As the tournament rolled into its first week one thought prevailed in the minds of organizers and fans alike. “Let there be no slaughter, no 60, 80 or 100 point blowouts”. If the first round is any indication they need not have worried.
Men at War
Consider Romania leading Scotland 24-21 with 14 minutes to play. Impossible! Yet their forwards, coached by former All Black Steve McDowall, played brilliantly to hold the Scots and bag two tries. Romania's backs faded in the last 10 minutes allowing two scores to Scottish winger Simon Danielli, but it hardly mattered. Romania, the last European qualifier, stood toe-to-toe with a Tier 1 nation without hint of a blowout.
Then came Japan vs France. This had to be a demolition. Japan was winless in 14 World Cup games. France is ranked 5th and has the capacity to win this tournament. Coached by former All Black John Kirwan, the Japanese brought a ton of commitment and fearless determination. With 20 minutes to play they were four points adrift and on attack!
By comparison, France was schizophrenic in a first-up performance frought with errors. With panic seeping though their ranks, the backs in particular, took some terrible options. In the final quarter Gallic grunt replaced French flair to secure the victory. It was not a display which would leave the All Blacks coaches quaking in their boots ahead of Pool A's grudge match.
Finally there was the USA against Ireland. The Irish had lost all four tune-up matches but had also seriously beaten England last spring. Oozing backline experience with a ferocious pack, they're considered the 7th best team in the world. Yet after 40 minutes they led only 3-0.
In first half injury time Ireland scored the try which broke American hearts but not the Eagles' spirit. They roared back into the game, punishing the Irish despite being dominated at scrum and maul. After the game you could hardly tell who won. The winning margin of 12 points (22-10) left a collective frown on Irish faces. In contrast, one player summed it up for the Americans, “We want to play Russia – tomorrow.”
Who and Why?
By definition, “minnows” are those nations without professional infrastructure. They may have a history in the game, but their top players must go elsewhere to earn a buck. This is true of the United States as well as Canada, Georgia and Namibia.
Romania has history but very little finance. Russia possesses money, government support and a new 12-team professional league – but they are new to rugby, without history or tradition.
The South Pacific nations of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa are not always considered “minnows” on the field but they suffer the same fate. Lack of funds and facilities at home means their best players are scattered to the four winds. Often they are not released by the clubs for national team duty.
Draconian eligibility standards enforced by the IRB insures that the island unions, in particular, cannot recover players who have been momentarily tapped on the shoulder by their adoptive countries. With tiny home based populations, reversal of this policy is essential for their future in the game.
For the moment though, the minnows are having their day. There is not a soul attending this tournament who does not wish them well. Many are hoping for a major upset – so long as their favorite team is not the victim. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa may trounce their lesser opposition, but somewhere in the field lies a minnow waiting to bushwhack one of the heavies.