As an exercise in preparation, Rugby World Cup warm-up matches are a great idea 👍🏼. The northern hemisphere sides haven't played for a long time, and so they need a few games to get up to speed with their antipodean counterparts who are raring to go, following on from their Rugby Championship.
As an exercise in marketing however, the logic is a bit fuzzier, diluting the product it's supposed to promote 👎🏼 . These games are more like fancy training sessions against a group of blokes from elsewhere and almost nobody really cares about the results, including the coaches. It all makes for bland and boring viewing. International rugby without national pride is like a toilet seat without toilet. 🚽
So now that these drab games have happily passed, is there anything that they can tell us about what might unfold at the RWC 2015? Take Ireland for example. They started terrifically in Cardiff, and finished terribly in Twickenham, so if trend analysis is your thing, perhaps it's cause for concern. Yet four years ago, Ireland actually lost all four pre-RWC 2011 matches, and still managed to beat Australia in the pool stage, so all is not lost. Far from it.
The fact is rugby doesn't lend itself naturally to these friendly matches. Despite the fact that mauls can resemble communal cuddling sessions, rugby is at its best when both sides are going berserk to win. Preseason games do away with this, and that changes things considerably. Teams are often more focused on beating some hypothetical XV in a few weeks rather than beating their current opponents. Winning preseason matches can sometimes even feel accidental, and more like golf. The two teams compete, but only indirectly. They play the course, largely disregarding their opponents, and then compare scorecards after eighty minutes. In preseason, losing means not winning, but it doesn't necessarily mean being beaten in the traditional sense.
As for preseason, it's notoriously the most abhorred time of the year for the players. Having a headache for weeks and ever-aching muscles from the drastic increase in workload is the norm. Less well known however, is that this is also the time of year that's probably the most wasteful in terms of time spent on the pitch. It's true there needs to be progression and new ideas, but only a few of these chalkboard strategies ever make it through the filtration process of actual games. It's a time for trying new things, and preseason is the laboratory. Often a successful summer is one that counts illusions lost rather than wisdom gained.
Then there is the whole problem of extrapolating from one game to the next. Typically this is a minefield for fancy forecasts. Is there really any simple way to explain how England could lose 36-0 to South Africa during the pool stage of the RWC 2007, and then nearly beat them in the final? Or perhaps how did France lose to Tonga in the pool stage of the RWC 2011, and then nearly beat New Zealand in the final?
Of course each match you watch gives an insight, and an opinion, but since each opponent and game is so different, it's not easy to reconcile these variables and make a meaningful prediction. Bookies can do it over the long run with probability on their side, but for the rest of us, with our quadrennial hopes reaching a crescendo, it's a binary world. Win or lose. One shot. Inferring from one game to the next is so problematic because not only does the opponent change, so does the weather, the referee, the mood, the meaning and much more. In addition, the pervasive use of video analysis dictates that tactics need to change just as fast. A brilliant strategy one week can become a straightjacket the next. Inconsistency is the only certainty.
So did Ireland really get worse over the four games, or did they just stand still while the rest improved? Or perhaps they improved too, but just to a lesser extent. It's hard to say. As with the other nations during the RWC preamble, there was lots of squad rotation and this naturally undoes much of the cohesion within a team. Most countries - New Zealand aside - don't have two best teams and so can't afford to use the pick'n'mix strategy. The line between triumph and travesty is often a thin one and these small changes, can make a big impact. Deciphering these effects and using them to your advantage is what makes some coaches great. There is neither good luck nor bad, just consequence.
Had Ireland won all four warm-up games, or lost all four, the looming pool games against France and Italy wouldn't have become any easier or harder. As ever, it's the team who can think more clearly when emotions and pressures start clouding judgements that will prevail. This can't be fabricated in preseason, so be careful what you read into it.