Round 1 of the 2019 Rugby World Cup demonstrated what we already knew: there is some serious quality at this tournament, with New Zealand, England, South Africa and Ireland all showing flashes of brilliance.
A superstar stood up for each of these teams, and it will be fascinating which one of them dominates the tournament and whether that is enough to influence the outcome. These included Beauden Barrett, Manu Tuilagi, Jonathan Sexton and Cheslin Kolbe.
It is not difficult to see comparisons between Tuilagi and Jonah Lomu in 1995. And with an England vs New Zealand semi-final looking likely, it would not surprise if we saw England getting their own back. Let’s hope George Bridge or someone else doesn’t cop a Cattesque trampling in the semi-final. How the landscape of rugby might look different if these champions played for their native Tonga.
But let’s not forget as brilliant as Lomu was in 95, it wasn’t enough to get the All Blacks home. It’s funny how the multiverse conspires to entertain at times.
While there is no doubt that Tuilagi is a Rolls Royce athlete who has the ability to blow teams off the field – he appears to be operating right at the top of his game – Sexton looked like a man whose time had come to deliver his destiny. We all know that past World Cup winners have usually fielded iconic first fives. Dan Carter is the most obvious example from 2015, while there are many other prominent examples.
The brand of risk and mistake-free rugby Ireland are playing is perfect for Sexton. Certainly based on the first round of action Ireland looked to me as the team most difficult to beat. Sexton controls the game with absolute purpose and effectiveness and would be worthy to sit in the pantheon of legends as a World Cup-winning No. 10.
But so too would Beauden Barrett. While he is operating at 15 so far in the competition, make no mistake – he is driving games from the back and, like the others listed here, is a matchwinner. He had the look of a man determined to influence the outcome of games. It reminded me of the glint he had in his eye when dragging wellington to their Super Rugby title, and that potentially bodes well. You don’t become world player of the year twice by mistake, and Barrett is in his prime.
Whether the All Blacks can limit the damage of Tuilagi if they meet, as form predicts in a semi-final, remains to be seen. England have a tough draw, though, and a New Zealand vs Ireland final would the stuff of dreams – an irresistible force against an immovable object. Like in 1995, I expect a final for the ages.
The problem for the All Blacks is that they tend to score points off opposition mistakes. When, like Ireland does, you stick to a simple game plan and don’t make mistakes, that is a very large problem for New Zealand and difficult to know if they can unlock. I have my doubts.
And then there is Kolbe, who has the ability to light up the tournament in ways we have never before seen. Whether that is enough to get past Ireland will provide a stern test for the South Africans. That clash is worthy of at least semi-final status given the class that exudes from both sides.
Unfortunately for South Africa I don’t think they will have enough to break down the Ireland defence.