October 15, 2019, 9:40

Rugby World Cup 2019: Stuart Barnes’ talking points

Rugby World Cup 2019: Stuart Barnes’ talking points

Sky Sports rugby union expert Stuart Barnes picks out the main points from the opening matches in Japan.

1. By the end of the weekend, New Zealand’s solid effort against the much fancied – by me and a multitude of ex-players, journalists etc – Springboks looked far more impressive than it had seemed in real time.

Of course, a 10-point margin against South Africa is impressive in itself, but the Springboks dominated in large parts without ever generating the pace to put too much pressure on the All Blacks.

In contrast, New Zealand struck with deadly incision in a six or seven-minute spell in the middle of the first half, taking a tight game away from their traditional rivals.

What so impressed was the confidence of their handling game. Passes stuck, and players ran onto the ball at a pace beyond many of the other teams.

The much-touted humidity appeared to cause England all sorts of problems, Australia didn’t relish it, while Scotland intricately passed their way into terrible trouble.

But the All Blacks played over and outside the Springbok defence with a precision that looked all the more impressive for the early problems of the other nations.

2. Let’s take it back to Friday night, and the tournament kick-off. Japan beat Russia with a little less ease than expected, but Kotaro Matsushima’s opening night hat-trick lifted the Land of the Rising Sun.

Or is it wind and rain, or humidity? The weather has a role to play, the like of which I have never seen in a World Cup.

The Japanese suffered from a bad case of nerves. They were terrible beneath the high ball and if they do not improve that aspect of their game, Ireland will kick them out of contention at the weekend.

A brief aside. Nigel Owens gave an immaculate display of refereeing. He is always so close to the action, in perfect positions, and has the ability to keep talking throughout.

Never – surely – in the history of rugby have so few rugby players, Japanese and Russian, understood so few words of Nigel’s strongly West Wales-accented English.

3. As for England, they were unimpressive but this tournament is not going to be won with brilliance in the early days.

The team lacked concentration – perhaps they were a tad complacent – but Manu Tuilagi was a bold shaft of optimism as he trampled Tongan defenders into the dust. When one considers the bravery of their defence for much of the match, this was impressive.

4. Much controversy in the case of Reece Hodge, the Wallaby winger who was not yellow, or red, carded for what many in the Northern Hemisphere regarded as a reckless challenge. He was cited in the wake of much public discourse.

There’s a problem here. If he receives a retrospective ban on Wednesday when his case is heard, the tournament will be threatened by a potential loss of leading players because of precedence. This was reckless, nothing more.

Well, that is my opinion. Others see it differently, but World Rugby needs decisive decision-making from their officials, not a reaction to the outrage of the media. We should not have that power.

It is being wrapped up as a Tier One team (Australia) getting away with it against a second-tier side (Fiji). It is an understandable argument, but in this instance, I think a yellow card in the moment for Hodge was the right call.

If this clumsy tackle is worth a ban, this tournament has set itself a very dangerous precedent. I hope Hodge escapes with nothing but a ticking off. I suspect a compromise ban with availability to play in the knock-out stages onwards.

5. Australia will need all their first-team players at their disposal when they take on Wales on Sunday. It is one of those games with massive implications.

If Wales – impressive in the first half against Georgia – win, they have Fiji standing between them and a possible quarter-final against France rather than England. So the theory goes, anyway.

6. France, if they repeat the form of their first 40 minutes, can beat any team on this planet – England included. If they perform as they did second half, England could give them a thumping.

It was a real curate’s egg of a game. The time for my cliché of the week has arrived – a veritable game of two halves.

Argentina themselves went from the ridiculous to the potentially dangerous as they fought back and almost won. It was a thrilling game, the best of round one.

7. Argentina reverted to type. Driving mauls were the flavour of the weekend. The Pumas used it to deadly effect, as did England in the second half with Jamie George the beneficiary of a close-range drive.

Australia – way too loose in the first half against the flying Fijians – almost looked like an old-style England as their scrum and line out took away the game from the Pacific Islanders.

8. On the subject of driving play, Phil Kearns, the World Cup-winning Wallaby hooker, reckons Ireland could “bore their way to the World Cup” if they are able to play at the pedestrian pace achieved against Scotland.

It was a classic case of no-risk rugby. Ireland scored three tries from their tight five forwards in a first half that was pretty for a forward, ugly as anything imaginable for a Scot.

I thought Iain Henderson and James Ryan were outstanding, as was the entire Irish front five. Too early to make any predictions, but this was a very fine start for Joe Schmidt’s team.

9. It could not have been worse for Scotland. They were too intricate, too slow off Greig Laidlaw, second-best from first to last.

To compound their desperate start, Hamish Watson is out of the World Cup. A key man and outstanding open side, we wish him well.

As for Scotland, Japan will have their eyes on the final round of the pool stages, with Samoa another threat to a Scotland team who will do well to fight their way into the final eight after Sunday’s setback.

10. A few players who stood out: Beauden Barrett and Cheslin Kolbe; Antoine Dupont, Damian Penaud and Charles Ollivon; Manu Tuilagi.

Sourse: skysports.com

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