The world’s biggest rugby tournament is now a week old. Everyone has now played at least one game in the pool stage, so how are the teams looking and which individuals have stood out?
Tom Brady sent a message of support ahead of the USA’s opener against England, it didn’t appear to help. The Eagles were initially stout in defence but struggled to get out of their own half. As the match progressed the US were sapped by England’s dominance ij the scrum and their driving maul. They offered little in attack and John McQuill picked up the first red card of the tournament for an appalling challenge on Owen Farrell. Worse still, they lost fullback Will Hooley with a head injury in the closing stages, but at least Bryce Campbell’s 82nd minute try meant they avoided the first nil of the tournament in a 45-7 loss.
One of the World Cup’s perennial ‘not quite’ teams were knocked to the deck early by Italy in Fukuoka. Canada’s defence was undone by some woeful tackling, most notably when Dean Budd broke free to give Italy an early 17-0 lead. When Canada finally settled Tyler Ardon broke free but Matt Heaton fumbled the ball on the try line.
Canada continued to push forward but couldn’t find the killer pass to convert possession into points. As the game wore on Canada struggled to match Italy’s intensity, whilst Ardon got a ticking off from referee Nigel Owens for giving away too many penalties. Canada’a endeavour was finally rewarded in the 69th minute, when Andrew Coe outpaced the Italian defence for a consolation try in a hefty 48-7 defeat.
The lowest ranked side to make it to Japan (No23 in the world) became the first to ship 40+ points as Namibia were blown away by Italy. It started well with scrum half Damian Stevens giving Namibia the early lead after poaching an Italian line-out. But a burst of Italian tries either side of halftime had the underdogs reeling and Italy’s forward power wore down a stubborn Namibia defence. To their credit Namibia did add two more tries in the second half through JC Grayling and Chad Plato but Italy’s dominance of territory was telling. Next up it’s a David & Goliath clash with neighbours South Africa
Tonga showed against England their famed big hitting has lost none of its force, with Zane Kapeli epitomising their bone shaking approach. But for all their resolute defending and hard tackling, Tonga barely set foot inside England’s 22 metre line until the 84th minute as they went down 35-3. Next up are Argentina on Saturday where Tonga will again look to frustrate their opponents but need to show more in attack if they are to make inroads in Pool C.
Russia made an aggressive start on opening night to capitalise on Japanese nerves, with Kirill Glosonitskiy grabbing the opening try of the tournament. Russia’s basic, low risk brand of rugby proved effective but they inevitably tired as Japan began to swing the ball around and went down to a respectable 30-10 defeat. Tagir Gadzhiev embodied Russia’s hard working style but playing Tonga just four days later was a big ask.
Russia started well and took a surprise 6-5 lead, but critically couldn’t make a double sin binning from their opponents count. In the second half Russia’s tiring defenders were exposed as Samoa ran in 6 tries for a comfortable 34-9 win. Russia have been better than expected but it would be a seismic shock if they beat Ireland in their next game.
Fiji have rarely been so fancied at the start of a World Cup, but their campaign is already falling apart. It started well against Australia as back row Peceli Yato finished off a quick break down the flank after just 8 minutes. Then, early in the second half a careless Australian turnover saw the fleetfooted Waisea Nayacalevu bolt through the middle to hand Fiji a 21-12 lead. But a lack of discipline proved costly as Levani Botia was yellow carded with the game in the balance and a first win over Australia since 1954 slipped through Fiji’s fingers.
Then came Uruguay and things again started well when a clever line-out move saw Mesulame Dolokoto give Fiji the early lead. But the lead lasted just 4 minutes and Fiji struggled to replicate the attacking verve they showed early on against Australia as they found themselves on the receiving end of a 24-12 halftime deficit. Fiji powered a try home early in the second half but Josh Matevesi continued to be wateful with his kicking by missing the conversion. Fiji finally rediscovered their offload game late in the contest with a pair of tries from Nikola Matawalu, but it was too little too late and Fiji’s hopes of making the quarter-finals are in ruins.
A terrible start had Georgia on the back foot from the opening kick off against Wales, with their defence leaking 4 first half tries, whilst their poor kicking saw them fail to contest possession. The second half was much improved with Shalve Mamukashvili getting them an early try, whilst their defence held out despite a yellow card. Georgia’s increased intensity was rewarded by a pile driving try from Levan Chilachava to give the final scoreline some respectability. Sunday’s clash with Uruguay suddenly looks a must watch game.
Scotland became the first team at the World Cup to fail to cross the whitewash in a dismal opening defeat to Ireland. Gregg Laidlaw looked worryingly slow at scrum half as Scotland struggled to get their dangerous backs into the game, with Stuart Hogg kept notably quiet. Worse still Laidlaw’s replacement Ali Price and flanker Hamish Watson are both heading home injured with Edinburgh duo Henry Pyrgos and Magnus Bradbury being called up to replace them. Coach Gregor Townsend cut a sullen figure after Sunday’s game and the upcoming game against Samoa suddenly looks tricky.
Samoa’s traditional of hard hitting overstepped the mark in their opener against Russia with Rey Lee-Lo and then two minutes later Motu Matu’u both receiving yellow cards. Either could have been red but Samoa then played smart Rugby as their 13 men saw out the sin bin and trailed just 6-5 at halftime. In the second half Samoa got their act together with 3 quick-fire tries including a double from Ed Fidow secured the bonus point win. This was a sputtering performance but at their best Samoa are a threat.
An emotional day at the Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium began with a moment’s silence for the town’s tsunami victims. It ended with Uruguay delivering the shock of the tournament as they stunned Fiji 30-27.. Having gone behind early scrum-half Santiago Arata weaved his way through Fiji’s defence to give Uruguay the lead. Then Manuel Diana and Juan Manuel Cat added converted tries to give Los Teros a surprise 24-12 halftime lead. Uruguay gave a disciplined defensive performance throughout whilst the boot of Felipe Berchesi kept the scoreboard ticking over in the second half to see out the win. It’s Uruguay’s biggest ever World Cup win and fully deserved, against a team who beat them 68-7 just last year!
Semi-finalists in two of the last three World Cups, the draw has been unkind to Argentina who opened against France in Tokyo. Some poor mistakes let France in to play their expansive game and a shellshocked Argentina went in 17 points behind at half time. But a spirited fightback was orchestrated from two line outs as the Pumas bulldozed their way into the lead. It would have been the biggest comeback in World Cup history had they held on, but a late drop goal saw France back in front and Emiliano Boffelli missed a long range penalty that could have snatched the win for Argentina. Next up its Tonga and the Pumas cannot afford a slip up.
Opening night stage-fright gripped hosts Japan. A series of awful early errors saw them go behind against Russia. However the Brave Blossoms settled into their offload game and Kotaro Matsushima’s second try on the stroke of halftime gave them the lead. Matsushima grabbed his hat trick to ensure the bonus point to get Japan over the line. They’ll have to start a lot better against Ireland on Saturday, but when they get quick ball they remain a joy to watch.
Italy recovered from an early setback to smash 7 tries past Namibia. Fly-half Tommaso Allan got the breakthrough before a beautiful disguised pass from Federico Ruzza sent in Tito Tebaldi. Italy’s pack were impressive lead as ever by the legendary Sergio Parisse, appearing in his fifth World Cup. Late tries from Jake Polledri and Matteo Minozzi added gloss to the final score as Italy secured a 44-21 win.
Then they faced Canada exactly 4 years to the day since they met at Elland Road in the last World Cup. Parisse’s replacement Braam Steyn powered through Canada’s defence as Italy made a blistering start. However they struggled to maintain the momentum as Canada tried to fight back. The second half saw Italy in control with 4 more tries and back row duo Sebastian Negri & Steyn outstanding in the 48-7 win. As they prepare to face South Africa the big decision for Conor O’Shea is does Steyn get the nod over Parisse at number 8?
France played the ultimate game of two halves against Argentina. In the first two tries in quick succession from Gael Fickou and Antoine Dupont showed the French at their flowing best with Dupont dictating the game from scrum-half as they stormed into a 20-3 half time lead. Then came a defensive collapse that saw Argentina comeback as France’s discipline buckled and they slipped behind. France needed a hero and found one in Camille Lopez whose beautiful drop goal proved decisive in a 23-21 win. With England in the same pool, this was a must win game for France, but there was some bad news on the injury front as centre Wesley Fofana was ruled out of the tournament. Next up it’s the USA on Wednesday.
The Wallabies faced a Fijian storm in Sapporo as Fiji’s quick offload game and one awful Australian mistake saw the green and gold fall 12-21 behind. Australia’s controlled driving maul got them back in the game and a second try from hooker Tolu Latu finally edged them ahead. Then in the closing stages centre James O Connor orchestrated a late flurry and his pass to Koroibete settled the match as Australia notched up 6 tries and a 39-21 win. A high hit from Reece Hodge earned the winger a 3 match ban, but Australia know a win over Wales this weekend should secure them first place in Pool D.
5. South Africa
The heavyweight clash of the week was going the Springboks way, as their frenzied pressing games penned the All Blacks back…for 20 minutes. But Handre Pollard’s missed penalty when the ‘boks held the ascendancy always looked costly and 7 minutes later South Africa were 17-3 down. However Pocket-rocket winger Cheslin Kolbe got the ‘boks going again as South Africa threatened a comeback, but the All Blacks kept them at arms length. Injuries and knocks will be a concern for South Africa with knocks to Kolbe and try scorer Pieter-Steph du Toit, whilst prop Trevor Nyakane is out. Namibia won’t offer such a stiff test this weekend, but South Africa’s immediate objective now is to secure second place in Pool A.
Assistant Coach Rob Howley getting sent home was hardly an ideal start for Wales. But once the action began, it took them just 3 minutes to settle into the tournament with Jonathan Davies crashing over. Despite an embarrassing missed conversion, Dan Bigger appears to be picking up where he left off in 2015 and his soft handling opened up Georgia as Wales secured the bonus point with Josh Adams’ pace a constant threat to Georgia. Wales blotted their copybook by letting Georgia over the line at the start of the second half and failing to take advantage of a Georgian sin binning as the game went flat. However Tomas Williams’ provided some fresh impetus when he raced onto George North’s kick as Wales saw out a comfortable 43-14 win. An injury to hooker Ken Owens is a worry, but with Australia to come on Saturday this was a largely impressive start for the Welsh.
Eddie Jones opted to fight fire with fire with his selection to take on Tonga’s big hitters, but it was the elusiveness of Elliot Daly and speed of Johnny May that unlocked Tonga before half time, with Manu Tuilagi bagging a brace of tries. The second half proved niggly as England’s handling errors made for a disjointed contest, with England only securing their bonus point fourth try in the 76th minute. That said England’s set piece and defensive play was excellent to give them a solid 35-3 win.
A tight four day turnaround saw Jones make 10 changes to face the USA in Kobe. England dominated territory and it was the guile of George Ford and power of Billy Vunipola that opened up a stubborn American defence in the first half. With their pack dominant throughout, the pace of Jonathan Joseph and the Ford-Farrell axis tormented the tiring American defence as England ran riot with 7 tries in a dominant 45-7 win.
World Rugby’s top ranked side got up and running in impressive fashion by thrashing Six Nations rivals Scotland. Conor Murray made a timely return to form and was instrumental in Ireland’s opening try. Skipper Rory Best made the most of Ireland’s forward power to nail a second and earn an early 14 point which lead they never looked like losing. Number 8 CJ Stander was the star turn in a clinical all round display that ended in a 27-3 win. Next up is a mouthwatering clash with hosts Japan.
After being put on the back foot by South Africa, the All Blacks kept their heads and waited for the ‘Boks to make a mistake. Then one brilliant kick from Richie Mo’unga sent Sevu Reece seering away and New Zealand turned on the style. George Bridge and Scott Barrett got the tries as the All Blacks assumed control for the last three quarters of the game to see out the 23-13 win. The endless debate over where Beauden Barrett should play will continue but Steve Hansen is unlikely to be swayed from Barrett at fullback, Mo’unga at fly-half and Ben Smith on the bench. As statements of intent go, this start was ominous.
Featured Image: AP