RWC2023, Australia - Georgia before kick-off; Credit:

The 2023 Rugby World Cup got off to a bang on Friday evening, 8 September 2023, at the Stade de France in Paris; after a colourful opening ceremony, with hosts France up against New Zealand in the opening game.

Despite the "murdering" of the French national anthem which descended into farce, the All Blacks' haka raised the tensions before kick-off. Even with the All Blacks' captain, Sam Cane, not being fit to lead the two-time champions, France appeared nervous in the first half but came to life after half-time, with both teams running in two tries (Damian Penaud and Melvyn Jaminet for France and Mark Telea (2) for New Zealand), but the difference being Thomas Ramos slotting home five penalties, resulting in a solid win over New Zealand in what will surely be a Group A decider. After leading by a solitary point at half-time (9-8), the home side, and many people's favourites for the title, edged clear and won 27-13.

The organisers had declared on Friday that, due to the high temperatures in France, not just Paris, on the competition's opening weekend, play would be stopped half-way through each half, allowing time for water breaks, in a nod to players' welfare. However, many fans attending the matches in Bordeaux and Marseille were very critical at the organisation outside and inside such stadia, with travel delays and queues to enter the stadia, for food and drink (water supplies were exhausted before kick-off) as well as for the toilets. Not all stadia suffered the same, with the Stade de France running efficiently throughout.

On Saturday, in Saint-Etienne, in the first of four games that day, Italy had a facile win over Namibia, winning 52-8, scoring seven tries to one, with fullback Ange Capuzzo back from injury and scoring one (Lorenzo Cannone, Paolo Garbisi, Dino Lamb, Hame Faiva, Manuel Zuliani and Paolo Odogwu got the others), with Tommaso Allan successful with all seven conversions.

In Saturday's second game, Ireland - the 6Nations Grand Slam winners in March - were up against Romania in Bordeaux and were 19-8 up after half an hour when Romania were reduced to fourteen players for ten minutes when full-back Marius Simionescu was yellow-carded. Shortly after, Bundee Aki scored Ireland's fourth try, adding to the others scored by Jamison Gibson-Park, Hugo Keenan and Tadhg Beirne, with Gabriel Rupanu touching down for Romania. The last action of the first half saw Jonny Sexton, Ireland's captain, back after six months out of the game following injury and suspension, touching down for his team's fifth try, which he then converted himself, for Ireland to lead 33-8 at half-time. They did not let up in the second half, even when they started personnel changes on 50 minutes, and with Romania visibly tiring towards the end, with Rob Herring, Peter O'Mahony (twice), Jonny Sector (for his second, shortly before he was replaced on 65 minutes to a standing ovation from the Irish fans), Joe McCarthy, Bundee Aki (for his second) and Tadgh Beirne (also for his second) for a whopping 82-8 final scoreline.

Saturday's third game saw the crowds back at the Stade de France which had hosted the opening game the previous evening, this time with Australia up against Georgia, the third northern hemisphere - southern hemisphere match-up of the week-end. The Wallabies scored an early try by Jordan Petaia but failed to convert it, with Georgia opening their account with a penalty from the next phase of play to leave the score 5-3 to Australia after just five minutes. Georgia were showing some degree of flair by attempting to run from deep, egged on by the crowd, but it was Australia who scored the next points with their second try of the game, this time by Mark Nawaqanitawase, followed up by a penalty, to lead 15-3 after fourteen minutes. The Wallabies were showing passion and commitment, eager to get possession. Maybe some of the crowd were starting to become restless, but the first Mexican Wave started on just seventeen minutes... The game dipped in intensity until just after the half hour when Georgia started to counter-attack and threaten to breach the last-line Australian defence. Unfortunately, one of the Australian players, scrum-half Tate McDermott, had to be helped from the pitch for a HIA assessment after receiving a knee to his head in an accidental collision. Just before half-time, Georgia were reduced to fourteen men when their left winger was yellow carded. Half-time: 21-3 to Australia. Despite being a man down, Georgia came flying out of the blocks at the start of the second half and got a try scored by Luka Ivanishvili to reduce the deficit by five points. On the attack again, and threatening the Australian defence, the Georgian team would rue a misplaced pass that we intercepted and resulted in full-back Ben Donaldson touching down for Australia, with the same player adding another try with ten minutes left on the clock. Although Georgia were the better team in the second half, they just could not break down/through the Australian backline, thanks in part to some great last-ditch tackling; that is, until the last minute of the game when the replacement hooker, Beka Gigashvili, scored. FT 35-15 to Australia.

And the last game of Saturday saw an England side with significant doubts hanging over their ability to get out of their ongoing slump in form, up against an Argentine side who had real hopes of topping the group in this (almost) decider in Marseille. It was a tight affair in the first half, with the scores tied at 3-3 for most of the half, that was until England's George Ford scored the tournament's first (and second!) drop-goals for a 9-3 lead on 30 minutes. This was despite both teams going down to fourteen men, Argentina for just ten minutes, but England's Tom Curry received a red card (the tournament's first) after just three minutes on the clock. Argentina also tried their luck with a drop-goal attempt, which was unsuccessful, but amazingly, George Ford kicked a third drop-goal for a 12-3 half-time lead which was all the more surprising since they were one man down since the third minute. In the second half, England extended their lead thanks to three penalties by George Ford - who by now had scored all of England's 21 points. Despite their industry, Argentina's handling was letting them down; however, in the last minute of the second half, Rodrigo Bruni managed to breach England's defence and touch down for what in effect was a consolation try. FT 27-10 to England.

On Sunday, the first game saw Japan take on Chile - who were playing in the first Rugby World Cup after qualifying ahead of the USA and Canada - in Toulouse. Chile shocked Japan with their open, free-flowing style of play and took the lead with a try in the sixth minute courtesy of Rodrigo Fernandez; Japan hit back quickly and Amato Fakatava crossed the Chilean line just two minutes later for the scores tied at 7-7. Chile lost a man to a yellow card but the score remained the same until the half-hour mark when Jone Naikabula touched down for Japan's second try of the game. HT 21-7. After the break, Japan came flying out of the traps with Amato Fakatava scoring his second try of the game. Chile pressed hard and their endeavours were rewarded when Alfonso Escobar touched down, with Japan restoring their 16-point lead when Michael Leitch got Japan's fourth try (and a precious bonus point) to set the score at 28-12. Both teams were having players yellow carded and therefore off the pitch for ten minutes each. The Chilean players' heads did not drop, but their handling let them down at times. Japan had the lead but they were not having things all their own way; they had to fight for everything and had to wait almost another 20 minutes for their next score, a try by Ryoto Nakamura. They added a sixth when Warner Dearns touched down with the last play of the game, with only the conversion to follow. FT 42-12.

The second game saw two teams ranked in the top 5 of the world, South Africa (the holders) and Scotland, go head-to-head in Marseille. The two teams had met in the 2015 RWC in Newcastle when the southern hemisphere won 34-16. Much had been discussed before the tournament about the massive size and physicality of the South Africans, and the way that they had been using a 6-2 forwards-backs split amongst their eight substitutes, rather than 5-3 as most teams use. The first half was a low-scoring affair with South Africa scoring two penalties in the first half an hour to eke out a narrow 6-0 lead. Scotland then came to life and started to see more of the ball but could not make the most of a couple of line breaks. Scotland pulled back a penalty to leave the score 6-3 at half-time. After the break, South Africa upped the tempo and it just took them six minutes to cross Scotland's line for the game's first try, scored by Pieter-Steph Du Toit, for them to lead by eight points. And they were over for a second try just three minutes later when Kurt-Lee Arendse collected a delightful cross-field kick to cross the whitewash. With 20 minutes left to play, Scotland needed something magic: could the mercurial Finn Russell conjure something? Darcy Graham thought he had scored in the corner, but the referee called play back as the quick line-out had not been taken correctly. Both sides had half-chances, but neither could break the other's defence. FT score 18-3 to South Africa.

And the third and last game on Sunday saw Wales and Fiji play each other in Bordeaux (in was in Nantes in 2007 when Fiji famously defeated Wales and knocked them of of that Rugby World Cup). Could lightning strike twice? Particularly as Fiji are ranked three places higher than Wales in the world rankings. Wales got off to a fly start, first with a penalty and then with John Adams finishing off a great move started when George North sliced open the Fiji defence. 8-0 after just eight minutes. But Fiji pressed and eventually broke through the Wales defensive line just five minutes later when Waisea Nayacalevu touched town, reducing the deficit to just one point. And just four minutes later, Lekima Tagitagivalu scored Fiji's second try. Wales then started to apply some pressure but had to wait until almost 30 minutes into the game before George North scored under the posts for Wales to regain the lead. Fiji surged forward but had a possible try disallowed. HT 18-14 to Wales. After the break, it was Wales to get on the scoreboard first, with Louis Rees-Zammit touching down in the corner to stretch Wales' lead to eleven points. With 20 minutes left on the clock, Fiji were camped on Wales' line but could not breach the red defence which held strong. Play returned to the other end and suddenly Fiji were down to fourteen men for ten minutes, whereupon Elliot Dee crossed the Fiji line for Wales' fourth try (and a bonus point). But Wales were also soon down to fourteen men. With eight minutes left, Fiji got their third try, courtesy of Josua Tuisova, reducing the deficit to eleven points again. Just five minutes later, Fiji touched town only for the referee and TMO to disallow the try. Fiji were again camped on the Welsh line and this time the referee did allow the grounding. What a finish to the game! The touchdown was missed and the difference was six points, with less than two minutes left. The tension was almost unbearable as Fiji got possession and threatened the Welsh line with the clock in the red, only for a Fijian knock-on to end the match. FT 32-26 to Wales.

Weekend Summary

While there no real shocks in the first weekend of RWC2023 action, the closest and most exciting match was the last one between Wales and Fiji, with the outcome in question until the final whistle.

Group A: France 27, New Zealand 13; Italy 52, Namibia 8 (Italy top the group on 5 points, with France in second on 4 points)
Group B: Ireland 82, Romania 8; South Africa 18, Scotland 3 (Ireland top the group on 5 points, with South Africa in second on 4 points)
Group C: Australia 35, Georgia 15; Wales 32, Fiji 26 (Australia top the group on 5 points, with Wales in second on 5 points, separated by points difference)
Group D: Japan 42, Chile 12; England 27, Argentina 10 (Japan top the group on 5 points, with England in second on 4 points)