Best of RWC - Episode 17


2015 The Upsets

Thanks goodness for 2011. Now at least we could go into 2015 with only the crushing weight of expectation.

The panic inducing desperation had been put to bed four years earlier (it seems the Welsh were right about Graham Henry being The Great Redeemer), as we headed back to Europe – and more particularly England – for RWC VIII.

The opinions expressed in this article are correct. The facts may not be.

Japan 34 – South Africa 32

Hysterical laughter, followed by disbelief.

That's how I woke up to Sunday morning 20 September 2015.

I had been half-heartedly watching the replay of the overnight match between South Africa and Japan. I mean why bother? The Boks were going to win this by the length of the straight. Could stay in bed and catch up on results later.

But it was strangely compelling. I started watching some time before half time and a pattern began to emerge: The Bokke score ... it looks a foregone conclusion ... the Japanese score ... it's close again all of a sudden...

The match seemed so likely to go to script so many times, with the Bokke looking in control and scoring to establish what you'd think would be a lead they'd build on.

But the pesky Japanese side just wouldn't go away. The number 13 world ranked team continually scrambling back into the match against the current number three to either stay in touch or steal back the lead. Fullback Ayumu Goromaru's try to tie scores at 29 all on 68 minutes was a thing of particular beauty.

Japan winning was a seemingly impossible result. But the longer the match went, and the longer it stayed close, the more possible the impossible seemed.

... and suddenly the impossible wasn’t so improbable.

The pattern repeated right to the end. After Handre Pollard had stolen back the lead, Japan found themselves hot on attack, but this time with time ticked off.

Turning down the chance of an easy three points, and the not insignificant glory of an unexpected draw, Japan's Captain Fantastic Michael Leitch took the option to win. The next non-penalty stoppage would stop the match and SA were up by three.

Ball from a scrum 5m from both the goal and left hand touch lines was moved repeatedly to the right through ruck after ruck, flirting with touch in the right hand corner.

The ball was flashed back left, and suddenly the African d-line looked staggered and out of alignment.

Glimpsing out to the left some space appeared in which Lifemi Mafi found former Otago winger Karne Hesketh who sprinted at the line, around and eventually through the desperate efforts of JP Pietersen to send the Stadium, and rugby watching public worldwide, at least all those without Southern African accents, through the roof.

Coach Eddie Jones had achieved The Brighton Miracle (when I was writing this a month or so back I added a note here as follows: “did that movie ever get made?” seems it has), and had achieved his greatest ever coaching achievement, eclipsing his 2003 semi-final win, his 2IC role for the Boks in 2007, and even the subsequent record equalling winning run with England post the '15 Cup.

But it wasn't enough for his team to advance beyond pool play for the first time. Despite picking up three wins, against Samoa and The States in addition to this match, they dipped out to the other two three game winners, South Africa themselves and Scotland, on both bonus points and points differential.

Regardless, it was a massively entertaining match and a result that will live long in the history of Rugby World Cup.

Wales 28 v England 25

It's a pity it had to happen to Stuart Lancaster.

On the continuum of likeability of coaches of opposition teams he seemed to be at the good end of things. Not something we normally associate with England.

This was a lesson in remembering to play the full eighty, and to not leave the door open.

Sure, it was The Pool of Death (dum-dum-dum DUM!), and it wasn’t that much of an upset (it was 5th v 4th on the rankings), but England were hosting the tournament on their lonesome for the first time (two QFs in Cardiff notwithstanding, but the Wales RU weren't involved) and were expected to make it through to the knockout rounds.

The best way I can sum it up is it seems they just forgot to win.

Just like the other big upset above it just seemed the favoured team were continually just doing enough and threatening to extend to a winning lead, but never quite managing to do so, the “underdogs” just staying in touch.

With ten minutes to go England led by seven, just on the verge of feeling comfortable. Not quite, but nearly there.

But Wales, suddenly finding themselves with attacking ball on halfway against a staggered defensive line shifted it to the makeshift winger Lloyd Williams, normally a half-back (or scrum-half when translated to Wales-ish, or “mewnwr” in actual Welsh), who made ground down the left touch before popping in a good old fashioned centring kick right into the path of the actual mewnwr, one of about three million Gareth Davies’s who live in the land of their fathers, who gleefully gathered and dotted under the bar.

25-all and the hosts were more than looking over their shoulders.

When fullback Mike Brown was caught in possession and didn’t release Dan Biggar, with his weirdly mesmeric pre-kick ritual, had the chance to grab the lead from 49m dead in front, which he nailed with room to spare.

England’s dream was fast becoming a nightmare, as they moved on to play Australia at Twickenham needing a win to stay in the tournament.

Ireland 20 v Argentina 43 - QF1

Ireland have been one of the longest standing members of the rugby establishment. In fact they were founder members of the International Rugby Football Board in 1886. Matches at Rugby World Cups generally go with the established nations, with only the odd exception celebrated in this series. Going into this match Ireland had advanced their ranking to 3rd.

Argentina still had the feel of being a developing rugby nation, were ranked 6th, and had a reputation of only being able to play forward dominated ten-man rugby.

But Argentina gave no credence to favouritism, history or reputation and tore into the Irish with some flashy back play bursting out to a fourteen point lead after ten minutes through their wingers Matias Moroni and the impressive Juan Imhoff.

Ireland slowly woke up and fought back to a three point deficit with just under half-an-hour to play.

With a spot in the semi-finals at stake (Ireland had never made it that far in the tournament previously, whilst Argentina were hoping to replicate, and perhaps even better, their 2007 efforts in France) tension mounted.

It was Argentina who took control of the final quarter, re-igniting their backline fireworks from early in the match, with fullback Joaquin Tuculet reaching out to ground a five-pointer in over his shoulder in the corner.

But it was the brilliantly athletic finish of Imhoff bursting through like a tank (attempt at civil engineering humour) with eight minutes left that sealed the win and sparked the subsequent scenes of jubilation in the coaching box that remains in the memory.

Los Pumas moved on to play Australia in their semi-final, eventually losing in a moderately entertaining match, before finishing fourth to South Africa in a match I recall absolutely nothing of (although I have a vague recollection that the Bokke were trying to engineer one last try for the great Bryan Habana for a new RWC try scoring record, but he remained equal with Jonah). Not saying it was a forgettable match, just I’ve forgotten it.

There were bigger things at stake that weekend.

But more on that in future editions.

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