It was the traditional rugby powers that stood out on Day 1 of the 2014 IRB Junior World Championship in New Zealand. Strong performances from Australia and South Africa saw them put on the most impressive displays of the day, while New Zealand, England, Wales and France all showed their potential too.
Australia got the tournament under way, with a convincing 36-17 win over Argentina. They built their game off a dominant tight five, who pushed around the typically strong Argentinian scrum. It was this dominance that allowed them to maintain possession and launch a handful of attacking moves.
However, their tight five was not limited to set piece and were prominent around the field, putting in hits and making good metres to get go-forward with ball in hand. This made the job of the loose forwards that much easier, where Rowan Perry was especially prominent with his high work-rate tackling disrupting ball at the breakdown.
Their back line operated efficiently, with the nine-ten combination of Joe Powell and Jake McIntyre impressing, both possessing fast passes with both hands, without having to take an extra step. This opened up space for their outside backs who cashed in later in the game, notably through Andrew John Kellaway, who was busy all day and ran dangerously with ball in hand, being rewarded with two tries.
Argentina, on the other hand, were fairly one-dimensional, looking to keep the game tight and used a multitude of one-off forward runners. They hung in the game well for 40 minutes, but eventually the dominance the Australians held in the tight told, sucking the defence in and opening up gaps out wider.
They are a team who present a real threat to fellow Pool A contestants and defending champions England. While England claimed a convincing win over Italy, it is hard to read too much into this game. The Italians fought hard and scrambled well under pressure on defence, but ultimately they were outclassed by a far better team.
England have a huge forward pack that will wear teams down and a couple of flyers out wide but will face a far sterner test from Australia in their second match on Friday.
South Africa were the other team to make a huge statement, dispatching a Scotland team 61-5, after leading by just nine points at the break. Scotland put up a strong fight and were resilient in defence in the first half. They looked to pin the Baby Boks in their own half and scored a brilliant length-of-the-field try.
But the massive South African forward pack eventually wore down the Scots, and the floodgates opened in a second half where the traffic all ran one way. Their forwards and midfield showed they were not just big, but ran well with the ball, threw some nice short balls and offloaded well to open up the defence. Handre Pollard directed play well at flyhalf through a tidy kicking game and took the ball to the line aggressively. Out wider the back three threatened constantly, especially Lloyd Greef, a big, strong runner who came into the line well and was a handful for defences.
They are going to be a tough team to beat and may well have cemented themselves as favourites after such a dominant second-half display.
To win, though, they will have to go through hosts New Zealand, who won the other Pool C game against Samoa. The 48-12 scoreline heavily flattered the Baby Blacks, who were under a lot of pressure at the breakdown from a spirited Samoan forward pack. They looked to play a more up-tempo game, lacking the size of some of the other teams but possessing a number of game breakers who will be a handful for any defence. The Samoans combated this by attacking the breakdown aggressively, disrupting the New Zealand ball and controlling a large part of the second half.
It must be remembered, however, that this was far from New Zealand's top team, and they finished the game strongly once Blues Super Rugby players Simon Hickey and Tevita Li were introduced. Expect a full-strength line-up to take the field against South Africa on Friday, but do not expect a change in tactics. The New Zealanders will look to run the big South African forwards around in the hope of cashing in late in the game.
The remaining pool, Pool B, does not have such obvious threats for the title but put up the best game of the day, with France downing Ireland 19-13. It was a spirited performance from an Irish side that withstood a lot from the French in the first half, yet were pressing the line to nearly snatch a win come the end of the game.
France dominated proceedings in the first half, with their strong forward pack getting good go-forward, tackling aggressively on defence and offloading well on attack. In Baptiste Serin they had a scrum-half who ran lively and kicked well, while Kylan Hamdaoui was a threat out wide.
They looked to have tired in the second half but showed what they are capable of and will represent a huge challenge to Wales for the right to go through from Pool B.
Wales, while apparently convincing winners in their 48-19 drubbing of Fiji, will find both France and Ireland a different kettle of fish.
The Welsh had a far superior scrum, through which they controlled the game and scored the majority of their points. Other than this, they did not really threaten. They will not get away with this against a better opposition and will need to develop more of an attacking game, although you cannot criticise them too much after a 29-point win.
Fiji were enterprising, throwing the ball around, running and offloading well in typical Fijian style but lacked the ability to execute at scrum time, which hurt them dearly.
With Day 1 out of the way, we can start to get a feel for the teams and look at predicting how each may fare in the overall competition.
South Africa and Australia were the two most impressive teams, both showing multiple dimensions to their game, and will both be tough to beat. It is hard to write off a skillful New Zealand at home, though, and England will not roll over for the Australians.
A betting man would suggest that one of these teams will emerge as the eventual winners, but with so much rugby still to be played, it is still early days yet. However, if early form is anything to go by, it looks as though it will be a tightly contested tournament with plenty of quality rugby.
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