After the opening skirmishes at the Rugby World Cup, we take a look at how the top contenders for the Webb Ellis Cup are shaping up.
New Zealand produced a commanding performance against South Africa that sent a message to all pretenders to their crown that the men in black are not to be messed with.
For all the talk about South Africa’s solid defensive wall, Kieran Read’s men unlocked it in 20 minutes with slick hands, quick thinking and a complete skill-set, turning the Springboks’ early dominance on its head with two counter-punching tries.
There had never been more than two points between the two sides in their past four games, but with the World Cup at stake New Zealand boosted that margin to 10 with a 23-13 victory.
Alongside their counter-attacking skills, the All Blacks also showcased a solid defence which not even the fleet-footed Cheslin Kolbe could penetrate as he found himself cut down by All Blacks fly-half Richie Mo’unga.
The most impressive feature of Ireland’s 27-3 destruction of an insecure Scotland was not celebrated halves Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, but the ruthless efficiency of a forward pack that dominated the set piece.
Even the loss of Peter O’Mahony in the first half did not stop the menacing Irish eight, which ended the game with a clean sheet from 10 scrums and 12 lineouts, while stealing one of each off Scotland. They also won the turnover count 16-11.
Lock Iain Henderson added another string to his bow, running and sidestepping with the ball in a fashion that would do any winger proud.
Scotland were out of the game inside 25 minutes when the Ireland forwards drove over for three tries, raising the prospect of a salivating quarter-final against expected opponents South Africa.
The Springboks gave a decent account of themselves in their defeat by New Zealand and their solid pack – built around hard-hitting lock Eben Etzebeth and barnstorming No 8 Duane Vermeulen – will pose problems for any team in the tournament.
Flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit more than lived up to his billing as one of the world’s best current crop of players by going toe-to-toe with an All Black back-row featuring the touted Ardie Savea and Kieran Read.
Fly-half Handre Pollard, however, failed to get his backline buzzing despite the best efforts of halfback partner Faf de Klerk and the electric Cheslin Kolbe.
Toulouse winger Kolbe’s livewire presence around the pitch will doubtless bring more reward against teams not as well organised defensively as the defending champions, who they could meet again if they reach the final.
The Six Nations champions opened their account as they should have, with an ultimately emphatic 43-14 victory over Georgia, a team that has never beaten a top nation.
Dan Biggar called the shots from fly-half, centre Jonathan Davies shone with ball in hand and No 8 Josh Navidi was an ever-present in a suffocating rush defence.
Emptying the bench in the second-half with an eye on Australia on Sunday allowed Georgia back into the game, but Wales rode the stern test of their set-piece, looking like a team biding their time for the bigger challenge to come in Tokyo this weekend.
Australia may prefer to play an open running game but the way they came from nine points down early in the second half to beat Fiji 39-21 suggests the two-time world champions also have a workable “Plan B”.
The introduction of half-backs Will Genia and Matt Toomua off the bench for the misfiring Nic White and Christian Lealiifano helped the 2015 losing finalists make the most of their setpiece dominance at scrum and line-out which eventually told in the final quarter.
“We are not looking for perfection, we got tested,” said head coach Michael Cheika. “But once we got our rhythm and flow we able to get back in the contest.”
There was nothing spectacular about a 35-3 win over Tonga but, despite plenty of handling errors, England launched their World Cup campaign with a four-try bonus point win and kept a clean try sheet for the second consecutive Test.
As experienced England coach Eddie Jones put it: “The thing about the World Cup, having been to a few, is the World Cup is not a 100-metre sprint.”
There were some promising signs in the way fullback Elliot Daly launched effective counter-attacks from deep, with scrum-half Ben Youngs’s accurate kicking game setting up play for the chasers.
But the penalty count was a worry, with prop Kyle Sinckler, for all his good work in the loose, a persistent offender.
France uncorked some champagne rugby in a nail-biting 23-21 win over Argentina before threatening to unravel in the face of sustained second-half pressure from the Pumas.
Les Bleus, who have reached three World Cup finals and never failed to reach the quarter-finals, survived by the skin of their teeth to boost their chances of avoiding an early exit with England lurking in Pool C.
But French coach Jacques Brunel expressed concern after an excrutiating finish, given the mental frailty shown by his players, who almost squandered a 17-point half-time lead.
They have genuine quality in centre pair Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa, as well as fly-half Romain Ntamack, while the dancing footwork of winger Damian Penaud is a potential match-winner.