In his exclusive online column Ronan O’Gara reflects on the opening weekend of Rugby World Cup 2015?
UNIQUE is the first word that comes to mind, and it’s as good as any to describe an historic moment that, at once, propelled this Rugby World Cup onto the front pages and in effect launched the next World Cup four years hence.
World Rugby have a potential barnstormer on their hands now in England. Just look at the pictures from Monday’s Japanese press conference for Wednesday’s clash with Scotland. But Karne Hesketh’s try out wide in injury time against the Springboks did something that will sustain rugby for four years - not four days.
I was in Dubai on Saturday watching television in a circle of people I’d never met, all experiencing the same high-wire ride of excitement that had people’s hands to their heads in disbelief, everyone mouthing the same thing: What Are They Doing? Kick the penalty and take the draw.
Two weeks ago a Japanese club team Yahama visited Racing 92 in Paris for a training hit-out. There was a suggestion of a few live scrums which our lads politely declined on the basis that they did not want to mangle their lightweight visitors. No I don’t think so, the Racing lads said, politely as they could. Fast forward 20 minutes, and the Japanese lads are milling us in the scrums. It’s incredible and beautiful to see perfect technique working in front of your eyes.
No-one could say Japan were lucky against South Africa. When the three points was there for a draw, their belief systems were incredible in going for a win. I knew they had a good scrum, but you think ‘first game in the World Cup, someone offers you a draw against the Springboks, you are biting their hand off. No?’
Maybe if they had a bigger rugby reputation and were offered a draw, they’d have taken it. But with an element of riding the bucking bronco for every last second they could stay on it and a massive sense of composure, they turned the opening weekend of the World Cup into an episode from the Roy of the Rovers comic strip.
In macro terms, what this has done with the tournament heading for Japan in 2019 is create massive awareness of the game in that country. If they do nothing else in the tournament, the Japanese have injected millions of euros of marketing spend into the next World Cup with one huge victory. Even if Japan beat Scotland on Wednesday, yes it’s a big win, but South Africa are one of the superpowers of the game.
Joe Schmidt was true to his word. He pledged that Ireland would hit the ground running on Saturday against the Canucks and they did all of that for 40 minutes.
The second 40 was average, but that’s alright too. The variation in their game showed that Ireland are proper title contenders here. Johnny Sexton’s kicking game was excellent, but we need to see more of it because because that variation in game management and tempo suits Irish teams. It’s in his locker and Sexton’s confidence is now at a really good pitch. It’s crucial to capitalise on that.
Iain Henderson had another mammoth game, and Luke Fitzgerald showed on occasions what a serious rugby player he is. What he hasn’t done in a while is put a series of games together, back to back. If Fitzgerald gets a consistent run of, say, seven matches, he is ready to explode.
Don’t think Keith Earls is finished growing either. Nowhere near it. You’re seeing moments from him now that I’ve seen at close quarters in the past. That’s Earls only growing in confidence; wait til he gets to the point of performing with optimum confidence. There is another level to his game. And there is another level to Ireland.
THE Pumas certainly gave a lie to the notion that they would wave the All Blacks game by and focus on their other pool games. On Sunday night, they put in a herculean display against the All Blacks, but how much did they empty their tank in doing so?
New Zealand, of course, are the absolute masters at finding a solution on their feet. No panic, just composure. In the last ten minutes they could have turned a ten-point game into a 24-point trouncing, but credit Argentina for hanging in there admirably in the final stages. At what cost is the question?
NO-one in France is doing cartwheels after their defeat of Italy in Ireland’s Pool D. Nor should they be. As a collective, the French were average. Yes, terrific individual moments, but in terms of a collective game plan, I suspect the French are going to become more and more frustrating, and frustrated, as the tournament goes on.
Losing Yoann Huget is a serious blow too. The winger is their poacher, their Tommy Bowe. Who fulfils that role now? Huget is being replaced by powerful Castres Olympique wing Remy Grosso, but at this stage, he’s still very unproven.
Italy look in a depressed state. At the risk of repeating myself, Diego Dominguez has never been replaced him, and centre Andrea Masi is a big loss on top of being without their talisman Sergio Parisse. At the minute, Jacques Brunel has a squad desperately seeking one of its leaders to step up. It may already be too late.
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