Underdogs stand up
Fears of a dull group stage marked by a succession of whitewashes have been swept away by the wonderful performances of the World Cup’s second-tier nations. Plucky performances by Fiji and Argentina against the tournament’s top two favourites bookended a pair of colossal upsets by Japan and Georgia on Day 2, turning their pools upside down. If the trend continues, this could conceivably be the greatest RWC of all time.
England’s strong finish masks tough win
A 35-11 bonus-point victory for England didn’t tell the full story of a tense World Cup opener. The hosts led Fiji 18-8 at halftime, but were nervously clinging to a seven-point lead with less than 15 minutes remaining as the rugged Islanders dominated the middle stages of the second stanza. Two tries in the final eight minutes pushed a relieved England out to a comfortable margin and a crucial four-try bonus.
Nameni Nadolo scored a stunning first-half try from a cross-field kick and threatened with virtually each touch of the ball, but his teammates turned over too much possession in a scrappy performance the Fijians will be looking to improve on before Wednesday’s key clash with Australia.
Georgia on my mind
Georgia, located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe for those less geographically-minded, notched their third World Cup victory on Saturday but claimed easily their biggest scalp with a stoic 17-10 success against quarter-final hopefuls Tonga. Building their win on a titanic forward-pack performance, the Georgians led 10-3 at the break in front of packed house at Gloucester and extended their lead to 14 with a 57th-minute try, before valiantly holding on for a famous result.
The upset to end all upsets
In a way, it’s almost a shame the glittering highlight of the tournament occurred so early – nothing that happens hereafter will be able to eclipse the euphoria of Japan’s 34-32 triumph over South Africa at Brighton. The Cherry Blossoms fought back from 29-22 and 32-29 deficits inside the final 15 minutes to pull off one of the great sporting boilovers. The nerve-jangling final minutes, which included Japan’s brave decision to twice turn down score-levelling penalty goal attempts and culminated in former Otago winger Karne Hesketh’s dramatic 85th-minute try in the corner, was the stuff of movie scripts.
Pool D heavyweights over the first hurdle
Building towards what shapes as one of the biggest pool matches of the World Cup – a group stage-closing showdown to decide who avoids the All Blacks in the quarter-finals – Ireland and France recorded big wins to open their respective campaigns. Ireland ran in seven tries in a 50-7 defeat of Canada, while France overwhelmed the dangerous Italy 32-10, with Frederic Michalak booting 19 points. The latter match was arguably overshadowed by this bizarre video ref mix-up:
Samoa hold after stirring Eagles comeback
After watching pool-mates South Africa get beaten by Japan, Samoa were given a fright by USA in another gripping encounter at seaside Brighton. Manu Samoa started impressively, but a brilliant Eagles team try trimmed the halftime deficit to just six. The rivals scored one try apiece during the second half but Samoa’s superior goalkicking was crucial to a 25-16 result.
Blacks see yellow before escaping against proud Pumas
Defending champions New Zealand were forced to dig deep against Argentina, prevailing 26-16 after going into halftime one point in arrears. The All Blacks finished the first half with 13 men after Richie McCaw (tripping) and Conrad Smith (ruck infringement) were yellow-carded. The surprise decision to inject Sonny Bill Williams at the expense of in-form Ma’a Nonu early in the second stanza paid big dividends for coach Steve Hansen, with SBW making several strong runs and providing a gilt-edged chance almost immediately for winger Nehe Milner-Skudder, who spilled his lollies with the try-line beckoning. The tournament favourites eventually settled into their rhythm, and Aaron Smith and Sam Cane posted tries – Williams throwing the last pass for the latter – to put them into the clear.
After being given a huge fright, the All Blacks paid tribute to their gallant opponents with a post-match guard of honour.
WORLD CUP RESULTS
England 35 d. Fiji 11
Georgia 17 d. Tonga 10
Ireland 50 d. Canada 7
Japan 34 d. South Africa 32
France 32 d. Italy 10
Samoa 25 d. USA 16
Wales 54 d. Uruguay 9
New Zealand 26 d. Argentina 16