2011 Rugby World Cup Begins in New Zealand
Last Friday, September 9, saw the start of the 7th Edition of the International Rugby Board’s (IRB) World Cup in Auckland, New Zealand. It has been 24 years since the “City of Sails” has opened a Rugby World Cup (RWC) which precedes six weeks of international rugby throughout the country, concluding with the final on October 23 to decide the winner of the Webb Ellis Cup.
In the inaugural Cup, 1987, the hosts New Zealand won by defeating France 29-9; however, the French have become somewhat of a Kiwi nemesis, especially at World Cup, time denying them progression in both the 1999 & 2007 editions. Despite the All Blacks consistently retaining the number 1 IRB world ranking, every four years at the RWC they have failed to win back that initial Webb Ellis Trophy they so covet. The nation awaits in anticipation that finally, like in 1987, on home soil they can finally take the monkey off their backs and their captain Richie McCaw can hold the World Cup trophy aloft as did fellow countryman, David Kirk, at Eden Park in 1987.
The opening ceremony understandably consisted of Maori and islander heritage, the evolution of rugby with a mock match culminating in ‘Mr World Cup’ himself, Jonah Lomu (1995 RWC player of the series), entering the Eden Park Stadium. Fireworks lit up the Auckland city preceding the traditional Kiwi pre-match war dances and the 2011 Cup begins. The opening fixture followed the symmetry of the opening ceremony with island neighbours Tonga taking on the hosts (incidentally Lomu is of Tongan origin) in a clash of some of the ‘big men’ of South Pacific rugby. The first half, as expected, was dominated by the mighty All Blacks leading 29-6 at the break; however the second half saw a much tougher contest for the ABs from their Pacific visitors, in the last 15 minutes a sustained 5 minute scrimmage session on the Kiwi’s 5-metre line was summed up by the disbelieving expression on NZ prop Owen Frank’s face when the Tongans kept opting to re-pack the scrums after infringements (really tough mano-e-mano stuff). Finally the ABs scored through Ma’a Nonu, also of islander extraction (Samoan) to win easily 41-10 and get their Webb Ellis campaign underway. Somewhat different to RWC 1987 opener where the New Zealanders thrashed Italy 70-6 led by iconic winger, John Kirwan, who later went on to coach the Italian national side (currently he coaches Japan).
Day two saw the amateurs from Romania take it to the professional Scots down in Invercargill and only through a lack of top-tier international match exposure they succumbed 34-24. Over to the North Island where a spirited Namibian side took it to South Pacific powerhouse, Fiji, playing some entertaining rugby and scoring tries. Eventually the Fijians pulled away to win 49-25 in Rotorua clash.
Over the bridge from Auckland into North Harbour where the All Black legend, John Kirwan, coached Brave Blossoms of Japan took it to the French and nearly snatched the lead with 10 minutes remaining when the scores narrowed to four points, 25-21, until Le Bleu ran in two more tries to seal a solid victory 47-21. It was then that the 1st tier rugby nations of Argentina (IRB rating 9th) and England (rated 5th) to do battle at the new domed stadium in Dunedin. What ensued was a thrilling see-sawing arm wrestle that was only decided by the solo try of the match to English replacement, Ben Youngs, to give them a 13-9 victory.
Sunday September 11, Day 3, saw Tri-nations winners Australia (ranked 2nd) take on Italy (11th) on a rainy afternoon at North Harbour. The Azzurri playing an aggressive brand of rugby, as expected, taking it to the Wallabies with the scores level at 6-all at the break; however the classy Aussie outfit broke away in the second half with four unanswered touch downs to Ben Alexander, Adam Ashley-Cooper, James O’Conner & Digby Ioane, letting the world know they were not in New Zealand for a holiday, winning comfortably 32-6. The other match in Pool C between Ireland and the USA was in New Plymouth and despite the passion displayed by the Americans led by world class player and captain, Todd Cleaver, the men in green proved too strong winning 22-10.
The rugby feast just kept getting better when 2007 Champions, South Africa (3rd), took on Wales (6th) in Wellington. In what was supposed to be a foregone conclusion for the Springboks turned into a real contest with the Welsh exuding confidence from their recent victories over England and Ireland played expansive rugby through new five-eighth, Rhys Priestland (5-caps), and were led by their young 22 year-old captain, man-of-the-match Sam Warburton (18-caps). Despite the dominate form on display they went down by the slightest of margins, 17-16, to the Boks after replacement winger, Francois Hougaard, broke through the centre channel to score under the posts with less than 10 minutes on the clock. A missed penalty from James Hook and a wary drop-goal attempt from Priestland added to their misery. Wales are boosted for the rest of the tournament by 100-cap veteran fly-half, Stephen Jones, and 76-capped prop Gethin Jenkins arriving at their headquarters at Lake Taupo.
On Wednesday, Canada maintained their unbeaten record at World Cups over Tonga (3-0) in their opening match in Rotorua. The Tongans having only a five-day turn around after playing the All Blacks in the opening fixture of 2011 RWC on Friday, continued their strong display but couldn’t counter the Canadian defense going down 25-20. Canada are in the tough pool A with New Zealand, France and a resurgent Japan, making it difficult for them to repeat their 1991 RWC quarter final appearance.