TW looks back at a thrilling opening weekend at the Rugby World Cup including a win for the hosts and impressive victories for New Zealand and Ireland.
Stuttering Start, Strong Finish
Given the occasion, it was inevitable that the Brave Blossoms would be nervous early on. It was an error-stricken opening encounter with full-back William Tupou making the biggest clanger on five minutes as he dropped an up and under to allow Kirill Golosnitskiy in to score the opening try. The Russian team were pumped up and looking to exploit Japan’s weaknesses at every turn. Eventually, the home side started to settle and played some impressive rugby as a result, going into the break with a slight lead. A tired Russia faded in the second half as Japan ran in a fourth try to earn what could be a valuable bonus point. Much improved after a shocking start, they will have to cut out the careless mistakes if they are to have any chance of getting through the group.
Leitch the Key
Exciting winger Kotaro Matsushima garnered most of the headlines on opening night after bagging a terrific hat-trick and was a constant threat throughout. The key player for Japan, though, was their captain and leader Michael Leitch. The New Zealand-born back, who moved here at the age of 15, was instrumental in cleaning up for the Brave Blossoms as they made mistake after mistake in the opening period of the game. The skipper is an inspirational figure and the heartbeat of the side. He will have to be at his best as Japan prepare to face much tougher tests over the coming weeks.
First Game Fright for the Aussies
The Wallabies haven’t lost to Fiji since 1954, however, for the first hour of this game that record looked under real threat. A great side to watch, the Fijians played some explosive rugby with Peceli Yato, in particular, impressing before being forced off after 25 minutes with a head injury. Leading the 2015 finalists 21-12 early in the second half, a shock seemed on the cards, but in the end, the tier 2 nation ran out of steam as Australia powered to a 39-21 victory. Aussie coach Michael Cheika must have been happy with the way the game finished but will demand more from his teams for the big clash against Wales next week.
Heartbreak for the Pumas
Hugely disappointing in the Six Nations, France seem to be a different animal when it comes to the World Cup. They were excellent in the first half as they raced away to 20-3 lead thanks to tries from Gael Fickou and Antoine Dupont. A routine victory seemed on the cards, but Argentina were having none of it as they produced a spirited display in the second half to put themselves back in contention. Tries from Guido Petti and Julian Montoya, and then a penalty from Benjamin Urdapilleta gave the Pumas a slender advantage, but they couldn’t hold on as a left-footed drop-goal from Camille Lopez meant France were back in front. The drama wasn’t over, though, as Argentina had a late penalty to win the match. Emiliano Boffelli’s long-range effort went wide of the post, though, so now the Pumas must win all of their games if they are to have any chance of qualifying.
Ruthless All Blacks Extend Unbeaten Run
It’s been 12 years since New Zealand last lost a World Cup game, yet coming into the match of the weekend against South Africa, there was talk that they were no longer the force they’d been in the past and their opponents might have the measure of them. A powerful start from the Springboks added weight to that argument but then the All Blacks showed their class. Handre Pollard had a chance to extend the South African lead to six points, but his effort hit the post and New Zealand smelled blood. In a devastating five-minute period, they scored two tries to take control of the game. The Springboks fought back in the second half, but NZ’s defence proved too strong. While it wasn’t vintage rugby from the All Blacks, their ruthlessness is why they remain the favorites to retain the trophy.
Positive Display from the Springboks Despite Defeat
Speaking after the game, South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus said that a lack of discipline had cost his side, but he was proud of how they performed. For parts of the match, the Springboks were the better team, particularly in the opening exchanges. Cheslin Kolbe was excellent as the side in green and gold had their opponents on the back-foot. At times their play was a bit too predictable though and in the end, the 23-13 result was probably fair. In spite of the loss, South Africa will almost certainly make it to the quarterfinals where they are likely to set up an enticing encounter with Ireland.
Italy Recover from Early Setback
Seven tries and their highest ever World Cup score, it was an enjoyable afternoon in the end for the Azzurri after suffering an early scare against a spirited Namibian side. Damian Stevens went over early for Namibia, but the Italians soon took control of things and three tries in 10 minutes, either side of half-time, effectively ended the African side’s chances of an upset. They kept going, though, and managed to get two consolation tries. The lowest-ranked team in the tournament, they have lost all 20 of their World Cup matches they’ve played in and have the daunting task of taking on South Africa next. As for Italy, they’ll be confident of overcoming Canada before facing the big two. Captain Sergio Parisse made history in the game, becoming the third player to appear in five World Cups.
Comfortable Win for the World’s Top-Ranked Side
From the moment James Ryan went over in the sixth minute of the game, Ireland never looked in any trouble in their eagerly anticipated opening fixture against rivals Scotland. Though favorites going into the game, this was supposed to be a tricky first hurdle for the Irish. It proved anything but. Winning all the physical battles, the boys in green dominated their opponents from the outset and the 19-3 score-line at the break flattered the Scottish team. Ireland’s forwards were outstanding, particularly CJ Stander. The 37-year-old captain Rory Best, who has taken a lot of stick this year, also put in a fine display to silence his critics. He never lost a lineout, scored a try, and lasted the full 80 minutes.
Substandard Scotland Need Big Improvement
As good as Ireland were, this was a very disappointing display from a Scottish side who failed to lay a glove on their opponents. Speaking at a press conference after the game, head coach Gregor Townsend admitted that his team “didn’t start with the energy, accuracy and aggression that is required to beat a team like Ireland.” They showed some fight towards the end as they looked to score a consolation try that would have made the score-line a little more respectable but in truth, the damage had been done in the first half. With the rain coming down heavily in the second period, Scotland’s chances of a comeback seemed to disappear as Ireland grabbed a fourth try to earn a bonus point. An injury to flanker Hamish Watson, ruling him out of the rest of the tournament, added to Scotland’s woes.
A Sluggish Start for England
Eddie Jones’ men did what they had to do against Tonga and secured a bonus point by going over for a fourth try, but it was not exactly a convincing performance against a team that earlier this month conceded 14 tries against New Zealand. Manu Tuilagi was the standout player for the 2003 champions who despite not particularly impressing never looked in any danger. As Jones said afterward, “The World Cup is not a 100 meters sprint. You don’t have to come out of the blocks and be fantastic.” They are likely to improve for the key clashes versus Argentina and France. As for Tonga, they will take heart from their display as they prepare for their next game against the Pumas on Saturday.
Feature photo by Clive Rose – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images