Ten talking points from the first two Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.
Has "British rugby expert" been proven this week to be as big an oxymoron as "a skinny sumo wrestler"?
Headlines during the week leading into the 46-14 demolishing of Ireland in the quarter-final have described as "experts" a motley bunch of commentators from Britain and Ireland, who claimed the All Blacks had lost their mojo, nobody was spooked by them anymore, and that basically New Zealand was ripe to be tipped over. There are hopefully two massive games to go for the All Blacks, but if that was a side on the brink of imploding at Tokyo Stadium then you can't buy Guinness in Dublin, they don't love the Brave Blossoms in Japan, and Boris Johnson has a great hairdresser.
Thankfully he knows all the dangers of counting chickens
On the darkest night of All Blacks' World Cup history, the 20-18 loss in a quarter-final with France in Cardiff in 2007, the current coach of the All Blacks, Steve Hansen was the assistant to head coach Graham Henry. Years later Hansen would suggest the All Blacks might have "rocked up a little arrogantly" in Cardiff. After England's convincing 40-16 win over Australia at Oita Stadium, punt on a snowball staying frozen in hell before the '19 All Blacks get overconfident next weekend.
Mr Hansen knows what he's doing, part two
If the All Blacks win this World Cup then Hansen is, hands down, the best coach the world, not just New Zealand, has seen in the era of professional rugby. You may recall that after the 2015 Cup the geniuses at World Rugby awarded the international coach of the year to Michael Cheika, whose Wallabies were whipped 34-17 by Hansen's All Blacks in the final. The theory, apparently, was that Hansen had such good players left from their 2011 victory the All Blacks couldn't help but win, no matter who was coaching. Well, Hansen doesn't have McCaw, Carter, Nonu, Conrad Smith, or Kaino this time, so he's had to take what might look like big risks. But by the look of things Hansen's made sure the new kids on the All Black block are pretty comfortable filling all those massive shoes from 2015.
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Stormy sails ahead
Last year something very unusual happened. Wayne Smith, who had stepped down at the end of 2017 as All Black defensive coach, sent a completely unsolicited email to me, prompted by stinging media criticism of Scott McLeod, the man who had taken his position with the team. "Having watched Scott operate, and experienced the way he connects with people made me aware of two things", wrote Smith. "One. He's going to be one of the best coaches in the world. Two. It was time for me to put a better, hungrier coach in my tracksuit! Stormy has everything it takes to excel. He has outstanding family support, as a former test midfielder is hugely connected to the All Black jersey, and he is smart."
As brilliant as the All Black attack was in Tokyo, it was absolutely matched by a defence which read every planned move that Ireland tried to pull. So take a bow Scott "Stormy" McLeod, along with attack coach Ian Foster. Joe Schmidt and his defence guru, Andy Farrell, have been outstanding thinkers of the game for Ireland. But as good as they are, this time they were outcoached at virtually every turn.
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The golden nugget
When Muhammad Ali split Sonny Liston's cheek open in their first world heavyweight title bout, Ali would say later he suddenly had an insight into what Liston would look like when he was an old man. Conor Murray has been a terrific halfback for Ireland, and a key figure in the groundbreaking victory over New Zealand in Chicago in 2016. But compared to Aaron "Nugget" Smith's stunning display in Tokyo Murray looked creaky, and sadly one-dimensional. Even his stock in trade, the box kick near the sideline, was often too long for chasers to put on any pressure. Smith, on the other hand, was at his assertive, daring best, doing everything at such pace, it felt as if Murray was operating in slow motion.
Kicking a coach while he's down
The All Blacks were so much better it wouldn't have made a difference to the result, so it wasn't strictly speaking a coach killer, but Ireland veteran Johnny Sexton missing touch from penalties obviously stung his coach Joe Schmidt so much that Schmidt, one of the nicest men in the game, mentioned the fact in his on field, post-match interview. On the other side of the first-five coin, Richie Mo'unga has taken his largely nerveless form for the Crusaders, in both general play and off the kicking tee, into the test arena.
A pinball wizard in footy boots
Sevu Reece was the longest shot in this All Black squad. In January, if the TAB had run a book on the 31 squad members, he would have been in a very large group called "and every other un-named player in the country" at odds of $1000 to one at best. Now he has become an automatic All Black selection. I wondered if his ability to always break the first tackle in Super Rugby would falter at the highest level. I was completely wrong. Every time he runs he puts the All Blacks on the front foot.
Good on you skipper
Back in June, I spoke at a function in Auckland with Ian Foster. Some of the questions Foster fielded from the audience were much more brutal than he'd ever get from journalists, who know they have to rely on him for information in the future. One query was why the All Blacks were persisting with Kieran Read, when, in the club member's view, Read was "way out of form." Foster, while he wasn't angered, sprang to Read's defence and ran through a very detailed timetable of when the All Blacks expected Read to be entirely back in peak physical condition after his spinal operation, which was 22 months ago. The date Foster mentioned for full recovery was towards the end of this year. And so it has proved. Read at the 2019 Cup looks as dynamic as he was in 2015.
Hello pot, meet kettle
Michael Cheika, the most bullying Wallaby coach with the media I've seen since Alan Jones in the 1980s, revealed his sensitive side after Australia was beaten by England. Quizzed about his future at a press conference, he said, "If you'd find it inside you to find a little bit of compassion, to just ask more relevant questions. Think about peoples' feelings for a minute. Just chill." Considering how he's belittled Aussie media, singling out some for humiliation at past press conferences (even relying on the last refuge of the cornered coach, "Have you ever coached a test team?") the lack of self-awareness beggars belief.
Props can do anything
The try that England prop Kyle Sinckler scored in the 45th minute against the Wallabies was at once brilliant and almost laugh out loud funny. Sinckler weighs a lazy 120kg, but is the same height as Sevu Reece. Seeing him run 20 metres to score off a midfield pass from Owen Farrell was as unexpected, and as enjoyable to watch, as a teapot sprouting legs and sprinting.