With the second weekend of matches all over, we’re edging closer towards deciding the line-up for the quarter-finals with only two games left in pool. So who stole the headlines? Find out below.
Ireland conquer Australia for the first time in five attempts at the RWC
No contest for the game of the weekend. Ireland’s victory over the Wallabies at Eden Park was widely unexpected, given Ireland’s terrible form throughout August and an unconvincing performance against the USA in their first match. However, it was always likely that Ireland’s old army would raise their game against Australia, and so it proved. Lead from the front by a leaner, meaner Paul O’Connell than we’ve seen in recent years, Ireland’s pack effectively won them this game, as they dominated the scrum, line out and breakdown.
The work of Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip in the back row for Ireland was exceptional. Physical, intimidating, Australia struggled to get any fluency when attacking due to the pressure placed on their half backs Will Genia and Quade Cooper. Every time the ball was sent Cooper’s way, his options were reduced to scraps, the capitulation of this coming when he threw a loose behind the back pass that fell into the hands of Tommy Bowe. Unfortunately the winger’s gas ran out about 10 metres away from the line as he went for the interception try, halted by exhaustion and James O’Connor’s excellent try-saving tackle, but the damage was done. Australia were too far away from the Irish line to get the crucial bonus point.
Overall, the match exposed that Australia do not have a scrum to compete with the best at key moments in big matches. A combination of flawed technique and inspired performances from Cian Healy, Rory Best and Mike Ross in the front row saw them crumble, presenting the opportunities for Johnny Sexton and later Ronan O’Gara to put Ireland further out of sight. In fact, the change to bring on O’Gara for Gordon D’Arcy was inspired, providing Ireland with two strong kicking options that helped them close out the game. This Irish performance was one of their best in years, perhaps their greatest since the 2009 Grand Slam success. The only question is, can they keep on pulling out those kind of performances throughout this tournament?
England run in six tries, but produce far from a great performance
Score lines occasionally flatter to deceive. 43-10 certainly looks substantial, but for the majority of this match England were under pressure from Georgia. About two thirds of that pressure was self-induced, the reason being England conceded 16 penalties over the course of the match. The indiscipline was unacceptable to say the least, the side failing to adapt to Romain Poite’s refereeing of the breakdown.
No example of this is better than Dylan Hartley’s sin-binning just ahead of his own line when Georgia were at their most threatening towards the end of the first half. Coming into the side for Steve Thompson, this was Hartley’s chance to win his shirt back.
Unfortunately, like many other of England’s new players who came into the side, he didn’t seem to take it. In attack, there were too many moments of hesitancy, of self-doubt with the ball in hand of where to go next.
Channels became crowded, passes failed to go to hand. Same old England. Only when Georgia began to tire did the tries come more easily, with three in 20 minutes as opposed to the ones that had come every 20 minutes before.
Ahead of facing Romania, England must be coached less and be encouraged to think on their feet more. An attack is not simply passing the ball from one side to the other through the hands. This concept of reduced coaching needs to happen except at the breakdown, where hard work is needed. Look at the way Ireland managed to dominate the breakdown with immense physicality and good technique from the few numbers they sent in to the rucks. England have the players to do this. It’s about time they started doing so.
Wales leave it late against Samoa but are back on track
Trailing 6-10 at half-time against Samoa, the vibe on Twitter from the Welsh contingent was verging on one of panic. Samoa looked brutal around the fringes, this area proving to be the surprise point of the successful attack rather than their attractive wide game. However hard they defended, they couldn’t seem to keep Samoa out. They big question was, how much juice did the Samoan engine have left after playing just five days ago against Namibia?
Ultimately they didn’t have enough, and the debate will rage on over the lack of impartiality from the IRB on the RWC schedule. Why should Samoa have to play twice in a week when none of the top 10 Nations have to? No one knows how this match might have gone if both teams had started the match with a weeks rest under their belts.
This argument however takes away from the many positives that Wales showed. Rhys Priestland is growing into a better and better international 10 every game, and his control against Samoa was impressive. James Hook was again excellent under the high ball, while Leigh Halfpenny’s introduction provided a sharp injection of pace down the wing, leading to the try from Shane Williams. The line out struggled after the high standards of the game against South Africa last week, but this was their biggest obstacle in the pool and they’ve come through it relatively unscathed.
New Zealand, South Africa and France still on track
Two wins and two bonus points for France and hosts New Zealand means that their crunch match next Saturday morning will still decide who progresses through to the quarter-finals to face Argentina or Scotland. The fact that the Kiwi public was still unsatisfied despite their side recording the biggest win of the tournament so far when they won 83-7 against Tonga last Friday, says a lot about the country’s high standards. At the back of their minds however, they must be fearing a sense of déjà vu from Cardiff four years ago. Yet to be tested properly, constantly rotating their selection, and with McCaw, Muliaina, Read and Carter all carrying niggles, the nerves will be fluttering around Eden Park on Saturday morning.
Meanwhile there was to be no repeat of Fiji’s scare of South Africa in Nantes four years ago. As spirited a performance as the Islanders put in, South Africa were on a mission after their nervy start against Wales the week before. Heinrick Brüssow enjoyed a joyous afternoon at the breakdown, stealing ball for fun. The new centre combination of Frans Steyn and Jaque Fourie worked well in midfield, while Danie Roussouw was sensational, wearing number 5 on his back but running around like a centre. The Springboks are up and running.
Try of the weekend goes to Genaro Fessia of Argentina. A great reflection of both Los Pumas and Romania’s ambition even in the dying moments of the game, an Argentinian attack was ruined as Romania intercepted on their own five metre line.
Racing up the field towards the left hand side, Romania got the ball into the hands of speedster and try scorer Ionel Cazan, but his offload in the tackle was blocked. Substitute Juan José Imhoff gathered the loose ball, and fed the on-rushing Fessia, who sprinted home from 55 metres out. A great score.
Hero of the weekend is not an easy one to choose given how well every single Ireland player performed against Australia. But I can’t look past Paul O’Connell. Ferocious, determined, imposing, this was one of his finest performances at Test level.
As for a Villain, I wonder if the IRB lose any sleep at night about the unfair fixture set-up at the World Cup. I have my doubts.
by Ben Coles