With an estimated global television audience of 450 million tuning in to Twickenham to watch the Opening Ceremony of the Rugby World Cup 2015 on Friday evening, the Military Band and the Rugby School Choir were joined by the emotionally-charged crowd who sang along to Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline to get the show started, followed by an even mightier Jerusalem led by Laura Wright; watching such a spectacle on tv is nothing to witnessing it live.
The warm-up finished; the Opening Ceremony started with a video recreation of the first time rugby was played, at rugby school, featuring Asa Butterfield and a cameo by Prince Harry, leading into a carefully choreographed spectacle featuring, amongst others, rugby legends from all 20 participating nations and the presentation of the trophy itself before the speeches. Patriotic in part, it highlighted rugby as a team sport and the destiny of this tournament.
Fiji - England
The Fijian version of the Haka may not quite have the intensity of that of the All Blacks, but the preceding singing of God Save the Queen encouraged the partisan crowd to belt it out like never before and create an atmosphere.
With early rain and nervous handling, it was England who started putting points on the board, as expected. But Fiji rallied back and, despite one disallow try, quickly ensured there was no mistake a minute later. However, the action was stop-start, hardly the spectacle the organisers had hoped for, with referee Jaco Peyper appearing reluctant to make any decision without resorting to the Television Match Official (TMO).
Fiji had the flair but not always the technique, making up for a poor advertisement for the game of rugby. In the third quarter they threatened to score but just came away with three points. England's Mike Brown rise above the mediocracy to score two tries and, maybe, if Fiji had a proven kicker in the team it may have been a different result. England were aiming for a 4th try to claim a bonus point, and they got it courtesy of substitute Billy Vunipola, a crowd favourite, just before the end. Final score: Fiji 11 - England 35 (more importantly, England get a bonus point for scoring 4 tries).
Getting back to central London was not the nightmare it could have been, with a fleet of shuttle buses ferrying spectators to Waterloo as the Twickenham and Richmond stations would be struggling to cope with demand.
Saturday involved a 2-hour train journey to Cardiff to see Ireland kick off their campaign against Canada in the Millennium Stadium with its roof closed. One of the beauties of the Welsh capital is the close proximity of the stadium to the railway station, making the trip west most enjoyable.
In the Media Centre before the Ireland - Canada game, the game between Tonga (ranked #11) and Georgia (#16) was screened, with the Georgians springing the first surprise of the tournament, emerging 17-10 winners over the South Sea Islanders. Compared to the opening game, it was a pulsating affair with the crowd getting behind both teams right up to the final whistle.
Ireland / Canada
No hakas for this match, but the Millennium Stadium crowd was in full force. With the roof closed for the "indoor" match, the sound was magnified as the players entered running on to the pitch.
With the first quarter of an hour seeing both teams seeking out gaps in each other's defences, all changed on 17 mins when Glen Jackson, the New Zealand referee, yellow carded Canada's Kyle Gilmour. Ireland's Sean O'Brien touched down after a forward's drive over the line, then Iain Henderson did the same just 6 minutes later. 17-0 to Ireland after 25 minutes.
Ireland's backs, in particular, were using the loop around and inside passing repeatedly, with Jonny Sexton darting through 3 minutes later for Ireland's 3rd try. Then winger Dave Kearney ripped through the defence on the near side of the pitch to score Ireland's 4th try on 36 minutes. Bonus point secured. On the stroke of half time Canada thought they had crossed the line but the referee adjudged the last pass to be forward. Half-time: 29-0 to Ireland.
One of the interesting innovations the organisers have implemented for this tournament is the pre-match, half-time and full-time in-stadium presenters and analysts discussing the match and the teams. Just like as on tv!
Ireland were down to 14 men less than 2 minutes into the 2nd half as captain Paul O'Connell was sin-binned; however, Canada could not make their numerical advantage count. With players tiring on both sides, it was not until both had made a number of substitutions that the scoreboard started to tick over again with a converted try apiece before Ireland's Keith Earls sprinted down the left wing for Rob Kearney to touch down under the posts. Then Madigan burst through for Jared Payne to score with just 3 minutes left on the clock.
Despite disappointing performances in the lead up to the World Cup, Ireland have rediscovered their mojo.
It was then that Japan achieved arguably one of the biggest shocks in sporting history, especially in rugby, by defeating the South African Springboks. I remember a number of years ago, while working on a project for the IRFU, they installed a new scoreboard for the visit of Japan to the old Lansdowne Road, to 3 digits; they needed it... With Japan hosting the next Rugby World Cup in 2019, this result alone will ensure the country will get behind the competition then. For the now, it has exploded this current tournament with everyone talking about it.
The Rugby World Cup not only brings together team on the pitch, but fans too, from celebrating in pubs to chatting in trains and buses on the way to and from venues, and not just in the host country.
Last up on Saturday saw France avoiding a banana skin by seeing off the threat of Italy.
New Zealand / Argentina
After Samoa had overcome the USA and Wales dispatched Uruguay earlier in the day, it was time for the Pool C heavyweights, New Zealand and Argentina, to meet at Wembley, arguably the top match of the week-end, on paper at least - Japan had changed all that the day before.
There was an equal amount of blue and white as there was black in the crowd who were very vociferous in welcoming both teams, and for the haka, the All Blacks' war dance.
With both teams showing lightning-quick handling and willing to run at the opposition, the scene was set for a classic game, but a bruising encounter such . New Zealand took advantage of poor discipline from the Argentinian players in the loose and went into a 9-0 lead courtesy of 3 penalties, but the South Americans crossed for the game's first try, and took the lead with a penalty of their own. Game on!
Richie McCaw, the All Blacks captain and a talismanic figure, was yellow carded, getting a standing ovation from the Argentine fans; when team-mate Conrad Smith was also yellow-carded, New Zealand were down to just 13 men for a minute before McCaw came back on. Half-time: New Zealand 12, Argentina 13.
The second half started with more of the same, except Argentina were deploying a deeper back-line formation in attack, enabling their backs to run onto the ball, thus having more momentum in the tackle. New Zealand also started to deploy thus tactic as both defences were shoring up and seemed almost impenetrable. Almost; Aaron Smith, the All Blacks' scrum-half, danced over the line from a 5m line-out, to bring them back into the lead.
With the on-pitch intensity dropping, the Argentinian fan-base broke into song, chanting to rouse their players who were visibly tiring. The All Blacks upped the pressure and substitute Sam Cane made up for dropping a pass when in front of the posts by crossing near the corner a minute later.
Final score: New Zealand 26, Argentina 16
8 matches in 3 days, with 16 of the 20 teams in action this first week-end of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. But the scene is just being set with teams like Japan needing to repeat their heroics once more to be in with a shout of qualifying for the quarter-finals. Others, like Argentina, need to ensure there are no more slip-ups, for them to quality.
To travel to England, fly Luxair to LondonCity airport. See www.luxair.lu.
Tip: Upon arrival at LondonCity Airport, purchase / top-up an Oyster Card for use on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) and London Underground. For intercity rail travel, book well in advance to get the best deals.
Photos by Geoff Thompson