New Zealand are still the team to beat

Coming into this tournament, there was plenty of excited talk about how New Zealand had lost their mojo.

And there was no better test of that theory than an opening match against South Africa, the team being tipped by many to get the better of them in Japan.

It is safe to say, however, that the All Blacks are still the team to beat, after Steve Hansen’s side comfortably swatted the Springboks aside.

It was a typically controlled performance from the back-to-back champions, who never looked in danger of a first pool-stage loss in World Cup history.

Top spot in Pool B surely beckons, and with that comes a simple passage into the semi-finals given Scotland, Samoa or Japan await in the last eight.

Scotland in trouble

While the All Blacks surpassed expectations in Yokohama, Scotland did the exact opposite 24 hours later with the most disappointing performance of the opening round.

Gregor Townsend’s side were touted as Ireland’s biggest threat in Pool A, but an insipid display means their qualification is now far from assured.

Ireland weren’t troubled as they strolled to a 27-3 win, with tries from James Ryan, Rory Best, Tadgh Furlong and Andrew Conway securing a bonus point.

If things weren’t bad enough, the Scots will also be without openside flanker Hamish Watson for the rest of the World Cup after he suffered a serious knee injury.

Townsend now has some serious work to do to prevent a disastrous pool-stage exit, with hosts Japan and Samoa eyeing up a quarter-final spot. 

England need improvement

A glance at the score would suggest that England impressed in their 35-3 win over Tonga, but that was not the case in Sapporo.

There were positives, for sure, with Manu Tuilagi back to his rampaging best and Maro Itoje winning four turnovers to underline his status as one of the world’s most effective locks.

But this was, in truth, a sloppy display from Eddie Jones’ mean, whose 14 handling errors brought attack after attack to a premature end.

It was only thanks to some late individual brilliance from Jonathan Joseph that they were able to secure a bonus point against one of the lowest-ranked sides in the tournament.

So it is lucky that England face the USA next on Thursday, with an opportunity for Jones to tweak his team ahead of the bigger tests to come against France and Argentina.

Minnows pack a punch

The opening round of fixtures has passed without a shock, but there have already been some impressive performances from Tier 2 sides.

Russia gave Japan a fright in the tournament opener, while Namibia, supposedly the worst side in the competition, racked up 22 points against Italy.

Tonga showed huge improvements since a 92-7 warm-up mauling by New Zealand, while Georgia scored two tries after a disastrous start against Wales.

Most impressive were Fiji, who could easily have beaten Australia if refereeing decisions had gone their way.

The lack of an early shock will disappoint some, but there was enough quality during the opening round to suggest that one is on the way. Beware, big dogs.

Referees under fire

 With stricter rules on tackling and a renewed focus on player safety, our traders were braced for a flurry of red cards before the tournament.

But one has already slipped through the net after Australia winger Reece Hodge avoided immediate punishment for a high tackle that left Peceli Yato with concussion and denied Fiji a try (and probably a famous win).

Hodge has been cited by World Rugby and may well be banned for their crucial clash against Wales at the weekend, though that won’t make much difference to Fiji.

Considering the sport’s increased focus on avoiding serious injury and World Rugby’s crackdown on high tackling, that incident has ramped up the pressure even further on referees to get things right.

Pressure generally leads to mistakes, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if there were more controversial decisions made in the coming weeks.

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