As we all catch our breath from the talking point of the day after Japan’s historic triumph over South Africa, we continue our look at how the teams doing battle on an action packed Day Two fared. Day Two saw four matches which provided plenty of ecitement and which proved just how competitive this World Cup is going to be! What perhaps impressed me the most about the day’s actions was the fact that two second tier countries, Georgia and Japan, bagged the best report card scores surpassing traditional giants like Ireland, France and South Africa.
Tonga vs Georgia
Final Score – Tonga 10/Georgia 17
Tonga – 7/10
One of the most interesting things about the opening weekend of this year’s Rugby World Cup is that for all intents and purposes, barring some Namibian miracles, the pecking order of Pool C was determined. New Zealand and Argentina are likely to finish 1st and 2nd respectively, while as this blog predicted Georgia’s win over Tonga will see them finish third and Tonga and Namibia come in fourth and fifth. Tonga came into this match as slight favourites between two very physical and passionate sides, but Tonga’s pace in their backs would likely see them get the edge. However, as it would come down to an epic physical struggle the winner would be the one who kept their composure the best and it that department Georgia held the edge over Tonga.
Early on Tonga were simply committing too many errors, and we saw the same in their recent Pacific Nations campaign. A proud and passionate side who when it all clicks are impressive, but sadly seem unable to maintain the consistency that their other Pacific Island rivals Fiji and Samoa do on a regular basis. However, all credit must go to Tonga for a sustained late charge that could well have unseated Georgia had Tonga been able to play like that right from the start. Sadly it was too little too late, but gained the respect of their opposition and the capacity crowd at Kingsholm Park. Tonga found some real life in the last quarter and it is for that fight back and a genuine attempt to acquit themselves with honor that I am giving them a 7.
Georgia – 9/10
What the world is rapidly coming to realise is that rugby is big in Georgia – very big! This little country tucked away in the Caucasus is genuinely passionate about their rugby and is getting better with every World Cup. In addition, for the last few years they have dominated the second tier European competitions. The big stage is beckoning sooner rather than later for Georgian rugby and their fan favourite status at the last World Cup looks set to continue in this year’s tournament.
Georgia, played a massive game against Tonga and the passion and motivation in these players was clearly there for all to see, none more so than in the figure of their Captain Mamuka Gorgodze who has the same kind of talismanic effect on his team as Italy’s legendary Sergio Parisse. Georgia are renowned for their physical approach to the game, but are also developing some pace in their back line. However, it was their clear and clinical domination of the forward aspects of this match that carried them through. In such a physical encounter as this it is often easy for discipline to break down and Georgia have to be commended for holding their own for the full eighty minutes. The power of their forwards in getting two superb tries from first Captain and number 8 Mamuka Gorgodze and then Giorgi Tkhilaishvili was exemplary. Exceptionally strong in the scrums and clinical at the breakdowns and lineouts, Georgia clearly had the edge in terms of execution over Tonga.
Georgia’s entire forward pack deserve honorable mention in this match, but for me Captain Mamuka Gorgodze was the standout player. His influence on his teammates was immense. Constantly the rock to which they turned to when things started to unravel, Gorgodze inspired and motivated this team for the full eighty minutes while putting in a massive performance of his own. As Tonga was fighting hard in the last quarter and putting enormous stress on the Georgian defensive lines, Gorgozde was tireless in his organisation of Georgia’s resistance. His own joy, pride and elation at the final whistle and commitment to his teammates were images from this World Cup that will live on for years to come. A great player and a real credit to the game and his country.
Georgia’s next tussle with Argentina is probably a bridge too far but Argentina will know that to take this impressive group of individuals lightly would be a very serious mistake. Georgia will be competitive up front against Argentina of that there is little doubt, but Argentina’s impressive back line just has too much firepower that Georgia will struggle to match. Still an exciting match awaits and Georgia will no doubt have, in addition to their very vocal supporters, a significant amount of neutral fans cheering them on.
Ireland vs Canada
Final Score – Ireland 50/Canada 7
Ireland – 8/10
There was little doubt that Ireland would walk away comfortable winners from their opening match, however, I did think that Canada might have put up more of a resistance than their one and only try. Ireland can however feel pleased that for the most part their defensive structures worked, they sustained no injuries and their discipline against a very physical Canadian side held firm for the most part. It was clinical and apart from a patch of errors and a gift of a try to Canada, Ireland should be pretty pleased with a good day out.
As many commentators have pointed out ultimately a sound defence will likely be the decider of who lifts the Webb Ellis trophy on October 31st, and in this regard Ireland can feel that Canada was excellent preparation. Despite the scoreline Canada put up a very spirited and courageous challenge at times that tested Ireland in close defensive formations and out wide. Apart from one error of judgement by Jared Payne which resulted in Canada’s only try, Ireland were watertight in defence whilst at the same time demonstrating the ability to get enough five pointers when needed. Johnny Sexton had a solid 50 plus minutes on the field which once again demonstrated his superb game management.
For Ireland there were many standout performances that will make Coach Joe Schmidt feel pretty confident as the calibre of their opponents steadily ramps up during the course of the pool stages, with the ultimate test coming against France. Flyhalf Johnny Sexton as mentioned did a superb job of constantly keeping Ireland in charge of the match as well as scoring a superb try of his own. In the forwards, for me Iain Henderson was absolutely immense and I can’t help feeling that come the end of the tournament he may be consistently getting the nod over Devin Toner. Sean O’Brien is rapidly getting back to his best while Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony are very much the established Captain and his understudy. In the back line Dave Kearney continues to impress, but I am still not a hundred per cent sure about Luke Fitzgerald and Jared Payne, despite a solid try from the latter. If Keith Earls can stay fit I think his contribution to Ireland’s cause will increase with every match, while Ian Madigan is also likely to do the same.
In short a good solid Irish effort against a spirited Canadian side. However, once another feisty challenge from Romania is dealt with then we will really start to see Ireland’s World Cup campaign heat up, but for now they certainly seem to be on track and building nicely.
Canada – 5/10
It was spirited and passionate but ultimately just not good enough to really cause Ireland any major headaches. Canada despite the potentially humiliating scoreline can walk away with a sense of pride. They did make Ireland work exceptionally hard at times during this match both in defence and on attack. However, the gap in skill levels particularly when it came to finishing was there for all to see. It was a good fight from Canada and having seen Italy’s poor opening effort against France, if Canada can find the finishing skills they so desperately need in a motivated and talented group of players by the time they face Italy, they surely must feel they are in with a chance.
The one thing that really killed Canada in this match though was discipline, and Captain Jamie Cudmore’s yellow card was just simply unacceptable from one of Canada’s most professional and experienced players. The fact that Canada leaked three tries in his absence says it all. A bit like Richie McCaw’s deliberate trip on an Argentine player in the All Blacks/Pumas match you are at a loss to explain such behaviour from players of this caliber.
Canada however can take some heart from some stellar performances from prop Hubert Buydens. He was the epitome of Canada’s effort in defence and as he always does for Canada put in a massive and effective shift at the coal face along with hooker Ray Barkwill. In the backs, Nathan Hirayama had a fantastic game in the flyhalf position and is a real talent for Canada. DTH van der Merwe was fantastic on the wing for Canada all night and often proved hard to bring down. Van der Merwe’s work rate was rewarded with his try that was one of the real highlights of the weekend. Lastly when he came on as a replacement, scrum half Phil Mack provided some impetus and go forward to the rest of his team. As readers of this blog are well aware I have struggled to understand Coach Kieran Crowley’s preference for Gord McRorie in the starting scrum half berth. The intensity and speed at the breakdown that Mack brings is in my mind far superior to that of McRorie. Add to that a crisp delivery to both his forwards and backs with a willingness to go into contact when necessary and for me if Mack had been on from the start, the scoreline might not have been so one-sided.
If Canada can build on this performance and take it to another level then, given Italy’s problems against France, they may well have a chance at upsetting the Italians. With the return from injury of regular Captain Tyler Ardron for the Italy match, there is the hope that Canada’s run of bad form over the last two years may start to reverse. In short, Canada is still very much a work in progress and I am not sure we are going to see the end result in this World Cup.
South Africa vs Japan
Final Score – South Africa 32/Japan 34
South Africa – 5/10
Where to begin? The Springboks, in what overall has been a dismal year for them, have surely hit rock bottom and it can only be onwards and upwards from here. Having said this, it in no way detracts from an absolutely brilliant Japanese performance which has rightly caught the imagination of rugby fans around the world. However, for South Africa they must surely be feeling the pain of a loss which showed them far from their best and looking rather like rugby dinosaurs.
In short, South Africa appeared to approach this match with the wrong attitude thinking that it was merely a warm-up before the real business of their pool began against Samoa and Scotland. In terms of wake-up calls it doesn’t get much better than this. Furthermore they seemed completely unable to adapt to the situation they found themselves in. In the last ten minutes, it was all about Japan who were full of self-belief even though they still essentially had a mountain to climb while the Springboks looked on in stunned disbelief.
There is little to say in terms of positives for South Africa in this match. They tried to be competitive by relying on the age-old Springbok tactic of bludgeoning supposedly weaker sides into submission. As a result, so much of their play was so predictable that once Japan got the measure of it, they were easily able to use it to their advantage. There seemed little semblance of a game plan and how to contain the Japanese. There was lots of intensity but it didn’t seem to be channeled into any kind of structure or tactics. South Africa are still a daunting side but one increasingly easy to read.
If you’re familiar with this blog you will know that I think one of the key problems in the Springbok camp lies in the coaching structure. I have little if any faith in Coach Heyneke Meyer’s abilities to get South Africa to where it needs to be. I for one, think much of the political instability plaguing South African rugby is being used as a smokescreen to hide some simple deficiencies in Meyer’s coaching style. Rooted in the past glories of South African rugby he seems reluctant or ill-equipped to adapt to the demands of the rapidly changing modern game. Springbok teams increasingly appear devoid of imagination or ingenuity and instead seem to rely on brute strength alone. Add to that a bizarre obsession with kicking away perfectly good possession time and again, and you suddenly realize that despite having some of the best rugby talent in the world South Africa is essentially without a blueprint for how to use all its skills in the new rugby reality.
I don’t think that South African rugby is per se in decline and they are certainly not out of this tournament yet. They will regroup as the pride in the jersey is simply too strong. Perhaps the most useful thing Coach Heyneke Meyer can do in the remaining Pool games is sit down with his players, especially the younger generation and try to master the type of game they want to play. The French teams of World Cups gone by have often lost complete faith in their coach and seemed to take on the responsibility of coaching themselves with surprisingly positive results. Perhaps this is what this Springbok team needs to do. In short, down but not out! However, the Samoan test on Saturday will be one of the sternest tests this proud team has faced in their history – here’s wishing them well!
Japan – 10/10
In short brilliant! Japan’s shock defeat of the mighty Springboks has been THE moment of the tournament so far and a piece of rugby history we will all remember for many years to come. To say that this was an exciting game is an understatement. It was a glorious sporting moment that no matter who you were supporting on the day, you knew that rugby ultimately was the winner. As we all sat on the edge of our seats you had to admire the growing self-belief in the Japanese team that they really could pull off one of the biggest upsets in sports history. That last ten minutes was the stuff of legends as Japan set the tournament on fire and emerged very much a worthy winner. It is the hope of every rugby fan that they can live up to the expectations they have created when they face up to Scotland on Wednesday.
The Japanese have really profited under the expert tutelage of Coach Eddie Jones, who is no stranger to South African rugby, having been part of the coaching team that led the Springboks to the 2007 World Cup. For me there were two simple things that the Japanese did so well on Saturday against South Africa. Knowing they could not compete for very long in the scrum against South Africa, when they did scrum they didn’t try to make any forward momentum with the scrum itself. Instead, they would just keep it stable enough for the ball to be quickly squirted out the back and distributed at speed to their back line. The speed at which this was done consistently caught South Africa off-guard who were focused on bulldozing the Japanese backwards and winning scrum penalties, and thus left with little or no time to reorganize their defences. Japan’s speed at the breakdown and quick and accurate passing constantly kept wrongfooting the South African defences. Add to that consistent and reliable goalkicking from Japanese fullback Ayumu Goromaru and South Africa were constantly having to be on the defensive. South Africa did score four tries of their own but the majority came more from defensive errors from the Japanese than a clearly worked set of moves from the South Africans.
The Japanese always kept themselves within reach of South Africa on the scoreboard. However, it was the South Africans who found themselves increasingly frustrated by the fact that the Japanese simply wouldn’t go away. As a result they lost their cohesion in the last ten minutes and the Japanese smelt victory. The decision with literally no more than a few precious minutes left to go for the try and thus the win by Japanese Captain Michael Leitch, was an act of remarkable courage and conviction when a draw was probably a less risky choice. That determination paid off and despite having played a frantic eighty minutes Japan were able to swing the ball from one side of the field to the other to get that match winning try and set the rugby world alight whilst almost making it look easy.
Every single player on that Japanese team played their heart out, but it was Ayumu Goromaru’s clinical composure with the boot and his own glorious try that perhaps more than anything sealed it for the Japanese. Add to that some inspirational leadership amongst the forwards by Captain Michael Leitch and some explosive running from replacement loose forward Amanaki Mafi towards the end of the match and it is little wonder that this Japanese team looked as sharp as they did.
Can Japan do it all over again in just four days as they go up against Scotland on Wednesday? It’s a tall order and I have a horrible feeling that after such a remarkable achievement it may be too much to ask. But then surely the motivation and self-belief in this team right now must be something truly special, so it would be foolish for any of us to dismiss the Japanese. Coach Eddie Jones has no illusions about the mountain he is asking his troops to climb, but Scotland will be extremely wary as Pool B has now become perhaps the most interesting and exciting pool in the tournament.
France vs Italy
Final Score – France 32/Italy 10
France – 7/10
Whichever way you cut it, this was a fairly scrappy game and after the glorious spectacle of the South Africa/Japan game it was rather an anti-climax. Italy’s complete lack of discipline ended up producing a dirge-like affair with Freddie Michalak slotting penalty after penalty for France, with Scott Spedding banging them over from long-range just to add insult to injury to the Italians.
France were not spectacular but against a shambolic Italy they didn’t need to be. It was a travesty that in such a tedious game France would lose winger Yoann Huget to a knee injury that has now ruled him out of the rest of the tournament. The anguish on Huget’s face as he was helped off the field was heartbreaking to see as his World Cup came to such an early end, and his presence will be sorely missed by France in the weeks to come.
Where France really did dominate, was in their forwards. They are immense and their scrum is proving to be a real weapon. At the back of the pack Louis Picamoles is proving his weight in gold and is no doubt going to be one of the players of the tournament at number eight. Freddie Michalak barely put a foot wrong and Scott Spedding at fullback is rapidly developing into a serious threat on attack as well as being a rock solid last line of defence. Add Spedding’s remarkable long-range boot and France can cover all areas of the park from a kicking point of view. The one player I am having a lot of trouble being convinced by is winger Noa Nakaitaci. His runs and breaks are often brilliant but his handling and ball retention often looks sloppy and careless, making him more of a liability than an asset. If he tightens this aspect of his game up then he is a definite threat but otherwise he could end up being the difference between some very narrow wins and losses.
In short, France have heaps of depth in their forwards, but as the injury to Huget showed the resources in the backs are being seriously stretched. Based on this performance they should have no trouble with Romania or Canada but Ireland and thus top spot in the pool is going to be a serious challenge for them. However, as always it’s a long time between now and October 11th when France meet Ireland and as history has shown it would be complete lunacy to write off the French, despite the comfort and inspiration it seems to give them over the years in this tournament.
Italy – 4/10
As mentioned above, I must confess to not really enjoying this game and found little to get excited about from an Italian perspective. For the most part they looked disorganised and their discipline was absolutely awful. Whether this was down to nerves or frustration, is hard to judge, but Italy really did themselves no favours in this match. If they are to put up a decent showing against Ireland then they have an enormous amount of work to do, and based on this performance their next opponents Canada must surely feel they are in with a chance.
Italy did have some moments to cheer about. When they did manage to put forward a cohesive attack they did look threatening, even if their finishing still left a lot to be desired. Furthermore, when not plagued by poor discipline their defence did look respectable. Tommaso Allan is looking more confident at fly half and I felt for the most part had a good game. I thought replacement back Enrico Bacchin put in a very solid shift after being called in early as a replacement for the injured centre Andrea Masi who tragically for Italy has been ruled out of the rest of their World Cup campaign. Giovanbattista Venditti as always impressed on the wing and his try was a real bright spark in an otherwise fairly dismal Italian performance.
I am giving Italy the lowest score of Day Two, as this is a team that should be doing so much better but for a variety of reasons just isn’t. There is no question that the injury count is hurting them badly, especially the continued absence of Captain Sergio Parisse, but they are not the only squad battling injuries. Furthermore, they really need to tighten up their discipline lest any matches with Italy degenerate into dirge like penalty kicking affairs as we saw on Saturday, instead of some positive and exciting running rugby which we know this team is capable of. There is a lot of passion in this team and especially if Sergio Parisse returns they will rise to the occasion. In the meantime, they are left pondering what will surely be a very physical and demanding encounter with the Canadians who will also have a great deal to prove. Plenty of homework for the Azurri this week!