Five Things We Learnt From the Opening Weekend
1) New Zealand are Unlikely to Win the World Cup
What an opening night it was at the Stade de France! Whilst New Zealand opened both halves with tries from Mark Telea in the first few minutes, they ultimately couldn't compete with the power of France. French fans would have had their hearts in their mouths when Rieko Ioane burst through the French defence in the opening minute to set up Telea. The evening was a tight affair with both teams almost shadow-boxing for the first half which held their fans in suspense.
However, the French began to relax into the game having felt the weight of expectation early on. They found their groove around the 50 minute mark with Jalibert drawing the New Zealand defence to send Penaud into the corner. Penaud was a perfect example of France's development into the game. The flyer was anonymous in the first forty but carried out one of his trademark sideways runs in the second half and he was also then denied an almost certain try with a miraculous tackle from Mo'unga.
The French pack continued to turn the screw and a late turnover from a New Zealand counter attack provided Les Bleus with a fortuitous opportunity for Jaminet to go over from a lucky bounce. The match proved that New Zealand aren't quite at the races this World Cup and after a 27-13 defeat to a sub-par and depleted France, it is unlikely they will be World Cup contenders this time.
2) Tier 2 Sides Don't Have a Second Half in Them
It's been a game of two halves for rugby's tier 2 sides in the first few games of the World Cup. Romania scored first in their game against Ireland whilst Namibia made Italy work hard and scored a try of their own in their corner. The half time score was 17-8 for Italy vs Namibia and 33-8 for Ireland vs Romania. However Italy scored 35 unanswered points and Ireland secured their own haul of 49 unanswered points in the second halves. It's not the fact that the tier 2 teams are taking a pasting in the second halves, but more that they're unable to fire a single shot.
Chile also got off to a good start with the first try in their match against Japan. A a break down the right wing provided Rodrigo Fernandez with the chance to go over for Chile's first ever World Cup try. You couldn't have asked for a better script. Rodriguez won World Rugby Try of the Year in Chile's campaign to qualify for the tournament so it was fitting he would be the one to make history. Unfortunately Japan fired back with six tries and Chile only managed to score once more.
It is evident that these times neither have the depth nor the conditioning to go the full 80 minutes. However, they do have some incredible individual talent which can cause problems for the top teams early on before the heavy legs begin to set in.
3) It is Possible to Butcher the French and Italian Anthems
Perhaps the major controversy of the World Cup so far has been the national anthems. Going into this World Cup, France had choreographed a spectacular entry for the teams with music blaring, a stadium bedecked in French flags and pyrotechnics going off everywhere you looked. Unfortunately when France and New Zealand entered the Stade de France on Friday, the atmosphere felt muted compared to what we had previously seen. Don't worry though, it would all be saved by La Marseillaise. Or so we thought...
What came next was an annihilation of La Marseillaise with an acappella child's choir. The crowd were drowned out and the choir were singing at a different rate of knots to the players. It should have been the night when the French crowd blew the roof off of the Stade de France. Unfortunately that didn't come across on the television.
They didn't stop there... Anthem after anthem soon began to fall to this interpretation. Il canto degli Italiani, God Save the King, Ireland's Call, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, O Flower of Scotland. One by one they were butchered. Hopefully the French organisers can remedy this by the next set of fixtures. Let the fans roar!
4) The Drop Goal is Back
Cast your minds back to the 1999 World Cup quarter finals. South Africa put England to the sword with five drop goals and five penalties from Jannie de Beer. The day left a scar on England Head Coach Sir Clive Woodward. Anyone who has been to a talk from Woodward would have heard him mention the number of 22 entries times by drop goals equals a pretty hefty score. This would become a key plank of England's strategy in 2003 and it would ultimately end in that famous drop goal.
However, the drop goal goes through periods of being in fashion and out again. 99% of times it is a weapon that is never used by teams. Leicester's Freddie Burns was to change that trend when he slotted a last minute drop goal against Saracens in the Premiership Final two seasons ago after he replaced George Ford in the opening stages of the game.
This weekend it was George Ford himself who took a leaf out of Freddie's book. The England fly half caught the Argentineans off guard and slotted three early drop goals. The unstoppable weapon discombobulated Los Pumas. They had no answer. Argentina were so shellshocked and devoid of ideas that when they entered England's half they even tried one of their own to little avail. England reached 12-3 up and by that point it already felt too late for Argentina as the England pack turned the screw even tighter.
Will other teams copy this tactic in the competition? We will have to wait and see...
5) Consistently Inconsistent
Going into this World Cup, everyone feared head contacts were going to become a weekly issue. The warm ups were marred with debate over Owen Farrell's disciplinary proceedings followed by another head contact by Billy Vunipola. The failure of the system saw World Rugby have to intervene.
The hope was that the Farrell mess would have resulted in clear guidance being provided on how to follow the high tackle framework. However, on the opening weekend we saw four games reach very different conclusions.
It was all going so well in the first four matches. They passed without incident. Unfortunately, that was shortlived. Three minutes into the game, Tom Curry made contact with the head of Juan Cruz Mallia after Mallia descended from a high ball. Curry had little time to adjust and was yellow carded with the incident being sent for a review. Whilst Curry was off the pitch, Santiago Carreras attempted to charge down Ford and ended up planting his hip into Ford's head. Carreras was also yellowed and sent for review. Mallia had actually been banned for a similar offence to Carreras only a month earlier when he collided with Grant Williams. However, the bunker review judged that Curry's offence should be upgraded to a red whilst Carreras would remain at a yellow.
The next day, Chilean captain Martin Sigren made an identical hit to Curry and was only yellow carded. Then in South Africa vs Scotland, Jesse Kriel attempted to tackle Jack Dempsey but ended up giving the Scottish player a Glasgow kiss. This incident didn't even go for a formal review. Finally, there were two incidents from Wales vs Fiji which have only come to light after the game with Dan Biggar seeming to connect with the head of Semi Radradra and Will Rowlands grazing the chin of Luke Tagi. There is a growing bewilderment about how some incidents are being picked up and others are not. Hopefully there will be a growing consistency as the tournament goes on...