Saturday’s epic World Cup semi-final between England and New Zealand did not want for defining moments, but the tackle of Sam Underhill on Kieran Read – technically superlative, physically dominant – which sent the All Blacks’ captain into reverse in the 56th minute felt particularly symbolic. It is easy to construct a compelling narrative around such a moment: the world champions set up in the attacking shape which had given them so much success with ball in hand in the tournament to date, but their talisman was floored by his younger counterpart in the blink of an eye.
In many ways, it seems a fitting end to this entire World Cup cycle for New Zealand, with its emotionally salient moments to this point – at least to observers and advocates of Northern Hemisphere rugby – being a 2016 loss to Ireland in Chicago, a drawn series against the Lions in 2017 and a 2018 loss to Ireland in Dublin. All are new experiences for the Kiwi side in the professional era, and all contribute to a framing of this as a period in which “the chasing pack has reeled them in“.
Continue reading “Stepping back”
“We all know who the favourites are for the Rugby World Cup, and it’s not us.“
After Ireland’s 19-10 victory over Wales at the Aviva Stadium in their final warm-up before heading to Japan vaulted them to the top of the World Rugby rankings for the first time, head coach Joe Schmidt was quick to disavow their significance. However, in view of the clear narrative shift that has taken hold in the world of rugby over the last twelve months, it is undoubtedly appropriate that the 2019 Rugby World Cup will begin with New Zealand – who remain the best-performing team across the entirety of the four-year cycle – in a position other than number 1 in the world.
In an excellent post after Wales briefly took top spot at the end of August, Dave Thomas studied the historical value of pre-tournament rankings – and, significantly, of teams’ ranking points – in predicting the outcomes of head-to-head tournament match-ups. While other prediction models continue to back New Zealand as World Cup winners over the field, in light of Thomas’ research it is difficult to interpret the outcome of a tournament in which the top three teams by ranking are separated by 1.34 ranking points (and the top five by 2.15 points) as anything other than an open question.
Continue reading “2019 Rugby World Cup preview: New Zealand”