Japan excels but leaves Rugby World Cup; QFs as expected
LONDON (AP) For all the potential for mayhem after Japan's shocking opening win over South Africa, the biggest upset in Rugby World Cup history, the quarterfinals panned out as expected with one glaring exception.
The host team isn't there, for the first time.
Back-to-back losses to Wales and Australia ended England's hopes of advancing from the toughest of the pools.
The top two in each pool finished almost precisely in order of international rankings. Japan had wins over the Springboks, Samoa and the United States, but a loss to Scotland proved very, very costly. Japan became the first team ever to win three of four pool matches and not advance to the knockout rounds. And so there are no second-tier teams in the last eight - Fiji's run to the 2007 quarterfinals was the last by a current Tier Two team.
The Brave Blossoms slipped out of contention when a shaky Scotland held off Samoa 36-33 on the next-to-last day of the pool stage, securing second spot in Pool B behind South Africa. Still, Japan, which had registered only one victory previously at the World Cup - in 1991 vs. Zimbabwe - was the revelation of the tournament under veteran coach Eddie Jones, who also guided an underrated Australia team to the 2003 final.
With Japan hosting the 2019 World Cup, and with a record 25 million people in Japan watching the win over Samoa on TV, the game is destined to grow in their homeland.
Alas, the 2015 edition continues, and with a very North vs. South feel.
The pick of next weekend's matches is New Zealand against France, a rematch of the 2011 final, and of a quarterfinal at the same stage and venue as the famous French upset in Cardiff in 2007.
''As long as you are in the race, you have reasons to believe,'' France captain Thierry Dusautoir, a survivor from that win eight years ago, said after Sunday's 24-9 loss to Ireland consigned his team to a quarterfinal against the defending champion. ''I have played 11 or 12 times against the All Blacks, and not once we have been favorites. But it didn't stop us from beating them (in 2007), and the last time we were really close to beating them (in 2011).''
The All Blacks haven't been in peak form so far, but they haven't needed to be - yet.
The other quarterfinals are: Australia vs. Scotland, South Africa vs. Wales, and Ireland vs. Argentina.
Here's some things we learned during the group stage:
There weren't any triple-figure blowouts in the results. And, as Namibia coach Phil Davies said, it wasn't a pointless exercise.
''It's been a progressive World Cup for us,'' Davies said after Sunday's 64-19 loss to Argentina. ''We have hit milestones. Our scores (conceded) against Tier One nations have gone down ... and we have achieved our first World Cup point.''
Namibia's 142-0 loss to Australia in 2003 remains the biggest losing margin at the World Cup.
New Zealand has posted several centuries, beating Japan 145-17 in 1995, Italy 101-3 in `99 and Portugal 108-13 in 2007, but its largest margin of victory this time was a 58-14 win over Namibia.
In 2011, the Namibians lost 87-0 to South Africa and 81-7 to Wales, but weren't embarrassed this time.
A 17-16 loss to Georgia gave the African team its first ever competition point.
South Africa's 64-0 win over the United States is the biggest victory margin in this tournament.
No, this is not about England. It's about the kind of defense that inhibits continuity for the teams that like quick ruck ball.
Pioneered by Ireland defense coach Les Kiss and now gaining wider traction, the choking part refers to restricting the supply of possession, not air to the throat. The skill involves defenders holding a tackled player off the ground, smothering the ball, and turning the contest into a maul in the hope of earning a turnover scrum.
Despite earlier expressing misgivings about the tactic, the Welsh deployed it very well against Australia.
''It was a strategy for today. We talked about what was effective slowing the Australian ball down because they are a potent attacking side,'' Wales coach Warren Gatland explained after Saturday's 15-6 loss. ''I thought we did that fantastically.''
Expect more to come, and not just from Ireland and Wales.
For all the praise heaped on teams for attacking enterprise, the standard line from coaches is always that defense wins World Cups.
In the standout defensive effort so far, the Wallabies defended desperately to ensure they didn't concede any points to Wales while giving up a two-man advantage with a scrumhalf and a lock in the sin-bin. Wales didn't concede against the Wallabies, either, and so both teams share the honor with Ireland for the fewest tries conceded in the pools - two.
Defending champion New Zealand conceded three - offset by leading the try-scoring charts with 25.
South Africa conceded four tries - but only one after the shocking opening loss to Japan.
Bryan Habana is co-leader of the Rugby World Cup try-scoring charts, both for this 2015 tournament and all-time. His hat trick against the United States in South Africa's last pool match gave him five for the tournament - equal with Julian Savea of New Zealand - and 15 overall, equal with All Blacks great Jonah Lomu.
Habana has at least one more match to break the record Lomu tallied across the 1995 and '99 World Cups.