Herald rugby experts Patrick McKendry and Liam Napier answer six key questions following week one of the Rugby World Cup.
What's the biggest challenge the All Blacks face from here?
Liam Napier: Lack of competition is the most pressing concern, with Canada, Namibia and Italy unlikely to provide any real meaningful tests. Without getting too carried away, Scotland or Japan in the quarterfinals may also present worries about arriving at the semis without experiencing extreme pressure since the opening win over the Springboks. The All Blacks have been through this before, though. Four years ago they set a blueprint by running themselves into the ground during training weeks to play under fatigue and confining areas of their game in order to test themselves more.
Patrick McKendry: To be frank, England or whoever they play in the semifinal. The All Blacks' quarter-final opponents are likely to be Scotland, Japan or Samoa, in that order, so they must be ruthlessly honest with themselves given their road to the semifinal now includes Canada, Namibia, Italy and one of the above trio. They have cracked into the work here in Beppu and the reality is they will likely challenge themselves harder on the training pitch than many Tier 2 nations could.
How concerned are you by the officiating in the early stages of this tournament?
PM: Mildly. The inconsistency is baffling – especially around high tackles – but the players should all know what is and isn't a legal tackle. The law is clear; don't touch the head, but I do accept that in such a dynamic game as rugby, it's going to happen from time to time and a card isn't necessarily warranted. A red or even yellow card in a knockout game could be the difference between progressing and going home, and, yes it's a bit of a lottery at the moment, but the players can't control that. They can control their tackle height, though.
LN: Greatly. The narrative of this World Cup has been dominated by inconsistent refereeing and, unfortunately, I can't see it changing. World Rugby are right to take a hard-line stance on contact with the head but rugby is a physical, fast moving game and the laws now leave little room for mitigating circumstances or common sense. The last thing anyone, surely, wants is a knockout game ruined by a red card or a flurry of yellows. My heart hopes the players decide the outcome. My head says officials will be front and centre of results. The other point to note is how overt coaches are now being in attempting to influence the referees. Boks coach Rassie Erasmus and his assistant had two cracks prior to facing the All Blacks, and Michael Cheika adopted the same tactics before the Wallabies played Wales. This is not a good look or trend for the game.
Name three players who could have the most influence?
LN: Cheslin Kolbe, the Springboks wing, is an excitement machine. With nine carries he made 118 metres against the All Blacks but it's his footwork and acceleration that impresses most. Anyone who has watched Toulouse will not be surprised by Kolbe's impact in the opening game – Richie Mo'unga's desperate tackle saving the All Blacks. Kolbe is sure to terrorise plenty more defenders yet.
Beauden Barrett. Doesn't matter where this bloke plays he is among the most lethal spark on the park. Seems to be thriving with the extra time and space from fullback, and will therefore be one of the most watched threats for every team the All Blacks face.
James Ryan. Attack appears to be dominating defence thus far in Japan but Ireland have been the exception and Ryan is a big reason why. The second-rower has an engine on par with Brodie Retallick and he often leads the inside Irish line-speed. Add to that his work at the set piece and in contact, and Ryan is a world-class asset.
PM: Richie Mo'unga and Beauden Barrett for the All Blacks and Owen Farrell for England. Playmakers, all, they will be crucial for their nations' hopes; the two All Blacks for their ability to change the point of attack for the team which appears to have the best offensive weaponry at this tournament and Farrell for the same reason, although he appears to be out of position at No12. He's a better No10. England also look a little sluggish on attack at this point.
Early days, sure, but what's your assessment of the way Japan has taken to the World Cup?
PM: Enthusiastically, with perhaps a few signs of bewilderment. Rugby is not a big sport in Japan, but those who like it appear to be having a good time. It's instructive that while many bars and restaurants have World Cup signage on them, not all of their management appear to have a clue what the game is all about. The atmosphere at matches has been good, though.
LN: In pockets the excitement is there. Beppu, where the All Blacks are based this week, has a genuine buzz around it with many locals enthusiastic and signage throughout the smaller coastal town. Tokyo is such a thriving metropolis that you can easily get around without knowing the World Cup is on but All Blacks are prominently displayed at the main train stations. Games have been well supported throughout and it has been pleasing to see many locals donning foreign colours just to get amongst the spirit and savour a rugby experience.
Predict the quarter-finalists
PM: All Blacks – because they are the best attacking team here
England – excellent set piece and defence, a well-drilled team
Ireland – Water-tight defence, very effective pack, highly motivated
Scotland – the luckiest quarter-finalists, but with a suitably expansive game and should bounce back
South Africa – still a massive threat, very good pack, finishing ability out wide
Australia – will be confident until the end, a bit of backline trickery
Wales – very hard to break down, play mistake-free game
France – may sneak in ahead of Argentina due to their ability to keep nerve in big matches.
LN: Usual suspects. All Blacks, England, Ireland, Scotland, South Africa, Australia, Wales, France. Would be great if Japan or one of the Island nations pull off a major shock but Fiji seems to have blown their shot by losing to Uruguay and the hosts looked very shaky in their opening win over Russia. Japan will need some effort to upstage Ireland and Scotland, even with the latter struggling for confidence.
Who has the most to gain from the All Blacks next match?
PM: Rieko Ioane and Jack Goodhue. Of the two, I'd go for left wing Ioane, a man who hasn't been in great form this year but whose quality is not in doubt. He needs game time and with that may confidence. If nothing else it will allow him to push his case and he hasn't had that for a while – since Perth, in fact.
LN: Could be very interesting if the All Blacks opt to start Jordie Barrett at first five-eighth against Canada but it has to be Rieko Ioane. Once the hottest prospect in New Zealand rugby, Ioane has gone cold to be usurped this season. To be fair to Ioane he has lacked opportunities in recent times. The form of Sevu Reece and George Bridge makes it difficult to crack the starting team but Ioane must take his chance by being hungry for work and accurate in everything he does against Canada.
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