World Cup takeaways: The Offside Line’s take on what we learned from Japan 2019

South Africa scrum-half Faf de Klerk (who was arguably player of the tournament) is ecstatic as he celebrates scoring a try under the posts to extend his team's lead to 16-3 against host nation Japan in the quarter-final. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson
South Africa scrum-half Faf de Klerk (who was arguably player of the tournament) is ecstatic as he celebrates scoring a try under the posts to extend his team's lead to 16-3 against host nation Japan in the quarter-final. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson

AS the sun sets on the 2019 Rugby World Cup, five of The Offside Line’s contributors have their say on what they made of the tournament.

  • Nic Groom is Nostradamus

    Days before the tournament kicked off, Edinburgh’s South African scrum-half outlined the circumstances in which he could see the Springboks emerging as winners. “I think if we lose the first game against the All Blacks, we’ll win the World Cup,” he said. “I think it’s good for our psyche to be backs against the wall. Then we’ve got it all to play for . . .  It will get the ticker going for the boys. There’s a risk we beat the All Blacks first game and it can work against you in a funny way.”

    Groom was clearly unimpressed by those pundits who pointed out that no team had ever won the cup after losing a pool game, insisting that his compatriots had what it takes to triumph. “I am for the first time really heart and head thinking South Africa’s going to win the World Cup,” he explained. “Normally it’s heart.

    “I think we’ve got a very smart game plan, I think we are well equipped for the conditions there, and I just see us well aligned compared to previous years. I haven’t been this excited for a World Cup in ages. The Springboks love the underdog tag. We’re sort of there but not there yet, if that makes sense.”

    The All Blacks duly beat South Africa 23-13 in their opening pool game, but come the final, the Boks delivered.



  • Successful teams have more than one game plan

    As they showed in the two wins, Scotland can play some great front-foot rugby, but their limitations were exposed when they came up against sides that could mix it between skill, pace and physicality.



  • Size matters

Japan did a huge service to rugby in defeating both Scotland and Ireland and hopefully their inspirational style will be a template for other countries to adopt (Scotland?). But, when it came to the crunch, size mattered, as the Japanese found to their cost in the quarter final against South Africa. And notably when they were marched backwards some 40 meters by an unstoppable Springbok maul.  It mattered too in the final where England’s bulldozers could not stop South Africa’s bulldozers. 



  • Mark Dodson did what he needed to do on the Friday before the Japan game

    There was no anti-Scottish agenda from World Rugby, but they were clearly ready to cut Gregor Townsend’s team adrift when Typhoon Hagibis threatened to render the venue for their final pool match in Yokohama unplayable.

    For the record, Dodson didn’t publicly threaten legal action (consulting a lawyer is a very different thing), he was at pains to stress that he had every faith that the host nation would do everything in their power to get the game on, and any suggestion that the human cost of the storm was being trivialised ignores what was actually said at the press conference, which was only held after a day of fruitless negotiation behind closed doors.

    Dodson’s habit of impersonating a bull in a china shop has rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way in the past – both domestically and internationally – but on this occasion he had a duty to Scottish rugby to put as much pressure as possible on World Rugby, who were trying desperately to wriggle out of a mess of their own making.

The starting point of any examination of the whole sorry episode must surely start by looking at World Rugby’s lack of contingency planning, before worrying about how the the SRU reacted.



  • The top of rugby’s pyramid is small, shrinking and desperately dull

    The rugby on the field was, for the most part, predictable, low risk and kick orientated with very few teams prepared to chance running the ball from their own half of the field. I understand that this is the World Cup but several teams without the muscle to wrestle the opposition into submission would have been better advised to take a little risk on board. The overall conservative trend was amplified the further the tournament progressed. Ambitious sides like Scotland, Fiji, Argentina and New Zealand fell away early on in proceedings, relatively speaking. England were the second most exciting side in the semi-finals, which tells you something. The cup was eventually won by the most conservative side in the world. The Bokke triumphed, in large part, thanks to Tendai Mtawarira who ensured that ‘Old’ Dan Cole’s final appearance in an England shirt will be memorable for all the wrong reasons. (Incidentally why should a small advantage at the  set scrum lead to an automatic penalty and three points if you are in the opposition half?)

    But the tournament was also dull because of that overwhelming sense of deja vu we all experienced during the latter stages and, especially, for the final. If you had an uneasy feeling you had seen this all before it is only because you have. This final was a re-run of RWC’07 in Paris. But re-runs are just about the only fare on offer in World Cup finals these days, think Dave TV without the cheesy ads, because only five countries have ever competed in a final and only four have triumphed. Six of the nine finals to date have been won by just two countries. Where is the variety, where’s the tier two challenge or the Celtic finalist or the French revival or the Pacific Island punching above their weight or Mary flipping Poppins in a scrum cap, anything, ANYTHING, to bring some variety to the endless diet of Bokke and Blacks? It is mind-numbingly dull, I am sorry to say, great swathes of the World Cup and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.



  • It’s not a level playing field

    The pool match score-lines may not have been so horrifyingly big as in previous world cups but inevitably the Tier 2 countries got blown away all too easily.  So why not level up the playing field by giving the Tier 2 countries first choice on qualified players irrespective of whether these players have already been capped, with world rugby making up the difference in match fees. So, the likes of Joe Cokanasiga, Nathan Hughes could play for Fiji, the Vunipolas plus a good chunk of the Wallabies squad could represent Tonga ….and then of course there might be a few from New Zealand wearing the colours of Samoa!  If this idea caught on the pacific islands might then be strong enough to play in the Rugby Championship. The introduction of any such change, however, would, in all likelihood, be opposed by the big unions, who know all too well that having polynesians in their sides is now one of the keys to success.



  • Don’t make boasts you can’t back up

    The Scotland players may have been exceptionally fit by their own standards, but it was a mistake by Gregor Townsend to claim that they were “the fittest team going to the World Cup”. Without knowing how rival teams are preparing, it’s impossible to make the comparison and such statements can be and were used as motivation by other coaches.



  • Faf de Klerk is the best pound-for-pound player on the planet

    No 8 Duane Vermeulen was deservedly named man of the match in the final, but De Klerk was arguably the Boks’ most impressive player over the course of the tournament, punching way above his weight in the tackle. The scrum-half was often given a free role in the defence, not taking his place in the line but instead picking his target then making a beeline for him, often arriving with devastating effect.

    We did not see enough of De Klerk’s ability to embark on sniping attacks from the breakdown, as head coach Rassie Erasmus persisted with a kicking game that must have been frustrating for his outside backs. But we did see enough of the 28-year-old overall to appreciate what an outstanding player he is – and to hope that we see him in action at Scotstoun in a couple of weeks when Glasgow host Sale Sharks in their opening Champions Cup pool match.



  • Scottish rugby is in real danger of becoming vaguely irrelevant on the world stage

    Obviously when you fall out of contention at the pool stage you tend to be bracketed with those countries that drop out at the same time. Like it or not Scotland find themselves mentioned in the same breath as Italy, Argentina and Fiji  triers, perhaps, but failures all the same.

    Scotland tried to play their running rugby albeit with a healthy dose of kicking for territory inside their own half, but the tactic came to grief against a very quick Japanese defensive line who were better conditioned and better coached than Scotland. The other question has been asked before but bears repetition: how on earth did Scotland have several months in camp and still fail to fire a shot against an Ireland team in free fall? After that debacle, solid wins against poor opposition were puffed out of all proportion to their true merit. Russia, especially, were on their knees. When someone with the physical presence of Peter Horne is making good yards in the number 12 channel you know the opposition has run up the white flag.

    There was an unexpected silver lining to the cloud sitting over the Scotland camp. I sat next to a couple of Scots during the New Zealand versus Ireland quarter-final when the All Blacks were at their imperious best. We looked at each other when half time allowed us a moment to reflect and we all arrived at the exact same conclusion; thank goodness Scotland had been saved from suffering an even worse beating than Ireland got off the Blacks that day.

    Instead of the players, Scotland’s biggest impact in RWC’19 came from their demonstrative and voluble chief executive Mark Dodson even if, for once at least, you were inclined to sympathise with him for berating World Rugby over their lack of preparedness for any typhoon let alone one of Hagibis’ destructive power. The high profile falling out with World Rugby and the probable fine (to be announced) is what Scotland will be remembered for in RWC’19, if they are remembered at all.



  • The laws need to be reviewed

    Why should it be that a weaker set of forwards invariably gets penalised in the scrum once the stronger pack applies the shunt?  Rugby Union is the only sport that penalises a ‘weaker’ side. The official reason for awarding penalty is for turning the scrum – but which side is doing the turning?  Then again there is the scrum collapse…. and so on.  Given that hugely important international matches are won or lost (Wales v SA?) by the judgment of under-pressure referees would it not be better simply to award a free kick instead of scrum penalties?
    The maul is another unsatisfactory area of the game – unless you happen to be South African. As teams know to their cost the maul is almost impossible to halt. One of the reasons for this is that the ball-carrier is at the back of the maul. If the law changed such that the ball carrier had to be at the front of the maul then defenders would have a better chance of stopping it. 
    A third area that probably needs looked at is multiple phase play. How often do we see teams battering their opponents’ line with close range drives, hoping for either a try or a penalty. Rugby League puts a limit on the number of phases in its game, why not Rugby Union? 
    My fourth gripe is box-kicking. The antidote to it could be to allow the ball to be ‘marked’ in a team’s own half.



  • No team is invincible

New Zealand were on an 18-match winning streak at World Cups going into their semi-final and had already beaten South Africa in their opening game of this tournament, but they were made to look ordinary by England’s razor-sharp accuracy combined with breath-taking ferocity, and ultimately finished a distant second in that contest.

It felt at that point like we had witnessed an epoch shaping event from an England team ready to take the game to a new level. For once, the pre-match hype south of the border leading up the final seemed to be proportionate, but South Africa – solid but unspectacular since that opening weekend defeat to the All Blacks – had other ideas.

They met fire with fire and in the end were worthy winners on Saturday with plenty to spare.



  • The Japanese people made this tournament by embracing rugby and welcoming supporters of all hues

My wife and I were supposed to be meeting friends from Scotland but had got ourselves lost. We asked a woman in the street, showing her on our phone, where we were trying to get to. (All Japanese learn English at high school so many of them can speak as much English as me and you, probably, speak French.) She didn’t just tell us where to go, she took us to the right street, made sure we got the right bar and then joined us for a beer inside before heading home with a tale to tell her patient husband. Later that evening we were joined by a Japanese friend I have known for quite a long time but not especially well. He joined us for food and drink before picking up the tab for four foreigners, two of whom he had never met in his life.

Note to self, be more helpful to all those foreign visitors during the Edinburgh Festival.

It was much the same throughout the tournament and everyone who was there has their own little version of the above story to tell. Everywhere you went people would bend over backwards to help, show, explain, translate and generally make life a lot easier for us ‘gaijin’. This even extended to the underground where the wrong ticket would often be waved through, if only because God simply didn’t make enough time to explain to every foreigner what they needed to know.

With bar prices prohibitively expensive, my abiding memory if RWC’19 was rugby fans congregating outside the local 7-11’s where cans of beer could be had for cheap. When the food outlets were mobbed in the early matches the Japanese allowed fans to bring in their own food, a courtesy that soon expanded to drink as well since the nice people on the gate were far too polite to ever check your bag properly.

The Tokyo Olympics are going to be a blast, if the opportunity arises then grab it with both hands, but it is not obvious we can say the same thing about RWC’23 which is, of course, in France.



  • Scotland need more resources if they are ever again to reach a quarter final in RWC

Scotland’s squad of 31 did not have strength in depth to compete in RWC.  The reason for this is the small base of players from which the squad is selected. That then raises the question of how to increase this base. Would a third pro team do the trick? Or will Super Six raise the playing standard sufficiently to produce more players capable of performing in international rugby?  The problem is much more deep rooted and is about increasing numbers in age-grade rugby. A small number of independent schools do a very good job of producing top players but what Scotland has to do is to tap into the enormous potential within the 95% of youngsters educated in the state sector, most of whom play rugby through the club system. That’s for Murrayfield to find solutions but it could also be in the hands of a Scottish Government seeking to increase participation in active sport. 


Rugby World Cup 2019 in photos





  1. Too many laws not being refereed. We need to re-write the law book and make it easier for coaches, players and match officials. Rugby league did it many years ago and it transformed their game as well as making it much better for players and spectators. Remember, the game is for the players, not spectators.

  2. In addition to Alan Lorimer’s bit on the laws, I would like to see collapsing the maul allowed. It is dangerous we are told, but it collapses anyway by one side or another and it might help more rugby to be played near the goal line.
    The other comment is why is Law 13.4 rarely applied? “Players on their feet and without the ball must not fall on or over players on the ground who have the ball or who are near it”. Most tackle situations see player piling on top of the breakdown ares without penalty. Strict application of this law might make the breakdown area clearer.

    • Collapsing the maul appears to be already allowed – how often do you see a team catch a player in possession, hold them upright until the ref declares it a maul, then immediately collapse the maul and then be awarded a scrum. Why is this not penalised as collapsing the maul? Consistency would be good.

  3. Very thoughtful commentary there gents.

    My take aways

    We need more players playing rugby in scotland.
    The international team need plan B & C
    Try some quiet diplomacy- ie don’t go rushing to the media no matter how right you think your position is

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