For me this was probably the best day of the World Cup to date. Canada put in a fantastic performance against Italy which sadly still saw them walk away with a narrow loss. South Africa upped their game significantly to eclipse a Samoan side that for me really didn’t pose much of a threat, but would sadly see the exit from the World Cup of Springbok Captain Jean de Villiers due to injury. Lastly, Wales gave us the game of the tournament in a thrilling encounter with England which has left the tournament hosts facing the distinct possibility of being knocked out in the Pool stages. There was drama aplenty as the excitement in this, the most open World Cup ever, continues to mount.
Italy vs Canada
Final Score – Italy 23/Canada 18
Italy – 7/10
It may not have been pretty by any stretch of the imagination, but Italy under enormous pressure from Canada emerged with a scrappy but vital win, despite being dominated by Canada for much of the match. In the end, Italy’s big game experience and temperament with veterans like Martin Castrogiovanni and Mauro Bergamasco in the side, showed and helped Italy edge past Canada. They may have got the win but it wasn’t convincing enough that they are likely to cause their next opponents the Irish too many sleepless nights, even with the return of their talismanic Captain and number eight Sergio Parisse.
Canada came into this game full of intent and Italy struggled to assert any kind of authority on the match for long periods of time. As we saw against France, this rapidly turned into frustration and the resulting penalty count was really starting to hurt the Italians. When Italy did manage to keep their discipline they did look a strong side and composure at the breakdown would be ably rewarded by the boot of flyhalf Tommaso Allan who continues to impress in the position. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Italy is that they have some significant forward prowess when settled and this was instrumental in scoring Italy’s two tries. However, discipline in the Italian camp is just not consistent coupled with some serious defensive lapses. Italy’s defensive structures often looked confused and poorly organised, and with Canada having the likes of wingers such as DTH van der Merwe in their ranks, this was always going to be a problem. If Italy are to stand any kind of chance against Ireland’s powerful strike runners this weekend, then this really needs to be addressed. Furthermore if the discipline is not fixed then Ireland’s Johnny Sexton will make them pay heavily.
On the plus side, Italy can take great heart from the fact that they managed to hold off a determined Canadian charge which lasted a full eighty minutes. In the final ten minutes of the game they stood their ground despite a ferocious Canadian challenge. In fairness to Italy, when they needed it the most their discipline improved dramatically. There were no real standout performances in terms of individual efforts for me from Italy, but ultimately when it mattered they dug deep as a team and found that extra edge to see off an exceptionally motivated and determined Canadian challenge. It may not have been pretty but it was certainly exciting and as a team Italy finally found some of that cohesion they have been lacking since the absence of Sergio Parisse. While the return of their inspirational Captain this week may not be enough to see off an Irish side just starting to hit all the right notes, if Italy take the positives of this match and apply them this weekend, there is still the outside chance that they could stay in the tournament if France were to slip up against Canada. It’s a slim chance but in a World Cup that has already seen two major upsets, nothing is impossible at this stage.
Canada – 8/10
Once again the losing side gets a higher score than the victors. Canada caught the imagination of the crowd in Leeds on Saturday as they put on a terrific display that kept the Italians scrambling to keep them at bay for the full eighty minutes. However, once again, as it has for the last two years Canada’s finishing and some basic skill levels ultimately let them down and denied them a victory that was well within their reach. Much will be written about Captain Tyler Ardron’s decision at the 70 minute mark when Canada had Italy on the ropes to go for the posts instead of kicking for the corner and going for the try. I thought Ardron had a good game overall as Captain and really led from the front. Whether or not that decision was correct or incorrect is now a moot point, but perhaps given the momentum Canada had I can’t help feeling that it would have been worth taking the risk for the seven points and kick for the corner. Canada had momentum at a key point in the match and the resulting kick for the posts caused them to lose it and Italy to reorganise.
Nevertheless, it was an epic performance from Canada, that had everyone on the edge of their seats for the full eighty minutes, and showed that although Canadian rugby may be struggling to get results at the moment, when it counts they can be excellent value for a big performance. This is what they gave the crowd to a man on Saturday, and although gutted by the loss of a match that for all intents and purposes was theirs for the taking, they can hold their heads high going into the match with France this Thursday.
There were numerous standout performances from Canada on Saturday, but the usual suspects once again came to the fore. In the forwards Hubert Buydens and Ray Barkwill once more put in a massive shift at the coal face and contributed greatly to rattling Italian nerves at the breakdown and in the scrums. Hooker Ray Barkwill for the most part had an exceptionally accurate afternoon in the lineout. Jebb Sinclair and Jamie Cudmore were solid in the second row while Nanyak Dala and John Moonlight were exceptionally troublesome loose forwards. As I have said already I thought Captain Tyler Ardron had a really solid afternoon at number eight and apart from one error in judgement at the 70 minute mark, really led his team by example.
Canada’s backline was a real handful for the Italians all afternoon. Winger DTH van der Merwe was absolutely outstanding and once more scored one of the weekend’s top tries. Phil Mackenzie on the other wing also had a stormer of a match and was very unlucky to be the recipient of a pass that was ever so slightly forward and which resulted in him being denied an otherwise spectacular try. Matt Evans had a good afternoon at fullback and scored his own try that showed a blistering turn of speed. Ciaran Hearn did some solid work at centre and his role in Van der Merwe’s try was critical. The loss of his centerfield partner Connor Braid to injury for the rest of the tournament is a real blow for Canada. I thought flyhalf Nathan Hirayama played a key role in Canada’s efforts on Saturday. His kicking was reliable and his willingness to throw himself into the contact areas was highly commendable. I was initially disappointed not to see Phil Mack starting in the scrum half position, especially when you saw the impact he made when he did come off the bench, but Jamie Mackenzie acquitted himself well as scrum half in this match.
In short it was a really solid and at times thrilling performance from Canada which should have seen them come out on top. There were as always a few missed tackles at key moments, particularly during Italy’s first try, and at times the finishing under pressure just wasn’t there. Still it was a huge step up in terms of performance when compared to Canada’s games over the last two years. Canada can take great heart from this and know that although still a work in progress they have some really exciting prospects for the future. If they can come close to matching this kind of intensity while fixing some of their basic errors, when they play France on Thursday despite the short turnaround, then another upset in this year’s tournament could just be in the works given France’s hot and cold performances at the moment. Unlikely perhaps, but as we saw with the Welsh and the Japanese, self-belief is a powerful force and that is something this Canadian side, despite their recent struggles, has plenty of!
South Africa vs Samoa
Final Score – South Africa 46/Samoa 6
South Africa – 9/10
Despite the shock of their opening loss to Japan, there were very few people, myself included, who really thought that the Springboks were on their way out of this tournament. They have some problems for sure, but are a long way from being down and out. As with all the great teams, sometimes a shock like the one South Africa got from Japan is just the tonic to spur them on to bigger and better things. From the evidence on display in Birmingham this past Saturday, it would seem that South Africa are back with a vengeance. Nevertheless, as good as they were Samoa by contrast were poor and South Africa still has a great deal of work to do if they intend to be serious contenders for the Webb Ellis trophy at the end of October.
You could sense from the outset that both sides were experiencing a mild case of nerves about this match, and South Africa probably more so. The game literally exploded from the moment referee Wayne Barnes blew his whistle, and the intensity particularly from South Africa would not let up for the full eighty minutes. Nevertheless, in their enthusiasm South Africa looked slightly dysfunctional for the opening 15 minutes, with Samoa looking the more composed side. However, JP Pietersen’s superb intercept of a Samoan pass was the moment that suddenly focused the Springboks and would see them completely dominate the rest of the match, with Pietersen himself running in a further two tries.
For me however, if you had to highlight one South African player in particular it would have to be lock Eben Etzebeth. His intensity, ruthlessness and phenomenal work rate are truly exceptional and serve as a real catalyst for this Springbok team. While it was a really solid team effort on Saturday in marked contrast to their antics against Japan, Etzebeth is a real talisman for the team and you can see that his colleagues feed off his tireless energy and commitment. South Africa’s veterans in the shape of Schalk Burger, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Jean de Villiers provided the experience and composure to get the team out of the inevitable self-doubt after the loss to Japan and as one commentator aptly put it, probably one of the longest weeks in the history of Springbok rugby.
South Africa were also boosted by the return of Duane Vermeulen at number eight, allowing Schalk Burger to return to his traditional role as one of the most dangerous flankers in international rugby. Victor Matfield was ably replaced in the second half by Lood de Jager, and the young lock alongside Eben Etzebeth would continue to ensure that lineouts were a complete waste of time for Samoa. Damian de Allende put on one of his trademark powerhouse displays in centerfield and made plenty of useful carries for South Africa all afternoon as Samoa struggled to bring him down. Bryan Habana showed his class on the wing with his own try, while Handre Pollard at fly half and fullback Willie le Roux started to show signs of returning to the form we have come to expect from these two players.
It was a dominant performance from a resurgent Springbok side who never really let the Samoans see any kind of daylight whatsoever. The only downside to a comprehensive South African victory was the loss of Captain Jean de Villiers for the rest of the tournament with a broken jaw. Still South Africa has enough experience in its squad that, as much as he will be missed, there is no shortage of candidates for the Captain’s job, with either Duane Vermeulen or Victor Matfield probably getting the nod. Still it was sad to see the departure of one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors and ultimate sportsmen, but he leaves behind an honorable and proud legacy.
It was good to see the Springboks back in this tournament and clearly enjoying themselves – let’s face it a World Cup without the Springboks would be a rather poor affair. Replacement hooker Schalk Brits’ try perhaps summed up the mood in the camp, as for the entire time he was on the field Brits couldn’t stop smiling and not just because he scored a try himself. South Africa will have to keep up this momentum against a much tougher opposition in the form of Scotland this Saturday. They have got their groove back in no uncertain terms, but the ghosts of Japan are there waiting to haunt them should they let their guard down for a minute. Scotland have some exceptionally dangerous backs and have shown that they are no pushover up front either. As positive as this victory was for South Africa they will have to up their game yet another gear if they intend to knock Scotland out of the pole position in Pool B this Saturday. Either way it should be an absolute cracker of a game and after this match it’s plain to see that the Springboks are back, confident, capable and hungry!
Samoa – 6/10
We expected so much from Samoa in this match and for me they failed to deliver by a long margin. I take the point that it would be hard for any team to match up to a wounded Springbok side with a point to prove, but Samoa really were a shadow of what they could have been last Saturday in Birmingham. They almost seemed reluctant to rely on their traditional strengths of physicality and speed, and instead preferred a kicking game that clearly wasn’t working for them. On numerous occasions when their forwards had done some good work in getting them a penalty, they would choose the boot of flyhalf Michael Stanley and three pointers from difficult angles on a day where his accuracy was simply not there. In the end Samoa never really turned up in this match and once South Africa scored their first try for much of the game almost retreated into a shell.
Samoa started well and for the first fifteen minutes matched the intensity of the Springboks and were even getting the better of the South Africans. Once JP Pietersen scored his intercept try though the wind really seemed to go out of their sails. They were competitive and their forwards were getting them some decent opportunities, but for some strange reason they failed repeatedly to capitalise on this momentum and instead chose the soft option of kicking for points. Given that flyhalf Michael Stanley for the most part had a truly woeful afternoon with the boot, we were left perplexed by the Samoan decision-making. Fullback Tim Nanai-Williams was clearly a threat all afternoon, yet Samoa never really used his potential. There was one brief moment in the second half where from deep in his own 22, Nanai-Williams had the crowd on their feet as he showcased his full arsenal of skills, only to have the resulting try disallowed at the end due to a forward pass. Had it worked it would have been one of the tries of the tournament, but sadly that was the only time we got to see the razzle dazzle that we all know Samoa are more than capable of.
By the sixty-minute mark and the above mentioned breathtaking display of skill from Nanai-Williams, who was their standout player of this match, that was essentially it for the Samoans as South Africa cruised past a tired and disjointed team. While Samoa always looked dangerous in the loose, South Africa gave them little opportunity in this area and when they did get it, their finishing skills just weren’t quite there. For a side that had been talked up so much, it was a very disappointing display by Samoa even allowing for the ruthlessness and energy of the Springboks. For the sake of this proud rugby nation it is hoped that they can find the intensity they need once more for their remaining two encounters with Japan and Scotland and keep their dreams of a quarter-final place alive, but on the basis of this display it is likely to be a tall order.
England vs Wales
Final Score – England 25/Wales 28
Wales – 10/10
In one of the great World Cup games of all time, and one which people will be talking about for years to come, Wales deservedly gets the only prized score of 10 from the Lineout during an action packed second weekend of World Cup rugby. The performance by Wales against England on Saturday was truly monumental, especially given the seemingly unending run of injuries this Welsh side keeps suffering, and showed a strength of character and team unity under pressure that is quite extraordinary. How much more punishment this Welsh side can really take remains to be seen, but if they show the kind of commitment and character displayed on Saturday night then Wales could well end up surprising us all.
We always knew this was going to be a close match but many, myself included, felt that ultimately England would win the day and a Welsh side reeling from injuries would be unable to go the distance. Well they not only went the distance, but managed to do so while picking up even more injuries. To say that the Welsh assault on England resembled the aftermath of a World War One battlefield at the end of eighty minutes would not be far off the mark. Ultimately Wales came out on top for two main reasons. Firstly their ability to adapt, especially once they lost two key players and then suddenly seized the initiative from an England caught completely off guard. Secondly, the performance of Captain Sam Warburton and his inspirational leadership continues to be the stuff of legends coupled with one of the best displays of goalkicking most of us have ever seen in the shape of flyhalf Dan Biggar. Furthermore, number eight Taulupe Faletau, was lethal in the loose and easily outperformed his opposite number Billy Vunipola. Add in to the mix the always super-human performances of Welsh lock Alun Wyn Jones and it is not hard to see where Wales found their inspiration on Saturday night.
Let’s face it England had Wales contained despite the incredible accuracy of Dan Biggar’s boot which was keeping Wales in touch due to England’s Achilles heel in relation to discipline, up to the sixty minute mark and the game was there for the taking by the hosts. Then this happened and showed just how good Wales are at adapting:
Wales down a winger due to injury to Scott Williams, was forced to slot Lloyd Williams in on the wing, despite him normally playing at scrum half. In a truly breathtaking display the makeshift winger found the man he should have been replacing at scrum half, Gareth Davies in midfield and the rest was history. Welsh fans erupted while the English looked on in disbelief. Despite having players out of position for the remaining twenty minutes Wales continued to take the game to England, while at the same time tackling to a man everything the English threw at them in response. Dan Biggar’s massive kick from the halfway mark with five minutes to go, coupled with some questionable English decision-making would get Wales the victory and make history in the process.
It was an incredible evening of rugby and one that many of us will remember for years to come. The Welsh honors list contains all 23 players who put in a massive performance to defeat the odds, and Coach Warren Gatland must surely be enjoying his team’s success after being the subject of so much scorn by the press since the loss of Welsh fullback Leigh Halfpenny prior to the start of the tournament. The loss of both wingers Scott Williams and Hallam Amos in this match for the rest of the tournament does raise the question of how much more punishment can this incredible Welsh side really sustain? However, after Saturday night Wales are clearly up against it but despite this there is something special in this squad and its character is a quality that might just be the X-factor to take much further than most people thought was possible. Either way, Wales’ duel with Australia a week Saturday is something we will all be looking forward to.
England – 6/10
England to be honest have few if any excuses for what happened on Saturday night at Twickenham. After clearly having the edge in a tight and fiercely contested game, England quite simply lost the plot at the hour mark and Gareth Davies spectacular try was a point from which they seemed incapable of coming back from. They lost composure, nerves got the better of them and decision-making was well questionable to say the least. England were not getting the basics right in the last twenty minutes and thus the decision to go for the corner instead of kick to tie the match in the dying minutes of the game was suicidal to say the least. In a Pool where points difference will be the key, the opportunity to deny Wales points for a win should have been paramount. Sure you can argue that Japan a week earlier had taken the same gamble, but the stakes faced by the Japanese cannot be compared to those faced by England by any stretch of the imagination.
I have been increasingly puzzled by England in the last year. A team which on paper promises so much but at crucial moments delivers so little. England were in far better shape going into this game than Wales and certainly up until the sixty minute mark, and yet another slew of injuries to the Welsh, should surely have sewn the game up. Yet their discipline which had been a problem all night let them down continuously. Add to that some porous defence in centrefield, and yes I am looking at Brad Barritt here and the physicality of Sam Burgess didn’t seem to do England much good either on Saturday night, and you have to wonder if England really are the threat they have been cracked up to be. The English scrum once more creaked under pressure and their lineout throwing was just not up to scratch, as evidenced by Wales snuffing out England’s last-ditch attempt to save the game through a lineout.
I still think that Johnny May on the wing, as evidenced by yet another superb try, is really a standout feature of this English World Cup challenge along with Mike Brown at fullback. However, apart from that I am just not seeing a cohesive team that looks like they could really challenge for the Webb Ellis trophy on October 31st. I always had question marks around England’s ability to cope with the pressure of being the home nation in a World Cup, and based on Saturday’s performance it would appear those fears are justified.
However, just like the Springboks after their shock defeat by Japan, England will regroup make no mistake about it. The problem is that for England it will be do or die on Saturday night against an exceptionally tough opposition Australia. South Africa faced a challenge in Samoa to get their campaign back on track but they are simply not of the same caliber that England will have to face in the shape of Australia. England will literally be playing a World Cup final on Saturday night at Twickenham and you don’t get much more pressure than that. I believe they can do it, and get an edgy win but it is going to require a monumental effort from a team that is clearly battling with the weight of expectation. The Rugby World Cup 2015 final Part 1 is coming to Twickenham and television sets around the globe on Saturday night – whatever you do don’t miss it!