England got their campaign off to a good start in terms of a much-needed bonus point win against the Fijians in the ‘Pool of Death’ but it was a slightly-shaky-in-patches-and-not-entirely-convincing victory.
Numerous sloppy handling errors and a lack of continuity, particularly in the second half when Fiji worked hard to make it difficult at the break-down and England conceded too many penalties and turnovers as a result, meant that England were chasing the bonus point in the dying seconds.
The ball retention will need to be far more clinical against the likes of Wales and Australia as will the set-piece need to be better executed. While the Fijian set-piece has come on leaps and bounds, it is alarming that they were twice able to drive England, one of the strongest packs in world rugby on paper, off their own ball at the scrum, while the English line-out also creaked.
Mike Brown stood out as the side’s star performer, with an inordinate amount of metres carried and a couple of tries to show for it, while Billy Vunipola’s impact from the bench was noticeable as he carried powerfully especially in his short leg-drive for the fourth try.
Saturday’s first fixture saw the first shock of the Tournament, with the Georgians lighting up Kingsholm with an amazing display of defence. Inspirational captain Mamuka Gorgodze exemplified the effort with a whopping 27 tackles to topple the Tongans. But while the Georgian result was a shock, it was nothing compared to the later game in Brighton.
South Africa, the world’s third-ranked team, were expected to rack up a cricket score against Japan, a side who have only won one game in their 24 year Rugby World Cup history – in 1991 – but the Brave Blossoms out-battled, out-muscled and out-smarted the Springboks.
The combined nous of Eddie Jones and Steve Borthwick’s work with the Japanese forwards has paid dividends and provided what will be one of the most memorable games of rugby for some time to come. In Jones’ own words: “That has got to go down as one of the greatest games in World Cup history.”
Brave was the operative word as huge performances from captain Michael Leitch, the flanker who plies his trade with the Chiefs in New Zealand, scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka, also in Super Rugby with the Highlanders, and the boot of full-back Ayumu Goromaru kept Japan in the game. Down 29-32 but awarded a penalty with the clock already showing 80mins, it was a brave decision from Leitch to go for the win but one that paid off as replacement Kane Hesketh ran in a try in the 85th minute to cause the biggest upset that rugby has ever seen.
‘Rugby’ is ultimately the winner though, as proven by the Springbok fan who spoke to Absolute Radio yesterday morning. Ron is following the South African campaign on bicycle, having cycled from Cape Town, through every one of the 48 African countries and wound his way from Istanbul to Brighton (a total of 27,000km) over a two-year period only to see his beloved team lose. As Ron put it though, “at least I witnessed history.”
On Sunday, 89,019 fans attended Wembley Stadium for New Zealand v Argentina and broke the record for the biggest ever crowd at a Rugby World Cup match of 82,957 set at the Rugby World Cup 2003 Final. The All Blacks’ refereeing nemesis Wayne Barnes almost broke New Zealand hearts again by sending Richie McCaw, followed shortly by Conrad Smith to the sin-bin either side of half-time. The Pumas’ physicality – particularly from their industrious captain Agustín Creevy – and an astute kicking game from Juan Martín Hernández saw them hold a four point lead coming into the final quarter. But the vision of Aaron Smith and a huge, line-breaking impact from Sonny Bill Williams off the bench eventually saw the defending Champions through.
Hero of the weekend: Ayumu Goromaru.
The Japanese fullback scored a try and kicked 19 points to seal his side’s historic victory.
The first half of the England v Fiji game was 52mins long because of referral delays. This is a difficult one because, while decisions such as the disallowed try by Fijian Nikola Matawalu prove the correct decision, the TMO should be used as a referral system for when the referee is unsure, and not when the TMO wishes to play referee himself. It is becoming more and more frequent that either the referee doubts his own ability to make a decision or worse makes the decision, only for it to be reversed after the TMO chimes in. It is detrimental to the spectacle of the sport.