Given some of the heavyweight collisions slated for the opening weekend alone, the 2019 World Cup was always destined for an explosive opening.
It didn’t disappoint.
Back-to-back reigning champions New Zealand’s seismic contest against two-time winners South Africa was always going to capture headlines.
In one of the most explosive pool contests in the history of the tournament, that game set an early standard that will be difficult to match, at least until the knockout phase of tournament action arrives.
But what else did we learn from the early exchanges?
Consistency of refereeing
Is it too much to ask that officials chosen well in advance of the tournament — with an amount of time spent ensuring consistency of interpretation — might actually deliver that?
Argentine coach Mario Ledesma was a constant irritant to the Irish in his playing days as an uncompromising hooker with the Pumas or Clermont Auvergne against the provinces in Europe.
He’s had a challenging time of things since taking over the national side. In a pool as tight as theirs, with England and France as challenging rivals and only two sides to advance, getting the key refereeing decisions right is imperative.
Unfortunately, Argentina were poorly served by Australian referee Angus Gardner last Saturday, on four separate occasions, within 10 metres of their own line, France conceded penalties rather than tries.
It was professional fouling at its cynical best, one of the principal reasons for the introduction of the yellow card back in 1995.
Ledesma couldn’t contain himself when Gardner issued his third final warning in a row without producing a card. On this evidence, nothing short of manslaughter would warrant a yellow card from the Aussie. In a captivating game, eventually decided by a two-point margin, Gardner’s failure to sanction the French proved decisive.
Likewise Jerome Garces could so easily have yellow-carded South African winger Makazole Mapimpi for failing to release Richie Mo’unga in the tackle under the posts after a typical New Zealand breakout. Garces decreed that a penalty was sufficient sanction.
I’m not so sure. At least his call didn’t impact on the result.
Fast forward 24 hours to Ireland’s game in Yokohama.
Our old friend Wayne Barnes had a really good game but his decision to yellow card Tadhg Beirne 10 minutes after his introduction off the bench was harsh in the extreme. Beirne was contesting for a turnover, as he so often does, when he managed to get his hands on the ball, post the tackle.
He subsequently lost his footing in the act of making the poach and was pinged. Penalty at best.
Ireland had only conceded six penalties to that point, 69 minutes into the game. There was no pattern of consistent infringement by Irish players in comparison to the French the previous day.
Yet, without hesitation, Barnes produced a yellow. Beirne was crestfallen.
Referees are in serious competition with each other to get the big games from the quarter-final stage onwards and Barnes would have been aware of the internal criticism aimed at Gardner for his failure to sanction a French player with a card. He was very quick on the draw to show that, unlike his Australian counterpart, he had no hesitation in making the call.
In a tighter game and in demanding conditions that seriously mitigate against a team down a player in the closing stages, these calls will become crucial. Consistency across the board would be welcome.
Irish depth chart impressive
I have a sense we won’t really come to appreciate Joe Schmidt’s attention to detail and sharp rugby intellect until he’s gone. It’s well documented that building an unprecedented depth to his squad after what happened against Argentina four years ago was a massive priorityfor the head coach.
I’m quite sure he wouldn’t have chosen to test the level of resource as early as the opening game this time out but that is what he was forced to do.
With Keith Earls, Rob Kearney, and Joey Carbery less than100% due to recent setbacks and Robbie Henshaw still rehabbing a tweaked hamstring, Ireland’s starting back line against Scotland was set for a searching examination.
In such circumstances to also lose Bundee Aki after only 20 minutes was a hammer blow.
Yet the manner with which Jordon Larmour stepped up to the mark in the absence of one of Schmidt’s most consistent picks in Kearney will have really pleased the coach. Confidence enhanced by comfortably fielding two early aerial testers from Finn Russell, Larmour had a really good outing.
I have long been an admirer of Andrew Conway and, once again he delivered in spades. Yes he dropped one kick he’d normally gobble up in his sleep but, impressively, didn’t allow that unforced error get to him.
His work rate in chasing kicks was rewarded early on when the ball rebounding off the base of the post and he smashed Stuart Hogg to set up an early try off the scrum.
Another kick chase in the second half when, working in tandem with Larmour, Conway forced another turnover, resulted in the ultimate reward. Immediately back into position out wide, Conor Murray — back to his best — seized the chance to put Conway over in the corner. Simple but smart and effective rugby.
Schmidt said in advance of kick-off that Conway and Larmour had brought a contagious enthusiasm to the squad when he announced that they would be starting. How right he was.
The French enigma
Having gone against conventional wisdom by choosing France instead of Argentina to emerge from the most highly competitive pool in the tournament, along with England, I took a keen interest in their pool opener last Saturday.
I saw something in France’s warm-up games against Italy and Scotland that smacked of a revival and a return to their free-flowing, all-action running game of old. In the opening half when they raced into a 20-3 at the break after playing some sublime rugby, I felt fully justified in my optimism.
Their passing, off-loading, and lines of running were of the highest quality. Damien Penaud was electric on the wing, 6’6” back rower Charles Ollivon was sensational with his long legs gobbling up the metres in the carry and a consistent supplier of quality attacking lineout ball, while 22-year-old scrum-half Antoine Dupont looked like he could emerge as one of the stars of the tournament.
Just when you began to feel the French could become a serious threat and run away with this contest, they shot themselves in the foot. Not alone did they lose their discipline — how is Sebastian Vahaamahina still on this team? — but they lost control of the game, due in no small measure to the failure of No. 10 Romain Ntamack to exert any authority with the boot.
Time after time he just kicked the ball aimlessly down the middle of the pitch, affording Argentina countless opportunities to counter attack.
France have had a problem at out-half for years. Ntamack’s selection is strange given he was the third choice out-half at Toulouse alone,behind Zach Holmes andThomas Ramos.
When the pressure came on, Ntamack fell apart and his failure to convert a straight forward penalty in the final minute could have proved fatal had Emiliano Boffelli landed his more difficult kick deep into injury time.
When veteran Clermont No. 10 Camille Lopez was introduced off the bench with 10 minutes to go, he dropped a goal with his first touch to register France’s only score of the second half.
Who would have predicted that at half-time?
France continue to baffle. They have the talent, they look fitter and sharper than at any time in years, yet their temperament and suspect game management is killing them.
Who knows, but what odds after beating Argentina that they go and lose to Tonga, just like they did in 2011. If Joe Schmidt got his hands on them.
Now that would be fascinating to watch...
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