Wow! What a weekend of rugby! The RWC has already dished up much more than most could have wished for.
After a spectacular opening ceremony, the scene was set for the opening match between hosts England and Fiji. The scoreboard will reflect that England won comfortably and achieved their bonus point win, but it wasn’t easy and they were under pressure for some parts of the game. There were a number of talking points to come out of it.
I thought Jaco Peyper wasn’t quite himself and struggled to get that accuracy and fluidity that has become synonymous with his game over the last couple of years. Much of the hesitancy came from the role of the TMO, where Sean Veldsman also had many inputs. Clearly under instruction to assist the referee with foul play issues such as the choke tackle and neck roll, his input was for the most part accurate, but also very intrusive for the momentum and flow of the game. How on earth did World Rugby come up with the idea that this tournament should be the testing ground for this latest vigilance? I sensed a great deal of frustration from the expectant crowd who deserved better.
With regard to the Fiji try that was first awarded and then annulled. Not ideal, but a far better outcome than awarding a non-score! However, I question whether the decision to award a 5m defensive scrum was the right one. The play would never have happened if the England flanker had not been held back on the halfway line, and so a penalty there (as notified by TMO Veldsman) was the only desirable outcome, instead of a 5m defensive scrum. England would have kicked out and would have had field position for an attack. I have great sympathy for referees who miss things as a result of the dynamic nature of the game, but not so much when they can’t get it right on review.
In respect of the game itself, Fiji could count themselves very unlucky as a couple of the English tries had huge question marks over them. The first looked to have truck and trailer written all over it, and the last had a clear forward pass glossed over and even a review for May being held in the tackle and then getting up and playing on was not out of order. There were reviews for far less! I’m sure Jaco will bounce back from this in his next outing and show the rugby world what he is capable of.
Georgia’s win over Tonga could be considered a minor upset, but in truth they never looked like losing. Not such a surprise was the performance of Nigel Owens, who was calm and composed and used his excellent communication skills to get the best out of the game. His experience allowed him time to make decisions and keep the match bubbling under. The Georgian pack was outstanding and was more than a match for their fiery opponents. They are an underrated team with many of their top players plying their trade in the French Top 14. They were unlucky in the last RWC and it would be good to see them also get a big scalp along the way.
Canada got thumped by a strong Irish performance. It wasn’t a surprise to me. I’ve tipped them to go all the way through to the final. I thought Glenn Jackson had a very good game in general, mindful of his skills set and allowing the contest to breathe!
France were way too strong for Italy. The French scrum proved the ideal platform to get ahead, and from there on they bossed the game against a willing Italian team that offers bucket loads of resolve on defence but unfortunately has limited weapons on attack. I thought Craig Joubert did a good job in rewarding the French dominance at scrum time and did it throughout the fixture. It was a testy type of match with Italy really wanting to prove their worth, and perhaps the only criticism is that sanction was not upgraded quickly enough (too many penalties).
Wales were predictably too strong for Uruguay but they did pick up another injury and these will now be of concern as their big games are still to come in this group of death. They didn’t give away much, and I for one would like to see a reward for Warren Gatland for sticking with them when I’m sure other offers were made a few years ago.
George Clancy was typically efficient as the USA tried valiantly to topple the huge Samoans. It was a very physical match from both teams, and I was impressed by the physicality and skill of both teams! Perhaps conditioning and tempo could improve but it was a good advert for World Rugby where both the minnows did a really good job.
The All Blacks beat Argentina 26-16. They were up 9-0. They received two yellow cards – one to McCaw for a trip (I agreed with referee Barnes regarding the colour of the card) and the other to Conrad Smith for a cynical infringement in the 22m area (not uncommon for this team). I think Argentina are a most capable team and have improved out of sight and should progress with the team in black. I think Barnes had a decent game. What I was most impressed with was his appreciation of sanction and his willingness to keep the space for teams to play. I didn’t agree with some of his penalties in respect of rolling away and perhaps he could have used a few unplayables to be a little more empathetic to those who were clearly compromised and could not get away. It is all very well to blow the whistle and justify what you have done, but there needs to be some common sense and empathy in those instances where players simply cannot get out of the way. As Joel Stransky pointed out, sometimes the attacking teams trap the poor tackler and there really is nothing he can do. Sometimes the ball is produced into the prone player in an attempt to milk a penalty, and referees need to be more aware of exactly what is happening.
I have purposely left the best for last. No that’s not even funny. What a shock that the mighty Boks lost to Japan. It’s hard to believe. While there is no doubt it is fantastic for World Rugby, and the greater public were rightly supporting the underdog, it cannot be an acceptable situation for our once proud rugby nation. The brand was dealt a huge blow, and I’m afraid to say, it’s not just another loss! Perhaps a bit arrogant, but we just lost to Japan! And I will have to say that they deserved their day in the (rising) sun. They had a chance to draw the game and went for gold. Whichever side of the fence you sit, that has to be applauded!!
Heyneke Meyer apologised to the nation. What more could he do? I have regularly mentioned the ageing squad and the returning injured players who will have to play themselves into form (eight of the players in the squad played in 2007 and nine if you count the injured Jean de Villiers – that’s a huge number for a team that has not been enjoying amazing success to justify their continued selection) .Also, the pattern, which although sometimes jumping right out of he mould, still appears too predictable and cumbersome. The criticism is deserved. We lost to Australia, a game we should have won, but couldn’t close out. We lost to the All Blacks, where we played superb rugby in parts, but lacked the nous to exploit a numerical advantage, and got exposed by a sucker punch. We then lost to Argentina in Durban, an embarrassing defeat where we never seemed to come out of the blocks. I found it strange that ex captain, John Smit, tried to argue that that game would galvanise the team to improve their play. We should not be losing in the first place. We shouldn’t be using the outcome as a means to improve our performance. And now, as group favourites, we have lost to Japan, rank 80/1 outsiders to win. The coaches and the team will have to live with this for the rest of their lives. It is the most embarrassing moment in Springbok history. The lowest low.
Having said that, France had to deal with the ignominy of losing to Tonga at the last RWC and then almost beat NZ in the Final of 2011, many saying they should have! England too, lost badly to our Boks 36-0 in the pool stages, only to show fantastic gumption and typical Bulldog fighting spirit to almost win the final against the same team, narrowly losing 15-6. All is not lost, and I am still hopeful that our players can turn this around.
As supporters, we continue to hope for the best. It doesn’t mean that you cannot be critical of what is clearly not acceptable. But they are two different things completely! The criticism is justified and should be accepted by all those involved.
With regard to the game itself, we didn’t play our best. We didn’t perhaps give the Cherry Blossoms enough respect and spurned opportunities for points to win first and then put them to the sword. They played with fire and zip and more than held their own at scrum and maul time. We lacked the ferocity and mongrel required at the breakdown (no Brussouw, Kriel or Coetzee) . We have to acknowledge that our line speed was poor and they often got through the gain line at will. We didn’t build an innings. There were so many issues, I don’t want to make myself sick. We will get better. I hope we beat Samoa and Scotland. The people chosen to represent our country and the Springbok brand are doing their very best. If they can rediscover that form and the (best) team knits well, we will be competitive at the very worst. Those players didn’t become bad players overnight, but we really do need to wake up and play our best players and show that mongrel and desire that we all know we can!
Many tried to blame the referee, Jerome Garcez, for his role in the loss. He did make errors (not sure why he didn’t help the TMO who was not looking at Jannie’s grounding but rather Bismarck’s) but I do think he tried to make sure that there was quick production of the ball for both teams, and I agreed with his decision to card Oosthuizen for not rolling away. He really couldn’t keep asking more than he did. I really don’t think it’s fair to blame the referee when we really should be looking at ourselves first and foremost.
The Lions are doing well in the Currie Cup. WP playing with enthusiasm. Bulls not too bad. It’s hard to watch all the rugby, however close to my heart this competition is!
In other news, I ran my 10th marathon of the year on Sunday when about 5000 runners took to the streets of Cape Town for their annual plod. Great weather and a much improved course made it a very fun day out there! Well done to all my friends who got PBs on the day, including ex-provincial referee, Gareth Lloyd Jones, who ran a 3:13 .. Not bad for a cantankerous middle aged fella!
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