RWC 2019: Quarter Final Previews Pt 2 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. In Part One he gave his thoughts on England v Australia and New Zealand v Ireland. Here, he talks about the rise of the Brave Blossoms and their impact on the sport in the Land of the Rising Sun, and the remaining two Quarter-Finals between the hosts and South Africa, and Wales and France…

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Where do you think the sport sits in the Japanese landscape in terms of popularity, and where do you think the success of this tournament could take it to?

“The main sports over here are baseball and soccer. But rugby is getting a really good foothold, and the way the tournament has panned out can only grow the game here and attract a bigger following. They are looking at all kinds of scenarios over here around growing the game, in terms of other tournaments and getting people involved. But if you look at the Top League that kicks off in January next year, you’ll have half of the Wallabies and half of the All Blacks playing in it, which will create quite a high-end competition.”

60 million people tuned into watch the Scotland clash, just a day after large parts of the country had been smashed by Typhoon Hagibis. That’s some indication of the buy-in the Brave Blossoms have induced with their performances?

“Exactly, it was huge. When you look at pay-per-view or the percentage of people watching games, Japan has an enormous population that will support successful sports. Australasia just can’t compete with that, so your biggest market is here.”

Given that potential market to be tapped into off the back of Japan’s progress and the attention it has garnered, does the decision to kick the Sunwolves out of Super Rugby in 2021 seem like SANZAR are shooting themselves in the foot?

“I believe so. In terms of World Rugby and the growing of the game, keeping Japan in Super Rugby would clearly be a better outcome.”

Do you think there was a belief in the coaching group under Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown that they could win all four pool matches?

“When they started the tournament, winning all four pool matches would obviously have been their goal. But I think they would have been happy with three and still qualifying. So to actually win all four is pretty impressive, and to take both Ireland and Scotland down is outstanding. The coaches have obviously put a lot of work into the background to get them to that stage in terms of planning and preparation, and they’ve had camps and pulled players in and out of Super Rugby at the right times, and done all the things that they wanted to do to get there. It doesn’t happen overnight, there’s a lot that has gone into this and it’s been very successful for them. It’s smart and it’s paid off.”

Have you been surprised at their levels of performance, their fitness, and their ability to execute under pressure – or was this the likely outcome of nine months of intense training under Joseph, Brown and others?

“I think it was a likely outcome considering the time they’ve had, and it just shows you what can be achieved when you have that time and focus. They’re very good players, and they’re very well coached. Put those two things together and you can get a team that is doing what they are doing. Also, the way they’re playing is really good. Their kick-pass skills are good, they’re not mis-passing, they’re using their hands and they’re holding their feet. There’s a lot of stuff they’re doing that allows them to get to an edge and put pressure on, and technically they’re really good. They’ve done a lot of analysis on their opposition, and they’ve coached the players to be able to execute when they see that picture. It’s pretty awesome.”

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

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JAPAN v SOUTH AFRICA

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Japan’s Pool Results:
defeated Russia 30-10, defeated Ireland 19-12, defeated Samoa 38-19, defeated Scotland 28-21

THOUGHTS ON JAPAN:

“The speed at which they’re playing is phenomenal. Their ruck speed is really good and teams are struggling to slow that up. Scotland started to try and do that last weekend but they couldn’t, it got too fast for them. They’ve got two sides to their attack, they can go short side or wide-to-wide, and they use their hands to catch you early. They use all their players in the line so they’re not having to mis-pass a whole lot, and they get to the edges. There’s some brilliant players out there and some fast boys. [Kotaro] Matsushima has obviously been outstanding and [Yutaka] Nagare the halfback too, but more importantly they’re playing as a 15, and all of them are doing their job.”

To the world watching on they already seem to have achieved the improbable by topping their group and becoming the first Tier Two team to reach the last eight at a World Cup. But I get the feeling that’s not enough for this group?

“First and foremost you play every game as it comes, and I would suggest their mentality doesn’t change between the round-robin stage and the Quarter Final. Listening to them, I think they’re going to walk straight into this game like they have all the other games. They’ll go in with a plan to win it and they’ll attack it. I don’t think they’ll sit on their heels and accept where they’re at now, they’ll keep going.”

KEY PLAYERS:

“The game managers are essential again, and Nagare at nine has to be lightning quick with the ruck speed, that’s important. [Ji Won] Koo the tighthead, he came off with a rib injury against Scotland so I’m not sure if he’s fit, but if he is he can be really important for them. [Timothy] Lafaele in the centres is pretty strong, and no.8 [Kazuki] Himeno is a really strong ball-carrier with a really high work rate, who has been a standout in the loose forwards. So there’s class across the park and then you’ve got the experience of Luke Thompson and Michael Leitch, who leads the team really well. You’d expect some of these players to have problems with control and anxiety in big moments but there have been no issues, and I think a lot of that comes from Leitch.”

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South Africa’s Pool Results:
lost to New Zealand 23-13, defeated Namibia 57-3, defeated Italy 49-3, defeated Canada 66-7

THOUGHTS ON SOUTH AFRICA:

“The thing that impresses me about them is that they’ve used the width of the field really well. They’ll punch holes in you, which they tried to do against the All Blacks and maybe weren’t as successful, but they can also play field position and then just beat you down, and they have lightning speed out wide. So they’re a lot harder team to defend against than Scotland were. Scotland for me didn’t play with any width, they mis-passed and allowed the defence to shuffle off them, and there wasn’t a lot in their attack in the whole tournament. Whereas South Africa have gone from strength to strength and I think you might see that this weekend.”

Is this the destiny of this game as simple as Japan’s speed and offloading game versus South Africa’s size and power?

“Probably not that simple. Against Scotland yes, it was Japan’s speed against Scotland trying to punch holes close to the ruck, but South Africa have a bit more of a rounded squad. They’ve got speed out wide that can destroy you, they’ve got the accuracy of [Handre] Pollard’s boot and [Faf] De Klerk who brings a lot of contestable kicking. But they’ve also got boys who are big ball carriers, and I don’t think that Japan will have it all their own way around controlling gainline as they did against Scotland. I also think that the way to slow Japan’s ruck speed is in the contact zone, by getting under the ball and going for the odd hold-up, and South Africa will be more successful at doing that than Scotland were.”

KEY PLAYERS:

“They’ve got some huge boys in there. [Franco] Mostert at Super Rugby level is outstanding, and his combination with [Eben] Etzebeth or [Lood] De Jager is next level, and then RG Snyman comes off the bench so there’s no let-up at set-piece time. The whole front row is powerful and I like [Stephen] Kitshoff and Malcolm Marx, who is really strong on-ball and can put the Japanese team under a lot of pressure at the breakdown. De Klerk is outstanding, Pollard can put the ball on a string and [Willie] Le Roux can control things from the back and is quite clear and precise around what he wants to do. Cheslin Kolbe is dynamite but they need to get the ball into his hands more, and I’m assuming they’ll have been working on that.”

WHO WINS AND WHY?

“As much as I’d love Japan to win I think South Africa take it. I think they’re too hard to handle across the field, and there’s not really an area where they are weak. They put pressure on in a lot of key positions, they’ve got some seasoned veterans in there, and they’ve got a good attacking game and a strong defensive game. They’re hard to break down and I think they’ll be able to slow the Japanese ruck speed down. There’s some serious depth in that team and I think they’ll use their entire squad to get through Japan.”

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WALES v FRANCE

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Wales Pool Results:
defeated Georgia 43-14, defeated Australia 29-25, defeated Fiji 29-17, defeated Uruguay 35-13

THOUGHTS ON WALES:

“I think Wales have got themselves into a position where they are used to grinding out games. They’re not afraid for it to be tight and then fight through it, and you can see that in a lot of their games, they are able to fight out of some tight spots. I think it will be an 85 minute game if France stay in it.

“In the first half against the Wallabies, they played with some really good shape and width, but in the second half they put the cue back in the rack and started to play not to lose, which nearly cost them. They tightened right up and then the Wallabies were able to start ripping them open. So the key thing for them is to stick to what they did well in that first half, and play with width and use their ball skills and make it work for them in terms of their attacking shapes. They’ve worked hard to get to this stage but I’d like to see more from their attack. I hope they go out there with a mindset to shift the ball and use the ball, because they have got some skill. They showed that they can stick it with the best of them in terms of attack, but they haven’t done it consistently.”

KEY PLAYERS:

“The key guy for me is [Dan] Biggar, he’s really important in terms of running systems and structures. [Rhys] Patchell takes it to the line more, but Biggar seems to have time and space. If Biggar doesn’t do the job Patchell can do it, but the big thing for me is still them having the confidence to play with that width because they did that against the Wallabies in that first half, they had bodies in motion and they stopped the defence and were able to find edges.  Gareth Davies’ work rate is phenomenal, and in some of those tight games, his efforts around the park are unbelievable. He’s key for them. Alun Wyn Jones is the leader and is obviously important, and I could see that he wasn’t necessarily happy after a couple of their pool games with how his team had played and where they ended up. I’ve seen that frustration on captain’s faces before, and it usually means they’re going to go away and deal with it, so I expect him to have had a huge influence on the build-up to this game, and that’s the kind of stuff that makes a difference.”

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France Pool Results:
defeated Argentina 23-21, defeated USA 33-9, defeated Tonga 23-21, England game cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis

THOUGHTS ON FRANCE:

“France, I don’t know, I literally don’t know what you’re going to get because they can be up and down like a yo-yo, but they can beat anyone. I haven’t watched as much of them as I have other teams, but I know they haven’t had consistent team selections, they keep changing them all the time, which is a concern. They do have a lightning quick back three that can score tries, but the interesting thing for me is that while there is a lot of popping up offloads, I don’t know that there is a system around it, or whether they just offload, because they seem to offload and hope a bit, which is a bit scary. If it comes off for them it can be amazingly hard to stop, if it doesn’t, it can be amazingly messy.

“Wales, in terms of systems and structures are a lot clearer in what they want to do. In saying that, it makes it hard to play against France because half the time they don’t know what they’re doing! What you don’t want to do is give them anything early on because then they can get their backs up and keep coming. If you can crash them early they’ll lose it. The way you beat an unstructured team is with structure, and that’s why Biggar is really important.”

KEY PLAYERS:

“As I’ve said, the back three can score from anywhere but it just depends whether they get the ball. I certainly wouldn’t want to give them too much broken play.” 

WHO WINS AND WHY?

“You just don’t know what France you’re going to get on the day. They can go through and go on and win the whole thing, or the wheels can come off. If they can put together an 80 minute performance they can beat anyone, but can they do it against Wales? I’m not sure. Wales win it for mine because their systems and structures are more advanced and they all seem to know their roles so they can slip into it, as long as they don’t become too predictable.”

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