We’re sort of at the end of the first round of matches in the Rugby World Cup—because the groups have an odd number of teams, some haven’t played as others are beginning their second round of matches. Ireland fans got to have some fun in the form of Iain Henderson galloping like an angry llama through Scottish defenders, the venerable captain and hooker Rory Best trying out a sidestep and offload among his moments of acting as a backup scrum half (proving once and for all that you can teach old dogs new tricks), and the Irish pack mutating into a many-armed and -legged beast hungry for tries and opposition flesh.
For more general fans, the most enjoyable game has possibly been the most recent, with Uruguay mugging Fiji to steal an unlikely win. As someone who’s recently been to and is unreasonably fond of Uruguay, this result has been providing me with internal warmth all day. Probably a good thing, as back in Ireland we’ve definitively seen the last of summer now.
Regardless, With the flurry of games over the opening weekend having seen all the major contenders for the title fire their first shots, we can perhaps see the direction in which things might be heading. For simplicity’s sake, let’s take a look at those contenders in broad, and possibly contentious, categories.
The out-and-out favourites for the RWC this year had a mixed set of results, mainly because two of them played each other in one of the most interesting games of the weekend. New Zealand came out the victors against South Africa, courtesy of a few moments of brilliance in the first half, but it was a much tighter game than the 10-points differential might suggest. New Zealand should go on to top the group now and face either Scotland or Japan in the quarter finals, whereas South Africa will be wary of a potential banana skin in the form of Italy. They ought to have enough in the tank to put away the Italians comfortably, but a loss already puts them at a disadvantage and nerves could take hold.
As for the other top-tier team, England stuttered a little in the first half before dispatching Tonga. It was a performance with plenty of bite in it, but coach Eddie Jones won’t be satisfied with how long it took his charges to end their challenge. With Argentina and France also in their group, England aren’t certain of anything yet, and they’ll be looking to improve over the games to come.
Not far below the big three come a trio of teams with eyes very much on the prize. Of them, Ireland will be by far the happiest with their performance, as mentioned above. They shut down a dangerous but ultimately disappointing Scottish team, picking up a bonus point and not letting in any tries. With their most challenging group game behind them, Ireland will now need to see off hosts Japan before they can start looking towards a potential quarter final showdown with South Africa.
Like New Zealand and South Africa, Wales and Australia share a group, but they didn’t meet on the opening weekend, instead facing and dispatching Georgia and Fiji respectively. Neither win was entirely convincing, as both teams shipped a few tries in claiming a bonus point win, but they remain on course to collect the two qualifying spots in the group. Which order they’ll end in will largely depend on their meeting this weekend, with the loser likely facing England in the quarter finals. Both will be keen to avoid that, and the more solid Wales seem likely to come out on top.
At this point, things get a little messy. France and Argentina share the group of death with England, and unless both of them can upset the Saxon chariot, one of them will miss out on the quarters. Their meeting over the opening weekend was a thrilling and frustrating match, with France bursting into a lead and Argentina trying and just failing to haul them back. As a result, France have the whip hand and Argentina will need to go for broke against England. Bonus points could decide things yet, and don’t put it past France to implode against one of the other nations or spring a surprise on England.
Lastly we come to Scotland, the unfortunate victims of Ireland’s impressive weekend showing. Coming into the tournament with high hopes, they’re now reeling from a loss and a few injuries that have knocked out some of their best players. Their match against Japan could be the highlight of the final group stage weekend, with the hosts desperate to make it to the quarter finals and the Scots equally desperate to avoid the ignominy of going out in the group stages.
There weren’t any dramatic surprises over the course of the opening weekend, though the lower-ranked teams performed well enough (and Uruguay‘s victory over Fiji provides hope of more to come). The best of them, Japan and Italy, both won their opening matches comfortably enough, but it’s Japan who have the better hope of making the quarter finals (as discussed above). Italy are unfortunate enough to be in the same group as New Zealand and South Africa, and a result against either seems like the longest of long shots.
Elsewhere, no one has really put their hand up as someone to watch, though everyone has contributed to what’s been a fun opening few days. Concerns about refereeing and punishments over high tackles aside, this looks like it’s set to be the tournament we were hoping it would be. Roll on the next few weeks…