LAND OF THE RISING SCRUM
First World Cup In Asia Kicks Off With Thrilling Weekend Of Action
The opening weekend of the 2019 Rugby World Cup was a whirlwind of world-class rugby action. Seven matches played at four stadiums over three days.
The showpiece event kicked off on Friday night with the host nation defeating a stubborn Russian side 30-10 at Tokyo Stadium.
After overcoming a nervous first half riddled with errors, Japan ran out bonus-point winners on the back of winger Kotaro Matsushima’s hat trick of tries.
Matsushima said, “It is my first three tries as a Japanese player. We were able to connect with each other and the roar of the fans became our driving force.”
Matsushima's ability to break tackles and utilize his blistering pace out wide, bamboozled the Russian defense and broke the game open.
The Brave Blossoms, however, will have to greatly improve basic ball-handling skills as well as tactical kicking if Ireland, Samoa or Scotland are to be knocked over.
Japan’s head coach, Jamie Joseph acknowledged as much saying, "At times it was obvious the pressure got to some of our players. Having said that I'm proud of how we battled through that."
Saturday delivered up a smorgasbord of tantalizing match-ups. Sapporo Dome in Hokkaido hosted Australia v Fiji in the early game. That was followed by France v Argentina in Tokyo, and the main feature, New Zealand v South Africa at International Stadium Yokohama.
Fiji was extremely physical up front, and almost bruised Australia into submission. Up 21-12 with twenty minutes to play, an upset seemed on the cards.
But two tries from lineout drives in the space of four minutes edged the Wallabies in front for the first time. A further two five-pointers by Fijian-born players, Marika Koroibete and Samu Kerevi, put the result beyond doubt as Fiji ran out of gas.
Wallaby coach, Micheal Chieka said of his team’s performance, "We are not looking for perfection, we got tested, and they got us a bit on the hop early on, came out with a lot of aggression, but once we got our rhythm and flow we able to get back in the contest.”
It was a game of contrasting halves in Tokyo as France racked up two tries and two penalty kicks to take a deserved 20-3 lead into the break.
The Pumas struck back though, with two five pointers of their own in the second half and three penalties to edge ahead of France 21-20 with 12 minutes to play.
French substitute winger Camille Lopez struck a drop goal one minute later though to break Argentinian fans’ hearts, and seal a famous victory – one that almost guarantees a place in the quarterfinals.
Argentinian coach Mario Ledesma said of the loss, “We were not allowed to play our own game or execute our game plan. We gave away opportunities to the opponents and we had opportunities but we were not able to capitalize on those opportunities.”
Los Pumas must now regroup and beat England if they are to have any chance of advancing.
New Zealand put on a power display against the Springboks, showing the world why they are still hot favorites to win the Web Ellis Cup for the third successive time.
After soaking up 20 minutes of Springbok pressure the All Blacks struck twice quickly to race into a 17-3 lead.
Up until those scores South Africa had enjoyed 60% territory and possession but a missed penalty kick by Handre Pollard that hit the post seem to spark New Zealand into action.
Tries by George Bridge and Scott Barrett gave New Zealand a lead they would never relinquish.
Steve Hansen, head coach of New Zealand, said, "The boys showed a lot of fortitude. We didn’t get a lot of chances but when they came, we took them. We scrambled really well too when they had opportunities.”
Credit to the Springboks though as a Pieter-Steph du Toit try and a Pollard drop goal reduced the deficit to four points heading into the final quarter.
But two penalties by New Zealand stretched the lead to 10 and that, coupled with strong defense, kept South Africa at bay to close out a 23-13 victory.
Springboks’ head coach Rassie Eramus said, “I think they won it, I don’t think we lost it. Two tries to one, they definitely deserved to win the game.”
Sunday’s match results brought no surprises as the top seeded sides all won their matches. At Hanazono Stadium in Osaka, Italy outscored Namibia seven tries to three in a 47-22 win. The Azzurri though were often guilty of losing possession, and lacked rhythm in the backline.
Italy head coach Connor O’Shea, remarked, "We're disappointed with the way we played. We have a job to do in these first two games and you know that's not the true version of us, but we'll improve massively by the time we come to Thursday.”
World number 1 ranked side Ireland dominated Scotland with tries by forwards James Ryan, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong building up a 19-3 lead before halftime.
After the break the rain started to bucket down and the ball became greasy. Ireland capitalized on a spilled Scottish ball in the 55th minute when winger Andrew Conway crossed for his team’s fourth.
Scotland struggled at the other end but even when Ireland was reduced to 14 men they could not break through the stout Irish defense.
In the end, the Scots were their own worse enemy and Ireland, by far the more clinical side, took the match 27-3.
Scotland’s head coach, Gregor Townsend said, "When you go behind against a team like Ireland, who are very good at staying in front, then it's always going to be difficult and it was obviously very difficult in the second half with the rain.”
The final match on Sunday pitted England against Tonga at Sapporo Dome.
The Pacific Island nation came into this match after receiving a 92-7 hiding from the All Blacks just two weeks earlier.
England, however, was made to work for its four tries after a much-improved defensive effort from Tonga.
Center Manu Tuilagi grabbed a brace while hooker Jamie George as well as his replacement, Luke Cowan-Dickie bagged one try each.
England head coach Eddie Jones, said, “We can be pleased about the end of the game when we were under the pump, we defended really well. That’s two tests now we haven’t conceded a try so we’re pretty happy with that.
"What a great effort by Tonga. They fought really hard and I’m sure Kef (TGA coach Toutai Kefu) is pleased with their performance.”
Tonga could only manage a solitary penalty in the 14th minute but for larges patches of the game kept England out with brutal defense. The final score was 35-3 with a bonus point to England.
It’s been an incredible start to the tournament plus a great advertisement for rugby - one that has only built up the anticipation more for upcoming games. Rugby fans from all around the world have been treated to seven matches of spectacular action and this is just the beginning.
- Todd Phillips: Sept 24, 2019