Cards can colour results
Nuances of the pre-quarterfinal games
Two colours are beginning to make a big appearance at the Rugby World Cup — and they might not be the ones you think. They aren’t black, white or even green and gold (important as these colours are as the tournament progresses), but rather come as two laminated cards that fit snugly into the pocket of either a shirt or a pair of shorts.
The colours made an appearance this past weekend in both their yellow and red forms, with catastrophic results for those who were shown them.
In the Springboks’ important match against Italy a red card was shown to the Azzurri prop, Andrea Lovotti, for a dangerous tackle on eighthman Duane Vermeulen. A day later, in the equally important game between England and Argentina, given Argentina’s early tournament loss to France, Tomás Lavanini was red-carded by referee Nigel Owens for a dangerous tackle on England’s Owen Farrell.
Yes, red cards have been issued in the World Cup before, but now the tournament is reaching the stage where teams other than the obvious heavyweights (read Italy and Argentina) are battling to make the knockouts.
The quarterfinals haven’t been officially reached but that doesn’t mean we’re not in a kind of pre-knockout phase. In both games already mentioned, the red cards were definitive in so far as they significantly hobbled Italy and Argentina’s chances.
Perhaps they only delayed the inevitable; perhaps they ensured the outcome of the match.
As the tournament grinds towards the knockout stages, teams will invariably be more closely matched. There’s little likelihood, for instance, of the Boks’ steamroller performance against Italy on Friday, in which they flattened the men in blue 49-3, repeating itself in the quarterfinals. Indeed, the issuing of cards could well play a major role in the final result of knockout matches — and not only in the obvious ways.
Teams who haven’t been penalised by red and yellow cards often feel more pressure than their carded opponents because they are now expected to score. Such expectation brings with it a sort of unspoken pressure that requires patience and rhythmical build-up.
Good teams simply go about their business but in the cauldron-like environment of a World Cup semifinal, say, this is often more easily said than done. In a strangely paradoxical or inverted way, then, penalisation through red cards can often conspire to hobble the side who haven’t been red-carded.
Though we don’t know why or when, we can rest assured that red and yellow will play a part in this tournament as it reaches the business end.
The Springboks’ impressive victory over Italy appeared to give rise in sections of the media to a kind of game-within-a-game. This might facetiously be dubbed the "difficult-to-please" game, where those who might otherwise have been bullish about the victory over Italy spend an inordinate amount of time harrumphing.
Rugby scribes are, of course, allowed to be as sour as they like, it’s their prerogative, but consider this. Italy were competitive in the Six Nations earlier this year. They might have finished last out of six but, their heavy away loss to England aside, seldom lost by more than 10 or 15 points and were frequently extremely competitive at home.
The Boks gave an otherwise very competitive side an absolute caning. Being pernickety about the victory is rather like sitting down to an appetising fresh breakfast (orange juice, farm eggs, home-baked bread, and so on) and complaining bitterly that you’d prefer the orange marmalade rather than the strawberry jam.
Long-winded comparisons aside, after Tuesday’s 66-7 win against Canada it looks increasingly likely that the Boks will meet Japan in their quarterfinal. It’s difficult for local fans to take Japan seriously, because they aren’t meant to be quite as good as they are. We all know the foolhardiness of such thinking, however, and after Japan started like bicycles rather than bullet trains against Samoa on Saturday, they prevailed in the end. They even showed all the customary bravery and slick handling that has made them such a pleasure to watch throughout.
And they’re at home, which will be a huge advantage. Don’t be fooled. Because their fans are well-behaved doesn’t mean that they’re any less passionate or somehow shout more softly. Playing them will be a true test of Bok nerves.