Scotland v Argentina marked the beginning of cup match rugby is this year’s World Cup. The laws and the balls are still the same but the game changes from here on in. The stakes are higher and the drops are steeper. Games become less attractive from a try scoring point of view but far more compelling.
Cast your mind back over the matches considered to define previous World Cups and they’re all knock out games. Ireland vs Argentina in Adelaide in 2003, arguably the most important win in the country’s rugby history, is a group match that stands out from a personal point of view as an exception, but it was pure cup match. The following week’s game against Australia was like a bonus game where both teams could have a cut without the fear of exit.
There were a few things from Scotland’s performance that counted against them in a cup match environment. Mole is a big fan of Andy Robinson and thought that he had prepared his team extremely well and made a brave selection of Ruaridh Jackson at out half. The rain compromised Scotland’s game plan but they were six points up going into the last ten minutes and had denied Argentina a meaningful foothold for most of the game.
Scotland failed to deal with Felipe Contepomi’s restart after Parks’ drop kick had put them ahead. There was an eerie familiarity with Ireland’s inability to deal with the French restart in 2007 that led to Vincent Clerc’s try. On that occasion Ireland were four points up and seemed safe from the French. Scotland must have breathed a sigh of relief after putting themselves six points clear. Both Ireland and Scotland switched off. Kick offs are a set piece and set pieces are fundamental to cup match rugby. Matt Dawson recalls how with 13 seconds to go in the 2003 final they almost forgot to defend the kickoff but that Trevor Woodman took care of it.
Defence is crucial in cup matches. Graham Henry has left some try scoring flyers at home and gone with a team of centres in this World Cup. He may have had questions marks over their defence and Scotland, this time Chris Paterson, were guilty of missing a straight up tackle on Amorosino as the winger skidded down the touchline. Paterson gave his man little room to work with and had the touchline as his friend but made a poor attempt at a tackle and they conceded seven points.
Composure is a must. Handed a reprieve by Amorosino’s drop after Dan Parks had missed touch, Scotland rumbled their way in purposefully and looked well positioned to take a drop kick. Then for some reason, they rushed it from poor ball. Blair had his hands on the ball from a short time before passing, allowing Contepomi to harry Parks. Parks didn’t demand anyone else take it up from such an unpromising position. Contrast that to Martin Johnson taking the ball up one last time against Australia from Neil Back’s pop, in order to allow Matt Dawson give the ball to Jonny Wilkinson. Note that Dan Carter has scored four drop kicks in 85 tests and two of them were this year.
Leading on from that, goal kicking is the final mark of a cup winning team. The ability to get the score board ticking over puts pressure on the opposition. England’s rag tag 2007 vintage got all the way to a final by scrummaging the opposition into the ground, tackling and waiting for le Jonny to pop them over from all angles. France crumbled in the face of Wilkinson’s kicking in the semi and the Golden Boy of English rugby looked to be moving through the gears against Romania.
Be prepared to watch some of the forthcoming weeks’ rugby through your fingers. This weekend is when it really begins.