It has been a long month in Japan as the 2019 Rugby World Cup pool stages meandered to a predictable conclusion. Upsets were in short supply and only really provided by Japan who managed to top Group A after beating Ireland and Scotland. Which, has to be said, is impressive, but one must keep in mind that this is not the Japanese side of the 1990s – far from it, and they are playing at home. Nevertheless, their plucky attitude and skillful work on the field of play have been a breath of fresh air.
Some would argue that Uruguay beating Fiji is an upset of sorts and well, whilst that isn’t necessarily untrue, whipping boys beating whipping boys is unlikely to get anyone talking too much.
Rather, the most intriguing aspect of pool D has to be the fact that Uruguay has a player called Juan Manuel Cat who managed to scamper over the whitewash during the win against Fiji. The headlines would have surely written themselves the day after and if the Uruguayan tabloids didn’t lead with ‘the cat that got the cream’ then sadly it would all have been in vain.
If it seems to you like rugby lovers the world over have had to look for bizarre subplots to keep their interest from waning during the pool stages then you would be completely right. It was all too straightforward and lacking the unpredictability of say, the FIFA World Cup. It is a stark reminder of the gap between the top nations and the rest, which is as wide as it has ever been.
Until the pool stages become more competitive it is hard to see rugby being able to grow its international audience. With that said, once the monotony of the round-robin does come to an end, the tournament bursts into life with eight of the world’s best teams left to battle it out for the Webb Ellis Cup. In reality, the quarterfinals and beyond are the complete opposite of the group stages where we all know what is going to happen.
Any of the last eight can win even if the Rugby World Cup betting odds seem to favor New Zealand. The truth is that the Webb Ellis Cup is there for the taking and even Japan at 40/1, with the juggernaut of momentum that they have built up, could make a run to the final.
The Brave Blossoms will be the neutral’s favorite at least and after narrowly beating a determined Scotland in their last group game, you just don’t know now the knockout format is here. Indeed, it is now down to 80 minutes of pressure where the winner will be the team that is the most disciplined but, most importantly, the one that makes the fewest mistakes.
There is still time for the 2019 World Cup in Japan to be considered one of the best to have ever taken place and, with the fixtures to come, it looks likely that this could well be the case come the closing ceremony. In any event, we can all now breathe a sigh of the relief that the procession of the pool stages has come to an end.