Doing the HOX/POX—Hickman’s X-Men

With a break from the rugby yesterday, I decided it might be a good idea to pay a bit more attention to the world outside of sport. What, exactly, has been going on in the world of politics and culture?

….

Well, that was a mistake, wasn’t it? Let’s retreat into some make-believe instead and take a look at one of the biggest comics stories of the year, Jonathan Hickman’s reboot of Marvel’s X-Men franchise.

(Spoilers below, if you haven’t read it. And you should—it’s good.)

Continue reading Doing the HOX/POX—Hickman’s X-Men

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RWC—Shaking out the Cobwebs

We’re sort of at the end of the first round of matches in the Rugby World Cup—because the groups have an odd number of teams, some haven’t played as others are beginning their second round of matches. Ireland fans got to have some fun in the form of Iain Henderson galloping like an angry llama through Scottish defenders, the venerable captain and hooker Rory Best trying out a sidestep and offload among his moments of acting as a backup scrum half (proving once and for all that you can teach old dogs new tricks), and the Irish pack mutating into a many-armed and -legged beast hungry for tries and opposition flesh.

For more general fans, the most enjoyable game has possibly been the most recent, with Uruguay mugging Fiji to steal an unlikely win. As someone who’s recently been to and is unreasonably fond of Uruguay, this result has been providing me with internal warmth all day. Probably a good thing, as back in Ireland we’ve definitively seen the last of summer now.

Regardless, With the flurry of games over the opening weekend having seen all the major contenders for the title fire their first shots, we can perhaps see the direction in which things might be heading. For simplicity’s sake, let’s take a look at those contenders in broad, and possibly contentious, categories.

Tier One

The out-and-out favourites for the RWC this year had a mixed set of results, mainly because two of them played each other in one of the most interesting games of the weekend. New Zealand came out the victors against South Africa, courtesy of a few moments of brilliance in the first half, but it was a much tighter game than the 10-points differential might suggest. New Zealand should go on to top the group now and face either Scotland or Japan in the quarter finals, whereas South Africa will be wary of a potential banana skin in the form of Italy. They ought to have enough in the tank to put away the Italians comfortably, but a loss already puts them at a disadvantage and nerves could take hold.

As for the other top-tier team, England stuttered a little in the first half before dispatching Tonga. It was a performance with plenty of bite in it, but coach Eddie Jones won’t be satisfied with how long it took his charges to end their challenge. With Argentina and France also in their group, England aren’t certain of anything yet, and they’ll be looking to improve over the games to come.

Tier Two

Not far below the big three come a trio of teams with eyes very much on the prize. Of them, Ireland will be by far the happiest with their performance, as mentioned above. They shut down a dangerous but ultimately disappointing Scottish team, picking up a bonus point and not letting in any tries. With their most challenging group game behind them, Ireland will now need to see off hosts Japan before they can start looking towards a potential quarter final showdown with South Africa.

Like New Zealand and South Africa, Wales and Australia share a group, but they didn’t meet on the opening weekend, instead facing and dispatching Georgia and Fiji respectively. Neither win was entirely convincing, as both teams shipped a few tries in claiming a bonus point win, but they remain on course to collect the two qualifying spots in the group. Which order they’ll end in will largely depend on their meeting this weekend, with the loser likely facing England in the quarter finals. Both will be keen to avoid that, and the more solid Wales seem likely to come out on top.

Tier Three

At this point, things get a little messy. France and Argentina share the group of death with England, and unless both of them can upset the Saxon chariot, one of them will miss out on the quarters. Their meeting over the opening weekend was a thrilling and frustrating match, with France bursting into a lead and Argentina trying and just failing to haul them back. As a result, France have the whip hand and Argentina will need to go for broke against England. Bonus points could decide things yet, and don’t put it past France to implode against one of the other nations or spring a surprise on England.

Lastly we come to Scotland, the unfortunate victims of Ireland’s impressive weekend showing. Coming into the tournament with high hopes, they’re now reeling from a loss and a few injuries that have knocked out some of their best players. Their match against Japan could be the highlight of the final group stage weekend, with the hosts desperate to make it to the quarter finals and the Scots equally desperate to avoid the ignominy of going out in the group stages.

The Also-Rans

There weren’t any dramatic surprises over the course of the opening weekend, though the lower-ranked teams performed well enough (and Uruguay‘s victory over Fiji provides hope of more to come). The best of them, Japan and Italy, both won their opening matches comfortably enough, but it’s Japan who have the better hope of making the quarter finals (as discussed above). Italy are unfortunate enough to be in the same group as New Zealand and South Africa, and a result against either seems like the longest of long shots.

Elsewhere, no one has really put their hand up as someone to watch, though everyone has contributed to what’s been a fun opening few days. Concerns about refereeing and punishments over high tackles aside, this looks like it’s set to be the tournament we were hoping it would be. Roll on the next few weeks…

Japan, Eight Years On

We’re just hours away from the kickoff of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. It’s something of a bittersweet moment for me—rugby is my favourite sport to watch, either on TV or in person, and eight years ago I was in Japan while the 2011 RWC was taking place in New Zealand. Falling in love with the country, I decided that I would return, and that my return would coincide with the 2019 RWC.

Well, the gods laugh when men make plans, and that hasn’t happened. For a few reasons, the most notable of which was the subject of this blog’s most recent travelogue. Two major expeditions in one year would stretch my finances and holiday allowance far beyond breaking point, and so I’m leaving the up-close-and-personal experience to my brother, who’s heading to Japan himself in a day or two. For myself, I’ll have to be content with watching as many games as I can from the comfort of my couch or a suitably raucous pub.

I’m primarily a fan of the Ireland team, of course, representing as it does Ireland north and south (and east and west—there are four proud provinces, after all), and Ireland have a similarly fraught relationship to the RWC. Despite a few outstanding performances, they’ve never made it past the quarter finals (in 2011, I sat in a pub in Santa Cruz with a couple of professional golf caddies and watched them get thoroughly outplayed by Wales). This time, it seems that they might have timed their run well. Having enjoyed an annus mirabilis in 2018, they’ve been far less impressive in 2019 so far, other teams having seemingly figured out how to beat them. Improbably, a couple of wins against Wales in their last two games have elevated Ireland to the number 1 slot in the world rankings, and all of a sudden Irish fans are starting to believe that coach Joe Schmidt might just have enough tricks up his sleeve to take them to the promised land.

Of course, there are plenty of obstacles in the way. Assuming Ireland get through their group, they’ll likely face either New Zealand or South Africa in the quarters. It’s hard to say which would be the greater challenge. New Zealand have been the best team in the world for years, in addition to being the reigning champions, but they’ve looked fallible in the past year, and Ireland have a solid winning record against them recently. South Africa, who share a group with New Zealand, arrive from the opposite direction. Having been in the wilderness for a few years, they’re now looking as good as any team out there, led by coach Rassie Erasmus, formerly of Irish provincial side Munster. I’d actually back them to beat New Zealand to top their group and would even mark them as current favourites to win the whole thing.

As for the other main contenders? England are brutally efficient and have worked hard to eliminate the fallibilities that have undermined them in recent years. They took an undercooked Ireland to the cleaners in their most recent meeting, but which side will have benefited most from that lopsided result is hard to say before the tournament is over. Wales are the closest side to Ireland in terms of their ability to beat anyone when their system clicks, and they’re probably a little more reliable in terms of recent results. They share a group with Australia though, and the mercurial Ozzies are likely to surprise someone before the tournament is over. A far bigger surprise would be if France were to achieve anything of note—they’ve been a shambles for years—but that’s practically France’s raison d’etre, so England will not be comfortable sharing a group with them. Last of the tier-one nations, Scotland share a group with Ireland and are far from favourites to come out ahead in their meeting, just a week away now, but they can sparkle in attack if their opponents make the mistake of letting them do so. Ireland under Schmidt will have to be well prepared.

For neutrals and tournament organisers though, the tier-two nations are where it’s at. Teams like hosts Japan, who famously defeated South Africa in the 2015 RWC, as well as perennial also-rans like Georgia, Fiji, and Canada, and larger nations with the potential to spread the gospel of rugby union, like Russia and the USA. The better these teams do and the more competitive they are—especially if one or two of them can spring a surprise against the larger teams—the better it is for the tournament, both this year and in the future. Both fans and organisers will be happier too, so there’s no downside unless you’re in or supporting a team on the wrong side of one of those surprises. (Looks nervously at the boys in green and crosses his fingers.)

But given that there’s only a few hours to go, and you don’t know much about rugby (its rules are less straightforward to parse than football’s), what can you do to catch up quick? Well, the first thing I’d advise you to do is hop onto Twitter and search for Squidge Rugby. This rugby-loving channel offers an affectionate and funny take on this sport of thugs, played by gentlemen, and he’s in Japan as I write this, preparing to serve up videos throughout the tournament. Even better, before the tournament he provided brief profiles of each of the competing teams—their history, players, and chances in the games to come—so a small amount of entertaining effort will give you plenty of facts to drop into any rugby-related conversation you find yourself in.

For more immediate information, seek out Murray Kinsella on Twitter (@Murray_Kinsella). Possibly Ireland’s greatest living store of rugby-related knowledge, he’s been providing detailed breakdowns on Ireland’s games for years on the42.ie, and he’ll likely be working flat out during the tournament. Lastly, for listening while on the go, there’s the Blood & Mud podcast (@bloodandmud). A relaxed but engaged take on the rugby world, it’ll fill any gaps you’re seeking to have filled.

That’s as much info as any person, novice or otherwise, is likely to need. Apart from those, sit back, find a handy screen that’ll be showing the games (most of them in the early morning here in Ireland, due to the time difference), and enjoy. I know I will (with possible blips should Ireland’s participation turn into a nightmare once more). This should be one of the closest RWCs ever, and it’s genuinely impossible to pick a definite favourite from among the world’s top six teams. #shouldertoshoulder