CASTRES, FRANCE – After a weekend trip to a Japan-inspired rugby Wonderland, the World Cup returned to this side of the looking glass for the first batch of midweek matches, which saw both Scotland and Australia kick off their campaigns with solid wins against Japan and Fiji respectively, while Romania lost their first match of the 2015 tournament against France.
Scotland 45 – 10 Japan
Scotland capitalised on Japan’s inevitable post-South Africa comedown to leave Pool B wide open. Had Eddie Jones’s side managed to upset the established rugby order for a second time in five days, the mounting pressure on the other teams in the ‘Pool of Opportunity’ would be enough make diamonds, if not quite create stars.
As it is, Scotland’s three tries in 13 second-half minutes – followed by a couple more late in the game, just to rub salt in the wound – means all five Pool B teams are still in the hunt, though the Eagles need to pull something special out of the bag.
The special theory of rugby relativity was proved at Kingsholm. The five days Scotland had to wait to begin their World Cup challenge after England and Fiji opened proceedings at Twickenham must have dragged by more slowly and painfully than a double math period with the most boring teacher in the world. For Japan, the four days to repair bruised bodies and rest wearied muscles must have flown by.
At a post-match press conference, Jones was asked whether the short turnaround time had affected Japan. He replied: “I said we wouldn’t make it an excuse, so I won’t.”
“Scotland were just too good for us in that second half. They scored 33 points to our zero, but we’re not using that [fatigue] as an excuse. We had to be better than we were today. We have to accept it and suck it up. As you can see we play a high energy game, we need early ball and we weren’t great at the breakdown.”
But he did suggest that a minimum six-day break between games should be standard.
Any suggestion that Japan would tone down the high-tempo all-or-nothing rugby that did for South Africa was quickly silenced when – after just 14 minutes – fullback Ayumu Goromaru fired a kickable penalty to touch in the corner.
The Brave Blossoms’ lineout, drilled to perfection by Steve Borthwick, worked a treat. And the savage driving maul that followed could not have been stopped even if Scotland had two teams on the pitch. Amanaki Lelei Mafi came up with the ball.
But it was the only time Scotland’s organised and aggressive defence would be breached.
They had worked out Japan. The cherry-and-whites, in the home of the Cherry and Whites, again ran the pretty angles and beautiful lines that had confounded South Africa – but Scottish tacklers were not fooled. They tried their cute inside passes – but Scotland had the knowing of them. Even when things became frantic, the Scots’ defence was effective, better than the Springboks had been.
It started to go wrong for Japan early in the second period, when try-scorer Mafi left the Kingsholm pitch on a stretcher. He had been a colossus – and, almost as soon as he was carried off, Scotland ran riot.
The difference at the time of his departure was just two points, thanks to a Goromaru penalty – and Scotland could not be sure that they were going to win. Four minutes later, Greig Laidlow, who had kicked four penalties at his club ground in the opening period to give Scotland the lead, threw a blind pass to kilted Kiwi John Hardie, who crashed over from a few yards out.
Eight minutes after that, Mark Bennett found an acute angle to scythe through the rapidly tiring Japan defence as if they’re weren’t there and score under the posts. It was all over bar the chanting seven minutes later, when Tommy Seymour intercepted the ball on his own 22 and raced clear for the Scots’ third try.
Bennett ensured the bonus point with 11 minutes left on the clock, and Finn Russell iced the cake for his 23rd birthday by jinking his way to the line for the final word after Scotland elected for a scrum from a penalty.
Australia 28 – 13 Fiji
If, a year ago, anyone had suggested that Australia were serious contenders for the World Cup, most rugbyists would have laughed in their faces. That no one’s laughing any more is testament to coach Michael Cheika – whose trick appears largely to have been beefing up the scrum without giving up the Wallabies attacking ambition.
But Australia blotted their copybook against Fiji – a side they have beaten by more than 40 points in their previous four encounters.
Two David Pocock tries in a controlled and clinical first half, followed by a Sekope Kepu touchdown early in the second, suggested that Australia were building to a big score – and a bigger statement to their big Pool A rivals, England and Wales.
The two Six Nations sides – who meet at Twickenham on Saturday – will have also seen that Australia failed to capitalise on their strong position. Despite his apparent contentment in front of the TV cameras, Cheika cannot have been pleased that his side were unable to pick up a try-scoring bonus point from such a position; or the fact that Fiji looked the stronger side in the closing quarter. The islanders’ enjoyed long spells of pressure and scored a delightful try, after a marvellous break by fly-half Ben Volavola. Their invention and skill deserved more than the final score suggests.
The Wallabies’ inability to make their dominance count means they are a point behind England and Wales in the ‘Pool of Death’. That may cause a serious headache at the business end of the group stages.
But, publicly at least, Cheika remained upbeat. He said: “I think at times in the second half, you could tell it was our first game in a while. The guys were blowing a bit. But we came through well.”
Having lost to both England and Australia, Fiji’s quarter-final flights-of-fancy quarter-final dream is over. But they could still be the Pool A kingmakers. They face Wales on Thursday, five days after Warren Gatland’s side meet England.
Fiji’s set piece is strong. Scrum-half Niko Matawalu has pace to burn, and Volavola’s second-half try in Cardiff was no less than his side deserved. Fatigue and Fiji could be the Dragons’ undoing.
France 38 – 11 Romania
France coach Philippe Saint-Andre made 13 changes to the side that beat Italy at the weekend for the match against Pool D minnows – but he was clearly unimpressed with Les Bleus’ first-half performance.
There’s no wonder. The French lacked plenty of lustre in the opening half hour, before tries from Sofiane Guitoune and Yannick Nyanga gave them a 17-6 halftime advantage at London’s Olympic Stadium.
Romania gave France an early scare, as Florin Vlaicu first cancelled out a Morgan Parra penalty, then came within inches of scoring the game’s first try.
But Guitoune’s touchdown, shortly after Romania’s prop Paulica Ion was sent to the sin-bin for collapsing a maul, calmed French nerves and Nyanga’s score soon after – with Ion still sitting on the naughty chair – set the platform for what was in the end a comfortable win.
The Oaks were let down by some godawful kicking from hand and a lack of composure when they did have the ball. Their scrum was as ferocious as you’d expect; their lineout deserves better than to be called solid, and they were pretty scary at the breakdown – but they undid all that good work with aimless punts downfield that only gave possession to France’s dangerous back three. Either that, or they played hot potato with the ball rather than trying to hang on to the damn thing.
The second half turned into a game of two quarters. The first was dour, terrible. The French kept probing, but Romania had returned to type after apparently believing they could channel the All Blacks in the opening 40.
Some of the 50,000-plus crowd at the Olympic Stadium’s first ever rugby international left early. And they’ll now be kicking themselves, because the game’s final quarter was pure entertainment.
Guitoune stretched over the line to score France’s third after another scrum. A few minutes later, Wesley Fofana twisted and turned his way over for the fourth. Gael Fickou looked almost bored as he added the fifth in the final minute. But the loudest cheer among those who remained in the crowd was reserved for Romania’s Valentin Ursache, who shoved and battered his way through Rory Kockott to score in the corner.
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