AUCKLAND, 20 Sept. - A spotlight on the hot topics at Rugby World Cup 2011.
The subject on everyone's lips in the first week of Rugby World Cup 2011 was the performance of the less-fancied nations. They were on the rise. England team manager Martin Johnson even described it as some of the best pool play in Rugby World Cup history.
A look at the figures after 19 matches (only Russia and Italy are yet to play a second time) throws up some interesting talking points in reference to these lower-tier nations.
First, there is a marked difference between rising and risen. Based on the IRB rankings at the start of RWC 2011, only two teams ranked lower than their opponents won a match, firstly Canada (14) overcoming Tonga (12) 25-20 in Whangarei and last Saturday's 15-6 win by Ireland (then ranked eighth) against Australia (two).
It wasn't the lower-tier nations' shock victories that had everyone talking though, it was their competitiveness. So how do you measure competitiveness? For all the statistics available to them, coaching teams tend to look for the most obvious and important statistic - the scoreboard.
In order to create an 'upset' teams have been trying to keep the higher ranked side as close as possible on the scoreboard for as long as possible, maybe in the hope that psychologically the pressure of defeat against a less-fancied team starts to work in their favour.
The witching hour
It seems the tactic is, at least partially, working. Taking the hour mark as our point of reference, 10 of the first 19 matches of RWC 2011, the teams involved were within one converted try (7pts) of each other on 60 minutes.
Five of those matches were still within one converted try, and enough for a losing bonus point, at the final whistle, Canada's five-point victory over Tonga included.
England's Steve Thompson said that preparation and professionalism were both reasons for the improvement and the hour-mark statistics support both of these theories, but for different reasons.
Preparation means attacking and defensive patterns, fitness levels and the ability to sustain work-rate for up to an hour. In this respect all teams are closer than ever and during the match to that point rankings can mean very little. But it's after the hour that the other factor, professionalism, kicks in.
Professionalism is where the bigger teams have the edge and in the last 20 minutes of the match when the benches are put into action. The teams that can call on benches full of players of the same experience and professional calibre usually manage to pull away.
Taking England's match against Argentina as an example, the Pumas led 9-3 at the hour mark, but eventually lost the match 13-9. "After the break it was going to take another 15, 20 minutes," said Thompson. "We knew we had the bench to come, it was a good 22-man effort and that's exactly how we saw it."
Thompson's teammate Nick Easter agreed: "It was very difficult to get some quality ball to begin with, but in the last 15 or 20 minutes our fitness told, and our technique as well."
Lack of fitness
Romania coach Romeo Gontineac admitted the same as his courageous team were found wanting, not in the last 20 minutes against Scotland, but in the last 10, letting a three-point advantage after 67 minutes slip through their fingers. "We lacked concentration, fitness and technique towards the end and the Scottish used it to their advantage," he lamented.
Perhaps the two front row replacements made with the score at 24-21 to the Romanians with 13 minutes remaining also had an effect.
Perpignan hooker and man-of-the-match Marius Tincu was replaced by Bogdan Zumega Suman, the number 2 of Romanian club side Steaua Bucharest. At the same time 28-year-old prop Paulica Ion, a veteran of three Rugby World Cups, who plies his trade at London Irish, was replaced by Silviu Florea, a man six years his senior who has become something of a journeyman in French club rugby.
Florea has signed to play for newly promoted Union Bordeaux Bègles after the Rugby World Cup, his fourth club in just over five years in France.
The clearest example of all in those 12 matches was in France's 47-21 victory against Japan. With the Brave Blossoms trailing France by just four points at the hour mark, Thierry Dusautoir said he made his players understand they had to get back to work, and they did, eventually winning by 26.
In August 2005 the IRB committed 30 million sterling to a three-year Strategic Investment Programme specifically designed to boost Rugby in lower-tier nations by establishing high performance cultures. In 2008 they increased that commitment to 48 million sterling in a four-year extension of the programme up to 2012, concentrating on the employment of high performance managers, coaching staff and strength and conditioning experts.
The results of much of that investment, particularly the proliferation of experienced specialist coaches across all the teams, are being seen here in New Zealand in those first 60 minutes. It is fair to predict that the last 20 minutes will develop over time as high performance infrastructure developments start to bear fruit.
The statistical conclusion then is that stage one: preparation, gets a healthy thumbs up, while stage two, professionalism, will presumably follow in RWC 2015 in England and RWC 2019 in Japan.
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