Friday 18 October 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'World Rugby rejoices as the underdog bites back'

Ireland's shock defeat to Japan is ultimately good for the game - even if it doesn't feel that way here

‘World Rugby are ecstatic this weekend after yesterday’s events in Shizuoka. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
‘World Rugby are ecstatic this weekend after yesterday’s events in Shizuoka. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

For the first time in RWC history the opening week of games saw no team scoring 50 points in a match - World Rugby tweet, September 26

In the run-up to the 2007 World Cup the development staff at the IRB - as World Rugby was then known - were praying to whatever gods might listen that a few results would go their way.

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The 142-0 annihilation of Namibia by the Wallabies in Adelaide four years earlier had given training runs a bad name. Had they been unopposed the home team might not even have hit that target.

There had been a fair bit of carnage over the course of the pool stage in that World Cup. Much of it was in the hotels of Melbourne, where a unique sporting week gift-wrapped an International Rules Test between Australia and Ireland with a World Cup Test between the same countries, and, to round it off, the annual all-in piss-fest that is the Melbourne Cup.

That day out at Flemington Racecourse provides the ultimate in before-and-after photographs. En route to the venue all and sundry are suited and booted and dressed to the nines. On the way back they are buckled: men with neck ties gone way south; the womenfolk with high heels in hand and mascara that has run out the door.

The damage on the rugby field reached its tipping point in Adelaide. England, Australia and New Zealand all ran up an aggregate of 476 points against Uruguay, Tonga, Romania and Georgia, but what the Wallabies did to Namibia at the Adelaide Oval questioned why this should be a part of a tournament showing off the best the game has to offer.

A Japanese fan cheering during the match. Photo: Edgar Su/Reuters
A Japanese fan cheering during the match. Photo: Edgar Su/Reuters

So in decent haste the boat was pushed out to try and keep some of the weak swimmers afloat in 2007. Wouldn't you know, Ireland were drawn to share a pool with lads wearing armbands. Oh dear, said the boys in the IRB, forgetting for a moment that Ireland and the World Cup is a series of potholes.

We remember talking to one of those men tasked with this coaching challenge as he surveyed the fixtures, starting with Ireland against Namibia in Bordeaux.

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His aspiration was for the Africans to keep their fingers in the dyke for an hour before being washed away in the final quarter. And that would do nicely sir.

This would be the same Ireland whose reach for a Six Nations title had been snatched away six months earlier, on points difference, by a late try for France against Scotland.

'Elvis on Song' went the headlines the next day in homage to Vermeulen of Clermont, whose squeeze over in the corner had to be referred upstairs for confirmation. Whatever, Ireland were big guns and Namibia were bushmen with muskets.

Man, but the IRB lads were delighted with the way it turned out. The Namibians dodged a hail of bullets on that balmy night as Ireland struggled to run up 32 points. Respectability.

A result, as we say in this business. The rest of the tournament was by no means carnage-free - Portugal, for example, was confirmed solely as a holiday destination - but Romania, Georgia and Tonga all experienced periods removed from their status as whipping boys.

Fast forward to this instalment in Japan and our expectations are higher for closer games across the board.

True, the game at the top doesn't take a nap waiting for the lower tiers to catch up, but World Rugby are never behind the door in telling us of their efforts in getting the slower lanes up to speed. So we took out our stopwatches.

Over the first weekend the pressure points were flashing over Russia (versus Japan), Namibia (versus Italy) and Tonga (versus England). All were beaten, though none of them was curled up in the corner.

Then Uruguay produced a phenomenally accurate and sustained defensive performance against Fiji - they kept their penalty count to nine despite having had to make twice as many tackles - to create a huge result.

The next day the Americans looked likely lambs to the slaughter against an albeit much-changed England side. Sure enough they took a pounding but they had the wherewithal to hang in, managing to score last when down to 14 men against a side keen on keeping them to nil.

Bigger and better would come in Shizuoka.

The upswing is based largely on vastly improved conditioning. If you looked through the Uruguay staff you'd come across the name Craig White.

One of the thirstiest men for knowledge and self-development you will ever encounter, this son of Wigan has seen high profile service in rugby through the Lions (2005 and 2009) and Wasps when they were in their prime. And Ireland. He is a bit more than a fitness coach.

Warren Gatland was the common denominator. His path with White crossed, coincidentally, with Ireland in 1998, where White had been appointed to look after the Ireland team by then IRFU fitness director Liam Hennessy.

Strength and conditioning, and the efforts required to change its shape, was a bitter pill few in this country were interested in swallowing at the time.

We remember getting hold of a fitness report White compiled soon after he got to work, illustrating the difficulty of the job.

He wrote of the absence of leg strength results among Ireland's contracted players: "Initially, at the first testing session on March 23, I was appalled that only two people were 'so called' able to perform this test . . . This test is extremely important and it seems to me that players are frightened to do it."

How did White end up in Uruguay? If you check out his biography you'll see his breadth of experience is most likely unique, so World Rugby spent well in picking up the tab for him to help a raft of Tier 2 nations, including Los Teros, a project that would have appealed to him.

What White, and others in his business, can't affect however is the quality of opposition their players face. So if ramping up S&C is fundamental for weaker nations then so too is getting them better games.

The biggest and best upset in the history of the World Cup remains the Brighton Bombshell that was Japan scoring a direct hit on South Africa four years ago.

The events of this weekend were not quite in the same league, for while Ireland were ranked higher (second) going into yesterday than the hapless Boks of 2015 - the Brighton defeat was their fifth in six games - Japan are taken seriously now.

Four years ago they were considered a speed bump. More games against better opposition has put some colour in that picture.

Between the close of play at RWC2015 and its opening four years later Japan played 30 Tests, of which 12 were against Tier 1 opposition, 10 against Tier 2, and eight against Tier 3.

And that was a vast improvement on their preamble to 2015 when they had only four games against Tier 1 nations in a hectic period where they couldn't seem to say no when the Koreans knocked on their door and asked were they coming out to play.

Next time the Koreans ring the doorbell they will be waiting a while, for Japan are in a different league now. And as with the win over South Africa four years ago, beating Ireland was done with some style as well as grunt.

Of course it's easier to fix fitness than it is to sort opposition, for Tier 1 nations have no interest in giving anyone else a leg up.

Their accountants reckon it doesn't feed their bottom line. On the face of it they're right, but if you step back a bit you'd see the value in having a more competitive product, which means more countries able to lace a boot when it comes to putting the ball over the black spot.

World Rugby are ecstatic this weekend after yesterday's events in Shizuoka. Currently they may be sitting on a short stick regarding the safety of the game but at least they can point to a business where even at the top level it's possible for the underdog to take a lump out of the boss.

Ireland are the ones now with no arse in their trousers but you won't find much sympathy about the place. It may not feel like it in this jurisdiction but Japan's win was good for the game.

Oh, and last time we checked World Rugby's twitter feed it was dominated by scenes of sheer ecstasy at fan zones around the country. Top effort lads.

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