Rugby World Cup Weekend Recap: Pools A and B

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Shellshocked: Chris Robshaw and Stuart Lancaster

CASTRES, FRANCE – Rugby World Cup hosts England headed to Twickenham on Saturday full of quiet confidence. They left devastated after Wales collectively channelled Die Hard hero John McClane and refused to be beaten. The pressure is now on Stuart Lancaster’s men in white, who find themselves third in Pool A, with a must-win match against Australia to come.

Meanwhile, South Africa redeemed themselves following their nightmare defeat to Japan, Australia dutifully hammered Uruguay, and Scotland had to come from behind against USA.

Here, then, is Rugby Wrap Up’s round-up of the weekend’s Pool A and B matches.

POOL A

Biggar is better as Wales upset the odds

England 25 – 28 Wales

Wales moved up to second in the World Rugby rankings on the back of an exhilarating, enthralling bigger-than-the-sum-of-its-part win over England at Twickenham.

A nerveless Dan Biggar had kept Wales in the hunt in a match they should not have come close to winning. He kept pegging England back as they threatened to pull away. He was brilliant, his Welsh record of 23 points in a World Cup game was beyond value, but he was not the only one as Wales somehow overturned England and the odds.

They were 10 points down at half-time. Their scrum was disintegrating, their lineout malfunctioning. Their injury list grew almost exponentially as the minutes progressed – and England, after Jonny May’s first-half try, were kicking the points that came their way. They were in control.

Just after halftime, the score was 19-9 in the World Cup hosts’ favour. As the hour ticked by, it was 22-12. With 11 minutes to go, England remained seven points to the good. And the 15 Welshmen still just about standing on the Twickenham pitch looked dazed and beaten and confused. Four minutes earlier, they had watched as Hallam Amos walked off cradling his arm, while Liam Williams left on a stretcher.

Whatever words captain Sam Warburton found to say to his players at this point should be carved in stone and placed at the entrance to the Millennium Stadium – and all rugby clubs in Wales. He’ll probably deny he came up with anything inspiring, but something at that time galvanised the steel in Welsh hearts when others would have quailed and been cowed in Twickenham bearpit.

Wales had already changed tactics. Their forwards had struggled against England all evening, so they conspired as much as possible to take the set piece out of the equation. And, as the English fell foul of referee Jerome Garces at the ruck, Biggar stepped up to make them pay.

Then it happened. Lloyd Williams seemed trapped on his own down a scary-looking white-shirted cul-de-sac over on the left, but his cross-field kick – delivered as much in hope as expectation – was gleefully picked up by Gareth Davies who scored under the posts. Biggar converted.

With the score locked at 25-25, a weary Biggar tic’d his way through one final pre-kick routine and duly nailed a high-pressure 49m penalty. After the night he’d had, he was not going to miss this.

Still it was not over. England had a chance to level the scores – but opted for a kick to touch to win the game. When it mattered, at the end of this game that had become tighter and more tension-filled than it should have been, their lineout plan let them down.

 

No questions answered in Aussie walkover

Australia 65 – 3 Uruguay

Mismatches are a frustrating hallmark of Rugby World Cups. And the latest saw Australia run in 11 tries and concede a solitary penalty in a match against Uruguay that was little more than an extended training ground run.

Flankers Sean McMahon and Ben McCalman both crossed twice, as did winger Drew Mitchell. The latter has now become Australia’s leading World Cup try scorer. There were also tries for Joseph Tomane, Dean Mumm, Henry Speight, Matt Toomua and replacement Tevita Kuridrani.

Uruguay were only spared a bigger beating thanks to the wayward kicking of Australian stand-off Quade Cooper who missed six of his 11 shots at goal – and spent 10 minutes in the sin bin for a dangerous tackle.

If it’s possible, it was a pretty ropey 11-try victory. Not that it matters. It was not the Australian side that will face England in the crucial Pool A encounter next week. Coach Michael Cheika had made 14 changes from the side that beat Fiji on Wednesday. Many of those players will return.

Drew Mitchell scores against Uruguay

Drew Mitchell scores against Uruguay

Sean McMahon set the scoreboard rattling in the seventh minute, when he broke off from a lineout to jog in. Joe Tomane latched on to Quade Cooper’s reverse flick to cross a couple of minutes later. But, then Australia didn’t seem bothered. For nearly 20 minutes the scoreboard stalled.

Not that there was any danger of Australia missing out on a try-scoring bonus again. Within a minute of Cooper’s return from the bin, Mumm found nothing but wide open spaces in front of him as he raced down the right. On the half-hour Speight crossed. McCalman then stretched the half-time lead to 31-3 five minutes before the break. And there were still six tries to come, including Mitchell’s record breaker.

Uruguay have now conceded 19 tries in two World Cup matches.

It may be that the margin of victory proves important in the final reckoning – but we’ll only find out when the real Pool A rugby restarts next week.

 

POOL B

The Boks are back

South Africa 46 – 6 Samoa

South Africa put their name back on the serious World Cup contender list by dismantling Samoa so completely that this game deserved an adults-only rating.

Victory cost them their captain, Jean de Villiers, who left the pitch late on broken jawed but with the knowledge he had redeemed South Africa – and himself – in the most perfect manner. He has since announced his retirement from international rugby.

Others, too, are doubtful for South Africa’s next outing, against Scotland. Damian de Allende hobbled off with an ankle injury. His replacement, Jesse Kriel, went off after a bang in the face and was replaced by De Villiers, who returned to the field despite his injury.

The Springboks had promised a return to basics – the revival of the ferocious unrelenting intensity and menacing, patient control that wins them game after game. And, for the first hour, that’s what they delivered. They absorbed Samoa’s explosive start, and then calmly exerted their authority.

In the end, they had the beating of Samoa everywhere.

JP Pietersen benefited most. The long-framed winger scored a hat-trick of tries – the first of which was all his own work as he intercepted a poorly directed pass – but he will be the first to laud the work of those inside and in front of him.

Schalk Burger celebrates his try against Samoa

Schalk Burger celebrates his try against Samoa

Eben Etzebeth was controlled fury made flesh as the enforcer. Schalk Burger also scored and made more tackles than any other Springbok. He was rampant, and surely had South African pundits who had written him off before this tournament eating their words. Victor Matfield ruled the lineout. Fourie du Preez, who made his first start of any kind since February, reminded everyone what South Africa missed without him

And then there was the captain. De Villiers, the most doubted of all after Japan, unlocked the Samoan defence time after time. Bulls centre Jan Serfontein, who hopped on the next flight from South Africa to England, has the unenviable task of replacing him.

No one expected Samoa to give up without a fight – but after taking an early lead, courtesy of two Mike Stanley penalties, they found themselves fighting not for the game but for survival as South Africa started to take them apart.

There were sporadic charges and darts, the occasional smash through the Springbok line, but they were few and far between. At the break, the scoreboard showed 17-6 to South Africa. It could have been more.

Five minutes after the restart, the game was as good as over. Pollard and de Allende ripped through the Samoan defence, before De Villiers flicked the ball on to Pietersen for his second. Fifteen minutes later, it was Burger’s turn to score, as the Boks made Samoa pay for a poor defensive lineout.

Samoa thought they had found something approaching an answer, when Tusi Pisi finished off a glorious counter-attack – but the score was ruled out for a forward pass. Cruel though the decision was, the truth is it would not have changed the result. South Africa had the game by the throat. And they were squeezing.

Schalk Brits finished off a lineout catch-and-drive for the bonus point in the 71st minute; Pietersen completed his hat-trick two minutes before the end; and – in case the point still needed ramming home – Bryan Habana streaked clear at the death to add the final, emphatic word

 

Cotter calls cavalry to down USA

Scotland 39 – 16 USA

The difference between rugby nations such as Scotland and upstart neo-ruggers such as USA was clearly demonstrated in the second half of Sunday’s match at Leeds.

More specifically, the difference was in what Scotland coach Vern Cotter had in reserve.

At the end of the first half, USA more than deserved their 13-6 lead. Truth be told, the scoreline flattered a surprisingly passive, indisciplined Scotland – but by the final whistle USA inexperience told, as it had for Canada against Italy 24 hours earlier. And, as a result, the Eagles’ wait for a first win over a Tier One rugby nation since the 1924 Olympics continues.

Fans, American ruggers, and armchair pundits may throw their arms in the air in dismay. Many quickly took to social media to vent their frustration at a lead thrown away so easily. Others have again called for coach Mike Tolkin’s head.

But they ignore two key points. First, the fact is that USA are improving – but it will be some time before the Eagles can fly at Scotland’s height, let alone that of New Zealand, Australia or South Africa. Which brings up the second point. Wholesale changes, and no doubt a rocket-and-a-half from coach Cotter at halftime meant that the fired-up Scotland that came out of the tunnel for the second 40 was nothing like the limp side that went in at the end of the opening period.

Scotland's Stuart Hogg breaks against USA

Scotland’s Stuart Hogg breaks against USA

Scotland’s whole day changed after the break. Everything improved. The scrum settled. They won the physical battles they had been losing. Accuracy, that had been beyond them in the opening half, materialised. And it was all due to the arrival of the likes of WP Nel, Alasdair Dickinson, Matt Scott, Tim Swinson and Greig Laidlaw.

The USA defence had made hay from an infuriating first 40 minutes for Vern Cotter’s side, when loose passes and hot heads conspired to bungle gilt-edged scoring chances.

The loss of Grant Gilchrist in the opening quarter was a major setback for Scotland. He has since been ruled out of the remainder of the competition. But the Scots were a long way from impressive early on, anyway. Their lack of lustre showed following a lineout as they let USA bash and batter and crash their way to the line for tighthead prop Titi Lamositele to barrel over.

It showed for a second time when Tim Visser failed to hold on to a try-scoring pass from Stuart Hogg. And, when AJ McGinty slotted a second penalty late in the first period, it seemed giant killing was again on the cards in Pool B.

That feeling lasted little more than a minute into the second half, as Visser this time caught a try-scoring pass from scrum-half Henry Pyrgos. Finn Russell missed the conversion – not that it mattered. His gasp-inducing offload to Sean Maitland soon after led to the second of Scotland’s five second-half tries.

By this time the first of Cotter’s cavalry were already on the pitch – props Nel and Dickinson replaced the struggling Ryan Grant and Jon Welsh at halftime, and promptly wrenched control of the scrum from tiring US forwards.

Nel would get himself on the scoresheet, bludgeoning his way through the US defence like a hot ballbearing through butter for Scotland’s third. With embarrassment averted, Scotland could concentrate on bonuses.

They got them. Replacement Matt Scott copied the template of Maitland’s try for the score that took Scotland past 30 points for the third time in four Tests. And Duncan Weir – who came on at fly-half when Russell left the pitch injured, forced his way over from short range for Scotland’s fifth and final try.

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James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"

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