What a fascinating weekend of rugby – WoC has so many things it wants to say about the weekend just past, but we still can’t get away from how good Sam Warburton was. But that isn’t what we came here to rant about today. We’re going to talk about the narrow victories of the 2007 finalists, South Africa and England, over Wales and Argentina respectively.
By any standard, be it statistically, territorially, at the breakdown, invention, scoring chances, Wales and Argentina had their games all but won by the hour mark. With one slight caveat – they hadn’t. Both were only 6 points up despite having dominated their games. The Pumas could stare at Martin Rodriguez’ right boot and wonder why Martin Bustos Moyano, one of the best kickers in this years Top 14, was sunning himself in Mar del Plata, and the Boks could thank some some good fortune, and suberb defence and discipline in their own 22.
And 22 is the key number here, because while Wales and Argentina had little munitions to bring on to complete what they had started (for varying reasons we will come to), their opponents could unleash benches full of stellar names to turn the games around.
Rugby is now about far more than the 15 men who take the field – the 7 (or 8) men on the bench have as much of a part to play. Anyone who doubts this should look at the European champions. The bench is picked with an eye on gameplan, not just to stack the 4th best player in that sector. Kevin McLaughlin and Shane Jennings not only specialise in different sections of the back-row, but they enable Leinster to move from one game plan to another virtually seemlessly. Isaac Boss frequently utilises his physicality and breaking skills in the last 20, and Heinke van der Merwe’s first act in the HEC semi-final will live long in the memory.
These days, modern coaches go into a game with a plan for each of the men in his match day squad – only a fool (or a cunning Machiavellian genius, depending on your viewpoint) would bring Leo Cullen on with 4 seconds to go. Now, Whiff isn’t suggesting P Divvy or Johnno are coaching geniuses (actually, we think P is a coaching genius, but thats for another day) who planned their changes as well as, say, Guy Noves or Joe Schmidt might, but key men came in and improved the team at crucial points in the game, turning it in favour of their side.
As they were just about hanging in the match, South Africa had the luxury of introducing Steenkamp, Bismarck and Alberts into the pack right at the point the Welsh forwards were tiring – the added physicality began to tell on the Welsh, and the fresh legs (and beef) helped turn the game around. What’s more, even if Priestland had nailed that drop goal, or Hook had got the penalty, with the way the Boks effortlessly boshed the Taffs aside when they set about killing the game from 75 minutes onwards, WoC suspects they could have got Morné within dropping range (around 80 metres for him), and he probably would have won it for them anyway. Of the bench, only CJ van der Linde saw no action, and it was of course a substitute who scored the winning try.
In Dunedin, England sprung Ben Youngs, Matt Stevens and Dylan Hartley (for the lamentably poor Thommo), to turn the game around. Hartley and Stevens’ greater forward nous finally got England some decent ball, and Youngs looked the player he was before he saw the inside of the Palindrome – he was our man of the match despite playing only 20 minutes or so.
Argentina were unfortunate that they had to spring their only decent subs at an early stage to replace Courtney “Breakin’ The” Lawes victims, the crocked Dr Phil and to relieve the heroic Rodrigo “Who, Me?” Roncero – they didn’t have any credible bullets left to counter Johnno’s Queen’s Gambit. Leinster fans will, of course, not have been surprised to see Mariano Galarza make no impact.
Gatty and his ugly back room staff could only look down and see some fresh-faced young whippersnappers and Andy Powell’s grinning moronic face – its little wonder he took his chances and left his exhausted pack in there to fend for themselves.
Of course, all of this can be distilled into just one question: what is Donnacha Ryan doing at the World Cup?