RWC 2019: Quarter Final Previews Pt 1 with Simon Cron

The phoney war is over as the 2019 Rugby World Cup reaches the pointy end, with the eight remaining teams contesting the Quarter Finals this weekend. The pool stages went largely to script, with most of the usual suspects progressing for a tilt at glory. But the biggest story of course, is the incredible success of host nation Japan.

Simon CronAs a rugby-mad kiwi who has spent the last five years coaching in Australia, and is now two months into a new adventure in the Japanese Top League, Simon Cron is in a pretty handy position to run the rule over the tournament so far, both on and off the field, and which teams are primed to get their hands on the William Webb Ellis trophy in three weeks time.

Donning his coaching hat for some in-depth analysis of each Quarter Final, Behind the Ruck caught up with the former Waratahs assistant coach, and Northern Suburbs Premiership-winning head coach this week, and also got his thoughts on the rise of the Brave Blossoms, and their impact on the sport in the Land of the Rising Sun…

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Kon’nichiwa! First things first, Typhoon Hagibis struck last weekend in devastating fashion to large parts of the country. How did it impact you and your family?

“It was actually a really eerie feeling being here because everything shut down and nobody went out of the house – except the Cron family! We went out to the local park and the kids were having a run around and loving it because no-on else was there. We’re usually surrounded by lots and lots of people, but it was just us. Then we were looking at the news and luckily, we heard it was going to miss us. We got a bit of drizzle, but nothing compared to those thunderstorms you get in Sydney, so we were very lucky.”

How are you settling into life in Japan?

“It’s been really good. It’s definitely a game-changer in comparison to the northern beaches of Sydney, and the kids are getting used to a little less space and a different culture, which is always exciting in terms of change. Where we live is halfway between school and my rugby so that works well, but it’s pretty high density – there’s a lot of people over here!”

What are your first impressions?

“The country is quite beautiful with some really nice open areas, and the Japanese are really lovely people that are willing to help you with everything. They are quite rules-based – I was told not to jaywalk about 20 times in my first 24 hours! – and it’s also very tidy. I kept asking where all the rubbish bins were, and then I realised you are supposed to pick up your own rubbish wherever you are and take it home with you. So there’s definitely some things I’ve got to get used to!”

Was there a buzz about the Rugby World Cup in Japan ahead of the tournament, or has it only just built as the host team has progressed so incredibly?

“I think there was definitely a buzz around it beforehand, because I believe the Japanese public are really good at supporting any sporting event. But obviously now, with the success of the Japanese national team, it’s become even bigger.”

I know you managed to get along to the All Blacks v Springboks match on day two of the tournament in Yokohama. How was that as an experience?

“It was really good. The game was phenomenal, and both sides were impressive. As a coach, it’s always nice to be at a game when you’re not coaching. It’s quite different watching a game that you’re not heavily involved in, and you get to see the game differently as well when you’re there rather than on TV, because you can’t always see what’s happening in the backfield all the time, or the reload speeds of the teams.”

What are your perceptions of the tournament so far?

“In terms of the supporters I think it’s been great, but in terms of the refereeing side of it, it’s been challenging. Obviously, they’re trying to make some changes around the contact heights, but I think it’s impossible to test that at a World Cup. All of a sudden standards have changed, and people are doing what they were doing before the World Cup and getting carded here. I also think there’s been too much TMO involvement, it slows the game down and makes it too hard for people to enjoy the game. But there have been matches that have been run really well, like Japan v Scotland last weekend when I thought Ben O’Keefe did a good job. He handled the contact area well, and I thought he made the right call with the ball carrier dropping to his knees and getting hit in the head. Hopefully they’re having meetings around this stuff and making it clearer because it’s not black and white at the moment.”

Ok, let’s take a closer look at the first two Quarter-Finals…

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ENGLAND v AUSTRALIA

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England’s Pool Results:
defeated Tonga 35-3, defeated USA 45-7, defeated Argentina 39-10, France game cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis

Maro Itoje_England v Tonga_RWC 2019_AJF

Maro Itoje is a dominant figure for England – Photo: AJF Photography

THOUGHTS ON ENGLAND:

“Argentina are a good side and England showed that they’ve got a very balanced squad in that game. They can go through you or around you, and they have extremely powerful carriers in Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Kyle Sinckler, and Manu Tuilagi in the midfield. They also have a very fast back three, and you can combine that with the fact that they’ve got some pretty professional kickers – [Ben] Youngs, [Owen] Farrell and [George] Ford are all good tactical kickers and fullback Eliot Daly has got an enormous left boot. They’re certainly well-coached, I think Eddie [Jones] and [Scott] Wisemantel are a really good combination for them, and I think they’ll come into this game with a really strong game plan about how they want to attack Australia.”

They’ve built nicely through the tournament but are yet to be truly tested, and come in off a two-week break after the clash with France was cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis. Could that be their undoing?

“Yes, but I can’t imagine those coaches with the experience they have would let them come in too cold. I’d say they’d have given themselves a pretty hard run against each other in the same way the All Blacks would have when their game was cancelled, so they’ll come in ready to go. I agree that they haven’t been tested too much, and there’s a few things they’re starting to do like offloading, popping up off the deck, getting in behind defensive systems, so it’ll be interesting to see how they approach the game with the Australians.”

They look like they’ve been holding a bit back from some of the stuff they unleashed in the warm-up games, particularly against Ireland, and just doing enough to get through the pool stages. Do you think that could be the case and that we’ll see a few new plays coming out on Saturday?

“I totally agree, and I think they will have done a lot of analysis on the Wallabies and worked out where they think they can target them. Naturally there’ll be things like box-kicking on [Marika] Koroibete to test him and put a lot of pressure on there, and they’ll play a field-position type game with pressure on the Wallabies to get out of their own 30.”

KEY PLAYERS:

“It doesn’t matter what team you’re in I never really go past the 9 and 10, and for me Youngs and Farrell are really important for England. [Kyle] Sinckler will be really important too, and at scrum time and the set-piece the key thing for the Wallaby front row is to make sure their loosehead stays in front of Sinckler. You don’t want him kicking his backside out because Sinckler will be able to split the blocker between the hooker and the loosehead. They have to stay in front of him and don’t let him come through. Tuilagi will also come into play, and the combination with him, Farrell and [Henry] Slade, because I would expect them to come really hard at the new combination of [Samu] Kerevi and [Jordan] Petaia in the Wallaby backline. They’re the key guys but the reality is that it’s the World Cup, so it’s all of them – one to 23, that are going to be important.”

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Australia’s Pool Results:
defeated Fiji 39-21, lost to Wales 29-25, defeated Uruguay 45-10, defeated Georgia 27-8

Michael Hooper_Wallabies v Fiji_RWC 2019_AJF

Michael Hooper leads by example for the Wallabies – Photo: AJF Photography

THOUGHTS ON AUSTRALIA SO FAR:

“We haven’t seen their best yet, is my thinking, and they’re a great side on paper. If you look at the boys in that squad there’s some real class acts, it’s just a case of getting the best out of them. The key thing for them in this game is making sure that they play on both sides of the ball, so in attack you’ve got both sides open to you. The English can fold quite quickly, so you want to be able to come back down the short edge and make sure you can get to both edges, and [Will] Genia will control that pretty well I would assume. In terms of their forward carries, the Wallabies are going to have to make sure their tips and running lines are really good, because England will try to get double shoulders on them in that close-quarter contact zone to slow their ruck speed. To be successful, they’ve got to have fast ruck speed so that the English defensive line can’t get line integrity, because if you give the English time to set defensively they will get line speed and be hard to break. I’ll assume one of the reasons that they put [Reece] Hodge in the Wallabies back three is because he’s got a massive boot, and he’ll be the player they use to try and counteract the English battle for field position.”

There is some concern from Australian supporters that the Wallabies seem to have arrived at the finals without knowing their best XV. They’ve used three different flyhalves in the four pool matches, and there is an ongoing debate around the make-up of the backrow regarding Michael Hooper and David Pocock. Is the fact that they haven’t nailed down a settled side as an issue?

“Yes. For me, cohesion is really important, and that’s the relationships between players –  e.g. knowing each others running lines, timing, trust in defence etc. Simply being able to play a lot together. Making changes at 10 massively impacts your 9, 12, 13 and 15 in terms of cohesion and being able to run the team, so for me it’s a concern and I’d love to have seen more cohesion and a more settled backline. In saying that, I’m not in that team or dressing room, and the coaches may have a plan in the background that I’m not aware of, so it’s hard for me to be negative around it.

“Regarding Hoops and Pocock, I know there are people who don’t like that combination sometimes but I’m fine with it. Hoops has to be there for his leadership, that’s a no-brainer. You take him away from that team right now and I think they become a bit headless. A lot of people forget what he does on the field. He’ll top the tackle count, he’ll top the carries, he’ll put a lot of pressure on rucks and at the breakdown, and he gets on-ball. He’s really important. Pocock also has a huge work rate, and will pressure their ruck, so in combination they complement each other. I’ve got no issue with playing them together, especially against England because Sam Underhill is a game-changer. He’s as strong as an ox and he’s got a head like a bison! It’ll be a great test, and one guy that won’t shy away from that is Hoops. He won’t take a backward step.”

KEY PLAYERS:

“As I’ve said, Hoops as a leader will play some key roles. He’s going to have to help control the anxiety levels of the team out there, and get them focused on what they’re doing for the next minute throughout the game. The front row is going to be key, because I would suggest that the English pack will play tight, and at every first set-piece – the first scrum or first maul – England will test it and see if they can find any weaknesses. If they do find any in the first scrum they’ll hold the ball at the back for longer, rather than play away.

“Ultimately though it’s your game managers, Genia and [Christian] Lealiifano. They’ve got to control the field, and it’s going to come down to game managers on game managers. Your forward pack can help that with gainline and ruck speed, but they’re your game managers. Scott Wisemantel will pick out a weakness and he’ll target it, and you won’t see it coming. So the Wallabies have to make sure that their systems are nice and clear and black and white, no grey. Because  England will probably try and test that back three with some contestables, and I’d also expect them to target that relationship in the midfield. Their strike plays will be well thought out, and there’ll be a lot of bodies in motion and it will be a hard one to read defensively, so the Wallabies connection has to be good.”

WHO WINS AND WHY?

“My heart is with Australia obviously, and with all those boys in the Wallaby pack and across the team, so I’d love them to win. The hard part for me at the moment is the combinations, and the fear that they haven’t had enough time as combinations, and this England team have the ability to suffocate the Australian side. The Wallabies have the ability to beat anybody on their day, but if you’re a general punter looking at it you’d be looking at England as favourites. It just depends on what each coach has set-up to do the damage. It’s really hard because I won’t go against those boys, so it’s going to be a battle of the systems!”

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NEW ZEALAND v IRELAND

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New Zealand’s Pool Results:
beat South Africa 23-13, beat Canada 63-0, beat Namibia 71-9, Italy game cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis

THOUGHTS ON NEW ZEALAND:

“Ultimately, to beat the All Blacks there are a few factors I think the Irish have to contend with, and I’m just not sure they’re capable of doing it. One of them is ruck speed. The All Blacks ruck speed is second to no-one, it’s lightning quick. Plus they have Aaron Smith, the ball carriers are good, they’ll clear their ball and open up both sides of attack and challenge you in the middle and then hit you out wide. From what I’ve seen the Irish defensive system is quite narrow, so if the All Blacks manage to get the width – which I think a lot of their new attacking patterns are designed around, then you’ll see a lot of space down the edges. I also wouldn’t be surprised that if the Irish come with good line speed, the All Blacks will just dink it in behind that midfield and make them sit back a little bit and slow them up.

“I also think the All Black forward pack have done a lot of work around run, catch and their forward shapes. They’re in motion, there’s three shapes and it’s hard to defend. You put hits on them but they’ll also tip and run tip lines, so for me, that’s really important.”

They started with a bang in a huge clash against South Africa, but have since had two virtual training runs against Canada and Namibia, and a Typhoon-enforced week off. As with England, could that absence of a genuine contest for a month come at a cost?

“I feel sorry for Italy, obviously it’s hard on them not playing that game. But I think they’d lost four front-rowers to injury and suspension, so it probably would have ended up going to uncontested scrums, and I’m not sure that would have been that beneficial for the All Blacks anyway. Also, you’ve got coaching staff there that have been there and done it all before, so they would have done what they needed to do as a team. I’d suggest that training against each other would have been pretty challenging.”

There was plenty of conjecture pre-tournament around the selections of Richie Mounga at 10 and Beauden Barrett at 15. But it seems to be ticking along nicely?

“It’s funny, because if you compare the Wallabies preparation to the All Blacks preparation for the finals, both teams have used three different 10’s at this World Cup. The difference is that the All Blacks first-five options have been planned, so they’ve had a lot of time leading into this game to get their combinations right. When I first saw it, I wondered what they were doing, but it’s been outstanding. Beauden Barrett, from a jogging start, would be one of the fastest players in the world, so he can come in and become a second ball-player. He’s also good in the air and has a good kick on him, while Richie controls the game really well and runs straight to the line. Ben Smith coming into a game is never going to let you down, so they’ve created depth, and that’s the key.

“To win a World Cup you’ve got to have depth in each position, and be able to go three or four deep if necessary. You saw that when ‘Beaver’ Donald came in and kicked the match-winning penalty in the 2011 final. The All Blacks have done that, and that’s what gives me the confidence to think they can go all the way again. Jordie Barrett at 10, that’s not going to be a position they choose at the moment unless there’s injuries. But playing him there against Namibia means that if he is needed there in a World Cup final he has done it before. I think that’s smart.”

KEY PLAYERS:

“Again, your 9 and 10 combination is going to be essential in terms of game management, and I think Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga have got a good connection at the moment. Ardie Savea is one of the player’s of the tournament for mine, and Kieran Read is doing really well with his ball-carries, and he’s quite explosive. The forward battle should be a war, and then it’s going to come down to the attacking and defensive systems, which one works best, and where they pick out the weaknesses. I think it’s going to be a system-based win.”

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Ireland’s Pool Results:
defeated Scotland 27-3, lost to Japan 19-12, defeated Russia 35-0, defeated Samoa 47-5

THOUGHTS ON IRELAND:

“The kicker for me is that they’ve been relatively predictable in what they’ve been doing. I would like to see them get to more width, I would like to see more deception in their attack with more bodies in motion. Even when they beat Scotland well, parts of that game were a little bit tedious and they played a bit too tight. The All Blacks can handle that because they have South Africa trying to punch holes in them quite regularly, so I don’t think that would scare them.”

If the World Cup had been played a year ago, you’d have got short odds on Ireland at least making the final, such was their standing at the time. But their performances this year have suggested they are a team coming down the other side of the mountain. They’ve beaten the All Blacks twice in their last three meetings, but can they do it again without that form on the board?

“That’s the question. Ireland, when they beat the All Blacks, were very good at getting double shoulders around those rucks and slowing the ruck speed down. They would hold them up or lie on the ball until the referee made them move, and prevent them from getting gainline. They also won by having things up their sleeve that the All Blacks hadn’t seen coming, and they were able to create space.

“But they haven’t shown a lot in the last year, maybe they’re holding stuff back ,I don’t know. They’re a good team, a well-coached team with some class but I just think that the All Blacks’ firepower across the park is going to be too much for them. If they just go in with the mentality of playing tight against the All Blacks they won’t win.”

KEY PLAYERS:

“I really like Conor Murray, I think he’s a massive player for Ireland. If he went down injured I’d say they’re dead in the water. He’s got some good speed to the breakdown and controls the ball under pressure.”

WHO WINS AND WHY?

“The All Blacks win this one. I think that from an attack and defence perspective they will be able to pick out weaknesses in the Irish, and I think they’ll play too fast. They’ll play down the edges and their ruck speed will be extremely quick, and if Ireland can’t slow them down they’ve got no shout. Also, if they get forward carries and gain line, Ireland will just be stuck on their heels the whole time.”

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