Only three months ago, Sir Steve Hansen was lamenting the lop-sided nature of the Rugby World Cup draw, which loaded all the current top five rugby-playing nations – Ireland, France, New Zealand, South Africa and Scotland – in Pools ‘A’ and ‘B’.
Only two of those teams can now advance to the semi-finals. One of Ireland, Scotland or South Africa will bow out at the group stage, while the other four will face off against each other in the quarter-finals.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” opined the double World Cup-winning coach to WalesOnline. “There’s going to be one of the top three countries in the world kicked out in the quarter-finals.
“People will berate them if they get kicked out, but they’re playing one of the top two teams in the world. There’s not much difference between them, and someone has to lose.
“Heaven forbid who it’s going to be.”
As an afterthought, Hansen added a list of potential winners of the competition, while highlighting easy passage for teams on the other side of the draw.
“If you ask me who is capable of winning, probably France, Ireland, the All Blacks and South Africa. I think one of those four will win it.
Recent developments have begun to cast a long shadow over that last comment. At the weekend England lost more comfortably to Wales in Cardiff than the 20-9 scoreline suggests, while Fiji extended their recent winning run to four matches under Simon Raiwalui after beating Japan at the Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo.
The strengthening of all the Pacific Island squads resulting from World Rugby’s bold new eligibility criteria, with players able to represent more than one country, has nudged Fiji, Samoa and Tonga closer to the tipping point where they can not only expect to cause a one-off upset, but hope to qualify for the knockout stages.
That means Samoa will offer even more serious opposition to England and Argentina in pool D, while Fiji has every opportunity to beat either one of Wales or Australia – or maybe even both – to advance from pool C. What has rendered the outcomes in pool C even more intriguing is the recent levelling-up in the scrummaging balance, which has worked out in favour of Fiji and Wales, but very much against the Wallabies.
Australia lost their influential tight-head prop Allan Alaalatoa to a serious Achilles tendon injury at the end of the first half of the opening Bledisloe Cup game against New Zealand. That will rule him out of the World Cup, but the situation was compounded when his replacement, Taniela Tupou, aggravated a rib injury
“When it rains, it pours mate,” commented a rueful coach, Eddie Jones.
To lose one tight-head prop of world-class stature could be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose two in one match looks like carelessness. The unavailability of Alaalatoa and the potential absence of Tupou – who is fit enough for the final 33-man squad – will have given both Wales and Fiji real hope an upset against the Wallabies is now well within their playing compass.
Why? Wales would have been concerned at the strength of the Australian set-piece, had the Wallabies’ top quartet of props (James Slipper, Angus Bell, Tupou and Alaalatoa) been available to scrum against them. On current form, Wales could not match that kind of power, especially with 140KG of Will Skelton packing down behind them.
In the Six Nations, Wales ranked second-last at the scrum, losing 20% of their own feeds while registering a minus-three penalty count. The scrum was one of the major chinks in the Welsh armour which the Wallabies might have exploited at full strength. Likewise, the traditional tactical recipe to beat the Pasifika nations has been to limit the game to source play and set-piece. Dominate the scrum and maul, and allow as little scope for unstructured attack as possible.
Without Alaalatoa and possibly Tupou as well, that plan has been flushed straight down the dunny. Their replacements in the second Bledisloe Cup game in Dunedin, Rebels’ tight-head Pone Fa’amausili and Queenslander Zane Nongorr, both came apart dramatically in the final quarter:
The man opposing Pone, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, is not perceived as one of the top loose-head scrummagers in New Zealand. He would clearly rank behind both Ethan De Groot and a fit Joe Moody on that score. But even Tu’ungafasi is well capable of exposing the technical flaws which have kept Fa’amausili behind both Sam Talakai and Cabous Eloff in Melbourne.
At 6ft 5ins tall and weighing 140KG, Fa’amausili is a vast physical specimen who has not yet learned a technique to keep his right shoulder down, and his feet nailed to the ground, against more compact opponents. The outcome against competent loose-head operators such Nicky Smith of Wales, or Fiji’s Eroni Mawi, would scarcely be different.
The worry for Australia is the next cab off the rank, 22-year-old Nongorr, did not fare any better in the decisive scrum of the match in the 78th minute.
Richie Mo’unga kicked the winning penalty. At all three scrums New Zealand enjoyed the dividend of being able to play away from the set-piece and make easy extra yardage under penalty advantage.
Wales plundered exactly the same bonus towards the end of their warm-up versus the old enemy England on Saturday.
After conceding three scrum penalties in the first half, Wales came back strongly to even up the account via their bench in the second half. They may also have unearthed an answer to their earnest prayers at tight-head prop in the process. Thirty-one-year-old Henry Thomas previously won seven caps for England, the last of which came on the 2014 tour of New Zealand, but the new, more relaxed eligibility laws mean he now qualifies for Wales through his father.
Thomas spent the past couple of seasons as an important part of Montpellier’s rotation on the right side of the scrum, and no tight-head survives in the Top 14 if he does not know his craft, and make constant improvements within it.
As the man himself remarked to WalesOnline: “Playing in the Top 14, my set-piece game is absolutely paramount.
“The league is full of massive blokes, and massive packs. For you to get the respect as a prop, and to get selected in the first place, you have to have a strong set-piece game, especially for a side with title ambitions like Montpellier.
“For me throughout my career my point of difference was playing with ball in hand, and having skills which a lot of other props don’t have.
“During my time in the Top 14 I’ve put a lot more emphasis on my scrummaging and it’s really improved.
“I think by playing in the Top 14 over the past couple of years I’ve proved how strong a scrummager I am.”
In the clip, Thomas first picks Bevan Rodd off the turf before drilling through towards the centre of the tunnel and winning the penalty. Wales came within inches of scoring on the following play, via a kick-and-chase down the right touch by that slickest of speedsters, right wing Louis Rees-Zammit.
The biggest surprise is the upward curve of improvement shown by Fiji at the set-piece. Their starting tight forwards in the match against Japan all ply their club trade in Europe: four players represented the English Premiership – hooker Sam Matavesi and lock Temo Mayanavanua (both Northampton), loose-head Mawi (Saracens) and lock Albert Tuisue (Gloucester) – while 130KG tight-head Luke Tagi plays for Provence in the French ProD2.
That gave the Fiji set-piece concrete foundations against a Brave Blossoms pack that rarely looks anything less than technically sound at the scrum. Fiji won five penalties at scrum time, even when Japan continued to pack eight forwards in the set-piece after an early red card for their flanker ‘Lappies’ Labuschagne.
In the second clip, the dominance of Tagi on the right side gives scrum-half Frank Lomani all the room he needs to convert from a five-metre scrum. Tagi plays in the scrummaging hothouse of French professional rugby, and there are at least half a dozen oblong-shaped Georgians lurking in the Top 14, just waiting for their chance to do the Aussies a similar sort of mischief when push comes to second shove on the grandest stage of all.
When the World Cup draw was first announced, pool B containing Ireland, Scotland, South Africa and Tonga looked for all the world like ‘the group of death’. As the tournament has drawn closer, pool C has become every bit as engrossing.
With Australia losing both of their premier tight-head props, the Georgians will be licking their lips as heads drop and backs bend at the first scrum. Both Wales and Fiji will be anticipating the set-piece will not be as forboding a prospect as it once seemed.
Imagine Fiji able to unleash Levani Botia, Viliame Mata, Josua Tuisova, Semi Radradra, Seta Tamanivalu and Waisea Nayacalevu without pressure on their set-piece, and the dangers for the green-and-gold are amply pointed. Suddenly the 2023 World Cup looks primed to shock. ‘Expect the unexpected’ may yet become the byline for the tournament.