Rugby World Cup 2019: Six things we’ve learned from Japan so far

Here, we look back over the opening weekend of fixtures and dissect the key themes and topics that have emerged

Rugby World Cup 2019 in numbers

The World Cup is in full swing after four days of gripping rugby that, in these parts at least, has been embraced with open arms. From Tokyo to Sapporo to Osaka and beyond, the locals have turned out in their thousands for a tournament that is making its debut here in Asia.

Although there have been no shock results so far, there’s been plenty to get stuck into with the likes of New Zealand, Ireland and Fiji (briefly) catching the eye. The All Blacks remain the favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup come November, but who knows what’s in store over the coming weeks.

Here, we look back over the opening weekend of fixtures and dissect the key themes and topics that have emerged:

Heavyweight contenders only just getting started

Some of the rugby on offer over the weekend was a delight to watch. The boot and brains of Conor Murray. The effervescent dynamism of Beauden Barrett. The poise and finishing prowess of Kotaro Matsushima. The all-round tenacity and spirit of the Fijians. It was all there, kicking off the tournament in style. But as many head coaches were keen to stress, there’s so much to come from their sides.

England, Australia, Ireland and, yes, New Zealand are all capable of reaching greater heights as the competition progresses. The English put in a tame and uninspiring performance against the Tongans while the Wallabies were caught sleeping against Fiji, before eventually finding their feet to secure the win. Joe Schmidt’s side were relentless and clinical but will know that they were handed a free pass against a lacklustre Scotland. And for all their brilliance against South Africa, it still felt as if New Zealand have another gear at their disposal. “Were we perfect? No, but you’re never going to be at this stage of the tournament,” said Steve Hansen on Saturday evening. You feel his team aren't the only ones.

Pacific Islanders pack a punch

The Pacific Islanders will do some damage to the World Cup expectations of this year’s heavyweight contenders. The way that Fiji exploded out of the blocks against Australia was a joy to watch, mainly because it was a performance built on power and pace that, at times, proved too much for Michael Cheika’s side. It is a real shame that Peceli Yato will not be able to face Uruguay later this week due to concussion – and influential No 8 Viliame Mata is also an injury doubt – but beating the South Americans is not their battle. They have their eyes on Wales and Georgia, and want to take a scalp while in Japan. On the basis of Saturday’s evidence, they have enough talent in the squad to do that.

Peceli Yato scores Fiji's first try against Australia

Tonga meanwhile set their tone through their defence, with Zane Kapeli’s phenomenal tackle on Billy Vunipola of the like we have never seen on the England No 8 before. Anthony Watson will also be feeling the effects of the Tongan brutality, having been smashed into next week by Sione Kalamafoni, and you can be sure that the passion within their defence will not disappear for the remaining games in Pool C. If you’re France, Argentina or the USA, watch out. You have been warned.

Home fans create magical atmosphere

Rugby has always been defined by the willingness of its supporters to reach beyond tribal lines, but the locals here stand apart. Each match has seen a huge outpouring in support from the home fans, with many seen donning opposition colours and throwing their weight behind those on the pitch – regardless of who’s playing. It’s made for a kaleidoscopic atmosphere that has been a pleasure to experience so far.

Hansen’s gamble pays off

Hansen found himself under the spotlight in deploying the Richie Mo’unga-Beauden Barrett tandem for New Zealand’s opener with South Africa. The same dual playmaker approach had underwhelmed against the Springboks earlier in the summer, but here in Yokohama they served up a treat. The two men pulled the strings, with their vision, pace and intelligence put to good effect once the All Blacks had readjusted to their opponent’s rush defence.

This moment of adaption was in itself crucial to determining the flow and outcome of the game. After operating within the same passing line for the opening 20 minutes, Mo’unga and Barrett split to either side of the ruck, offering themselves as potential first receivers in both directions. The manner in which these two players chop and change, mix and match, doing so frequently and unexpectedly over the course of 80 minutes, is only going to improve with time and practice as the World Cup progresses. It’s a terrifying option, one that will becoming increasingly hard for opposition teams to counteract.

High tackle debate rumbles on

World Rugby is facing serious questions over its apparent ‘crackdown’ on high and dangerous tackles, with a second high-profile incident in as many games going unpunished. Reece Hodge’s try-saving tackle on Fiji flanker Yato went unpunished despite being referenced to television match official Rowan Kitt, who said that the collision was within the laws.

Ignore all the noise around games being spoiled and look at the cool hard facts. Hodge’s concussion-inducing hit ticked every box and by failing to send him off, O’Keefe and his team made a mockery of months of work to educate those within the sport that these sort of head shots are no longer acceptable. It was in plain sight. It ticked every box. It should have been red. Sorry, no excuses.

Tuilagi’s time to shine

After waiting eight years to return to rugby’s biggest stage it was no surprise Manu Tuilagi grabbed his opportunity with both hands as his brace of tries helped England to a comfortable 35-3 victory over Tonga. A shocking list of injuries combined with a series of off-field controversies prevented Tuilagi from fulfilling his potential with England, leaving fans wondering if they would ever see a repeat of the devastating form of 2012 when he engineered a stunning win over the All Blacks.

England's Manu Tuilagi is congratulated by teammate George Ford after scoring England's first

Given his history there is a reluctance to assume his troubles are all behind him, but his performances since returning to the side suggest he will be the final piece in the puzzle for England’s midfield. “Manu was outstanding and is showing the world what a great player he is,” said teammate Maro Itoje after Sunday’s game. The hope for Eddie Jones and Co will be that this is just the beginning for Tuilagi at this year’s tournament.

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