SAINT-ETIENNE, France — The opening weekend of Rugby World Cup 2023 sure did deliver some entertainment.
While there were no major upsets, Wales’ dramatic victory over Fiji was the one instance of a lower-ranked team defeating a nation above them, while both Chile and Georgia caused plenty of headaches for Japan and Australia respectively, before succumbing to first-up losses.
Read on as we review some of the things you may have missed over the weekend.
NOTHING TACTICAL IN SPRINGBOKS TRAFFIC LIGHT SYSTEM
South Africa coach Jacques Nienaber has defended his use of a “traffic-light system” after director of rugby Rassie Erasmus was filmed shining lights back towards the pitch during the Springboks’ 18-3 win over Scotland on Sunday afternoon.
The Marseille clash was among the most physical of the weekend as the defending champions used a rush defence to shut down Scotland’s attack, eventually wearing down their opponents and emerging with a vital 15-point win after second-half tries from Pieter-Steph du Toit and Kurt-Lee Arendse.
But it was Erasmus’ use of the lights from the coach’s box that had social media abuzz, so too a head-on-head collision between Jesse Kriel and Jack Dempsey for which the Springboks centre went unpunished.
Speaking on the actions of his boss, Nienaber said it was merely a method of communication.
“In terms of the lights, it started here probably when we played France in Marseille and I don’t know if you’ve been pitch side or close to pitch side, with this dome the sound is phenomenal, so you can’t hear people,” he explained.
Desperate to try anything, Wales to adopt Erasmus’ lights system, with red being “Stop Being Shite” pic.twitter.com/bwgBHHQZIO
— 16 Man Maul (@16ManMaul) September 11, 2023
“The main thing us or us, because there’s a lot of channels and working and talking, sometimes it’s tough to talk to our support staff. So I think a lot of teams will have a system; is it a red, is it green, what’s the extent of the injury or the knock, the seriousness? So that’s just for us to communicate with our support staff.”
Pushed on whether South Africa had sought clearance to use such a means of communication, Nienaber confirmed they had not and he also reiterated that there was nothing tactical in the process.
“You can use hand signals for communication,” Nienaber said. “I don’t think you need any permission from World Rugby. I was at Munster and the calls were red if it’s a serious injury and you must consider a substitution, amber is ‘let’s give this guy five or 10 minutes to see if he’s okay’ and green ‘it’s okay’.
“So it’s something we used at Munster in 2016/17, and it’s just something we continue with. It’s just an easy way; if we talk on the radio we want to talk tactics. So to talk to medical people about injuries it just consumes the channels, so it’s just an easy way to get in our heads.”
KOLISI LEAVES NO MAN BEHIND
Meanwhile, Springboks captain Siya Kolisi launched an impassioned defence of his fly-half Manie Libbok, who despite winning the man-of-the-match award, endured a difficult afternoon from the kicking tee before he was eventually replaced by Faf de Klerk, who immediately split the uprights.
Nienaber said he was unconcerned about Libbok’s goal kicking if he continues to win man-of-the-match honours and plays as he did otherwise against the Scots, before Kolisi circled back to the question a short while later to defend his No. 10.
“From a player’s point of view, these question gets asked quite a lot when he misses kicks,” Kolisi began. “We play as a team and sometimes you’re not good at one thing on the day, but the way he attacked today, the way he [took] control of the team, how he is a general amongst us. People forget that, and then they remember the stuff that he does.
“Faf can kick, Cheslin [Kolbe] can kick, there are a lot of guys that can we can call upon. So if someone is lacking somewhere, somebody else takes over. It’s the same with me, sometimes I don’t know what to call in the game; Duane [Vermeulen] will call; Eben [Etzebeth] will call; Manie makes a call; so if someone is lacking somewhere, somebody else picks up for them. He’s not going to be good at everything every single day.”
The highlight of Libbok’s game was a brilliant cross-kick for Arendse’s try that knocked the wind out of the Scottish resistance, with replays later showing that the No. 10 was looking at the defence and not the ball, at the moment of impact, in what was an incredible bit of skill.
GATLAND UNPHASED BY BIGGAR’S NORTH EXPLOSION
Just before halftime in the weekend’s final match, between Wales and Fiji, veteran No. 10 Dan Biggar let long-time teammate George North absolutely have it, after he had continued to play from a Fijian turnover, rather than boot the ball straight into touch to end the first half.
“Off the park, get the f—— ball off!” Biggar screamed, before he continued to shake his head and mouth expletives on his way towards the tunnel.
Asked about Biggar’s reaction, after Wales had held on for a dramatic 32-26 that has allowed them to put one foot in the quarterfinals ahead of pool games with Portugal, Australia and Georgia, Wales coach Warren Gatland said players needed to be able to criticize and handle criticism themselves.
“I don’t have a problem with that. It is about making people accountable,” Gatland said. “There were times in the first half where we put the ball through the hands or maybe there was a kick option. We probably weren’t as clear in our comms and decision-making as we needed to be.
“There is nothing wrong with players challenging each other. We want that to be part of the group. Everyone is accountable, peer pressure is huge and we all need to take responsibility. That sort of criticism is not personal, it is about the individual getting better. We need people to be able to be critical.”
Biggar was replaced with 13 minutes to go in the match, the fly-half having to watch the tense final moments as Fiji scored two quicks tries, and very nearly a third, to fall just short of what would have been an amazing comeback victory.
But he was still a worthy winner of the man-of-the-match award, a brilliant 50/22 kick that halted the Fijians’ momentum in the second-half one of many key influences on what was a gripping World Cup match.
“Tonight was about anything but me,” Biggar said. I just wanted it to be special for the team, the Welsh people in the stands here, the people back home, and hopefully it will be special for me in the end.”
JONES NOT OUT TO WIN ANY POPULARITY CONTESTS
Ahead of every match of Rugby World Cup 2023, the players names and faces are posted to the big screen as the ground announcer lists each team’s starting 15, its eight replacements, and coach.
The roars were near deafening for the French players in front of their adoring home fans — skipper Antoine Dupont topped the lot — while there were only the odd few who received a less than glowing response, with Wallabies coach Eddie Jones at the top of the list.
Asked about the jeers following Australia’s 35-15 win over Georgia, Jones said that it was nothing new, which is unsurprising given how long he has been involved with the game at the highest level.
“Obviously I’m not popular, mate, at least it’s consistent,” he said after Australia’s win. “You either want to be popular or unpopular, so at least I’m consistently unpopular. I can deal with that.”
The Georgians certainly had the support of the neutrals at Stade de France, to go with a large group of their own travelling fans, particularly after scored a try just a few minutes into the second half despite being down to 14 men. Their attacking endeavour only increased from that point onwards, and had it not been for a couple of inopportune dropped balls they could have really given the Wallabies a fright.
Prop Taniela Tupou played a key role in halting the Georgians’ comeback with a well-timed defensive retreat that saw him take an unlikely intercept to create a try for Ben Donaldson, having earlier led a dominant Australian scrum that proved its many doubters wrong.
Reflecting on a challenging 10 months after rupturing an Achilles tendon in November last year, Tupou paid tribute to Jones for the patience and encouragement he had offered while the front-rower was on the comeback trail.
“One hundred percent [I had doubts I might not make the World Cup], last year I was recovering from a calf injury when I ruptured my Achilles,” Tupou explained. “I went through some really dark places. They said it would take nine months and I was lucky enough to make it back in seven or eight. But there were times when I thought ‘can I still make it back?’
“Then when Eddie came in, I didn’t know much about him so I was nervous about whether I would be his type of player. I am lucky he has shown so much faith in me.”