As the countdown to Rugby World Cup 2023 gathers pace, the opening round of July internationals gave us the latest indication of where teams are at 15 months out from the big event in France.
Of all the home nations, Wales were probably the only team satisfied with their weekend’s work, although there will be more than a tinge of regret that they so narrowly failed to beat the Springboks in their own backyard for the first time in history as they went down to a heartbreaking 32-29 defeat.
For England, Ireland and Scotland, the second weekend of July internationals cannot come soon enough as it gives them a chance to make amends after they fell short of their own high standards in losing to Australia, New Zealand and Argentina.
Six Nations rivals, France and Italy, did both buck the trend by winning away in Japan and Romania, respectively, on a weekend when the qualification picture for Rugby World Cup 2023 in Africa became a little clearer and the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup 2022 also got underway.
Rugby is better with crowds
For South Africa, Argentina and Fiji it is perhaps no coincidence that their first home matches in front of actual fans since the COVID-19 pandemic struck were all wins.
Admittedly the 51,762 crowd at Loftus Versfeld was stunned into almost silence when South Africa fell 18-3 behind to a resurgent Wales. But the stirring second-half comeback from the Springboks, culminating in Damian Willemse’s match-winning penalty was played out amidst a cacophony of noise.
Meanwhile, Argentina marked their first home test in nearly three years with a 26-18 win over Scotland at the Estadio 23 de Agosto in Jujuy.
Travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic had seen Argentina unable to play at home since losing to South Africa in Salta in 2019 and their return ensured a sell-out crowd in the provincial town.
Fiji, meanwhile, made a winning return to the ANZ Stadium Suva, opening up their World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup 2022 campaign on a winning note, to the delight of the locals in attendance, with a 36-0 victory against Tonga.
Champions never know when they are beaten
South Africa delivered a disjointed performance against Wales but, all credit to them, they still came out on the right side of the scoreline, winning 32-29.
The Springboks led for precisely three minutes of the match when Georgian referee Nika Amashukeli ran underneath the posts in the 75th minute, to award them a penalty try after Wales had illegally stopped another powerful driving maul.
But Wales remarkably found a response despite being down to 13 men, hooker Dewi Lake levelling the scores at 29-29 with his team’s third try in the 78th minute.
Had Dan Biggar’s conversion gone over Wales would have reclaimed the lead but it went wide and the Springboks kept their composure in what little time was left to get the right result.
Eden Park is an impregnable fortress
Ireland came to Auckland for the first of three tests against the All Blacks with genuine hopes they could do what very few teams had previously achieved in history – win at Eden Park.
For the opening five to 10 minutes, a first win over the All Blacks in New Zealand, irrespective of the venue, looked to be a possibility, as Keith Earls gave the tourists a deserved lead with a well-worked try.
However, that only served to galvanise the All Blacks into action and after a rusty opening quarter, they burst into life just before half-time when they ran in 21 unanswered points.
In the end, the All Blacks were convincing 42-19 winners, reaffirming Eden Park’s reputation as the hardest place in the world for teams to beat the All Blacks.
In 90 tests at the ground since 1921, the All Blacks have lost only 10 times and their winning percentage is 86 per cent.
Since their 23-20 loss to France in 1994, the All Blacks have seen off 45 opponents, with only two draws, against South Africa (18-18) in 1994 to start the run and the British and Irish Lions (15-15) in 2017.
Locked in 13-13 at half-time, France eventually powered to a five-try 42-23 win over Japan in Nagoya pic.twitter.com/H3U2ZOVgH0— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) July 2, 2022
France have class in ‘reserve’
With stellar talents like World Rugby Player of the Year 2021 Antoine Dupont, barnstorming number eight Gregory Alldritt and other star names left behind to rest up after their Six Nations 2022 Grand Slam-winning exploits and a long domestic French season, Les Bleus travelled to Japan with what some commentators would refer to as a ‘shadow’ squad.
However, the strength in depth of French rugby at the moment means there are at least one if not two players equally capable of stepping into the breach in virtually every position if called upon by head coach Fabian Galthie and that was further underlined in the first tets against Japan on Saturday.
Test debutant number eight, Yoan Tanga, was one to put his hand up in the 65 minutes he was on the field during France’s 42-23 win and show there is a worthy successor to Alldritt waiting in the wings.
With 18 tackles, the second-best total behind Toulouse's Thibault Flament, and a number of strong carries, the 25-year-old played a major role in Les Bleus’ ninth consecutive win.
Fiji can defend as well as attack
Everyone rightly talks about Fiji’s flair with the ball in hand but their defence was equally as impressive on the weekend as they shut out a Tongan side boasting some serious attacking talent in kicking off their World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup 2022 title challenge with a 36-0 win,
Tonga arrived in Suva boosted by the considerable presence of Malakai Fekitoa, Isieli Folau and Charles Piutau amongst others in their backline but the ‘Ikale Tahi failed to muster a single point which will have pleased Flying Fijians head coach Vern Cotter just as much as the five tries they scored.
Prior to the weekend, the last time Fiji had ‘nilled’ the opposition was when they defeated Samoa 60-0 in July 1996.