World Cup underdogs lose matches, win support

If outspoken former Wallaby winger David Campese had his way, the likes of Georgia, Namibia and Portugal wouldn’t be at the Rugby World Cup.

Before the 20-nation tournament got under way in France, Campese championed calls for the number of teams to be cut to 16 to avoid blowout scores that do little for rugby beyond rewriting its record books.

Yet the underdogs have shamed their critics by scaring some of the fancied teams and proving they do deserve places at the game’s biggest event.

“Everybody who’s here has earned the right to be here,” New Zealand flanker Jerry Collins said. “Who’s to say they shouldn’t be here? They should get credit for getting this far and we should get behind them. They’re only going to get better if they come here.”

While rookies Portugal, Namibia and Japan have been on the wrong end of thumpings—13 All Blacks crossed for tries as New Zealand crushed Portugal 108-13, France also scored 13 in an 87-10 beating of Namibia, and Australia routed Japan 91-3 in their opening match—rugby’s developing world also has turned in some inspirational performances and drawn some of the biggest roars from crowds in France.

No team has impressed more than Georgia, playing in only their second World Cup and still searching for their first win.
Rugby is in its infancy in the former Soviet republic, which boasts just eight rugby pitches.

The Eastern Europeans battled hard in the first half against Argentina before losing 33-3 and then came tantalisingly close to pulling off the greatest shock in World Cup history. They just failed to beat Six Nations powerhouse Ireland, losing 14-10 in Bordeaux on Saturday.

Playing against the most-capped Irish starting line-up of all time, the Georgians camped close to Ireland’s try line for much of the second half and only frantic defence by Eddie O’Sullivan’s men kept them out.

“We did not up our performance as we would have liked to have, but credit goes to the Georgians. They were really rough,” Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll said after the game. “I’ve played in 77 Tests and this one was as hard as any of the top sides.”

Georgia coach Malkhaz Cheishvili was left ruing what might have been. “We tried to organise our defence and play as tightly as possible. The boys achieved this 80%. There were still errors, but they did very well,” he said.

The four-point margin of defeat was Georgia’s smallest to date at a World Cup and earned the team a bonus point. Giorgi Shkinin’s second-half try also meant that, by Saturday night, hosts France were the only team at the tournament not to have scored a five-pointer.

Of course, the French put that right on Sunday night by running in 13 tries in thrashing Namibia in Toulouse. But even in that match one of the biggest roars from the crowd came when outside centre Bratley Langenhoven grabbed an interception and sprinted the length of the field for a consolation try in the final minute.

While they were reduced to 14 men early against France and were never in contention, Namibia earlier shocked the Irish by scoring two second-half tries in a 32-17 loss. It was Namibia’s 105-13 thrashing by South Africa in a warm-up game that fuelled calls for second-tier nations to be excluded from the World Cup.

Tonga has a long and proud rugby history. But, as a nation of only 115 000 people with about 5 000 registered players, it consistently punches about its weight. At this World Cup its players have strung together back-to-back victories for the first time, overcoming the United States and then beating Samoa after nine losses to their neighbour in a row—a result that set church bells ringing before dawn across the island nation.

After New Zealand’s 13-try romp against his side, Portugal coach Tomaz Morais rejected the argument often put forward by those who want a smaller World Cup that such lopsided defeats damage rugby development in smaller nations.

“It was an excellent day for our rugby and the world’s rugby,” he said. “Playing against the best teams, we can always learn. The whole press is talking about rugby in our country and that will help it grow.”

And all those tiny nations beating expectations but not opponents can take heart from one statistic: the only team shut-out so far in France is defending champion England, beaten 36-0 by South Africa on Friday.—Sapa-AP

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