TOKYO, 13 Oct - With Japan riding a wave of excitement into the quarter-finals the latest weekend of Rugby World Cup 2019 was unlike any other in the tournament’s history.
Of the five matches that did take place over the last three days, there is no shortage of analytical talking points and revealing tales of individual brilliance, even among teams that did not proceed to the next stage.
Fukuoka showcases all-round brilliance
It is remarkable to think that four weeks ago, Kenki Fukuoka was not even in Japan’s 23 for their opening clash against Russia. Initially sidelined with injury, Fukuoka appeared destined to be a bit-part player for the Brave Blossoms at this tournament, only making the bench for their win over Ireland when Will Tupou was ruled out.
But Fukuoka ended up making a decisive contribution to Japan’s shock victory over the Irish and was again named Player of the Match after a brilliant display in their 28-21 win over Scotland, in which he demonstrated the full array of his all-round talents.
Not only did Fukuoka score two tries and set up another - a remarkable one-handed offload that set Kotaro Matsushima free to speed away to the posts - he also made 116m during the course of the match, more than any other player, and the second most of any Japanese player during the tournament so far.
Impressive enough, but while this kind of individual brilliance may be expected from a mercurial winger, especially one with pace to burn like Fukuoka, it was his efforts in defence that made this performance truly special.
As well as bringing that match-winning attacking potency, Fukuoka knuckled down when Scotland upped the intensity, contributing nine tackles and winning two turnovers.
Fiji’s Semi Radradra is the only other player in the tournament to have come close to this all-round display, when he ran 124m, made six tackles and won two turnovers during his wonderful performance against Wales.
A staggering performance from Kenki Fukuoka earned him the @mastercard Player of the Match award against Scotland— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 13, 2019
110 metres made(most in the match)
3 Clean Breaks (most in the match)
7 Defenders Beaten (#1)
2 Tries (most in match#POTM #StartSomethingPriceless #RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/MeeD70xsDa
Tough tackling weekend
With Wales and Australia looking to lay down markers ahead of the quarter-finals, it was a testing weekend for their Tier 2 opponents who were all made to work exceptionally hard to stem the relentless attacking waves.
In particular, spare a thought for Georgia who were dispatched home with weary arms and legs after making a remarkable 218 tackles in their 27-8 defeat by the Wallabies, a record for the tournament to date. Beka Gorgadze, pictured below, deserves special plaudits for making 26 himself, though Scotland's Jonny Gray overtook him with 28 against Japan on Sunday, the most of any player in a single game at Rugby World Cup 2019. The player who made the most tackles overall in the pool stages was TJ Ioane of Samoa on 67.
Welsh fans may have been expecting a straightforward victory against Uruguay to seal top spot in Pool D, but they found themselves up against a particularly dogged and determined Los Teros backline. Wales ultimately showed their class in the second half to pull through 35-13, but to their huge credit, Uruguay never wilted, pulling off 200 tackles over the course of the match.
Costly handling errors
Going into the tournament, one of the main talking points was how teams would adapt to the humidity, and in particular how the moist conditions would affect their handling. Wales reportedly tried to prepare for this by training with balls doused in baby oil, and this appeared to have paid dividends when they produced a near-perfect performance against Australia, making a mere six handling errors against the Wallabies.
However, when pressing for tries against Uruguay on Sunday afternoon, they wasted numerous first-half opportunities with the line at their mercy. Overall, they made 16 handling errors, their most of the tournament to date and will need to be far slicker against France next weekend.
Tonga have never lost six Rugby World Cup matches in a row, and going into Sunday’s clash with USA the Pacific Islanders were seeking to break a five-match losing streak. Nerves perhaps took their toll for a while as the Tongans were repeatedly unable to keep the errors at bay for long enough to convert their chances. Siegfried Fisiihoi dropped the ball just metres from the USA line in the first half, while Telusa Veainu threw a simple pass into touch with Viliami Lolohea poised to score. While Tonga eventually secured a comfortable 31-19 win, overall they made 15 handling errors, more than in any of their other three matches at this tournament.
Will such errors turn out to be decisive as we approach the business end of the tournament, defences get tighter, and chances become fewer and far between? It remains to be seen.