With the Rugby World Cup having taken over the rugby world, we’ve decided to split the traditional ‘Best of the Weekend’ feature into two, focusing on the highlights from the RWC in one and the action going on in the rest of the world in another.
Wales the pick of the Home Nations as the Rugby World Cup gets under way
After Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales had completed their first matches in New Zealand, there was one clear winner for the best performance from the Home Nations, and it came from the only side that lost.
The clash between South Africa and Wales had already been highlighted by fans and pundits as the biggest game of the first round, and so it proved, with Wales taking a surprise lead against the Springboks, Toby Faletau’s try putting Wales ahead 16-10 with fifteen minutes to go on the clock.
South Africa despite their try from Frans Steyn (right) in the opening minutes had been sluggish throughout, unable to handle Wales physicality at the breakdown, with the back-row of Dan Lydiate, man of the match Sam Warburton and Faletau preventing the Boks from getting any quick ball, much like Argentina had done against England the day before.
Their superiority at the breakdown, combined with the direct running of Jamie Roberts at Morné Steyn down the 10 channel and the excellent kicking games of Rhys Priestland and James Hook, made them easily the best team on the pitch.
The majority of South Africa’s side were not match fit, and it showed. They were sloppy and too slow in thought and action, and if this match has been against Australia or New Zealand, there’s no doubt they would have lost. Their established players, Pierre Spies, John Smit and Bryan Habana gave nothing, whilst the bench of Willem Alberts, Bismarck du Plessis and match-winner Francois Hougaard changed the game. Realistically, the world champions should have lost at the first defence of their crown, had James Hook’s first half penalty kick been correctly allowed. It was the luckiest of reprieves, not that Peter de Villiers will be eating humble pie given his incredulous self-belief.
As for England, now the dust has settled, the problems are more obvious. They were outmatched physically, resulting in the commitment of too many bodies to the rucks, and therefore taking away dummy runners and options crippling their attack. On top of that, a lack of clear vocal leadership on the pitch from not just Mike Tindall and Nick Easter, but also senior figures Steve Thompson and Louis Deacon, meant that England had no direction or inspiration. They should have lost, and would have done if Felipe Contepomi and Martín Rodriguéz hadn’t missed 6 shots at goal between them. Having said that, Jonny Wilkinson missed 5 of his own.
The war at the breakdown sucked the energy out of England, so when the replacements Dylan Hartley, Matt Stevens and Ben Youngs came on, it all changed and the tempo went up a notch. This new urgency was too much for the Pumas to handle, and resulted in Youngs much needed try. England this week must work on clearing the ball out at the breakdown, and ensure that they have enough strong runners on first and second phases to suck in opposition defenders and create the space for Manu Tuilagi and those outside him. Young, Hartley, Stevens and Shaw must start as well.
Earlier in the day, Scotland also suffered a big scare against Romania in Invercargill. They went better than each one of the other Home Nations in picking up a try bonus point, with Simon Danielli crossing twice in the left hand corner late on to secure not just the bonus point, but also the win.
The Ulster winger also played a part in the first try for Mike Blair, making the initial break, and when Ansbro crossed a few minutes later it appeared as though Scotland would run away with the match.
But Romania’s tight five and the boot of Tiberius Dimofte kept them in touch, as the Oaks scored tries off the back of a rumbling maul at the end of the first half, and then a scrum in the second to then take the lead.
But Scotland rallied on, with Danielli crossing after great work from Richie Vernon on the left hand side, before he finished a sweeping move from the whole team, touching down after some slick handling in the same corner. Andy Robinson’s team will be needing all the ice bathes and recovery time available before facing Georgia on Wednesday morning.
Lastly, Ireland stuttered to victory against the USA in torrential conditions in New Plymouth. Tommy Bowe crossed twice, with Rory Best grabbing another score as Ireland hunted for the bonus point. Paul Emerick’s interception try late on for the USA was reward for their brave defence throughout, as Gordon D’Arcy threw out a speculative pass. After the disaster of the warm-up matches, a win was what Ireland needed, but it was not convincing in the slightest. They will face Australia next Saturday as underdogs by a long way on this form, and their clash against Italy now looks more difficult than first expected.
New Zealand open convincingly as the rest of the World Cup begins
Following what appeared to be a spectacular opening ceremony based on what ITV actually bothered to show of it, New Zealand dispatched with Tonga ruthlessly in the first half, going into the break 29-3 up at half-time. The second half was a different story however, as the brilliant Tongan crowd were rewarded for their fantastic support by a try from replacement prop Sona Taumalolo. New Zealand failed to finish off their phases, and struggled to contain Tonga’s physicality. Overall, the All Blacks cruised through this, never getting out of third gear, although they once again looked vulnerable around the fringes. Sonny Bill Williams flicks and power wowed the crowd, whilst Richard Kahui and Israel Dagg both crossed twice. A clinical start for the hosts.
Other favourites Australia kicked off at North Harbour Stadium outside of Auckland on Sunday morning, but only went into half-time level with Italy at 6 points each. They were transformed in the second half however, scoring four tries through James O’Connor, Digby Ioane, Ben Alexander and Adam Ashley-Cooper. With the bonus point in the bag, and Ireland stuttering against the USA, there is little doubt that Australia will cruise through this pool. The downside for Australia though is that Ioane needs surgery on a broken thumb. He will stay with the squad in New Zealand as the medical team hope that he will be able to take part in the knock out stages of the tournament.
Elsewhere, Fiji winger Vereneki Goneva (right) ran in four tries in his country’s big win over challengers Namibia in Rotorua, putting together a 49-25 win. They came from behind twice, with their class proving too much come the final whistle for Namibia to cope with. The African side’s fly-half, Theuns Kotze, knocked over three drop goals in the first half, along with two penalties setting a record points haul in World Cups for his country with 15, but there was never any danger of Fiji letting this one slip.
Lastly, France were given a significant second half scare by Japan during their match on Saturday morning, with the scores at one stage reading 25-21 to former World Cup finalists. Japan’s fly-half James Aldridge put in an inspired performance scoring all Japan’s points, including two tries, to make him the top points scorer after the weekend. France though came good in the end, running in three brilliant late scores to triumph 47-21.
Try of the Weekend has plenty of choice this weekend, so we’ve ranked them. In 3rd place is Digby Ioane’s effort against Italy for Australia, which earned the bonus point. 2nd place goes to Pascal Pape of France after some great teamwork from within their own half and some superb handling. But the winner is Israel Dagg (right) for his second effort for the All Blacks against Tonga. A wide pass from Dan Carter sent the ball to Ma’a Nonu and then on to Isaia Toeava, whose neat footwork brought him cutting infield to pass to SBW. The space left from Toeava’s handy work was exploited by Dagg, who burst onto the pass from Sonny Bill to touchdown.
Hero of the weekend is Wales’s Sam Warburton. Man of the Match against South Africa, the Cardiff Blues flanker has been in remarkable form over the last few months, and he proved it on the world stage against the Boks. Smit’s description of him as a “pain” was praise indeed, as he constantly was found turning over ball at the ruck, leading his team by example. A huge performance from the 22 year old.
The weekend’s Villain is actually Wayne Barnes. His performance in general on Sunday was good, but the incident with the James Hook penalty in the first half left a shadow over the rest of the match. Barnes clearly was in doubt over the kick, yet with the TMO available to him he chose not to clarify whether the points should have been awarded. The debate over it will rage on.
by Ben Coles