Drop goals, Japanese tenacity and the rise of the hooker set World Cup alight
TOKYO, 30 Sep – Rugby World Cup 2019 exploded into life during its second weekend with a couple of classic encounters. Japan fought back to stun Ireland and record the first real upset of the tournament, before Wales toppled Australia at a World Cup for the first time since 1987.
Here are the latest analytical talking points.
Australia concede more pool-stage points than ever before
Back in July, one of the main question marks about the Wallabies going into the World Cup was whether the team possessed enough attacking flair. After a dismal 2018, in which they won just four of their 13 matches, they were thought to be too one-dimensional and lacking variation.
But against Wales, it was not their attacking capabilities that came up short. Across the 80 minutes, the Wallabies posed a greater threat from open play, outscoring their opponents by three tries to two. Instead it was their defence that ultimately let them down, and the 29 points Wales scored were the most they have ever conceded in a pool-stage encounter, beating the 27 they conceded against South Africa in 1995.
Wales came with a clear gameplan to open up the Wallabies defence with clever cross-field kicks and chips, and a determination to go for the posts at the slightest opportunity. They slotted two drop goals, Dan Biggar's opening-minute effort – the fastest drop goal in World Cup history – setting the tone, and this early scoreboard pressure ultimately proved decisive.
With games against Georgia and Uruguay still to come, Australia remain odds-on favourites to qualify for the quarter-finals, but the ease with which Wales unlocked their defence in the early stages will give coach Michael Cheika plenty to think about over the coming weeks.
Underrated defence provides backbone for Japan's remarkable upset
Japan set the tournament alight with their remarkable 19-12 victory over Ireland on Saturday afternoon. But while the pace, skill and verve of their attacking play have subsequently made all the headlines, the cornerstone of their success was really a Herculean defensive effort, which slowly but surely sucked the willpower from the men in green.
From the first whistle, the Brave Blossoms tackled like their lives depended on it, a remarkable physical effort, which visibly took its toll on the Irish as the match slipped away from them in the second half. Overall, Japan made an astonishing 171 tackles, the second-most in the 2019 tournament at that point, and missed just 33.
As Ireland were forced to chase the game, the combination of Shizuoka's draining humidity and the relentless Japanese tackling, ultimately left them tired, error-strewn and bereft of ideas. Having produced an exhibition of control the previous week against Scotland, Ireland attempted to conjure up the kind of signature rugby that had taken them to world No.1 going into this tournament. They drove hard, worked the play through the phases, but at every stage they were harried by Japan, stifling their ability to move the ball.
James Moore made 24 tackles without a miss, a record for Rugby World Cup 2019 at that point, Luke Thompson made 19 without a miss. The Japanese second row, including replacement Wimpie Van der Walt, made 48 tackles without missing any. At times, as they hunted in vain for the try that could level the match, it seemed as though Ireland could barely move without a Japanese player as ball and chain.
It ended up being a chastening afternoon for Ireland and illustrated just why Japan are a real threat to the Tier 1 nations at this tournament.
The rise of the scoring hookers
Forget flying wingers and marauding backs, the most potent try-scoring weapon in modern rugby is the humble hooker. OK, maybe we are exaggerating but, before you laugh, it is worth taking a look at one of the most remarkable statistics of Rugby World Cup 2019 so far.
After 10 days of matches, hookers are the top scorers at the tournament with 16 tries (13 from starters, three from replacements), more than any other position. In comparison, left and right wingers have scored only 14 and 13 tries respectively. Those 13 tries by starting hookers are a Rugby World Cup record, beating the 12 scored across the whole of Rugby World Cup 2007.
Players including Argentina's Julian Montoya – who scored a hat-trick in his team's 28-12 win over Tonga on Saturday – have exemplified this bizarre trend. Montoya now holds the record for most tries by a hooker in a World Cup career, with six overall.
So why are hookers proving such a threat at this tournament? Much of it relates to the difficulty of defending against the driving maul, with powerful packs posing numerous problems at lineouts. It remains to be seen whether teams will adapt their maul defence tactics as the tournament goes on, or whether this will continue to be the hookers' World Cup.