Pendulum swings as final group games ramp up Rugby World Cup risks | Ben Ryan | Sport

Ten red cards or subsequent bans in Japan has dwarfed anything that’s happened before in a Rugby World Cup. However, get a ban now that goes into the knockouts and a body blow could turn into a grievous one. How many of the top teams could go into a quarter-final fully confident without their best player banned? England without Billy or Faz? New Zealand without Beauden or Ardie? Wales missing Alun Wyn or Gareth?

Now I’m not saying the bans and cards earlier in the group stages didn’t have an impact but the stakes are now considerably higher.

The England v Argentina match promised so much more before the dismissal of Tomas Lavanini dissolved any contest that might have transpired. However, Argentina were already on their last chance after defeat against France and England looked in control before the South Americans were down a lock.

The odds of a dismissal in my mind go up further when there is more at stake and the risks and rewards are higher. Look no further than 1995 when South Africa played Canada in their final pool fixture. Both sides needed to win to progress, a loss and an exit beckoned. Three red cards were dished out in that game.

Sunday’s Japan v Scotland encounter falls into the same category. Both need to go full out and neither can worry about a quarter-final the following week that may never transpire. These games make tournaments and often it’s these last group rounds and the subsequent quarter-finals that bring with them the most excitement and pendulum-swinging periods of possibilities.

To a lesser extent England v France on Saturday could provide that, the typhoon notwithstanding. This match-up always pulls on the emotions, although there has also been a fair bit of chatter about the loser of this game perhaps having an easier route towards the final.

You can argue this has some merit if you take the art away from the science but there remains one hard fact that stands alone in team sport world championships. Look at men’s and women’s basketball, football, hockey, baseball, cricket and only in men’s rugby XVs has every single winner since 1987 lifted the trophy with a 100% win rate.

Yes, teams have reached the finals after losing but they didn’t win the one that counted. Momentum and confidence for me overrides any perceived “easier” route through the knockouts. I just cannot see it being any different this time around.

I’ve been in France this week, doing some work with the federation. The mood is certainly not overly confident but, contrary to a lot of speculation, the spirit in the squad sounds high and they have some class to match England’s outstanding side. This could be a cracker and is exactly what the Red Rose need before knockout rugby commences.

But the jab of adrenaline and focus that game will provide both teams isn’t on the cards for two of the pre‑tournament favourites. New Zealand and South Africa had to be on point against each other in their first match and since then have largely been able to coast the remaining three games to the quarter-finals. An argument could be made that they both lack a big game recently to get them up to the intensity a last-eight game needs, but their match-up in the opening game wasn’t that long ago and neither looked rusty, so I don’t think that’s an issue.

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Importantly it will also mean no risks need to be taken in selection and one obvious benefit from that is if your best players aren’t on the field then they can’t get injured and certainly cannot receive a red card. That brings with it a nice ability to rest players and rotate and begin the cycle again towards peaking for the knockouts. I can see a lot more advantages than disadvantages for both the All Blacks and Springboks and no doubt about it, they are in the box seat.

Wales are through and join those two behemoths but they won’t want to lose any of the emotional energy they captured after their Australia win. However, they were pushed all the way by a Fiji team that had nothing to lose after their defeat by Uruguay. An expectant nation demanded they put in one big 80-minute performance before they look towards France 2023 and they certainly did so in the 29-17 defeat. A disjointed performance from the Welsh shouldn’t overly worry their supporters. Even so, this Fiji team haven’t got what they came to Japan for but still remain a class outfit. This tournament has been ace but the best is yet to come.


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Publish date : 2019-10-09 18:00:00

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