With the opening weekend of the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan in the history books, and one more match to play in the “first round” on Monday, there have been some spectacular performances by the big teams. New Zealand were clinical to win off of South African errors, Ireland shut down Scotland at every turn, and *England took their time to ease home to a somewhat lazy victory over Tonga. However, two performances that should not be overlooked in the opening weekend were those of Argentina and Fiji.
Both Argentina and Fiji were on the losing side of their respective matches, with Fiji eventually succumbing to a 39-11 loss to Australia, and Argentina narrowly losing 23-21 to France. However, despite the losses, both teams showed great improvement from their previous games in 2019, and both teams seriously looked as if they could win their respective matches at various points of the games.
The Flying Fijians were all over their Australian opponents in the start of their World Cup opener, and looked a much more threatening side than they have in 2019. For the first 50 minutes of the match, it looked as if Fiji had taken a page out of their Sevens playbook, as they were running hard and into space, offloading the ball into gaps and making big meters. The Wallabies would have been stunned after ten minutes to be trailing by eight points.
While the score never got away from Australia, Fiji’s power, pace and legendary offloading ability (which they have harnessed in their Sevens exploits) would certainly have worried Michael Cheika’s men early on. A half-time lead of 12-14 for Fiji would not have pleased Cheika, as his side had been bullied into making a number of disciplinary errors, which allowed Fiji to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Fiji continued to play high risk, high reward rugby effectively in the first ten minutes of the second half, and ultimately took a 12-21 lead by the time their luck ran out.
With half an hour remaining in the match, Australia clamped on the accelerator, and Fiji could not keep up. As Australia kept moving up a gear, Fiji soon realised the biggest downside of not having regular matches against top teams, which is their inability to play for a full 80 minutes. Halfway through the second half, Fiji looked out on their feet and were unable stem the Australian fight back. They will, however, be buoyed by their first half performance, which gave an indication that they could still be a worry for Wales in the group stages if underestimated.
Argentina, on the other hand, had the opposite start against France, looking flat and demotivated in the first half. They slumped to a 20-3 deficit by halftime against Les Bleus, as the French broke through Los Pumas’ defense regularly. Argentina looked like a side that has lost nine matches out of their last ten. But this was not the story of the second half.
Los Pumas came out in the second half with renewed energy, and wasted no time at all in starting to reduce the deficit. They upped the tempo of their attack, and found gaps in the French defense that were not there in the first half. It was one-way traffic for the Argentinians, who managed to move into a one point lead with barely ten minutes left to play. It was a drop goal from Camille Lopez that put France back in front, and both teams missed their last penalty attempts in the final five minutes.
Argentina could have won the match if they managed to slot their final penalty, however they would feel particularly disheartened by the final movement of the match. With possession just inside the French half, Argentina were slowly moving their way up the field. A sudden spill of the ball out the back of the ruck was jumped on by a French player, who seemed to be quite offside, and France regathered and kicked the ball out.
Argentina will question that final play, however their play in the second half showed great promise for the rest of the tournament. In a very tough group, Argentina may have to rely on one of the underdogs to beat France in order for Los Pumas to make up for their first game loss, however they will definitely cause some issues for England later in the group stages.
Both Fiji and Argentina put together some great passages of play, and were much more impressive at one stage of the match than the other. If they can work on putting together an 80-minute performance for the remainder of their games, they could derail a few of the “bigger” nations’ best laid plans.