the countries that play in major championships (tier one), but the tone changed here because Japan made the quarter-finals while Italy, Argentina and Scotland boarded early flights home. Japan’s success ensured the losing margin in matches involving sides from the two groups fell; but even when there were blow-outs, and Namibia and Canada found themselves in the same group as the holders and the eventual winners, the investment in high-performance systems paid off. Some of the tournament’s outstanding players were in tier two sides and if the last six weeks have shown anything it is that the old order should be shaken up.

10) Memories

From the moment 15,000 locals who turned up to watch Wales train in Kitakyushu, having learned the Welsh national anthem, it was clear this was going to be a different tournament. The Japanese so embraced a sport that few had known much about even a few months ago that they bought the kit of countries they adopted. Such was the demand to see the All Blacks that when they played Canada in Oita, thousands turned up early in the pouring rain to wait for the gates to open. Staff and volunteers at the grounds could not do enough. After turning up in Toyota close to kick-off after a hotel check-in dispute, a steward with no English managed to fathom out that it was directions to the media centre that were being pleaded for. A personal escort followed. Arigato. Sayonara.

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