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Rugby World Cup: talking points from the latest warm-up matches

A game too far for Wales

The third warm-up game turned out to be like the old third light in the trenches. It was the one that got you. It was the match Wales didn’t need. To have gone into the World Cup on the back of the away win in Dublin would have been splendid. Warren Gatland begged to differ and picked a strong XV to play Italy. He claimed his units needed more time together, but the entire team played without the aggression born of a scrap for places or of the game being anything other than a workout. Only Sam Warburton, fired up by appearing for the first time in the warm-up schedule, and by the form of Justin Tipuric, and by simply being who he is, played at maximum revs. Injuries to Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpennyconfirmed the worst fears. This was a game too far. Eddie Butler

Italy remind rivals of their danger

Italy needed a third game to put themselves back on track after an abject performance against Scotland. Against Wales they revealed nothing new: Sergio Parisse was as commanding as ever; Edoardo Gori is a presence at scrum-half and the pack are heavyweight and mean. By merely extracting a performance from their tried and tested players they go into the World Cup in far better shape after three games than two. France and Ireland were expected to sail through Pool D and they remain firm favourites to do so. They will, however, be reminded now that they have both lost in recent times to Italy – and the pool’s waters will be much more perilous than expected. EB

England and Ford must debunk recent history

If George Ford is going to be England’s first-choice fly-half in the World Cup – and don’t we romantics all hope he will? – England’s finishing must improve. When Owen Farrell came on against Ireland, the alternative to Ford as history is to romance, it is true that he butchered the most obvious of the afternoon’s overlaps but he also closed out the match with goal-kicking that is as sure as anybody’s in the world – certainly surer than Ford’s. If England are going to play this upbeat game, suited for Ford, they have to score more tries. Ireland, for no doubt a variety of plausible reasons, were way off the pace – and England scored only two tries against them. For all our romanticising about the variety needed by prospective World Cup winners, boring old history shows that defence and goal-kicking are the hard currencies. Another Ford dismissed history as bunk, but if England are to laugh similarly in its face they need to start scoring tries quickly. Otherwise, come the sharp end – if they make it that far – we all know who will be lining up the penalties. Michael Aylwin

England fly-half George Ford kicks against Ireland.

Will Ireland rue scrum-half gamble?

It’s all the rage these days, talking about how many players in rugby’s two specialist positions a squad should take with them to a World Cup – and are there only two? Joe Schmidt’s response to why he has picked only the two scrum-halves was effectively to say that he would have been light in other specialist positions. To have picked Isaac Boss or Kieran Marmion would have been to leave out one of his three No 10s – although there has been talk of Ian Madigan filling the role of the third-choice No 9 – or one of his legion of players qualified to play in the back three. For the first time, the world’s most analytical and generally likeable coach appears less than convincing on something. Against England, Conor Murray, one of his most precious players, suffered his third concussion in a year. Hopefully, it is only a coincidence but we know that it is also possible for concussion to take a hold of a player. If Murray picks up another in the World Cup or if Eoin Reddan, the other scrum-half, does, Ireland will have a delicate decision to make re replacements. Surely Schmidt could have left out one of his wingers in favour of a third No9. You suspect he is beginning to realise as much. MA

Michalak still a power at No10

Frédéric Michalak will be 33 by the time the World Cup is over and his return to the French squad has raised plenty of eyebrows. François Trinh-Duc may not agree but the Toulon fly-half can be an asset to France this autumn. On Saturday night he scuffed an early penalty against Scotland but went on to give an assured performance behind the strong French pack. Philippe Saint-André says this is pretty much the side that will contest France’s first World Cup game against Italy. France are coming good at the right time. Plus ça change and all that. Ian Malin

Cotter right on the money with back-row selections

The decision to pick John Hardie for the World Cup five weeks after the New Zealander’s arrival in Scotland has provoked as much debate north of the border as Sam Burgess’s selection for England has south of it. Hardie was excellent in the mayhem of the Stade de France on a bittersweet night for his new team. He and the rest of the Scottish pack passed an extreme physical, with David Denton and the Gray brothers also immense. Scotland must repair a creaking lineout, usually a source of strength, but under Vern Cotter they are at last doing themselves justice against the big guns. A quarter-final place in the World Cup is there’s for the taking. IM

Scotland’s John Hardie on the charge in Paris.
Scotland’s John Hardie on the charge in Paris. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

Manoa vital if Eagles are to soar

So that’s what happens when you take Samu Manoa off for a rest – Australia score five tries and escape a real embarrassment. The Toulon-bound No8 – who is just as happy at blindside or at lock – was at the heart of a magnificent defensive effort at Soldier Field, backed up by the former college football player Thretton Palamo, the New Yorker Seamus Kelly and even the relatively slight forms of Taku Ngwenya and Mike Petri, who also combined for a super USA try. However promising the Californian Danny Barrett was thereafter – very – the Eagles missed their rock. The question now is, what do Scotland do if the Eagles raise such passion at Elland Road on 27 September? A lesser team than the Wallabies might have been deep-dished in Chicago on Saturday night. Martin Pengelly

Australia given World Cup warning

It is safe to assume Michael Cheika got to heat up his half-time hairdryer: in the first 40 minutes, the Wallabies were simply – and at times rather brutally, beautifully – knocked off their stride. The second 40 was much better. The backs struck off every USA turnover, while the pack kept moving forward in scrum and maul in what was almost an opposed training session. Were Australia complacentafter going 14-0 up? Probably not – to assume so would lessen the Eagles’ achievement. It will, however, do Cheika’s squad good to be reminded that if a team containing a couple of teachers can do that to you, then England, Wales and Fiji are to be taken very seriously indeed. MP

John Quill is hit in the face with the ball.
The Eagles’ John Quill is hit in the face with the ball. Photograph: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Japan’s pack make great strides

When Japan went to Tbilisi last November their pack suffered a mighty humiliation, the scrum blown away as Eddie Jones’ side went down 35-24. Georgia might have expected similar dominance up front at Kingsholm – the pack is, after all, traditionally their great strength – but it was not to be. The very first minute ended with Japan winning a penalty, from which they took the lead, through a strong rolling maul. They kept their strength up, too: in the 77th minute, the 6ft 2in, 17-plus stone No8 Amanaki Lelei Mafi forced his way over the back of a driving maul to win the game for the Brave Blossoms. No one ever talks about Japan’s physical threat but their Pool B opponents would be wise not to take forward dominance for granted. Dan Lucas


In the back of my mind is a memory of a Stuart Lancaster press conference a couple of years ago in which he spoke about the fact that the All Blacks won a lot of games with not that much possession. The gist, and I’m paraphrasing heavily as the quotes proved elusive via a Google search, was that you needed to be ruthless when you did have possession, rather than needing to dominate it.

Notwithstanding the fact my memory could be on the blink (Lancaster has done a lot of press conferences in four years) England might do well to keep hold of the ball as much as possible against Fiji at Twickenham a week on Friday. Letting it go far beyond Fiji’s second row seems a bad idea on the evidence from Sunday’s match at the Stoop. Against the Canucks, the Fijians showcased their skills without ever hitting top gear.

While the Bath-bound scrum-half Nikola Matawalu took the plaudits, the power further out wide has the potential to light up the World Cup – if Fiji can get the ball to them against teams stronger than Canada. The Fijian backline includes, gulp, Josh Matavesi (6ft 1in, 17st 6lb), Vereneki Goneva (6ft 3in, 15st 2lb), Nemani Nadolo (6ft 5in, 20st) and Wasiea Nayacalevu (6ft 5in, 15st 2lb). The highlights reel from the Stoop makes glorious viewing (to everyone except Canada). Claire Tolley

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Georgia need to find cutting edge

For the second match in a row, Georgia fell to a narrow defeat. Three days before this match they lost 16-15 to Canada, although there is little shame in finishing just short when mounting a comeback against a team of a similar standard. They would have expected to beat Japan at Kingsholm, however, and, indeed, they led from the 15th minute until the 77th. Lasha Malaghuradze missed a late penalty that would have extended Georgia’s lead to seven points and given them a psychological advantage, while the pack will have been disappointed to cede the dominance it showed 10 months ago. Georgia may have won the Six Nations B at a canter but their recent failure to edge tight games means they will inspire little fear in their Pool C opponents. DL

Argentina finally reap rewards

For so long Argentina’s strength, their problems in the scrum have been well-documented in the buildup to the World Cup – two tighthead props are out and another, Ramiro Herrera, is only just on his way back. Fortunately for the coach, Daniel Hourcade, there is plenty to shout about in the backs. Against Leicesterthey came to play and in Juan Martín Hernández and Marcelo Bosch they have a midfield partnership to rival most. Hernández, now 33, has just signed for Argentina’s Super Rugby franchise, which will make its first foray into the competition next year, and was a member of the 2007 World Cup squad that finished third. The inevitable question is why has it taken this long? It was not until 2012 that the Pumas were welcomed into the then Tri-Nations and the benefits have been obvious, with victories over France, Australia and South Africa in the past 12 months. Progress since 2007 has been frustrating slow but finally Argentina look ready to take their place at the top table. Gerard Meagher

Samoa still members of different club

In the final round of warm-up matches, England and Ireland played out a full-blooded, physical encounter, Scotland gave France a run for their money in Paris, Wales faced Six Nations opposition in the form of Italy and Australia suffered a small scare against an impressive USA team. Samoa? They got to play a club team. OK, it was Wasps, who are hardly Premiership strugglers, and their hosts for the day were happy to bring out the big names: Christian Wade, Elliot Daly and Matt Mullan all pressed their own England claims last season. Nonetheless, this was Wasps’ first run-out after a summer break, they featured six debutants and even drafted in a student from Oxford University, Ian Williams, as cover at prop. While the big teams finished their World Cup preparations trying to find top gear before rugby’s most intense tournament, teams such as Samoa are once again denied the opportunity. The All Blacks’ first visit to Apia earlier this summer was a huge occasion and carried an enormous amount of prestige for Samoa; but it shouldn’t have. DL


Canada’s coach Kieran Crowley bemoaned the sloppiness after the match that allowed Fiji to score 17 unanswered points in six minutes in the first half and they have 12 days to do a lot of sharpening up before facing Ireland in their World Cup opener. Two late tries put a gloss on the 47-18 result at the Stoop and while Canada were testing players and combinations they know that they need to cut out the errors. On the positive side, the Scarlets wing DTH Van Der Merwe’s 16th Test try put him third on the all-time list for Canada and the noises coming out of Canada afterwards suggested that they were not overly perturbed by the result, simply irritated by their first half showing.


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