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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 24 April, 2019
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Rugby World Cup comes up trumps on brilliant opening weekend

Japan’s massive upset win was the story of the first round in England and Wales.

Murray Kinsella reports from St. George’s Park

THERE WERE CERTAINLY a few bumps along the road, but World Cup organisers can look back on the opening weekend of the tournament with great satisfaction.

The true story of the past three days is, of course, Japan. Their upset against South Africa is being spoken about as the biggest in sporting history, never mind the rugby archives.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Pool B - South Africa v Japan - Brighton Community Stadium Heroes, one and all. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Karne Hesketh started his rugby career in his native New Zealand, but his profession brought him to Japan in 2010. The 30-year-old was winning just his 11th international cap against the Springboks, but he has already made a Japanese legend of himself.

This memorable triumph, one that gripped the sporting world, was not about one man. Hesketh’s teammates were exceptional, constantly making incredible last-ditch efforts in defence and showing the type of mental strength that coaches dream of their players possessing.

The skill level under intense pressure was off the charts, a credit to a coaching staff including Eddie Jones, Leigh Jones and Keisuke Sawaki. Forwards coach Steve Borthwick saw his stock rise and rise with a stunning set-piece display from his pack.

This win contained tactical and technical intricacies from a high-tempo Japan side, but the real sense of the result is the simple joy of seeing a huge underdog pull off the unthinkable.

The World Cup is partly about showcasing our sport to the uninitiated or previously uninterested. Japan’s exploits enraptured that exact target audience, perhaps convincing them to tune in again when the action resumes on Wednesday.

Cruelly, Japan feature that day when they take on Scotland. Insufficient rest, but Jones’ men will have a greatly swollen number of supporters behind them. There is also the fascinating prospect of seeing Michael Cheika’s Australia in action for the first time.

There were points of interest everywhere else across the weekend, even if it did start with a frustrating affair between hosts England and Fiji at Twickenham that took almost two full hours to complete.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Pool A - New Zealand v Argentina - Wembley Stadium The Kiwis haka at Wembley. Source: Mike Egerton

The most disappointing trend of the weekend, that of an over-reliance and inconsistency in the use of the television match official, began under the eye of referee Jaco Peyper. There simply needs to be less stoppages in play to go to the TMO.

The on-pitch match officials, assistant referees particularly, simply must back their decision-making and there also needs to be a willingness to allow the game to flow, even if that requires overlooking or missing minor infringements at times.

We never want to see a lawless game of course, but is a stoppage in play and a TMO review for a potential penalty offence, ignoring try and foul play decisions even, really necessary?

Wayne Barnes actually checked in with his TMO as play continued around him at one stage in the New Zealand game. A brilliant bit of refereeing in a strong display from the Englishman; more of that, please.

Pool C threw up two enthralling fixtures in the opening round, first Georgia beating off the dynamic challenge of Tonga down in Gloucester, led by the abrasive Mamuka ‘Gorgodzilla’ Gorgodze. Their celebrations at Kingsholm were a delight to watch.

Then yesterday evening we saw the strength of New Zealand’s self-confidence as they survived a brilliant 50-minute showing from Argentina to finish strongly in front of a World Cup-record crowd of 89,019 in Wembley, partly due to the entry of Sonny Bill Williams into the game.

Many felt a sense of schadenfreude in seeing the Kiwis punished strictly by referee Wayne Barnes with yellow cards for Richie McCaw and Conrad Smith, while there was respect for the invention and work rate of the Pumas, most notably the brilliant Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe and the sublimely skillful Juan Martín Hernández.

It was certainly imperfect from Steve Hansen’s reigning champions, but they demonstrated their utter belief to come through the rocky patch and close out the game with the help of their bench.

Jonathan Sexton celebrates scoring their third try Johnny Sexton scores for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

France, of such interest to Ireland, got up and running against Italy, while Samoa and Wales also notched wins. Warren Gatland’s men are suffering more than any other team with injuries, optimism fading even after a bonus-point win in the Millennium Stadium.

Speaking of the Cardiff venue, one of the highlights of the weekend was the Irish invasion that ensured Joe Schmidt’s men were playing a home game against Canada under the roof.

Saturday morning and afternoon in the Welsh capital hammered home the fact that a World Cup is different to everything else. Irish fans flocked into Cardiff in their tens of thousands, bringing with them excitement, humour and a fair old thirst.

The atmosphere inside the stadium was incredible throughout, Paul O’Connell and his teammates seeming to be genuinely touched by it.

Schmidt and his squad, as well as the travelling media, moved on to St. George’s Park yesterday to begin the next chapter of the adventure, Romania waiting in Wembley at the end of the week.

Before we left Cardiff though, the image of the weekend happened upon us. A group of Japan fans walked into our hotel lobby early yesterday morning and out broke a spontaneous and genuinely affectionate round of applause at the sight of the red jerseys.

A special start to a tournament that promises so much more.

Samoa battle to USA win, but Scotland and Japan opponents won’t be too worried

Henshaw on track to feature in Ireland’s World Cup clash with Romania

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Murray Kinsella

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