We take a look at some of the key quotes and talking points from the first two days of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Japan welcomes Rugby World Cup to Asia
It was a typically Japanese opening ceremony, featuring plenty of symbolic cultural references, a Kabuki dance performance and a story starting at the dawn of time and finishing with rugby’s arrival in Japan.
New Zealand great and former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw was there too, holding aloft the Webb Ellis Cup which his compatriots are aiming to claim for the third tournament running.
But once Japan’s Prince Akishino had declared the tournament open, day one of this year’s ground-breaking World Cup was all about two of the lesser-heralded nations as the hosts took on Russia in front of a sold-out crowd in Tokyo.
The Cherry Blossoms, who made the world sit up and take notice with a shock win over South Africa four years ago, overcame a nervy start to defeat Russia 30-10 on the back of Kotaro Matsushima’s first hat-trick for the national team.
“It is my first three tries as a Japanese player,” winger Matsushima said. “We were able to connect with each other and the roar of the fans became our driving force.
“I want our strong momentum to win to carry into the next match (against Ireland).”
Concerns over dangerous tackles
In the week leading up to the start of the World Cup, World Rugby’s referee boss Alain Rolland reiterated that the officials will be clamping down on high tackles at this year’s tournament – even if it means handing out more red cards.
“It’s quite clear now,” Rolland explained. “There are three questions: Is there contact to the head? If yes, was there a high degree of danger?
“If so, it’s a red card. The referee will look to see if ‘there is an act of mitigation that allows me to bring the red down to a yellow card’.”
But just two days into the tournament, there has been some questions as to how rigorously this is being enforced after two separate incidents which went unpunished.
The first came in the opening game of the tournament – flagged up on social media by Jacques Burger, no less – when Russia scrum-half Vasilii Dorofeev had to go off with a concussion after being hit late by James Moore.
Then some felt Reece Hodge was lucky to avoid sanction for his try-saving block on Fiji’s Peceli Yato, who also failed a head injury assessment, in Australia’s 39-21 win over the Pacific Islanders on Saturday.
Fiji head coach John McKee would not be drawn on the incident post-match, however.
“The referee has a tough job out there,” McKee said. “There’s a lot going on. We maybe didn’t get the rub of the green, but we have no complaints about the referee.”
A tale of two halves for Ledesma
The Pool C opener proved to be a gripping contest, with Camille Lopez landing a crucial drop goal at one end and Emiliano Boffelli seeing a last-gasp penalty attempt drift wide as France clung on for a 23-21 win.
The French had established a 20-3 lead at half time, but the Pumas stormed back and briefly led at one point before replacement fly-half Lopez got the game-winning score for his team.
Argentina head coach Mario Ledesma was left to rue a first 40 minutes which left his side chasing the game after the narrow loss, but was enthused by their fighting display after the break.
“We didn’t do anything in the first half – defended badly and didn’t attack well, lost every ball into contact, so just not doing what we’ve been doing for a while now,” Ledesma said.
“In the second half we created many opportunities, scored and also just missed two points (near the end).”
Barrett experiment pays off for All Blacks
A few eyebrows were raised when New Zealand named Beauden Barrett at full-back to accommodate Richie Mo’unga at fly-half for the Pool B opener against South Africa, but it worked out exactly as the All Blacks would have wanted.
Barrett added an extra playmaking dimension to the back line in the 15 shirt, with Mo’unga pulling the strings in the halves and taking on the goal-kicking duties until he left the field late in the 23-13 win over the Springboks.
New Zealand assistant coach Ian Foster was full of praise for the 28-year-old and is in no doubt he can go on to be one of the stars of this year’s World Cup.
“He’s a key part of our strategy group, the way he prepares,” Foster said. “I know how focused he is on playing well, but there’s a few others like that too.
“He’s helping Richie (Mo’unga) grow into the position he’s in too. He’s a part of encouraging and giving them confidence too.”
Italy aim to weather storm
The second match in Pool B opens Sunday’s World Cup action as Italy take on outsiders Namibia in Hanazono, where heavy rain is expected.
The Italians have won just one of their last 10 Test matches, but are expected to come away with a victory against a team which has yet to win a game in their 19 previous World Cup matches.