While it was hard to top the excitement and surprises of Day Two, the third day of this year’s Rugby World Cup provided plenty of drama. Argentina and New Zealand put on a high-octane display to determine who would top Pool C barring any major surprises in front of a record-breaking crowd for a rugby match. Samoa eagerly anticipating their clash with South Africa this coming Saturday made sure they got their campaign off to a winning start against the USA and Wales opened their World Cup with an emphatic win over Uruguay but continued to add more casualties to their growing injury list.
Samoa vs USA
Final Score – Samoa 24/USA 16
Samoa – 7/10
Always physical and increasingly fast, Samoa are a consistent force to reckon with as the USA found to their cost once again this Sunday in Brighton. Samoa took the game to the USA for the full eighty minutes and were it not for a lack of finishing skills by the Samoans at key moments, the Pacific Islanders would have come away with an even bigger winning margin. Buoyed by this success and South Africa’s shock defeat to Japan the day before, Samoa will fancy their chances in an increasingly wide open Pool B.
Samoa used their power to dominate much of the possession and territory in this match, often starving the Americans of any sort of quality ball or attacking opportunities. The fact that for the most part they were able to do this for the full eighty minutes bodes well for the rest of their campaign. Fullback Tim Nanai-Williams was a real threat and someone the rest of Samoa’s opponents in this tournament will have to work very hard to contain. Furthermore, despite the intensely physical nature of their attacks Samoa did well to keep the penalty count as low as they did, despite the usual bizarre refereeing style of Irish referee George Clancy. Samoa’s biggest problem in this match was their finishing skills which caused them to see at least two possible tries go astray. If they can get this right they will pose an enormous threat to a wounded and disjointed Springbok side come Saturday.
USA – 6/10
The USA are getting better of that there is little doubt, but against Samoa they often found themselves pushed to focus on defence, an area in which they struggled at times. The Samoan challenge and its intensity however gave them far fewer opportunities to attack. They played a good defensive game at times, but consistently denied any real periods of quality possession by Samoa they had few opportunities to really challenge Samoa on the scoreboard. In addition, despite some progress made this summer, discipline continues to be a problem for this Eagles team even allowing for Irish referee George Clancy’s often questionable calls.
There were some positives for the USA however, primarily in the shape of flyhalf AJ MacGinty who gets better on each outing with the Eagles. His reliable goal kicking was coupled with some superb breaks through the Samoan defences. He has a keen eye for opportunity and how to capitalise on opposition mistakes. MacGinty has been a real find for the Eagles and on only his sixth cap, he is already looking like a real talent for the future for the USA. Chris Wyles provided some solid work on the wing reflected in a superb try from a MacGinty offload. If the USA can fix their discipline problems and more importantly cut down on the missed tackles, they have the potential to be a real competitor in a Pool that is rapidly looking to be the mostly openly contested of this year’s World Cup.
Wales vs Uruguay
Final Score – Wales 54/Uruguay 9
Wales – 7/10
Wales got their World Cup campaign off to a convincing start but in the process increased the body count at the Cardiff infirmary, begging the question how much more injury can this side take and still remain competitive? The result was rarely in doubt and it was unlikely that Uruguay would replicate the heroics of say Japan the day before. Nevertheless all credit must be given to a Uruguayan side that despite the odds stacked against them, made Wales work hard for 80 minutes.
Wales ran in an impressive number of tries especially through some excellent work by hat trick hero, centre Cory Allen, which made his subsequent loss to injury for the rest of Wales’ World Cup campaign even harder to swallow. However Wales can take strength in the fact that prop Samson Lee seems to have returned to full fitness at just the right time, his try and solidity in Wales’ forward pack will be key to their success especially against the physicality of England. Liam Williams had a good afternoon in the fullback position and Wales will be crossing their fingers on his fitness for the rest of the campaign. Gareth Davies also showed some real promise in replacing the injured Six Nations hero Rhys Webb in the scrum half position.
For me however, probably Wales most valuable player surely has to be flanker Justin Tipuric. His work rate is truly phenomenal, and he was influential in all aspects of the good work that Wales did on Sunday. His influence on the team over the coming weeks will be critical to Wales. Tipuric’s own try was just reward for an afternoon of sterling service to the Welsh cause.
Although Wales won this game comfortably they did make far too many errors to really make them look a threat to either England or Australia, despite the considerable promise they showed. If they can improve their efficiency then there is no question that the top two spots in Pool A are still up for grabs and certainly a second place finish is within Wales’ grasp. The importance of Saturday’s game against England is without doubt the make or break moment in Wales’ World Cup ambitions.
Uruguay – 6/10
Although losing by more than a 40 point margin, may be seem like a thrashing you have to take your hat off to the Uruguayans who never gave up and at times put in a truly heroic defensive effort. Furthermore, although it was short-lived we shouldn’t forget that they were actually winning the game at one point 6-0. It is for their courage and determination in the face of overwhelming odds that I feel they are justified a score of 6. They may never have looked like winning, but the obvious pride of all the players at representing their country on such an auspicious stage was there for all to see. It was a courageous performance that deserved the utmost respect. Although the scoreline doesn’t flatter Uruguay they put up a solid defence against the Welsh which was extremely effective at denying Wales quick ball for long periods of time. Despite the odds and being the second lowest ranked team in the competition Uruguay never looked like a pushover. They came to play and were not daunted by their illustrious opponents. It can only be hoped that on the back of this performance Uruguay can continue to dig deep and leave this tournament having gained a greater respect from the rugby world at large.
Argentina vs New Zealand
Final Score – Argentina 16/New Zealand 26
Argentina – 8/10
Argentina were easily equal opponents of tournament favourites New Zealand in this match and despite their loss and can feel justifiably proud of a massive performance that almost upset the bookmakers odds. What let them down in the end was the inability to go the distance with New Zealand in attack and a slightly less effective bench than that of their All Black opponents. Despite that their defence was immense and they are going to be a huge problem for other teams to overcome as they head into the knockout stages and barring injuries, get better and better.
Through the power of their scrum and their ability to slow things down at the breakdown, Argentina was able to match New Zealand man for man and for the first half and early stages of the second looked the dominant side despite spending less time in New Zealand’s half than the All Blacks did in theirs. There was no questioning their motivation and how well they had prepared for this match. New Zealand were clearly frustrated by the continuous Argentine pressure to the point where they were forced into disciplinary lapses that you simply don’t expect to see from a team like the All Blacks. Argentina was pushing them hard and New Zealand seemed to be struggling to find the right answers.
As the game headed towards the hour mark though, one had to question whether or not the Herculean effort of Argentina was starting to take its toll on tired bodies. New Zealand have shown they are masters of absorbing pressure for very long periods of time, while waiting patiently for weaknesses in the opposition to develop.
Argentina’s only try of the match just before half time, was a classic example of Argentine forward power and seemed to tip the balance clearly in favour of the Pumas. However, this was the only time the Pumas really looked like scoring. The All Blacks were starting to regroup and get the measure of them and Aaron Smith’s try just before the hour mark would swing the balance of the game back towards New Zealand, leaving Argentina to put all their defensive skills to the test. Although they lost I would argue that defensively Argentina have a very sound platform and there was plenty of evidence on Sunday of how effective it is. Despite the considerable impact of New Zealand’s bench in the last quarter, Argentina were still able to keep the scoreline respectable.
It was a solid team effort from Argentina on Sunday, and it is hard to pick out individuals but there were three that really stood out for me. Mariano Galarza who replaced injured try scorer Guido Petti at lock, had an absolute stormer of a game, tackling everything that moved and being instrumental in slowing New Zealand’s momentum. Leonardo Senatore at number eight was outstanding and was all over the park and excelled at disrupting New Zealand as well as gaining some useful turnover ball for the Pumas. Lastly, winger Santiago Cordero had a huge game. His defence and tackling were superb and he was instrumental in getting Argentina some good attacking phases. An exciting player to watch and someone I think we will be seeing a lot of as the tournament unfolds.
Argentina although not getting the win they were hoping for, really stood out as a team that has the potential and capability to make a serious mark on this competition. Ireland and France will surely have watched this game with trepidation knowing that a quarter-final with the Pumas in their current state is going to be a battle of epic proportions.
New Zealand – 8/10
New Zealand in winning this match after looking decidedly rattled for a long period of the game, showed that they are still the masters of adaptation and closing out big games. Add to that the fact they have so much depth in their squad with the result that their bench is always a deadly weapon and game changer for the last quarter. This is what we saw on Sunday, as New Zealand shaken by the ferocity of the Argentinian challenge, simply found another gear in the shape of their powerhouse bench which ensured that the sting was taken out of any potential Pumas attack and that the South Americans would have to defend like demons for the last twenty minutes.
Despite their precision and superiority in attack, epitomised in the form of Sonny Bill Williams when he came off the bench, New Zealand did not look invincible in this match which surely must give heart to the other teams aspiring to get their hands on the Webb Ellis trophy this year. Don’t get me wrong, they are still one of the world’s best and the consummate masters of turning games around to their advantage. However, as the first half showed rattle them and keep it up and they can be beaten. Richie McCaw’s cynical and disgraceful trip on Argentina’s Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, smacked of a side running out of answers.
Nevertheless, New Zealand showed that they can regroup themselves better than any other team even if the situation is unravelling before them. The last twenty minutes of this match was vintage All Blacks and is where any opposition team will need to figure out how to beat them. Sonny Bill Williams efforts after he replaced Ma’a Nonu in centre field were superb. He singlehandedly sliced up the Pumas defences and created the space New Zealand had been looking for all match. I felt that Nehe Milner-Skudder on the wing was unfortunate to get replaced immediately after he lost a Williams hand-off that under normal circumstances he would have caught with his eyes closed. It was evidence of the kind of pressure that the Pumas were putting New Zealand under in defence more than a lack of skill from the young All Black winger.
Aaron Smith as always had a good game at scrum-half, even if he struggled to find the measure of the Pumas in the first forty minutes. Richie McCaw however, I felt started to show that he is losing some of his edge and his reputation for playing on the boundaries of the game’s laws is really starting to catch up with him. As a result he could even be in danger of becoming a liability for the All Blacks – unlikely but possible. Daniel Carter is still not quite the legend of years gone by though is not far from it and is likely only going to improve as the tournament wears on.
Don’t get me wrong, New Zealand are still the team to beat in this year’s tournament, but it is pretty obvious that they are not the all-conquering juggernaut of two years ago. On the day there are still four or five teams, Argentina included, who could send New Zealand home empty-handed this year if they’re not careful.