WITH so many talking points from the opening weekend of World Cup action - the vast majority of which were positive - I’m not sure where to start, writes Donal Lenihan.
In terms of atmosphere, colour, drama and camaraderie between the fans from all countries, the tournament could not have got off to a better start. On the journey from Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium to the magnificent sporting arena that Irish fans will witness first hand next Sunday - the hugely impressive, new Wembley Stadium - it was clear that World Cup 2015 had taken off big time.
A bit churlish then to start off with a bit of a moan but already the officiating has come under scrutiny. If the interaction between referees and the TMO continue at the level seen in the opening sequence of games, we will be lucky to see the tournament completed by Christmas.
Who is now the final arbiter as to when a try has been scored? We discovered last weekend that even if the referee has awarded a try after consultation with his TMO, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee the score.
Both Fiji and France had tries disallowed in such circumstances after additional replays on the big screen confirmed other issues not scrutinised at the time by the officials, leading to a further review just as the conversion was about to been taken.
Had those images not been shown on the big screens around the stadium, the tries would have stood. Could the destiny of the World Cup rest in the hands of somebody in the broadcast compound and if so, surely that could provide an additional advantage for the host nation?
Will teams be taking snappy drop goals to convert the try before additional replays cast further doubt in the referees mind? The one saving grace is that in all those incidents, the end result was correct, but the game must be controlled by the officials - not a producer in the TV van.
It would help if the assistant referees were more decisive, did their job, make a decision and not always take the easy route upstairs to the TMO. Officials have become paranoid and won’t risk anything that might affect their own progress into the knockout stage of the tournament. In the circumstances, it’s hard to blame them. We will see how this develops over the next round of games, starting today.
The most exciting elements of the opening weekend have, thankfully, revolved around the action on the field. The emotional response of the Georgian players after their surprise win over Tonga set the tone but for real drama, Japan’s incredible win over South Africa tops the bill. It featured one of the most courageous decisions ever taken by a captain in competitive action with Michael Leitch calmly opting for a scrum, not once but twice with a penalty when a kick at goal would have drawn the game and secured an historic result.
In such circumstances, the odds are always stacked against the little guy and you questioned the wisdom of that decision. To back yourself against a South African pack at that point in the game, with time almost up, speaks volumes for their belief and resilience.
By that stage we had already been treated to the incredible sight of the mighty Springbok pack being repelled over their own line from a brilliantly choreographed lineout maul from a combination of Japanese backs and forwards. The adrenalin was racing.
On this occasion bravery was rewarded and the winning try from the unheralded Japanese winger Karen Hesketh will forever be etched in World Cup folklore. The sight of David slaying the ultimate rugby Goliath in that fashion won the hearts and minds of fans worldwide and captured the imagination of anyone with even the faintest interest in this World Cup.
Even the Japanese fans have assumed the status of minor celebrities and anyone seen in the colours of the Brave Blossoms around Wembley was treated to a spontaneous round of applause. What they achieved on Saturday adds credence to any side, including Ireland, with aspirations of going the whole way that if you perform with unwavering belief, to the maximum of your ability then anything is possible.
After scrutinising our potential quarter-final opponents, New Zealand and Argentina, in the flesh at Wembley, I am convinced that Ireland have the potential to beat both, but will need to be 100% on their game to defeat either. New Zealand, as always, looked amazing at times but are not unbeatable.
The rush defence imposed by Argentina with clever use of shooters timed to perfection, kept the All Black attacking machine at bay for long periods. Julian Savea was starved of opportunity but to prevail you have to sustain that level of defensive intensity for the entire game. The Pumas couldn’t quite pull it off and in the end New Zealand, despite butchering three clear try scoring opportunities, prevailed. They always seem to find a way.
With a bit more discipline and composure, the Pumas could well have produced another shock result. The great Christy Ring was often quoted as saying “never take your eye off the ball, even when it’s in the referee’s pocket”. The problem with New Zealand is, to beat them you have to keep concentrating until you see the steam rising from the showers in the dressing room.
As if to illustrate the point, despite being under enormous pressure from the outset, they still managed to restrict Argentina to a net three point gain during the eighteen minute period when they were reduced to14 men plus a two minute phase on 13 after Conrad Smith followed Richie McCaw to the sin bin. New Zealand manage yellow card punishments better than any other side.
If Ireland account for France to top Pool D and avoid the All Blacks, they must be aware that by avoiding one bullet, another equally powerful one is waiting in the wings.
I was hugely impressed by Argentina on Sunday and they will prove a massive handful for any opposition in the knockout phase.
Their involvement in the Rugby Championship has brought them on in leaps and bounds and their approach now is much more rounded with a vastly improved attacking game to complement the traditional power of their set piece play.
They have unearthed a plethora of unheralded but extremely powerful, young, athletic forwards in tight head prop Francisco Nahuel Tetaz who handled veteran New Zealand loose head Tony Woodcock with ease, the second row pairing of Tomas Lavanini and try scorer Guido Petti Pagadizaval along with Pablo Matera in the back row. Both scrum halves, Tomas Cubelli and Martin Landajo, are very effective while 21-year-old winger-cum-full-back Santiago Cordero looks a star in the making.
Later on today the Irish squad will get a first glimpse of next Sunday’s opposition Romania and a second viewing of the French. Lets hope the Romanians take a lead from the Japanese and tear into them from the start.
Once again, however, a Tier Two nation has drawn the short straw when tasked to play the might of France and Ireland within a five day window. By comparison, we have been offered a dream schedule for this World Cup. The question now is, can we make the most of it?
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