CASTRES, FRANCE – Remember the date: Saturday, September 19, 2015. That’s when the rugby world briefly slipped off its axis, as – in the English south-coast city of Brighton, this happened:
In Pool B of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Japan had just upset two-time World Champions South Africa 34-32 at the Brighton Community Stadium. They could have tied the game with a late penalty kick, but decided to take a bigger gamble. It was win or bust.
And, as has now been scorched into rugby history, they won.
Think about it. Who, when offered a draw on a platter against South Africa, would say: “No, we deserve better”? That takes serious cojones.
Such was the reaction to the result that, when Uruguay led Wales 6-0 early in their mismatch a day later, some dared to begin to believe history may be about be repeated, and when Argentina were 16-12 up against New Zealand in the second half of their opener, pundits talked openly of a second Rugby World Cup upset in as many days.
Neither was to be, of course. Neither was ever going to be. Wales’s display – and mounting injury list – did little to inspire confidence, but they were never going to lose to the plucky amateurs from South America, while – simply put – New Zealand aren’t so easily beaten.
England 35 – 11 Fiji
It was mission accomplished – nothing more – for red-shirted England, as they picked up a bonus-point win over Pool A rivals Fiji on opening night.
Sam Burgess pushed for a start against Wales next weekend, with a direct and thunderous 19-minute cameo after replacing a subdued Brad Barritt. The Vunipola boys, Billy and Manu, and Richard Wigglesworth and Owen Farrell, too, stated strong cases where it matters as England pulled away from Fiji in the closing quarter.
Until then, England were struggling under the stern examination of the world’s ninth-best side.
Two Mike Brown tries eased English nerves – but they did little to paper over the cracks of a performance that needs much improvement if the hosts title ambitions are to be taken seriously.
Both Wales and Australia will not have missed the fact that England’s decision-making, scrummaging and midfield manoeuvres were awfully inconsistent and occassionally just plain awful – nor the fact that the final margin of victory was by no means an accurate reflection of the contest.
Fiji nerves aided England’s cause. They gave away a penalty try inside the opening 15 minutes, and missed three penalties and a conversion. They would have been breathing down English necks all night had the otherwise excellent Nemani Nadolo and his fellow Australian-reared team-mate Ben Volavola taken their chances. But they didn’t – and Vunipola B’s late score gave England a bonus point they scarcely deserved.
Wales 54 – 9 Uruguay
Wales’s eight-try bonus-point win over Pool A minnows Uruguay came at a high price. Corey Allen made an immediate impact, scoring a hat-trick in the first half. But he is likely to miss the rest of the tournament after a suspected hamstring tear – which leaves the Welsh with just two specialist centres. And they have only two fully fit props ahead of the game against England.
Tighthead Samson Lee, who made his first appearance since having surgery on his achilles tendon in March, was taken off at half-time, probably as a precaution. Loosehead Paul James limped off after 31 minutes with a calf strain. His replacement, Aaron Jarvis, popped a rib cartilage but stayed on the pitch – and he’s providing cover at hooker, after coach Warren Gatland named only two hookers in his World Cup 31.
Fullback Liam Williams, who is also on the post-injury comeback trail, was taken off before half-time with a dead leg. With no Leigh Halfpenny in the squad, Gatland’s choices at 15 are now cut to Hallam Amos, who was on the wing against Uruguay, and Rhys Priestland – who has, at least, played 15 at club level.
The good news for Wales is that the head knock suffered by Dan Lydiate, who replaced skipper Sam Warburton after 58 minutes, is not serious. The flanker has been cleared to train immediately.
The Welsh bench was emptied shortly after the hour. By then, though, Wales were 40-9 up and cruising. Allen was already on the treatment table with three tries in the bag, Gareth Davies had scored the first of his brace, and Lee and Amos had also crossed. In the closing quarter, Tipuric would also add his name to the list of try-scorers while Davies again touched down, with Priestland converting seven of Wales’s eight touchdowns.
South Africa 32 – 34 Japan
The dread finger of blame has pointed just about everywhere after Japan shocked South Africa. At coach Heyneke Meyer for error-strewn team selection. At the players, for their arrogance and dismal decision-making. At the psycho seagulls of Brighton, for dive-bombing South African players during training and leaving a guano mountain range all over the training ground. Seriously.
You can accuse the players of making poor choices. An early decision to reject simple points in favour of a kick to touch proved that the Springboks had tries on their mind. Hindsight would later prove that was a mistake.
You can accuse Meyer of picking the wrong side. It’s what South African media have done. It’s possible he would have been better advised to give starts to Willie le Roux, Eben Etzebeth and Damian de Allende – but it was impossible to foresee that Japan would not be subdued until the match started.
Regardless, the performance prompted Meyer to apologise to his country. He said: “I have to apologise to the nation. It was just not good enough. It was unacceptable and I take full responsibility.”
Shock though it was, and unacceptable defeat may have been, but all of the above – especially the bit about the seagulls – does Eddie Jones’s Japan a massive disservice.
Tactically, Japan were near-perfect. They played high-quality high-tempo rugby. They were superbly well-drilled up front. And when they moved the ball their handling was awe-inspiring … The truth is Japan, winners of just one World Cup match until Saturday, played double World Champions South Africa off the Brighton Community Stadium.
As a stunned Springbok scrum-half Fourie du Preez admitted afterwards: “They just outsmarted us.”
How can any article describe Japan’s tigerish midfield that tackled everything in a green shirt from the first whistle until the last and offloaded the ball around tackling Springbok backs with with such skill that it took the breath away? Or the Michael Leitch-inspired pack that refused to take a backward step all afternoon? Or the performance of fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who scored 24 of his country’s points – a try, two conversions and five penalties – on a surreal, seismic day?
This game drove rugby beyond words.
If Japan could distill whatever it was that they did or said or thought on this day, in this place, it would be priceless.
The most experienced South African side ever, complete with a few names who boast a World Cup winners’ medal, a South Africa that has not lost a World Cup opener in 20 years, were overwhelmed by wave upon wave of cherry-and-white shirts that poured forwards time and again drove huge Springbok forwards, well, backwards.
Even when Francois Louw touched down at the end of a driving maul, they could not put Japan in their place. Instead the Brave Blossoms responded in kind – and the mighty South African pack was mauled back over their own line for Leitch to score the try his industry and brilliant leadership deserved.
Bismark du Plessis scored soon after to restore South Africa’s lead. And when, early in the second half, Lood de Jager, all 6ft 9in of him, rampaged to the line from 30m out like an angry giraffe on bad acid – everyone thought Japan’s resistance had finally been broken. Everyone, that is, except the Japanese.
Back they came. A long-range penalty from Pat Lambie briefly eased South African nerves, even as it drew raucous disapproval from the crowd – but by now there was panic in South African ranks. They were killing the ball at almost every breakdown. And Goromaru had the chance to level the scores again at 22-22 on the hour. He made no mistake.
Then one missed tackle too many let Adriaan Strauss in. But still the Japanese roared back – and how, as Goromaru scored a try for the promo videos of all Rugby World Cups to come. Winger Akihito Yamada latched on to an inside pass so perfect it had a bow on it, and he shipped on to the incomparable Goromaru to score in the corner.
Yet all this was just prelude to the heart attack-inducing drama that was to follow.
It seemed the Brave Blossoms would fall agonisingly, bravely, tantalisingly, heroically short. They were 32-29 down and the clock had ticked past 80 minutes when captain Leitch turned down a silver-plated shot at goal, to tie the scores. It was win or bust.
They thought one surge had done it. But the TMO couldn’t be sure. Another scrum. Another move – and New Zealand-born replacement wing Karne Hesketh dived over in the corner. Goromaru missed the conversion but, frankly, he wasn’t the only one who didn’t care.
Eddie Jones’s side have just four days before they meet Scotland at Kingsholm. We’ll only find out then just how much this beyond remarkable victory has taken out of them.
Meanwhile, pity Samoa. They are in line for a vicious, furious South African backlash.
Samoa 25 – 16 USA
It fell to the Eagles and Samoa to follow in Japan and South Africa’s footsteps in bringing rugby to a part of England where it has no professional presence. This time there would be no shock – and after this weekend, it seems there’s a four-way tussle between South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and Japan for the top two places in Pool B.
The Eagles are not entirely out of it, despite maintaining their perfect losing record against Samoa. They conceded 14 penalties and missed 29 tackles as indiscipline, inexperience and, maybe, the occasion got to them.
But they fought right to the end – and if AJ McGinty had been able to convert prop Chris Baumann’s 80th-minute try, USA’s second of the match, they would have left Brighton with a deserved bonus point.
If Saturday’s encounter rocked the rugby world, this match was earth-shaking too, in its own way. Samoan centre Reynold Lee-Lo needed treatment inside the first minute, after a collision with opposite number Thretton Palamo. A few minutes later, McGinty had more than just the wind knocked out of him when he recklessly ran into Samoan lock Filo Paulo.
Paulo probably didn’t feel a thing.
Tim Nanai-Williams was the first to cross the whitewash after 19 minutes, when he was first to a neat grubber kick from Tusi Pisi following a lineout on USA’s 22.
The Eagles’ first try, from skipper Chris Wyles, came against the run of play, and relied on a fair slice of luck. The excellent Samu Manoa took a lineout, then picked up a fortunate ricochet from a failed clearance by Wyles and charged off down the pitch as only Manoa can. McGinty and Seamus Kelly got in on the move, before Wyles got his hands back on the ball to score.
Shortly after the break, Samoa extended their lead, as Ofisa Treviranus capitalised on a defensive error from Taku Ngwenya close to his own line. Pisi missed the conversion, but slotted a penalty following a high tackle to take Samoa out of reach.
And finally… Pity poor Rugby World Cup viewers in the UK, who have to listen to samples of this warbling cover of World in Union every time tournament broadcaster ITV goes to or comes back from an ad break. Some say singer Paloma Faith sounds like she’s being waterboarded. Others claim their non-existent cat could do better…
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