Fancied teams made to fight hard in NZ

by staff

Argentina's Pumas, the Brave Blossoms of Japan and the Oaks of Romania challenged rugby's rigid pecking order on Saturday, threatening to bring down major European powers England, France and Scotland on the first full day of matches at the Rugby World Cup.

Tonga's sturdy performance against the All Blacks on opening night, their 41-10 loss being the smallest in four encounters with the top-ranked team, set a tone that permeated the second day.

England edged Argentina 13-9, France beat Japan 47-21, Scotland needed two late tries to hold off Romania 34-24 and Fiji beat stout Namibia 49-25.

Argentina furnished the first upset of the 2007 World Cup by beating hosts host France and came close again Saturday, leading 2003 champions England for 66 minutes.

In a game punctuated by 27 penalties, 16 against the Pumas, Argentina fashioned a 9-3 lead on goalkicks before England sand them with the only try of the match to replacement scrumhalf Ben Youngs.

The match was notable for the failure of goalkickers on both sides.

Jonny Wilkinson, who kicked England to the 2003 Cup victory, managed three from eight, while Argentina's Felipe Contepomi and Martin Rodriguez jointly missed five shots at goal.

England also incurred the first yellow card of the tournament, to prop Dan Cole after repeated infringements from the forward pack.

"We were under no illusions about what Argentina can bring," England captain Mike Tindall said. "We knew how good their pack was. They squeezed and squeezed and eeked out penalties. Lucky today, not one of the kickers could kick."

Contepomi said Argentina should have fared better against an England team that missed 14 tackles.

"I think we were competitive, we didn't take our chances when we could but now this is a long tournament that I think we started well and we have to continue in the same way," he said.

"Hopefully, we can win the next three games and go through to the quarterfinals."

French captain Thierry Dusautoir expressed some relief after Japan stretched his squad to the limit before conceding 22 points in the last 10 minutes.

"I'm quite happy that they did this because we have started to play at this tournament and they made us understand that we need to play a different level at the World Cup," he said.

The closer than expected result took some attention off the organisational issues exposed on the opening day.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown said he would "step up to the plate" to confront problems with public transport which all but paralysed his city before, during and after the opening ceremony and match.

Some coaches will be looking for explanations, too, after things didn't go quite as expected for the bigger teams on Saturday.

Winger Simon Danielli scored two late tries to lead Scotland's rally which avoided the first major upset of the Cup in only the second match.

Scotland trailed 24-21 before a late penalty levelled and Danielli's tries in the 75th and 78th minutes clinched the win. But not before the resurgent Romanians nearly beat a Tier 1 nation for the first time at a World Cup.

The last time the teams met, Scotland beat Romania 42-0. After Mike Blair and Jon Ansbro scored early tries, it looked like another rout was in the works.

But Romania, fielding their most experienced starting lineup, outplayed Scotland for much of the second half and tries by prop Mihaita Lazar and No.8 Daniel Carpo gave the eastern Europeans the lead with 13 minutes left.

"We missed 10 minutes to create history," Romania coach Romeo Gontineac said. "We had a very good game.

"I'm proud of all of them. We were talking a lot about things like respect, solidarity and courage and during this match those words came true."

Two-time finalists France had a seemingly comfortable 25-11 lead at halftime but Japan responded with 10 unanswered points to add some tension. Scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili's penalty gave France some breathing space before three late tries soothed frayed nerves.

Winger Vereniki Goneva became an early star of the tournament, scoring four tries in his World Cup debut in Fiji's flattering win over Namibia.

The former sevens star racked up a hattrick by half time, when Fiji led 32-15, then claimed the fourth in the 52nd minute to become the first Fijian to score four tries in a World Cup match.

"Some fantastic efforts, especially by Vereniki - that was pretty special on debut," captain Deacon Manu said. "It was just fantastic to get the result.

"To the credit of the Namibians, they put pressure on the whole match anyway they could."

The Africans showed just as much skill and joy at running the ball as the Fijians, scoring two classy tries, dominating long periods, and deservedly finishing with their most points in a World Cup match.