The scene has already been set for some classic matches between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ at the Rugby World Cup. Not just between so-called Tier One and Tier Two nations, but between teams that want possession of the ball, and those that do not. Between sides that want to jab, set up combinations and dominate the centre of the ring, and others who wish to play rope-a-dope and counter-punch off the lead.
That choice has already provoked an identity crisis in Australian rugby since the return of Eddie Jones as head coach. The Wallaby head coach began by proclaiming ‘possession rugby is dead’ but by his fourth game in charge the tune had changed: “You look at our team, we are a running team… Running, running, running. We want to have a strong running game.”
There is plenty of the same confusion in England right now, where Jones’ replacement Steve Borthwick has veered uncertainly between a Harlequins iteration of the national side containing an axis of number eight Alex Dombrandt and half-backs Danny Care and Marcus Smith, and a version based around Saracens and Leicester with Billy Vunipola at eight, Ben Youngs or Jack van Poortvliet at scrum-half and a choice between Owen Farrell and George Ford at fly-half. That choice commits England to two fundamentally different styles of play, as any English Premiership aficionado will tell you.
There have already been some apprehensive rumblings in the Republic about the size of the task facing the defending champions.
The contest between jabber and counter-puncher has created an enthralling scenario in pool B at the World Cup, where one southern hemisphere nation based firmly around creating scores out of overwhelmingly powerful defence – world champions South Africa – will take on not one, but two northern teams wedded to the idea of maintaining possession and exhausting the defence, in the form of Ireland and Scotland.
There have already been some apprehensive rumblings in the Republic about the size of the task facing the defending champions. South Africa is right to be nervous. Scotland have just come out of a double-header against France, who are built along much the same lines as the Boks, having fought the hometown favourites to an honourable draw.
After winning 25-21 at Murrayfield the week before, Gregor Townsend’s men took on the rump of the France first XV in Saint Etienne and only lost in the penultimate minute of the game to a scrum penalty, 30- 27. Over the two matches, Scotland enjoyed the Lion’s share of time in possession (40 minutes compared to France’s 29) while building 57 more rucks, and forcing Les Bleus to make 87 more tackles in the process. They also scored seven tries to France’s six.
Perhaps the most glaring (and worrying) statistic of all was the scoreline over the last half-hour of both games, which spun out 32-3 in Scotland’s favour. The fact the Scots played the final 30 minutes at Murrayfield with only 14 men on the park, after prop Zander Fagerson had been sent off for head-high contact, seemed to make no difference at all.
France had also wound down like a clockwork toy in the final quarter of their title-decider versus Ireland in the 2023 Six Nations. As their standout second row Thibault Flament commented after that game had finished, “They [Ireland] are very good on the front foot and they just kept coming at us. The last 20 minutes were horrible because we were behind [on the scoreboard] and they kept attacking us. We were still in our half, defending them.”
Townsend was right to be pleased with the efforts of his charges at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, which showed many similarities to Ireland’s trademark quality in passages of sustained attack.
“There’s so much more to come from this team. We showed in the first 15 minutes and the last 15 minutes we can win ball, our set-piece can be strong, and also we can attack and score great tries. So, our job is to put that together for more than 20-30 minutes… to do that for much longer.”
The problem for teams based around a fierce rush defence often arise in that last hal -hour, when defenders can no longer make those lung-bursting runs to cover half-breaks in behind, or flesh out the numbers in the line around an ultra-competitive defensive breakdown. If there really is so much more to come from Scotland, the Springboks have every reason to be concerned about their ability to make it out of their pool.
The classic nature of the two contests between Scotland and France was a bout between one team which likes to lead off with structured rugby through an outstanding 10 (Finn Russell), and a another which prefers explosive counters on the break sparked by its superhuman 9 (Antoine Dupont).
Scotland began with a bang, with a phase sequence broken into two segments, lasting a total of three minutes and 15 phases. It wasn’t until the sixth minute France managed to get their hands on the ball in the Scotland half. The proficiency of the men in dark blue at moving the ball around slickly with support was in evidence right from the start, with Russell first shifting the ball wide left from an attacking lineout, then magically appearing back on the right within a couple of phases.
Keep an eye out for this individual poker game between the Scotland half-backs and the French left wing Gabin Villière (in the red hat) – it will become important. Scotland used the running game to pull defenders up into line before going to the kick on their own terms. The sequence reached a climax on the seventh phase.
It’s either a 50-22 lineout (if the ball goes out) or a searching attacking kick (if it stays in), and it turns out to be the latter. The Scots sat on the position until they scored from a short-range lineout.
In the first clip it was number 11 Duhan Van der Merwe over on the right wing. In the scoring example it was number 14 Kyle Steyn leaving Villière a step short of making the cover tackle in the corner. That was typical of Scotland’s flexible interplay on offence, and in both cases it is the French left wing caught slightly out of position.
During the second and third quarters of the game the narrative shifted, as France’s defence got on top, winning four breakdown turnovers (two of them courtesy of the livewire Villière) and dominating the penalty count at the set-piece and ruck up until half-time (11 to three in France’s favour).
It was Dupont’s unrivalled ability to spot opportunities on the counter which was the major instrument of torture for the visitors during this period.
Villière provides his first turnover, Dupont takes the quick tap, and the twin red hats (Villière and lock Flament) are on hand to fashion a break. The ball inevitably returned magnetically to the French scrum-half to finish a try which was later – wrongly as it turned out – disallowed for a foot in touch on Dupont’s initial carry.
It was the best player in the world who sparked the best and most spectacular try of the entire match on a kick return.
He was at the heart of another try-scoring opportunity off a broken play only five minutes later.
This is the sign a master rugby intellect at work, using the two hard forward runners on his left to decoy the defence before switching to the extreme right with a 20-metre cutout pass.
In the final quarter, Scotland’s possession attack once again took the game by the scruff of the neck as the French rush defence began to run out of gas.
The two French backs (Dupont and right wing Damian Penaud) are still blitzing, but the forwards – and replacement prop Uini Atonio in particular – are completely static, unable to move quickly upfield or fold across in behind the two blitzers.
Now it was time for the Scotland 10, rather than the French 9, to return to the helm.
On the initial play from scrum, the long pass from Russell is beating the rush from his old adversary Villière with perfect precision. On the scoring phase his quick tapped penalty catches the French forwards unawares five metres from their own goal line.
That was not the last occasion when the tendency of the French wingers to follow the ball aggressively infield, with the breakdown turnover or countering opportunity in prospect, cost them dear.
Villière is enticed towards the tackle area by the possibility of his third breakdown turnover of the game and that leaves France a man down in short-side defence on the following phase. The French defence is a double-edged sword, and Scotland almost had the wherewithal to prove it for the second time in seven days.
The clash of styles is in a rare state of balance before the World Cup begins next month. The change in the shape of thinking behind Jones’ Wallabies over their first four games bears witness to it. Jones started with the three-and-out theory but finished with running, running and more running.
The pragmatists founded on kicking, set-piece and overpowering defence are no longer in the ascendance, and that will create problems for both France and South Africa, not to mention England and Wales in the course of the tournament.
This is one World Cup where the idealists will have their say, and nowhere more so than in pool B, the so-called ‘group of death’. The Springboks will have their hands full with Tonga, Scotland and world number one ranked Ireland. Both the northern nations will look to keep ball in hand and probe for weaknesses in the South African defence, and they will try to take the Springboks to a lung-bursting limit, and beyond it in the final quarter of the game. Attack or defend, play off 9 or 10, jab or counter-punch. Take your pick.