Everybody has commended the Japanese on their immaculate staging of the Rugby World Cup and they certainly deserve praise for rallying the population behind the tournament in the last month.
It helped, of course, that the Cherries – as hosts – were the apple of most neutrals’ eyes as they transcended their Tier 2 status to advance out of their pool by beating Ireland and Scotland in comprehensive fashion.
But reality hit home in the quarter-finals with England and New Zealand powering their way past Australia and Ireland with a coruscating quality of performances which suggests these two teams should be meeting in the final on Saturday week.
By comparison, Wales were fortunate to edge past 14-man France with a late try from Ross Moriarty and South Africa defended superbly to stem the Japan tide and silence the crowd, but didn’t strikeout this observer as potential global champions.
In that light, Saturday’s clash between Eddie Jones’ England and Steve Hansen’s All Blacks feels as if it is arriving prematurely.
New Zealand, all bristling purpose and Beauden Barrett-inspired brilliance, were utterly ruthless in pouncing on Irish weakness and ensuring there was no repeat of recent defeats in 2016 and 2018 against Joe Schmidt’s charges.
In fact, the potency of their display and ultimate 46-14 success was so overwhelming that even Guinness Ireland said on Saturday: “Have a pint of Carlsberg. We’re officially done with the colour Black today.”
As reigning champions, they will be slight favourites before the kick-off in Yokohama, but not by much. Jones raised eyebrows by dropping one of his poster boys in George Ford for the Wallaby Test, but it didn’t come back, boomerang-style, to haunt him.
Instead, whether being propelled forward by the masterful Owen Farrell or revelling in the contributions of emerging stars such as Sam Underhill, Tom Curry and Anthony Watson, England look capable of challenging for their second World Cup of 2019 – and, of course, they’ve already wrecked New Zealand hopes on the cricket stage.
It’s a lip-smacking contest and Wales and South Africa will be glad they are on the other side of the draw. The former have struggled with injury and need Jonathan Davies to be back at his best next weekend.
They probably wouldn’t still be in contention, but for the red card doled out to France’s Sebastien Vahaamahina in Oita, but the Welsh, under Warren Gatland, have acquired the knack of being able to win even when nowhere near their best.
However, they can’t keep sneaking through and will need to improve significantly to challenge the Springboks, who have already performed well in defeat to the All Blacks and sniffed out the Japanese threat with pragmatic intensity.
I expect South Africa to advance to the tournament denouement. As to whom they’ll encounter in Yokohama on November 2, it will come down to wafer-thin margins and who best keeps their cool in a cauldron.
***There’s a substantial coaching exodus in place as the World Cup moves towards its conclusion.
Michael Cheika has quit Australia, Schmidt and Gatland are leaving Ireland and Wales and Jacques Brunel and Conor O’Shea are close to the end with France and Italy.
Japan’s Jamie Joseph did a terrific job in steering his team into the quarter-finals, but it’s difficult to envisage him continuing in the role. After all, how much further can he realistically take his side forward?
Don’t bet against him being in the frame for Ireland. And his track record suggests he has all the right credentials to succeed.