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First Phase of the RWC
Sean Fitzpatrick's view of the first phase of games in the RWC
Posted Sep 13, 2011 by Sean Fitzpatrick
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The first phase of games in the Rugby World Cup is over and I think everyone should be very happy. We have had some exciting, combative matches, big crowds and a very passionate atmosphere. Maybe the games haven't all been the greatest spectacles with flowing moves and stunning tries, but I don't think you are going to get that at this stage of the competition as everyone feels their way.
All the fancied teams have played now, so what have we learned?
I think the stand-out team in terms of possibly winning the World Cup has been Australia. Their first match was against an experienced Six Nations team in Italy, who are a better yardstick than some of the less familiar sides. And I thought Australia did pretty well, showing a nice combination of a young back line and good forward power in their 32-6 win.
I thought Quade Cooper, Will Ginea and Adam Ashley-Cooper looked quality players, but the guy who really impressed me was Digby Ioane, the winger who scored a try. I think he could be one of the stars of the tournament.
The biggest match was defending champions South Africa against Wales. As I said in my first blog on Friday, I fancy Wales to have a good World Cup and they didn't let me down. True they lost 17-16, but it was a storming performance. I think everyone back home in Wales will be delighted with the display, but Sam Warburton and his young team will be bitterly disappointed. They know how close they came to winning it. Can they get up for their next big game against Samoa on Sunday? I think they can and I think we will be talking a lot more about them over the next few weeks.
But what about the defending champions? South Africa looked like they were rocking at one point, but they brought on key players Bismarck du Plessis and Willem Alberts from the bench who regained control. If there is one lesson that South Africa should learn from this game it is that you need to start with your best players on the field.
As a former hooker, I can tell you that Bismarck is the best in the world at the moment and he should play. It's awkward that the captain John Smith is also a hooker, but at this standard of rugby there is no substitute for the best.
For all the other top teams, I thought they did what they had to do. It can be difficult to prepare against some of the smaller teams that do not play so often and you don't know much about.
I'm sure there will be a big reaction in England questioning the quality they showed, or didn't show, in their 13-9 win over Argentina, but coach Martin Johnson has always made it clear that he wants to win every game and he is not worried about how he does it.
I must say I thought the atmosphere in the Dunedin stadium with its roof was wonderful. With 30,000 people in there, it must have been as electric an atmosphere as any England player has ever competed in. Yes, they got out of jail with their late try by Ben Young's, but Martin Johnson got his win and they should now go on and top their pool.
As I said on Friday, New Zealand will be reasonably happy with their 41-10 win over Tonga and eventually Ireland pushed aside the USA 22-10. France struggled for a while against Japan, but they too won 47-21.
One of the new elements in this Rugby World Cup has been the performance of the second tier nations. Funding from the International Rugby Board has allowed the players from these teams to spend more time together in the build-up to New Zealand and we are seeing a lot more players from these countries playing professional rugby around the world. Once it was one or two players per country, now it's three, four or five. And some of these teams have top class coaches, for example John Kirwan, ex-New Zealand, coaches Japan and former Scottish coach Richie Dixon coaches Georgia.
The Scotland v Romania match showed just how much the gap is narrowing. Scotland won 34-24 in the end, but ask them how tough it was.
We aren't going to see any more cricket scores and there are no easy matches any more. These first phase matches have certainly been a sharp wake-up call to some of the top tier nations and it's making great rugby to watch.