The first weekend of June internationals was all about the old and the new as experienced campaigners stepped up to show they still have what it takes at the highest level, while at the same time several test debutants announced their arrival on the world stage in stunning fashion.
This was no more evident than in San Juan where an England squad featuring 11 uncapped players pulled off a sublime 38-34 victory against Argentina to ensure captain Dylan Hartley marked his 85th appearance in style. Hartley has now moved ahead of Martin Johnson and alongside Rory Underwood and Lawrence Dallaglio as the third-equal most capped England international of all time, and with only Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Leonard in front of him.
At the other end of the scale, 18-year-old Sale flanker Tom Curry became the youngest England debutant since Wilkinson first appeared on the scene in 1998. But it was Curry’s Sale team-mate and fellow newcomer Denny Solomona who captured all the headlines in a win that was worth a fraction over one third of a rating point to the number two side in the World Rugby Rankings.
Two defensive errors from former Rugby League man Solomona looked like they would decide the game in Argentina’s favour and hand Los Pumas their first win over their future RWC 2019 Pool C opponents since 2009. However, the 23-year-old had other ideas. Picking the ball up just inside his own half with barely a minute left on the clock, Solomona bounced one defender out of his way and then fended off another on a 55-metre run to the line to go from zero to hero in the blink of an eye. With George Ford’s conversion England had turned a 34-31 deficit into a memorable victory against the RWC 2015 semi-finalists.
England are now on 89.87 rating points in the rankings, just under five points behind top-ranked New Zealand. Argentina stay ninth, on 79.58 points.
Earlier in the day, Aussie Rules footballer Karmichael Hunt made an encouraging debut as Australia, ranked number three in the world, saw off Fiji 37-14.
Hunt, who started at inside-centre, became the second ‘triple code’ player in Michael Cheika’s line-up, alongside fellow former Brisbane Bronco Israel Folau. Folau got two of the Wallabies' tries in a victory that did not come with any rating point reward due to there being nearly 10 points between the sides at kick-off at AAMI Park in Melbourne.
Ireland's rating and position of fourth is also unchanged after a 55-19 win over 17th ranked USA in New Jersey. Second-row James Ryan made an instant impression with a try on debut, 60 seconds after coming on as a second-half replacement, but it was seasoned campaigner Keith Earls who led the way with two of his side’s nine tries at the Red Bull Arena.
NEW KIDS FOR THE BOKS
South Africa climb two places to fifth in the rankings after ending a four-test losing streak with a 35-14 win over France at Loftus Versveld. The new-look Springboks, who named five debutants in their starting line-up, outscored the visitors by four tries to two to take the first game of a three-test series.
Jesse Kriel, debutant Ross Cronje and Jan Serfontein crossed the line for Allister Coetzee’s side, while they were also awarded a penalty try. Fly-half Elton Jantjies produced a flawless kicking performance to finish with a 13-point haul. France’s tries were scored either side of half-time by Henry Chavancy and Baptiste Serin.
Having picked up just over one rating point for their first win in eight months, South Africa move on to 82.87 points, taking them above Scotland and France.
France, who get the chance for revenge in Durban next week, lost an identical amount of points under the points exchange system to drop to eighth with Wales moving up one place to seventh as a result.
Gregor Townsend enjoyed a winning start to life as Scotland head coach, but their impressive 34-13 win over Italy in Singapore, which featured two tries for veteran hooker Ross Ford, did not affect their rating due to the 11-point differential between the nations.
With RWC 2015 veterans Michael Leitch and Fumiaki Tanaka showing all their experience and the likes of World Rugby U20 Trophy graduate Ryuji Noguchi highlighting the promise of Japan’s young players, the Brave Blossoms overcame Romania 33-21 in front of 17,702 fans at the Egao Kenko Stadium in Kumamoto.
Japan’s highest attendance for a tier two opponent bodes well for the popularity of Rugby World Cup 2019 when the tournament heads to Asia for the first time 2019. Jamie Joseph’s side boosted their rating by three-tenths of a point, but stay in 11th place in the rankings, ahead of Georgia, who defeated Canada 13-0 in terrible conditions in Calgary.
Merab Kvirikashvili scored all of Georgia’s points on a day when fellow back Davit Kacharava joined him in winning a century of caps for the Lelos. With more than 13 rating points separating the two nations the result had no impact on the rankings.
Russia were also victorious in the Americas, claiming a thrilling 39-38 victory over Argentina XV in Montevideo in the opening round of the World Rugby Nations Cup. While the win did not carry any rating points given it was not a test match, the Bears benefited from Namibia’s narrow 15-13 loss to Spain in the same event, to move above the Welwitschias and into 19th place.
SIMBAS HOLD SWAY
There was better news for Namibia’s African rivals Kenya, who took a significant step towards retaining the Elgon Cup after edging Uganda 23-18 in the first of the home and away series at Legends Club in Kampala.
Marvin Odongo and James Odong scored a try each and Phillip Wokorach kicked eight points as Uganda took a slender lead into half-time. But Kenya kept the Rugby Cranes scoreless in the second half and two late penalties from stand-in captain Darwin Mukidza ensured them of a priceless victory ahead of the rematch in Nairobi on 24 June.
Kenya's victory and Portugal’s agonising 25-21 loss to Brazil in São Paulo sees the Simbas leapfrog the Europeans into 24th place.
Meanwhile, Brazil climb two places to 29th, moving above Switzerland and Korea, after they produced the comeback of all comebacks to beat Os Lobos. What looked like a certain Portugal victory instead turned into celebration for Brazil as the home side scored three tries in the final seven minutes to wipe out a 21-6 deficit.
In the only other match to affect the rankings, winger Avery Corbin scored twice as Guyana guaranteed top spot in the Rugby Americas North Championship south zone with a 24-17 victory against Trinidad and Tobago. Guyana will now face Mexico for the overall title in three weeks’ time.