Joe Schmidt’s Irish squad have been gradually building up towards September’s trip to the land of the rising sun with recent training camps in Galway & Limerick, as we build up towards our first friendly of the summer against Italy at the Aviva on Saturday, August 10th. However, some of our opponents have been in competitive action this weekend as both the Rugby Championship (formerly the Tri-Nations, now with added Argentines!) and Pacific Nations Cup tournaments are underway.
The biggest game of the weekend came in Wellington where our potential quarter-final opponents, New Zealand and South Africa, met in round 2 of the Rugby Championship. These two sides will meet again in their World Cup Pool B clash on 21st September, the second day of the tournament. The pre-ordained draw for the quarters means that the winners of Pool A (Ireland’s group) will face the runner-up from Pool B in Tokyo on Sunday the 20th of October, while the runner-up from our Pool will face the winner of Pool B the on Saturday 19th also in Tokyo. So regardless of which of these two side win that game, if Ireland progress from our group the probability is that one of these heavyweights await us in the quarter-final.
Both sides had won their opening games of the championship the previous week. An understrength New Zealand side travelled to Buenos Aires and beat Argentina 20-16, while South Africa had an easier time of it, beating Australia 35-17.
The All-Blacks made wholesale changes from the side that travelled to Argentina. Brodie Retallick was the only member of the pack to start both matches, however, the second row’s game was ended prematurely as a dislocated shoulder sustained on the hour mark puts his world cup participation in doubt. Beauden Barrett switched from out-half to full-back to accommodate the crusaders Richie Mo’unga starting at no.10. Ben Smith moved to the wing to accommodate Barrett. Rieko Ioane, Sonny Bill Willams and Jack Goodhue all got their first starts of the tournament. Rassie Erasmus also made a couple of changes to his side but retained the core of the team that won last week.
New Zealand were not at their free flowing best as the South Africans were dogged at the breakdown and ferocious in the tackle. Two Handre Pollard penalties gave the visitors the early lead, however, just before the break and somewhat against the run of play Jack Goodhue struck for an All-Black’s try. Sonny Bill Williams and Beauden Barrett combined well to send the centre clear for a run in score. Barrett’s conversion gave the kiwi’s a 7-6 lead into the break.
Two penalties apiece from Barrett & Mo’unga with only a single three pointer from Pollard by way of reply brought the score to 16-9 as the game entered the last minute. Then came the late drama as Herschel Jantjies juggled a chip ahead from Cheslin Kolbe and dotted down for a late try. The TMO checked for a knock-on but the ball came back of Jantjies face and he held it at the second attempt to get the score. Pollard was unerring with his tricky conversion and the Boks avoided what probably would have been an unfair defeat on the balance of play over the eighty minutes.
The host nation Japan were 34-21 winners over Fiji in their Pacific Nations Cup clash in Kamaishi in the early hours of yesterday morning. Japan played at a lightning quick tempo and never gave the Fijian’s too much space to throw the ball around. The damage was done in the first half as Japan had outscored their visitors by four tries to one by the half hour mark. Japan’s fifth and Kotaro Matsushima’s second try was to be their only score of the second half, coming on 55 minutes it was sandwiched between two tries from Sam Matavesi for Fiji. But they held off wave after wave of Fijian attacks for a 13 point win that was somewhat less comfortable than that scoreline suggests.
Our final Pool A game will be against Samoa on Saturday 12th October, the Samoans defeated Tonga in wet and windy conditions in Apia by 25-17 in their Pacific Nations Cup encounter on Saturday. Both sides crossed for tries on three occasions. But the difference was while the Tongan’s only managed a single conversion, Samoa converted two of theirs and also added two penalties.
It was a disciplined performance from the Samoans but their neighbours were less so. Tonga led by 17-13 after Sefo Sakalia scored a try on the hour mark, however, two yellow cards in the space of four minutes on 67 & 71 handed Samoa the initiative and a try on 72 minutes for Afaesetiti Amosa against 13 men, followed by a last minute try for Belguim Tuatagaloa gave the Samoan’s the win.