Rugby World Cup
Our Cup runneth over
September 11, 2011
Scotland's Chris Pateron is engulfed by Romania's defence during their recent clash in Invercargill © Getty Images
We are only eight games into an epic 48-match schedule at this year's Rugby World Cup but the Webb Ellis trophy is already brimming with passion, intensity and fierce competition.
There was a sense that New Zealand could deliver something special as hosts and the enthusiasm for the tournament shown so far bodes well for a truly memorable experience. But if the seventh battle for global supremacy is to rival or even eclipse its predecessors then the action on the pitch also needs leave an indelible mark and it looks destined to do so.
The rugby served up so far has been at times sensational, not always in terms of the standard, but more significantly in the level of competition. We may not have been treated to an upset as such - so far - but what we have been blessed with is a series of engaging, entertaining and enlightening matches that in the long run should serve the sport far better than any headline-grabbing shock result.
The International Rugby Board's own 'tier' system for grading Test match rugby and perceived wisdom suggests that some of the sides competing in New Zealand should not be able to stand toe-to-toe with the comparative giants of the sport but that belief is being severely tested. Tournament organisers can surely not believe their luck and they along with genuine fans of the game will only hope the rest of the competition is as keenly-contested.
The action kicked off with the All Blacks taking on Tonga in Auckland on Friday night and everything looked a little too predictable as the home side powered into the lead with the Islanders appearing to freeze on the big stage. But to the delight of the thousands of Tongan fans, the visitors discovered some belief after the break and while they did not manage to redress the balance on the scoreboard, they did manage to turn the tide on the field of play. The marker had been set.
The second day of action brought yet more notable performances with Romania and Japan punching well above their supposed weight. The Romanians looked on course for the first major scalp of the tournament with a three-point lead over Scotland as the game approached the final ten minutes only for the Scots to play their get out of jail free card with two late tries and deny the Oaks even a bonus point for their outstanding endeavour.
Not to be outdone by their Tier 2 rivals, Japan also rocked the boat and lived up to their 'Brave Blossoms' moniker against a much-fancied France. Another impressive display saw Japan more than hold their own and bursting with self-belief they battled back to within four points of their European rivals to set up an enthralling final quarter. Sadly, it was a familiar story as France found the extra gear to quell the uprising but the damage had been done and the latest IRB press release hailing the investment in the developing nations was surely being penned.
Namibia, one of the few sides that may well struggle to live in this apparent new age, were unable to muster a similar challenge in defeat to Fiji while England and Argentina served up a titanic battle that served as a reminder that a game does not need to be a try-a-minute points fest to be entertaining.
The quality of some of the rugby in Dunedin might not have been the best, with a catalogue of misses from the kicking tee all but defining the contest, but the brutal exchange will live long in the memory. The hypnotic mix of a fantastic new stadium filled with vociferous and sometimes raucous supporters and two teams determined to play resulted in a fantastic advert for the game and perhaps more importantly the tournament itself. No-one who bore witness to it will ever question New Zealand's ability to host such a tournament or deny them the chance to do so again somewhere down the road. For the record, England squeezed home.
The most recent round of matches began with a classic game of two halves. Italy restricted Australia's advance with a battling first half display in their inter-hemisphere clash on the North Shore. But any further thoughts of an upset vanished as the Wallabies, many people's favourites to crash New Zealand's party and win the tournament, weathered the storm before rediscovering the kind of form that took them to the Tri-Nations title last month.
On an emotional day for the United States, the Eagles did their nation proud by becoming the latest supposed 'also ran' to raise their game on the World Cup stage. A battling defensive display and the elements combined to largely frustrate an Ireland side that were some way from their best - something that could not be said of their opponents.
And if preceding feast of action had not satisfied you sufficiently there was yet another epic encounter to gorge yourself on in Wellington. South Africa and Wales produced a Tier 1 tussle to rank with the best. A highly-charged and dramatic game with a touch of controversy appeared to bring Wales coach Warren Gatland, and no doubt a fair few fans, close to tears.
His brave charges were on the brink of arguably their greatest tournament victory, in their first outing on the World Cup stage since one of their worst results, with a six point lead and only a quarter of an hour to go in the match. But there was a sting in the tail as Boks pounced late to ensure their defence of the title did not flounder at the first hurdle.
The debate over whether an early penalty attempt from Wales' James Hook passed between the posts or not - and the reluctance of referee Wayne Barnes to have a second look at what still might have been an inconclusive video - added to the rollercoaster of emotion for all involved.
All in all a fantastic start to the competition - bring on the next game.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.