Japan launched Asia’s first Rugby World Cup with a victory the host nation craved as they beat Russia 30-10 at Tokyo Stadium.
Here’s some key talking points:
JAPAN FIND SPARK EVENTUALLY
It wasn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination but carrying the weight of a nation must be serious pressure, especially with a vocal Japanese home crowd roaring all evening.
While many expected the hosts to stick 40-plus points on the Russians, it was far from a cruise and both sides played out an entertaining battle for long stretches of the match.
Trailing up as far as the 36th minute, the Brave Blossoms had a try disallowed for failing to ground the ball properly. And four minutes later, Kotaro Matsushima put the hosts ahead, touching down for his eighth try in seven matches.
The Sunwolves winger, 23, went on to complete his hat-trick with 11 minutes remaining, running the ball home from 25 yards out.
In fairness to Jamie Joseph’s side, they were smart with the ball, sought territory and possession at all times, but could not make it show on the scoreboard.
To underline the pressure they put Russia under, they ran 349 more metres than their opponents, who could not get their hands on the ball.
They looked more dynamic than the Russians but struggled under the high ball – an area in which they have massive work to do ahead of upcoming games against Ireland and Scotland.
Still, an opening win will inspire the home crowd and hopefully generate more interest for the Japanese public and next generation as the weeks go on.
GALLANT DISPLAY BY RUSSIANS
After a bright start, and holding the lead up as far as the 36th minute, Russia fell to a late try before the break. At that point, they looked devoid of the same energy and spark they showed in the first half hour.
They worked the contact area and slowed the Japan ball, making it difficult for them to launch pacey attacks, but really it was only a matter of time before they would tire out.
Fitness started to hurt just before half-time, especially in that strong Tokyo humidity, and little errors began to creep into their game.
They scrummed well, winning all 13 of their scrums, but when you miss 46 out of your 121 tackles, it’s impossible to win any Test match at this level.
However, you can’t fault the Bears because they gave it absolutely everything. Even when they were out on their feet, they still made tackles, tried to win ball and tried to work scores.
Special mention must go to flanker Tagir Gadzhiev – a former MMA competitor – who was a menace all afternoon for the Russians with and without the ball.
SCOTLAND WON’T BE WORRIED
While many believed that Japan might be in with a shout of challenging Scotland for second place in Pool A, it looks difficult to see that happening based on their unconvincing win over Russia.
Despite scoring four tries, they were too loose with possession, kicked poorly and were outplayed in the air.
The kicking game is an area where Scotland will test them relentlessly in their final pool game in Yokohama on October 13.
The Boks tore them to shreds in that area too and Russia got decent success from it, most obviously for Kirill Golosnitskiy’s early try and a lovely grab from Vasily Artemyev in the second half.
Japan will go back to the drawing board and Friday’s result will only help them going forward. Maybe for Scotland, a tight battle against the home side in the final World Cup pool match is a perfect opportunity to eliminate any errors before the knockout stages.
The dominant team of the current professional era face challengers from every angle in their quest for a historic third successive Rugby World Cup title.
Four years ago in England, Steve Hansen’s side were heavy favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup and they duly delivered with a final win over the Wallabies.
However, this time round, it is considered to be the most open tournament in years as questions arise after the All Blacks’ mixed build-up to rugby’s global showpiece.
A narrow win over Argentina, a 16-16 draw against South Africa and a record 47-26 defeat against the Wallabies in Perth had some Kiwi fans believing the team were in a state of crisis before the tournament even began.
But just like great teams do, they responded emphatically to stick 36 points on Australia at Eden Park the following week and confirm their status as World Cup favourites.
New Zealand open their defence against South Africa in Yokohoma on Saturday – a match that could define their passage to a third consecutive final.
But, whether they finish first or second in Pool A, the All Blacks should storm into the knockout stages.
After the match against the Springboks, they play Canada and Namibia in the space of five days, before finishing off a week later against Italy in Toyota.
If they top the group, they are likely to face Scotland in the quarter-finals and England in the semis. Should they lose to the Springboks, they will likely face Ireland in the last eight and Wales in the last four.
Tough selection calls by management has seen 108-times capped prop Owen Franks omitted from the 31-man squad – a resounding shock considering the Northampton man was one of Hansen’s most trusted lieutenants over the years.
The All Blacks coach instead opted for youth and mobility with the likes of Atu Moli and Angus Ta’avao – players who have earned just nine caps between them.
As disappointing a blow as it may be, Franks’ absence – along with Ngani Laumape and Liam Squire – shows the team’s considerable strength in depth.
The other striking absentee from the squad – though it is old news – is Damien McKenzie.
The elusive full-back suffered an ACL injury playing for the Chiefs back in April, and will be a significant loss to the reigning champions’ ambitions in Japan.
The result of McKenzie’s devastating injury has seen star man Beauden Barrett shift to full-back during the Rugby Championship, with Richie Mo’unga taking over at fly-half in a dual playmaking role.
Whether Hansen sticks to this tactic for the entire competition remains to be seen but it proved effective in Bledisloe 2 at Eden Park.
The battle for the wing spots will be interesting with Seevu Reece and George Bridge showing their pace, power and overall class against Australia and Tonga in recent weeks. A loss of form for Rieko Ioane – with 23 tries in 26 matches – could put his place in jeopardy.
Elsewhere, 2014 World Player of the Year Brodie Retallick has been named in the squad but is unlikely to play until the knockout stages as he recovers from a dislocated shoulder. Centre Ryan Crotty, meanwhile, is touch and go but should feature at some point during the pool stage.
Recent history suggests the All Blacks should secure a third successive title but an upset is always possible at the World Cup. It is a competition where anything can happen. The last big shock was back in 2007 when New Zealand were dominated by a Thierry Dusautoir-inspired France side in the quarter-finals.
In 2019 though, some individual records beckon for captain Kieran Read, lock Sam Whitelock and centre Sonny Bill Williams. The experienced trio are chasing three consecutive World Cup winners medals, having played key roles in the 2011 and 2015 triumphs.
With Hansen’s squad depicting a strong blend of youth, experience, hunger and panache, New Zealand are right to be considered the formidable force in Japan.
Their small slip-ups over the last 12 months will give the rest of the competition just the faintest glimmer of hope, but in a high pressure environment, the All Blacks simply know how to get the job done.
Nickname(s): All Blacks
Emblem: Silver fern frond
Union: New Zealand Rugby Union
Head coach: Steve Hansen
Captain: Kieran Read
Most caps: Richie McCaw (148)
Top scorer: Dan Carter (1598)
Top try scorer: Doug Howlett (49)
Best Finish: Winners (1987, 2011, 2015)
Fixtures: South Africa (September 21), Canada (October 2), Namibia (October 6), Italy (October 12)
With New Zealand’s first match in the Rugby World Cup just a few days away, we take a look at the star players who will be key to their Webb Ellis trophy prospects in Japan.
The skipper silenced critics from the defeat to Australia in Bledisloe 1 as he orchestrated his forwards and battered the Wallabies defence in their final match at Eden Park. He leads from the front, looked still at his aggressive best and tackles his heart out. Keeps the team composed at all times, something that will be key come the latter stages of the World Cup.
His physicality can set the tone for his team in defence and at the breakdown. At 6’ 10”, the line-out is his obvious chief strength, but he can pop up anywhere, has great ball skills and awareness and never stands back from anyone. He is ruled out until the knockout stages but, when playing, he is one of the All Blacks’ most important players.
Hasn’t put a foot wrong in the last three matches and looks odds on to start at fly-half. Although many would prefer Barrett at 10 at Ben Smith at 15, Hansen wants both his key playmakers on the field. Solid in defence, the 26-year-old takes great control of the game and looks to create at every opportunity.
Position: Fly-half or full-back
The two-time World Player of the Year might be preferred at fly-half rather than full-back, but he can attack from deep, eye gaps than other players can’t normally see and use all his skill and intelligence to put the likes of Seevu Reece and Rieko Ioane into formidable attacking positions. Can also pair well with Mo’unga in Hansen’s dual play-making tactic.
The 22-year-old’s form has been called into question in recent months but, when firing, he can cause serious damage with ball in hand. The Auckland man has scored 23 tries in 26 matches and has the searing pace, clever footwork and strength to inspire the All Blacks to a fourth Webb Ellis crown.