Scotland fall flat in Rugby World Cup opener and other Week 1 talking points
The first week of the 2019 Rugby World Cup is in the books. After hosts Japan opened the show with a comfortable win over Russia, we have had shocks, controversies and, of course, Scottish disappointment. Joe Anderson and Jamie Braidwood discuss the main talking points from the opening week of action.
Disappointing Scotland have it all to prove
JA: Having spent the weeks before the tournament talking of how they are here to win the tournament, how they would target Johnny Sexton and play the fastest brand of rugby in the world, Scotland were simply miles away on Sunday.
Defensively unorganised and loose in attack, Gregor Townsend’s men made far too many errors to compete at this level. It was perhaps the worst performance of Townsend’s reign so far. Japan, and even Samoa, will have been licking their lips watching the Scots, and both will surely believe they are capable of claiming a scalp.
For Scotland, they will need to improve drastically. If they manage to claim second spot in their group and make the quarter-finals, which now seems much less certain than it once did, if they play like that against South Africa or New Zealand they will get absolutely humiliated.
JB: We’ve been there before, haven’t we? We’ve felt the excitement and expectation of supporting Scotland ahead of a major tournament, only to see it all dissipate within minutes of their opening game. We should be used to it by now – it’s just been part of being a Scotland rugby fan in recent years.
Only Sunday felt even worse than that. Sure, Scotland were always going to be underdogs heading into a match against the No. 1 team in world rugby, but it was the manner of the performance that hurt most. Scotland were insipid, devoid of any sparks of creativity, and didn’t even seem to care that their performance fell so below their usual standards. Drab, limp, spiritless, whatever you want to call it, Scotland were all that and then some.
Townsend’s side cannot afford to feel sorry for themselves with Samoa awaiting in Kobe on Monday and the pressure is on the team to respond. It is now more than a must-win game, Scotland must show some fight and passion if they are to get their supporters back on side and believing in the team ahead of that crucial closing game against Japan on October 13.
World Cup referees struggling to deal with dangerous tackles
JB: After the opening few matches of the World Cup were marred by a number of controversial incidents of dangerous play that went unpunished, tournament organisers World Rugby raised eyebrows by issuing a statement criticising the standard of their own referees. The statement followed Australia’s win over Fiji in which Wallabies winger Reece Hodge escaped punishment for a dangerous tackle on Peceli Yato, although Hodge was later cited by World Rugby and banned for the rest of the pool stage.
Since then there have also been bans for Samoa’s Rey Lee-Lo and for the USA’s John Quill, who was sent off for a dangerous tackle on England Owen Farrell on Thursday, while England’s Pierre Francis could also face punishment after being cited. World Rugby is clearly keen to clamp down on dangerous play after they introduced new rules to lower the height of the high-tackle limit in an attempt to reduce head injuries. Given the number of incidents we saw this week, players are clearly still adjusting to the rules, but there can be no excuses for referees failing to punish dangerous play. Let’s hope the standard of refereeing improves in this second week.
JA: Twice in the Samoa vs. Russia game, Vasily Artemyev was hit on the head in the tackle. Both times referee Romain Poite considered a red card before finding “mitigating circumstances” to keep them on the field. When World Rugby have been so clear on contact with the head being a red card, it seems ludicrously easy for referees to make the safe call and turn red into yellow. The sport cannot claim to be doing everything it can reduce concussions when high tackles are not being penalised with the highest sanction.
Uruguay stun Fiji in massive World Cup upset
JB: The World Cup had largely gone to script until Uruguay caused a massive upset against Fiji on Wednesday. It was a dream result for Los Teros and by far the biggest in their history. Uruguay were still an amatuer side at the 2015 World Cup four years ago and, quite incredibly, were thrashed 68-7 by Fiji last year, which only emphasises how stunning a turnaround their win was.
It’s all gone according to plan elsewhere – although we saw drama on the opening Saturday with France edging Group C opponents Argentina, despite having a comfortable lead at half-time, while New Zealand later saw out South Africa in a titanic clash in Group B. England have flexed their muscles after putting 80 points past Tonga and the USA, Wales scored six tries in their opening win over Georgia, and Australia put a shaky start behind them to defeat Fiji 39-21.
Strong Ireland stake claim again
JA: After starting this column on Scotland, it’s only fair to mention that Ireland looked extremely strong in that 27-3 win. Despite going into the tournament as world No. 1, many wrote Ireland off for this World Cup after a lacklustre 2019. They didn’t have to do much to get past a woeful Scotland, but Joe Schmidt’s side made a real statement. Big performances from the likes of James Ryan, Rory Best, Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour showed that Ireland have what it takes to beat anybody on their day. When you think that Rob Kearney and Keith Earls are still to be reinducted into the side, you write them off at your own peril. Their match against Japan on Saturday is the pick of the weekend’s games, along with Australia vs. Wales on Sunday.