As opening weekends go this was a real attention grabber with thrills, upsets, hopes and fears all stoked by the opening salvoes. The third biggest sporting event on earth had to open with some flamboyance, but as this is rugby the organisers didn’t want to go overboard so the designers of the opening ceremony were given twenty minutes to put on a show, and twenty minutes to clear the pitch before the first game kicked off! The result was an amusing diversion featuring Prince Harry and numerous former greats of rugby from around the world.
As hosts, England began the tournament at Twickenham against pool ‘A’ rivals, Fiji. The Pacific Islanders have enjoyed great form in the run in to the cup and with players like the twenty stone, six foot five winger (!!!) Nadolo, they are a frightening prospect. However, as the rain came down, the England team, playing in red to accommodate their visitors, weathered the rugby storm as well as the elemental one and calmly took control over the eighty minutes to record a 35 – 11 victory. In the ‘round robin’ pool stages, teams gain four points for a win, two for a draw, a bonus point for scoring four tries or more in a match, or a losing bonus point if they are beaten by seven points or less, thus encouraging losing sides to keep fighting to the last whistle. Chris Robshaw’s team thus got off to a fine start with a five point haul.
Elsewhere Ireland and wales overcame slightly less formidable opposition and also came through with bonus point wins. Ireland defeated Canada 50 – 7 and Wales, who are contesting the same pool as England, beat Uruguay, the only team in the tournament which is still amateur, 54 – 9. Sadly for Wales, whose team is already depleted by injuries, their players picked up some more knocks. Hat-trick scorer Cory Allen was ruled out of the rest of the tournament with a hamstring injury and Liam Williams who has assumed a vital role as the replacement for the injured British Lion, Leigh Halfpenny, limped from the field with a dead leg, the seriousness of which will be assessed over the next couple of days. With a huge game against England at Twickenham next Saturday the Welsh team management will be hoping he recovers in time.
The main talking point of the weekend was Japan’s humbling of the mighty Springboks. In a pulsating, end to end thriller of a match, Japan scored a try in the fourth minute of overtime to take the victory by 34 – 32. The South Africans have won the World Cup twice while the Japanese have only ever won one pool game at previous tournaments but they were worthy of their triumph. Lacking the physical size of the Africans the ‘Brave Blossoms’, as they are nick-named, put a perfect team effort together and played with pace, zeal and tremendous courage to overwhelm their opponents with sheer tenacity and grit. At the final whistle players and supporters alike were overcome with emotion and the tears flowed on the pitch and in the stands. Their next opponents are Scotland who start their tournament on Wednesday against the now tired, but very confident, men from the land of the Rising Sun.
The organisers couldn’t have hoped for a better opening weekend with a colourful, party atmosphere at all the venues very evident even on the TV coverage with ITV and ITV4 showing all of the games live. It was great to see fans from all over the world enjoying the rugby, cheering, singing and even crying for joy, side by side with their rivals.
ROUND 1 RESULTS: England 35 Fiji 11, Tonga 10 Georgia 17, Ireland 50 Canada 7, S Africa 32 Japan 34, France 32 Italy 10, Samoa 25 USA 16, Wales 54 Uruguay 9, New Zealand 26 Argentina 16.