We learnt quite a lot from the early exchanges of Japan 2019, says Jacob Whitehead. But there are still questions to be answered
Rugby World Cup 2019 – talking points from the opening weekend
The Rugby World Cup has finally begun. We’ve been waiting for this weekend for years and when it came, it didn’t disappoint. Friday saw Japanese excitement and Russian heart, whilst Saturday was a tale of comebacks – one successful, and two thwarted. England and Ireland’s power came to the fore on Sunday morning, whilst the performances of Tonga and Namibia gave underdog fans something to cheer.
But what have we learnt? And equally, for what questions do we still need answers?
Answer 1 – Rumours of Ireland’s demise have been greatly exaggerated
It’s a strange thing today but over the last few weeks there seems to have been a suggestion that the number one team in the world… was not actually that good.
In the Six Nations, Ireland were pummelled into submission by England, simply thrashed by Wales in Cardiff, and the less said about their warm-up match at Twickenham the better. They might have beaten the All Blacks but that was almost a year ago, and they hadn’t produced a comparable performance since.
Are Ireland for real? The answer, as they revealed brutally in Yokohama, is yes.
Scotland scarcely had a sniff of victory – three tries were powered over by Irish forwards before they had a clear chance themselves, which Ireland repelled with ease. Conor Murray looked sharp once more, finding Andrew Conway down the blind side to provide the dagger for Scottish hearts.
It was, quite simply, a cold, clinical dissection of Scottish hopes – Schmidtball at its finest. If Andy Farrell’s defence can so utterly stifle an attack as good as Scotland’s then Ireland’s quarter-final opponents will be in for a tough game.
Answer 2 – Mo’unga/Barrett is working – and New Zealand are still the team to beat
Like Ireland, critics had looked at the All Blacks and suggested they were fallible at this year’s World Cup. Losses to South Africa and Australia had blunted their winning culture, they said, whilst debate raged over whether to play Beauden Barrett at fly-half or full-back.
Several pundits went so far as tipping their opponents in Saturday’s heavyweight clash, South Africa, as tournament favourites. Although Steve Hansen will reject any such talk of favourites, what a piece of motivation that could offer for his All Blacks side, looking for their third straight Webb Ellis trophy.
For the first time in a major Test match, Hansen’s combination of Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett chimed together beautifully. Just look at New Zealand’s first try for an example – Mo’unga’s game management and versatile kicking game led to a perfectly weighted cross-kick to Sevu Reece. A phase later and Mo’unga distributed to the onrushing Barrett – at his most dangerous at full pelt – who exploited some weak shoulders to slip George Bridge through.
A mention for Mo’unga’s early ‘tackle of the tournament’ contender on Cheslin Kolbe must also be made.
New Zealand won’t be stretched again until at least the quarter-finals and if they can replicate Sunday’s form, it’s hard to see any side beating them.
Answer 3 – Manu Tuilagi is capable of reaching his youthful heights
What do a ferry, a late night of drinking and a dodgy knee have in common? All are factors which have kept Manu Tuilagi out of the England team, and after a Wilkinson-esque four years in the wilderness (although for very different reasons), he finally seems to have regained his youthful joie de vivre.
We all remember the young Manu tearing the All Blacks apart in 2012, and we have all doubted if he’d ever reach similar heights again. Yes, Tonga are not the All Blacks but England’s opening game saw Tuilagi play his best game since that match, with his first-half double an apt reward. His burst leading to England’s first try, thanks to Kyle Sinckler’s passing range (not a sentence I ever thought I’d type), was the moment of the match.
If he stays fit, and his carries are used sparingly by England rather than them looking to him as a workhorse (hopefully a relic of the Lancaster era), Eddie Jones’s men will have the firepower to win any game.
Question 1 – Can Japan cope with the pressure of a home World Cup?
Watching the kick-off get dropped in the opening match was a bit like watching a game at my club, or so I initially thought. But then I got thinking: just imagine the pressure to catch that ball. Michael Leitch failed to gather it (it sailed over his head), but was it any real surprise?
He’s captain of Japan at a home World Cup, with every camera lens trained on him, and following up the greatest result in World Cup history after the South Africa victory in 2015. A single lapse can be forgiven.
But Japan felt the pressure all game. Aerial balls were spilt, gifting Russia an early lead, whilst try-scoring opportunities were spurned. Timothy Lafaele’s offload for Kotaro Matsushima’s first try was a rare uninhibited moment, but in truth Japan ground out their win.
Scotland seem eminently beatable in the last pool game, and Japan won’t have the excuse of fatigue that they had four years ago – but can they rise to the occasion?
Question 2 – What on earth is happening with tackle laws?
Fiji can feel awfully aggrieved at their 39-21 loss to Australia. For 60 minutes at least they threatened a shock win, but it could be argued Australia would not have won if not for a major refereeing blunder.
In the 26th minute, with Fiji leading, their star flanker Peceli Yato was concussed by a no-arms tackle to the head. The culprit, Australian wing Reece Hodge, went on to score the try before half-time which kept his side in the game.
Ross Tucker, World Rugby tackle consultant, ran through the officiating process on Twitter. He concluded it should have been a straight red card, with no mitigating factors.
Fiji captain Dominiko Waqaniburotu allegedly referred the incident to referee Ben O’Keeffe, who refused to go upstairs. Australia stormed back and Fiji were left feeling unfairly treated. Hodge is now being investigated by the citing commissioner – but how does that help Fiji?
Russia may feel aggrieved that the Japanese openside Pieter Labuschagne wasn’t at least yellow-carded for a similar hit in the opening game – making minnows wonder if tackle laws somehow do not apply for them.
Question 3 – Can France put together an 80-minute performance?
Whisper it quietly but France looked sleek in their 23-21 win over Argentina. Oozing class in their first half, they led 20-3 at half-time. Virimi Vakatawa, a revelation at outside-centre, set up both tries, whilst Damian Penaud was unfortunate not to score himself.
But in the second half they wilted, scaling back their ambition as if looking to see out the game early. Their pack, advancing with momentum in the first 40, had their gears clogged by Argentine grit. Two pushover tries took Argentina into the lead and credit must go to the French replacements – not least Camille Lopez – in refusing to panic and sealing the win.
This France team, on Saturday’s evidence, have a shot at beating England. They must perform for 80 minutes to do so.
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