The final round of warm-ups has been played and fans everywhere have a slightly clearer idea of where their team is, who is in form, and what they need to be worried about.
For all that Joe Schmidt highlighted that the rankings don’t change the fact that New Zealand are still the favourites for the Rugby World Cup, Ireland arguably deserved the Number 1 spot last year and it is nice for the fans to be recognised as one of the best teams going into the tournament. Moreover, both Schmidt and Rory Best got the send-off in Dublin their respective Ireland careers deserved: a comprehensive win and a standing ovation.
Loser: injury concerns
None of the players who had to leave the field early last weekend looked like their tournament was definitely over but Rhys Patchell’s withdrawal with concussion after a year struggling with symptoms will be a concern, despite Gatland’s confidence he will be fine for Japan. Ireland saw Keith Earls leave the field early, Luke Cown-Dickie and Joe Launchbury had to go off for England, and Scotland ended the game with no fewer than five players with injury issues, including Jamie Ritchie who is now a serious doubt for the RWC. Marcus Bradbury, one of ths surprise omissions from the squad, will travel with the squad as cover. The debate over just how many warm-up games are needed will no doubt continue.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) September 7, 2019
Winner: Joe Marchant
Having been ruled out of the England 31-man squad, one of the first to be announced, Marchant was asked to stick around in camp and was rewarded with his first start against Italy. He scored a lovely solo try and showed off some nice footwork throughout. Should Jonathan Joseph struggle to overcome his injury issues, Marchant has proved they have an exciting option waiting in the wings.
Loser: Ruaridh McConnochie
Marchant’s fellow new starter struggled to have the same impact on the game, however. It wasn’t calamitous by any means but there aren’t many easier debuts on paper than Italy’s second string at home, and McConnochie didn’t show what fans have been waiting for since his summons to the training squad. On the other wing, Johnny May had a far better outing despite the limited opportunities.
Winner: the engine room
Some of the best players in world rugby right now play in the second row and these games highlighted just how much impact locks can have. James Ryan was excellent, rescuing Ireland’s lineout, scoring a try, and generally bringing some game-winning physicality to all his interactions. Scott Cummings had a similarly standout performance for Scotland, making 30m from four carries. For England, Courtney Lawes reminded everyone that Maro Itoje is not the only wrecking-ball lock in the English second row, dominating the lineout, the maul, and defence, while carrying and helping out at the breakdown.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) September 7, 2019
Loser: Leigh Halfpenny
Halfpenny has been one of the first names on the team sheet since his emergence, with Warren Gatland prizing his defensive positioning, his ability under the high ball, and his outstanding goal-kicking. Since the British & Irish Lions tour in 2017, Gatland seems to have finally been convinced by Liam Williams’ qualities, and injury troubles have meant Halfpenny hasn’t been able to fight for his spot for the first time. This game was a chance for him to finally do that and he couldn’t take it, even missing an easy kick and a high-ball take – the staples of his game.
Winner: Scotland’s 23
Perhaps more than any other Home Nation, Scotland have been vulnerable to injuries. Their first XV could take on anyone, on their day, but the quality of their replacements meant they have struggled. Along with Ireland and Wales, they have worked to rectify that this World Cup cycle and the final warm-up game demonstrated that. Cummings was not the only player to have made a case for himself against Georgia – Darcy Graham, Adam Hastings, and Blade Thomson all excelled, and Sam Johnson looked like he could make a very strong partnership in midfield with certain starter Duncan Taylor. Scotland aren’t the finished article yet but they no longer seem likely to be derailed by the first injury.
Loser: Mako Vunipola
Eddie Jones has confirmed that the loosehead prop, arguably the best in the world, won’t be fit for the first two pool games at the earliest. Those matches are against the USA and Tonga, and Jones and his coaches think it is worth the risk of carrying Vunipola until the knockout games, such is his ability. “He’s probably going to be right for the third or fourth game”, said Jones. Realistically, this England side ought to be able to win even their toughest pool games without him although, even though he rarely needs many games to play himself back into form, it will be a tough ask to return for a quarter-final with only one brief outing under his belt since May. Moreover, should one of the other loosehead props sustain an injury early on, Jones will find himself in a tough spot.
And that's how we do Friday night International rugby!
— Scottish Rugby (@Scotlandteam) September 6, 2019
Winner: second-half resurgences
It’s unlikely that many home fans would have been thrilled at half-time in any of these three games but patience proved to be a virtue, with the second-halves much more entertaining. England scored four tries after a turgid first 40 minutes, Scotland pulled away with 26 unanswered points, and Ireland came back from a first-half deficit for the first time since 2014, with a comprehensive performance that Wales had no answer to. All three sides have frequently struggled to play for a full 80 minutes recently so those resurgences will comfort fans and coaches.
Regular observers of Gatland’s Wales will know their strength and conditioning work is always aimed to have them peak at the end of a tournament and they usually start slow. There is not necessarily any cause for concern about the outcome of warm-ups, especially with a decent turnaround between their first game against Georgia and the likely pool decider against Australia. On the other hand, for a team with aspirations to win the RWC for the first time, three losses out of four isn’t encouraging, irrespective of the quality of the opponents. Moreover, Patchell’s early departure means Gatland hasn’t had much chance to decide who he wants to start games at No 10. After sitting top of the rankings so recently, Wales are now fifth and looking like a dark horse again.
Eddie Jones discusses England’s injury troubles
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