By Laurie Fitzgerald

The 2011 Rugby World Cup got underway last weekend, and it was a case of the underdogs coming so close yet so far.

Tonga put up a spirited second-half fight in the opening game against New Zealand, but by then they were already 29-0 down. The All Blacks went on to win 41-10.

The second game almost did see a major shock as Romania came within 12 minutes of defeating Scotland. However, two late tries by Simon Danielli gave Andy Robinson’s men a bonus point 34-24 win.

France were also given a scare by Pacific Nations champions Japan, who came within an unconverted try before Marc Lievremont‘s team pulled away in the final 10 minutes to triumph 47-21.

Fiji had no such issues in their bonus point win over Namibia (49-25) but England were pushed all the way by a resilient Argentina.

The Pumas led 9-3 with 15 minutes remaining before substitute scrum-half Ben Youngs darted through the Argentinian defence to eventually scrape a 13-9 win in their Pool B opener.

Sunday proved to be more of the same, with the favourites being given stern examinations by their less illustrious opponents before clinching victory.

Ireland didn’t cross the tryline until first-half injury-time against the USA, and were unable to get that all-important fourth try in a 22-10 win over the Eagles.

Meanwhile Australia, who are many people’s tip to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, were level-pegging with Italy at the break before four tries in 17 minutes saw the Tri-Nations champs safely over the line by 32-6.

However, the most intriguing game of the weekend was saved till last, as Wales pushed defending World Champions South Africa before the Springboks prevailed – just – by 17-16.

While the weekend’s opening games to the tournament demonstrated that there will be far less straightforward games that in previous years, there still seems to be a mental block between developing rugby nations and sides from the Tri-Nations and Six Nations.

It seems that the tournament needs a big shock to really give the belief, especially mentally, to those deemed underdogs, and if we get that shock this weekend, then this World Cup is really going to light up.

Week 1 Results:

Friday 9th September

New Zealand 41-10 Tonga

Saturday 10th September

Romania 24-34 Scotland; France 47-21 Japan; Fiji 49-25 Namibia; Argentina 9-13 England

Sunday 11th September

Australia 32-6 Italy; Ireland 22-10 USA; South Africa 17-16 Wales

Wednesday 14th September

Namibia 12-49 Samoa; Canada 25-20 Tonga; Georgia 6-15 Scotland

Pool A

The opening pool got off to the expected start with comfortable wins for both New Zealand and (in the end) France.

Graeme Henry’s All Blacks may have been criticised for an off-key second-half display against the Tongans, but they showed a real cutting edge beforehand, epitomised by the brilliant performance by full-back Israel Dagg.

The hosts take on Japan, who will be looking to build on their spirited showing against les Bleus, although John Kirwan will probably look for damage limitation on Friday.

Sunday sees France take on Canada, whose experience in previous tournaments may give them a chance to give the unpredictable French a possible scare.

But by the time Tonga and Japan face each other next Wednesday, the two standout teams from the pool should have clear daylight from the rest.

Pool B

This was always expected to be one of the most hard-fought pools in this World Cup, and the opening games only served to strengthen that belief.

Both England and Scotland were given massive scares before getting their campaigns underway with all-important wins.

Martin Johnson will know that his English side will need to show more quality in attack and discipline against Georgia, where nothing less than a bonus point win will be expected of them.

The Six Nations champions will have to do it without the exciting young second-rower Courtney Lawes, who was given a ban following an off-the-ball incident with Argentina skipper Mario Ledesma.

Scotland will also have breathed a huge sigh of relief after their opening match, but have the week off after their midweek win over the Georgians.

It means that Argentina will face Romania knowing that a win is crucial to maintain their chances of reaching the quarter-finals.

While the Pumas were brilliant in their commitment last Saturday, they tired in the final stages – something which ultimately cost them.

They must now build a platform to work on their fitness and stay in touch with the home nations.

Pool C

Both Australia and Ireland got their tournament up and running in week 1, but only after it took them a while to get going.

Now they will face each other in what promises to be the game of the weekend, knowing that defeat for either side will create a much tougher path in the knockout stages.

The winners of Pool C are set to potentially face Wales, Samoa or Fiji in the quarters followed by either England or France in the semis.

But the runners-up are likely to face both South Africa and New Zealand in order to get to the final, so Saturday’s game at Eden Park is going to be crucial for coaches Robbie Deans and Declan Kidney.

With the likes of Quade Cooper, James O’Connor, Digby Ioane, Brian O’Driscoll and Tommy Bowe on show, it’s all set for 80 minutes of mouth-watering free-flowing rugby.

The other game in the pool this week sees Italy ready to put pressure on the loser’s of the big game in Auckland when they take on World Cup debutants Russia on Tuesday, with the Azzurri looking to build on an encouraging performance against the Wallabies last time out.

Pool D

Going into the tournament, and many rugby fans were in no doubt that this would prove to be the pool of death.

What many weren’t expecting was just how quickly this would prove to be the case, as Wales pushed South Africa all the way last Sunday.

Controversy has followed after referee Wayne Barnes refused to use the television match official to double-check a James Hook penalty that the touch judges deemed to have gone wide – even though replays suggest it may have crept back inside the posts.

As the ‘miss’  took place in the opening 15 minutes it’s difficult to claim it would have had a bearing on the outcome of the match, but in a game so tight it left Wales wondering what if.

What Welsh coach Warren Gatland won’t need to wonder about is the make-up of his back-row, after a tremendous display from young trio Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and captain Sam Warburton.

Now Wales need to right the wrongs of last weekend when they were unable to kill off the game, because defeat to Samoa on Sunday would leave them in huge trouble. 

As for Peter de Villiers’ Springboks, they will need to use their narrow win as a real wake-up call as they prepare to face Fiji.

By the end of the weekend we may see who has the upper hand in Pool D, but expect this group of teams to go right to the wire.

So what do you think? Will the big boys carry on where they left off last weekend? Or will the underdogs blow the tournament wide open? Leave a comment and let us know your views.