Iain Morrison: Narrowing gap between giants and minnows

THERE CAN be no doubt about the team of the tournament, and the award for the biggest flops is similarly uncontested – Japan and England if you have been living in a submarine these last few weeks, but what of the rest of the field?
World Cup stats reveal that Georgias Mamuka Gordodze tops the tackle count with 40. Picture: AFP/Getty ImagesWorld Cup stats reveal that Georgias Mamuka Gordodze tops the tackle count with 40. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
World Cup stats reveal that Georgias Mamuka Gordodze tops the tackle count with 40. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

The official World Cup statistics page gives us a clue but as ever the numbers conceal as much as they reveal. Scots are surprisingly to the fore, with Greig Laidlaw equal top of the list of successful conversions, with eight to his name.

The giant Georgian Mamuka Gordodze tops the tackle count with 40 but immediately behind comes not one but two Gray brothers. Richie noses ahead of his younger sibling with 37 to Jonny’s 36 but he has enjoyed marginally more game time too. Richie has played a part of every game while Jonny sat out the entire Eagles encounter so he remains the busier of the two brothers.

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The overriding trend of this World Cup has been the narrowing of the gap between the second and first tier nations, which was wholly unexpected. Japan are just the most obvious of several gritty examples from so called ‘minnows’.

Canada were thumped by Ireland but could have beaten Italy and might well have done so if George Clancy hadn’t made a howler. The Irishman is the only referee in world rugby that could watch the last Azzurri defender slap down what was probably a scoring pass from scrum-half Phil Mack and award a scrum; no penalty try, no penalty, no yellow card...no idea.

France beat Canada by just 23 points after leading 17-12 a few minutes before the break. Georgia held the mighty All Blacks to a 33-point advantage and Namibia scored a good try against the best team in the world.

Australia edged Fiji by 15 points which is a lot closer than the 46-point win the Wallabies enjoyed the last time the two teams met while Wales beat the same opposition by just ten and were lucky to do so.

Fiji have taken over Samoa’s mantle of being the Pacific Island nation that packs the biggest punch. Had they been in any other group you would fancy them as quarter-final contenders.

Uruguay conceded 65 points to Australia but that is as ugly as its got, the exception that proves the rule. Most teams are getting more competitive rather than less so, which is great news for the rugby world, and it looks like most teams are trying to play more rugby as well.

This is were the stats can be misleading. Ahead of yesterday’s matches there had been 155 tries scored in 28 matches at a rate of 5.5 per match. That figure is not particularly high, the 2011 average of 5.46 is considered low. The point is that because games are tighter the try count is lower so we have to look elsewhere for proof that teams are playing with more width and obviously it isn’t true of every team.

South Africa are best known for route one rugby and little they did against Scotland is going to change that perception. But leaving aside the Springboks’ loss to Japan as an anomaly, six of the nine tries they scored against Samoa and Scotland came from the backs. They still ask their big men to run straight, they just field very big men in the midfield.

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Under Eddie Jones Japan have found a style of play that mixes super-quick phase play with some big dangerous runners but ultimately their success is down to pace and the precision of their handling. Australia mix it up, running rings around England and milking penalties at the set piece. New Zealand usually look to move the ball and change the point of attack and even Italy, the stodgiest of European puddings, have added some width to their game, giving the likes of Michele Campagnaro an occasional gallop.

England’s problems stem from the fact that they have been caught between two styles, neither fish nor fowl, neither Bok nor Black. Stuart Lancaster was spot on with his selection for the Wales game, with his best kicker Owen Farrell at ten and the brick wall that is Sam Burgess outside him because the English forwards bossed most of this match and would have ground out the win had they managed to do so for the full 80 minutes.

Against Australia the roles were reversed but Lancaster didn’t recognise the fact or didn’t want to. The Wallaby pack held all the aces, especially in the first and third rows, so England’s only chance of snatching a win was by picking George Ford at ten and running the ball at Australia; Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson, Mike Brown and Johnny May are potent weapons.

The same holds true for Scotland. If they make the quarters and face Australia Vern Cotter should pick the twin Kiwi openside flankers in Blair Cowan and John Hardie and attack the Wallabies where they least expect it, in the wider channels.