The opening round of group games are in the bag for the leading lights, with the narrative coming into the Rugby World Cup that it will be the most open tournament ever reading true.
New Zealand might not be the number one ranked team but are favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, and proved why with a masterful performance against South Africa, who themselves showed why they are considered one of the All Blacks’ main challengers.
England weren’t at their fluid best but you felt there’s a lot more in the tank following victory over Tonga. Ireland were imperious in slaying the Scots while there was a certain freeness to Wales’ attack in victory over Georgia.
Australia were given a real fright by Fiji and issues remain, but the Wallabies’ come from behind win was nevertheless impressive.
Here we look at each of the six main contenders for the title, and pick out something good and something bad.
Got right: Answered critics
The Kiwi people are laid back as a general rule, so you can’t imagine Steve Hansen and Co concerning themselves too much with criticism surrounding the All Blacks coming into the World Cup.
Still, in what is touted to be the most open World Cup ever, there is some cause for concern. But despite dealing with a deluge of swarming Springboks in the opening 20 minutes of their seismic opening match, New Zealand silenced the doubters with a clinical display.
After weathering early pressure, two devastating counter-attacks yielded two tries and the All Blacks scored 17 points in five minutes. Beauden Barrett was bewitching and the Blacks look back to their best.
Got wrong: Not pitch perfect
Despite the impressive result and performance, perfectionist Hansen will surely be far from happy with some niggling issues. For example, the men in black weren’t perfect in the set-piece, with two of their nine lineouts not won while an 82 per cent tackle success rate (28 of 126 were missed) is something for opponents in the knockouts to target.
Still, South Africa’s was lower (76 per cent), and in such a ferocious contest between two behemoths, you always expect big teams to be tested by elite opponents.
Got right: Springbok spirit
It was set up as a game fit to grace the final, and it certainly lived up to the billing. South Africa are vastly improved under Rassie Erasmus and are probably ahead of schedule in many ways. New Zealand have been denied victory in four of their last 12 games – an apparent indicator of impending doom – with a draw and a victory secured by the Boks, who lifted this year’s Rugby Championship title.
They were schooled in the end, meaning they’ll likely have to settle for second in the group, but this was a performance full of passion and pride, and showed the Boks are back.
Got wrong: Revolution not quite ready
In the end, what was billed as a totemic clash between a new, rising force and a slightly crumbling empire, culminated in a rather predictable affirmation that New Zealand remain kings of international rugby.
The Springboks sprung into life and dominated the opening 20 minutes but could not capitalise on their possession and territory, with only Handre Pollard’s penalty to show for their efforts. Barrett’s brilliance established control for the All Blacks, and while the Boks were much better after the break, and a continued threat, with Cheslin Kolbe particularly impressive, the demise of New Zealand seems greatly exaggerated.
Got right: Gold and green glow
You can look at Australia’s gritty come from behind win in one of two ways – be worried, or wowed by their mental fortitude in emerging from a difficult opening game.
While the likes of England, Ireland and Wales all came through their opening games unscathed, the Wallabies were made to work relentlessly for victory against a typical Fiji side which utilised their brute strength and searing pace superbly.
For large parts it look like the Wallabies would wilt but a 15-minute burst of four tries late in the second half saw them finish strong, with Fiji-born duo Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete sticking the knife in.
Got wrong: Papering over the cracks
Fiji would have been dreaming of a first win over the Wallabies in more than 60 years following a ferocious start, which initially showed no signs of dissipating. They were rampant, with Peceli Yato, Waisea Nayacalevu and Josua Tuisova particularly untameable, while Ben Volavola pulled their strings.
Australia trailed right up until the 62nd minute when Silatolu Latu’s second try nudged them ahead. After that they belatedly began to pull away and deserve credit for the way they sliced through a fading Fiji.
But in the cold light of day, Michael Cheika will have concerns, while upcoming opponents Wales will have hope.
Got right: Teamwork makes the dream work
There were titanic contributions all over the pitch against Tonga, with forwards, backs and substitutes all working in tandem in England’s triumph.
Anthony Watson had a monster game with seven defenders beaten, including one clean break, on his way to eating up 117 metres – England’s 654 metres run during the course of the game has not been toppled yet.
The game’s top eight ball carriers all wore white with the backs shining, forwards Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola also getting in on the act. Jonathan Joseph, in particular, caught the eye in a 13-minute cameo while Luke Cowan-Dickie crossed after coming on.
Got wrong: Stuck in second gear
A fairly comfortable win for England and yet it was not until the last quarter that they were truly able to untether themselves from Tonga’s tigerish work rate.
Of course it’s the first game of the World Cup and myriad factors take hold – jet lag, humidity, pumped up minnows looking to cause an upset. But Eddie Jones will know there’s plenty of room for improvement. The Red Rose looked rusty at times, missing 19 of their 128 tackles and conceding 10 penalties, one more than Tonga.
It wasn’t until the 77th minute that Cowan-Dickie crossed for the bonus point – there’s far more to come.
Got right: Playing like world’s No1 team
Alarm bells were ringing on August 24 when the Men in Green were left thoroughly red-faced following an eight-try trouncing at Twickenham by England.
It could well have proved a set-back too insurmountable, but Joe Schmidt went back to the drawing board and Ireland dug out two wins against Wales to send them to Japan with a spring in their step. And they leapt into action in Yokohama, with their front five ferocious in a first-half blitz that left the Scots bamboozled.
The backs got going in the second half too in an utterly dominant performance that was worthy of the number one ranked team coming into the tournament.
Got wrong: Half-backs look half-baked
Maybe it was a case of keeping their powder dry, especially as Scotland were swatted like a fly, but should Irish fans be concerned about Jonny Sexton’s lack of input in the opening game?
The Leinster metronome took just one kick against Scotland – converting James Ryan’s try – before half-back partner Conor Murray took over the tee. Sexton, 34, got a knock on his quad which could rule him out of the Japan game. It is a concern for Ireland considering Sexton and Murray – undoubtedly their two talismen – came into the World Cup under fitness clouds, having each battled with a litany of injuries over the last 12 months.
Got right: Cutting loose in attack, for a change
A huge criticism of this Wales team, especially as we creep towards the end of the Warren Gatland era, is its lack of dynamism. The fact that the New Zealander hasn’t been able to carve out a cutting edge despite some of world rugby’s sharpest attacking utensils at his disposal – Liam Williams, George North, Jonathan Davies and Josh Adams – is concerning.
But Wales gorged on six tries against Georgia, all six of them stylish in structure and involving sharp, incisive running and intricate movement and hands. Wales are aiming to send Gatland out on a high, and their bedazzling backs might just be rising to the occasion.
Got wrong: Ill-discipline
The game followed a strange pattern in the sense that at the World Cup or in any game against a top team, minnows might well swim side by side with the big fish for 60 minutes before floating away.
Here, Georgia looked sunk by half-time as Wales rode the crest of a wave, the bonus point secured inside 40 minutes. Curiously though, Milton Haig’s men grew into the contest in the second 40 minutes, scoring their two tries. Rather than tire, they finished strongly, with Wales losing their grip in the scrum and conceding three more penalties.
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Stephen Jones has reflected on a “manic” week that saw him answer Wales’ World Cup SOS following Rob Howley’s departure from Japan.
The former Wales fly-half has taken on attack coach duties, arriving last week after assistant coach Howley was sent home for an alleged breach of World Rugby’s betting regulations.
Howley, 48, is back in Wales to assist with an investigation relating to a potential breach of World Rugby regulation six – specifically betting on rugby union.
Jones had already been named as part of a new post-World Cup Wales coaching team under Wayne Pivac, but he is now an essential part of the campaign for global glory.
Asked if it had all been a whirlwind, Jones said: “Yes. You have pretty much hit the nail on the head there.
“It’s been manic, if I am honest, but what a wonderful welcome I have had from the boys and the management.
“I have worked with a number of the players and management before. The senior players were excellent – they took the helm and took the lead – which was great.”
Jones, who said he had not had chance to catch up with Howley, was at home in Cardiff when he received the call, and he added: “It was a bit of a shock.
“When I got the call, it was a straightaway decision. I am very fortunate that I have a supportive wife as well! It was an instant decision.
“Obviously, there is a wonderful foundation in place. There are a lot of good things in the library already.
“‘Gats’ (Wales head coach Warren Gatland) has been excellent and said I can evolve things slowly, but obviously I am conscious there is going to be limited grass time, but where I am fortunate is that there are so many good things in place.
“It’s a wonderful environment. You look at each department, how they function. Everybody knows their role, and they do it very well from a management perspective.”
Wales have arrived in Tokyo from Toyota City, where they beat Georgia 43-14 in their Pool D opener, with Australia looming in five days’ time.
But Cory Hill’s hopes of playing any part in the tournament are over after he was released from Wales’ World Cup squad.
The Dragons lock was named in the group and travelled to Japan, but he has not been able to recover from a stress fracture of his fibula.
Hill, who last played in February, will be replaced by 65 times-capped Ospreys forward Bradley Davies.
Wales had hoped that Hill would be available to face Australia, but he has run out of time.
Hill’s fellow lock Adam Beard, meanwhile, only arrived in Japan three days ago after having his appendix removed.
Skipper Alun Wyn Jones and Jake Ball are set to continue as Wales’ second-row partnership against Australia, with flanker Aaron Shingler providing lock cover on the bench.
Looking ahead to the Wallabies clash, Stephen Jones said: “It will be a massive occasion, and it’s one as players and coaches that you love – big sporting moments.
“We have some things to evolve quickly and improve, which is great.
“It’s about playing smart, recognising how the opposition set themselves up. From an attacking perspective, you have to have the ability to shape the opposition’s defence.
“It’s about being smart with the ball – you don’t want to waste your energy in certain areas of the park. When you get in the right areas, you need to convert your chances and be potent.
“They have lots of talented players, but I look at it from our perspective, and our boys will be looking forward to that challenge of going up against those boys.
“We have got some wonderful players regarding skill-sets, athletic ability, work-rate off the ball. It’s exciting from our end.”
Scotland’s World Cup hopes have suffered a third major blow in as many days after scrum-half Ali Price was ruled out for the remainder of the tournament.
Price suffered a foot and ankle knock in Sunday’s abject defeat to Ireland and will play no further part.
Edinburgh’s Henry Pyrgos is now flying out to Japan to join up with Gregor Townsend’s squad.
But the news means more disappointment for the head coach as it follows on from the dismal 27-3 loss to Joe Schmidt’s team and Monday’s confirmation that flanker Hamish Watson’s World Cup campaign is also over due to a serious knee injury.
Price was spotted on crutches as the team boarded a bullet train to Kobe yesterday.
But he has now been given the news he was dreading after an X-ray confirmed he would have to return home for treatment.
The change will mean a second World Cup appearance for Pyrgos.
He is scheduled to arrive in Japan on Thursday and take his place in the 31-man group preparing to face Samoa at the Kobe Misaki Stadium on Monday.
Townsend said in a statement: “We’re disappointed for Ali to have to return home so early in the tournament.
“Both Ali and Hamish had invested a lot of effort into being in their best physical shape for the World Cup and it’s a shame that they’ve only been involved in one game, however we have a lot of belief in our wider group and the two new players, Magnus Bradbury and Henry Pyrgos, who have been given this opportunity.”