Rugby World Cup 2015 - Pool Stages capture the imagination
Rugby World Cup 2015 – Pool stages capture the imagination
Who said the group stages of a major tournament were often dull, boring, and one-sided? Whoever it was, they were left eating their words after the month of rugby that has just been played out down in England.
In the past, the so-called “minnows” of the rugby world were often on the receiving end of a number of hidings. Think of Namibia, and your mind may well wander to their 142-0 drubbing at the hands of Australia in 2003. Likewise, Uruguay’s major role in World Cup history was their supporting role in England’s 111-13 win at the same tournament. However, 2015 will be noted as the year the underdogs found their bite.
Leading from the front were the unlikely stars of the pool stage. Before the beginning of the tournament, Japan had not won a Rugby World Cup match since 1991. South Africa, meanwhile, were two-time champions and amongst the favourites to lift the trophy on 31 October. Yet in Brighton on the first Saturday of the tournament, the Japanese promptly tore up the script and threw it off the end of the famous pavilion. Despite South Africa scoring four tries from sheer forward power, the unerring boot of Ayumu Goromaru kept them in the game, alongside a monumental shift from captain Michael Leitch. The New Zealand born flanker deserved his try, as the fans in the stadium rubbed their eyes in disbelief and joy.
It’s for the decisive play that the game will be remembered, though. With just seconds left and trailing by three points, Japan turned down the kick at goal that would have secured a famous draw in search of an even more famous victory. Four minutes, seventeen phases and a lot of nail-biting later, the aptly-nicknamed Brave Blossoms were celebrating Karne Hesketh’s immortal score and a 34-32 win. Despite a loss in their next match against Scotland, the Japanese went on to claim wins in their two remaining group games. Despite narrowly missing out on qualification for the quarter finals, Japan will return to a hero’s welcome, and will return even stronger for the next tournament in 2019 – which just so happens to be in their own back yard.
There were other notable performances by the “smaller” nations, although that’s a term I hesitate to use for Georgia’s sizeable forward pack. Led by the behemoth that is Mamuka Gorgodze, the Georgians put in their best ever display at a World Cup, beating Tonga and Namibia and even going toe to toe with New Zealand in Cardiff. Romania, too, pulled off the biggest comeback in the history of the Rugby World Cup against Canada to record their first World Cup win since 2007. Even the smallest of the small in Namibia and Uruguay put in performances to be proud of. Carlos Arbeloya and Jean Deysel will never have to buy a drink again after their try-scoring exploits at this tournament against Fiji and New Zealand respectively.
Perhaps it’s a mark of this tournament that the minnows have stolen the limelight. However, it would be remiss of us if we didn’t mention the hosts. England came into the tournament with high expectations, yet their performances fell flat. Unconvincing against Fiji, outthought by Wales and outclassed by Australia, Stuart Lancaster’s side became the first hosts in World Cup history to exit the tournament before the quarter finals and the first English side not to make the last eight. Whilst some may clamour for the coach to be shown the door, the fact is that very few of the players were good enough when push came to shove.
Scotland, meanwhile, are revelling in their underdog status. Putting 45 points past Japan was an impressive opening statement, and was backed up with a good display against the USA. Outmuscled against South Africa, their chances rested on beating Samoa at St James’ Park. In one of the most frantic games of the tournament, Greig Laidlaw’s cool head steered the Scottish ship through. However, their slow starts in the tournament thus far are a cause for concern, and will need to be sorted out if Scotland are to genuinely challenge for the Webb Ellis Trophy.
The usual suspects, meanwhile, have made the last eight with varying degrees of ease. New Zealand have coasted through without really getting out of second gear, an ominous sign for those lying in wait. South Africa recovered from their shock loss to Japan to flex their muscles whilst Australia have arguably been the most impressive side in the tournament thus far. Ireland and Wales may have to overcome yet more serious injuries to further their title ambitions, whilst France and Argentina still carry their dark horse tag with distinction.
All in all then, this tournament is shaping up to be quite an occasion. And with some titanic knockout clashes in prospect, we might not have seen the best of the action quite just yet…
Catch all of the knockout matches live on Air3 Xtra, starting with the quarter finals this weekend!