Premiership Rugby

Five Takeaways From The Final Weekend Of Rugby World Cup Warm-Ups

Five Takeaways From The Final Weekend Of Rugby World Cup Warm-Ups

The final round of the Summer Nations Series, or the Rugby World Cup warm-up fixtures, came to a close with several interesting storylines. Here's five.

Aug 29, 2023 by Philip Bendon
Five Takeaways From The Final Weekend Of Rugby World Cup Warm-Ups

The hay is in the barn, the final preparations have been made and it's time for the big dance. 

Never has a final round of Rugby World Cup warm-up fixtures had more effect on the final tournament than this weekend’s action. 

Several sides will enter the game’s global showpiece with renewed energy and confidence, while others will be left questioning their credentials. 

The Most Competitive World Cup In History 

At no point in the more than 100 years of the Rugby Union has the sport been at a more competitive point. 

The margins between winning and losing have become razor-thin across the board. 

On one hand, the top 5 sides are a slight notch ahead. Behind them, there is nothing separating the next 10 sides on the world rankings. 

Never has this been more evident than at Twickenham, where Fiji recorded a historic first victory over England, while mere hours later, Samoa pushed world No. 1-ranked Ireland to the brink. 

Throw into the mix the Springboks shellacking of the All Blacks, a side that just a month prior they had lost heavily to, and one gets the picture of just how open this tournament will be. 

Unfortunately, from a neutral perspective, the issue of the top 5 sides all being on one side of the draw ensures there will be a disparity in the quality of the quarterfinals. Yet, to put a positive spin on this, the opportunity for the likes of Fiji, Samoa and Georgia to make a push for the quarterfinals has never been more realistic. 

South Pacific Takeover In Full Swing 

As touched upon above, the Pacific Islanders have arrived in Europe and look every bit the equal, or better, than several more fancied Tier 1 nations. 

The trio of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, bolstered by the return of several star players from Tier 1 nations, have not only the quality, but the depth, to now challenge the bigger sides in the game. 

In London, Fiji was full value for its victory over England, while Samoa almost turned over an albeit second-string Ireland in Bayonne. 

Given the draw at the World Cup, Fiji surely must be considered a favorite alongside Australia in Pool C, while in Pool D, Samoa looks set for a straight shootout with Argentina and a struggling England for a quarterfinal berth. 

Thus, the very real possibility of one or both of these sides challenging for a semifinal berth shows the rude health of the global game. 

While Tonga certainly will face a more challenging path to the knockouts, there is a bubbling sentiment that the Tongans could well overturn one or more of the big three in Pool B, which in itself would mark a successful tournament for the men in red. 

Powerhouses In Disarray

The fall of an empire rarely has come at the rate at which English Rugby has deteriorated. 

Three of its Premiership clubs have gone into administration and, at the time of writing, do not exist as professional entities. 

This disarray at the domestic level is matched only by the international setup, where head coach Eddie Jones was sacked and replaced by a young English coaching team led by Steve Borthwick. 

While certainly some of the blame lands at Borthwick’s feet, as his side plays a trudged, ill-disciplined and unattractive style of rugby, the real issues are above him, where the RFU has stumbled from one issue to the next. 

Paying Jones out of his contract only to see him snapped up immediately by rival Australia, while buying out Borthwick and his assistants from their contracts with the Leicester Tigers, is a clear example of the shotgun decision-making happening at the top of English Rugby. 

Throw into the mix a now smaller player base from which to choose, given three clubs have been removed from the top tier, and it is clear England’s issues will not be fixed overnight. 

Should the Red Roses fail to qualify for the knockout stages for the first time in history at the upcoming World Cup, it is fair to wonder whether heads may roll at the top of the English game. 

Replay: 2023 New Zealand vs South Africa

Exhibition Fixtures Are Here To Stay 

More than 82,000 fans packed into Twickenham Stadium for a clash of the titans, as South Africa handed New Zealand a record defeat mere weeks from the World Cup. 

Simply put, the Springboks were unplayable as they dominated the All Blacks 35-7. 

From our vantage point in the press box, the clear, concise manner in which the world champions went about their business was evident for all to see. 

In the forwards, the Boks were at their stampeding best as they made easy meters with every carry. 

Now, days removed from the fixture, one fact has become evident: no team in world rugby could’ve lived with the Boks that evening. 

Picking seven forwards on the bench allowed head coach Jacques Nienaber to essentially change his full pack in one hit early in the second half. One can only imagine being an All Black watching the likes of RG Snyman, Bongi Mbonambi and company, trot onto the pitch. They had been battered by the Boks' first pack only to have the knockout blow landed by their replacements. 

Perhaps the most apt comparison is a middleweight boxer signing up to fight Tyson Fury, only to see him being replaced in the sixth round by Deontay Wilder. 

Never before has an All Blacks side looked so out of their depth, the closest example perhaps being their 2022 series loss to Ireland. Yet even then, there always was a possibility of a comeback. On Friday, there was no coming back. 

Despite this lack of competitiveness, the turnout from the largely South African expat community ensured this fixture was mightily lucrative for all involved. Based on reported numbers, there are 220,000 South African expats in London. 

In this community, it is clear there is an appetite for more frequent exposure to their heroes, begging the question - could this become a regular fixture in the international calendar? 

While the All Blacks were in no mood to be questioned about their performance, head coach Ian Foster and captain Sam Cane said they would be open to the idea, while on the winning side, Springbok captain Siya Kolisi confirmed that the Bok players would welcome a regular clash at the home of English Rugby. 

A War Of Attrition 

The age-old debate of injury versus rust again reared its ugly head, as several players saw their World Cup aspirations slip away due to injury. 

In Bayonne, Irish veteran Cian Healy’s World Cup hopes ended as he left the match on crutches. This follows from French stars Romain Ntamack and Cyril Baille, who saw their tournaments slip away a few weeks back. 

For the All Blacks, there are front-row concerns, as both Ethan de Groot and Tyrell Lomax picked up bumps. 

Matching our American brethren in the NFL, coaches and fans alike may be wondering whether the risk of arriving slightly undercooked at the World Cup is better than losing star players. 

At face value, in a sport that requires players to be at a physical peak each week, the reality is that warm-up matches are a must. Even still, the sacrifices that had been made to reach that point are simply astronomical, and on a human level, seeing a player go down never gets easier. 

Just how costly these injuries and the many others sustained prove to be will only become evident with time. All that can be done now is to wish those players a speedy return and hope they are not joined by many of their colleagues.