After being spoiled by so many shock results in recent rounds of the World Series, the big surprise on Day One in Japan was the lack of surprises.
France's Elodie Guiglion congratulates Tyla Nathan-Wong after she scored the winning try for New Zealand with time up on the clock. (Photo: Michael Lee - KLC fotos).
After a good shakedown in recent tournaments, we now know who the top six teams in the 2016-17 World Series are – New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Fiji, Russia and the United States – and Day One in Kitakyushu suggests that this “top division” will pull even further away from the rest after tomorrow’s play.
This does not suggest that there was not plenty of good rugby on display, but of the 18 games only two went against the seeding (and both of those were between teams scraping to avoid places in the Challenge), and only two other games were won by margins less of seven points or less.
The only game where a top six team was troubled by anyone outside their group was – perhaps predictably – New Zealand against France. For over a year now the French have repeatedly found themselves up against the Ferns in pool play, and time and again they have pushed them to the very limit. Today was no different. The day’s most exciting fixture saw France overturn an early score from Niall Williams to take the lead early in the second period, and hold that lead into the final minute before tries from Williams and Tyla Nathan-Wong rescued the game for the series leaders.
France could have even got away with a draw, but in attempting to win the game they gave space for the Ferns to steal it at the death. “France is always a physical and dominant team, especially around the ruck area”, said Williams afterwards. “That is where we pride ourselves. We tried to play smart but they really took it to us, it was like a final. We just needed to stay calm and go back to our basics. In that last phase, I don’t know how long we defended for but we pride ourselves on that and we got the ball back and were lucky enough to score on the hooter."
The other close game was the all-Top Six clash between Australia and Fiji, where the islanders left their comeback from 17-0 down just too late. They pulled back to 17-12 with a minute to go – but the Olympic gold medalists were able to hold out for the win. It is maybe significant that those were also the only scores Australia conceded all day.
The real battle of Day One was therefore the fight for the other two quarter-final spots. France’s great performance against New Zealand in Pool A was key as it balanced out one of their worst drubbings ever to continental rivals Russia. Their big win over Japan saw them comfortably into the last eight.
England joined them as the final qualifier on the back of a good win over Spain in their final pool C game, but were also helped by a dreadful opening day for Ireland in Pool B as the finished the tournament’s bottom ranked team. This presented Brazil with a chance for a quarter-final place that would have massively boosted their hopes of avoiding relegation, but though they beat Ireland 27-10 the margin of victory never looked like being big enough to overhaul England.
And so to Day Two, where the quarter-finals will see Australia play France, Canada take on Russia, Fiji come up against the United States, and New Zealand meet England. Form seems to go with the first named team in each contest – unless Kitakyushu is saving all its surprises for the second day?
The Challenge is also getting very serious. Brazil will be hoping to take their day one form into the second day and steal a march on rivals Spain, while the Spanish and Ireland (who are not completely safe from relegation either) will be hoping for big improvements. And Japan will be hoping to give the home crowd something to cheer about. Games in the Challenge semi-final will be Brazil v Ireland and Spain v Japan.
Pool A: Russia 26 - 5 France; New Zealand 31 - 0 Japan; Russia 29 - 5 Japan; New Zealand 19 - 14 France; France 33 - 5 Japan; New Zealand 22 - 7 Russia
Pool B: Fiji 45 - 0 Ireland; Australia 38 - 0 Brazil; Fiji 34 - 7 Brazil; Australia 36 - 0 Ireland; Ireland 10 - 27 Brazil; Australia 17 - 12 Fiji
Pool C: United States 19 - 10 Spain; Canada 29 - 12 England; United States 27 - 5 England; Canada 43 - 5 Spain; Spain 0 - 21 England; Canada 29 - 12 United States