Russia, the only team in New Zealand making their rugby World Cup debut, became the 20th and last to join the party on Thursday but it was the United States who celebrated after securing a 13-6 victory in the day’s only match.
It was the States’ third win in 19 World Cup games, the previous two both coming against Japan, but is likely to be their last of this tournament as they now face Australia and Italy having lost to Ireland in their Pool C opener.
Russia’s World Cup bow might have delighted the International Rugby Board, who are desperate to expand the game’s boundaries, but local fans were more concerned with matters closer to home after captain Richie McCaw and fullback Mils Muliaina were ruled out of New Zealand’s second game of the tournament against Japan on Friday.
For the neutrals, however, Russia and the U.S. provided rich entertainment in difficult conditions in New Plymouth, where once again the goalkickers struggled to hit the target with both teams missing three of their five penalty attempts.
The U.S. prevailed on the back of a superb try by scrumhalf Mike Petri and some devastating tackles but it was a still day to remember for the Russians.
“It was a special moment for Russian rugby and we can take a lot of pride from that performance,” said their English director of rugby Kingsley Jones, while flyhalf Yury Kushnarev will forever have his place in the record books after scoring his country’s first World Cup points with a penalty that had them briefly ahead.
Impressive U.S. captain Todd Clever said: “They’re a tough team and they’re getting better and better.”
World Cup action continues on Friday when the hosts take on Japan in Hamilton and New Zealand coach Graham Henry was forced to deny that he was resting two of his key men.
“There is no truth to that idea at all,” he said, after flanker McCaw was ruled out with a calf strain and fullback Muliania with a tight hamstring, following the earlier withdrawal of flyhalf Dan Carter with a sore back.
Hooker Keven Mealamu will lead the side in the absence of McCaw, who will now have to wait for the key game against France to become the first All Black to win 100 caps.
OLD FARM VEHICLE
For once South Africa were able to announce some positive injury news after a troubled build-up as lock Bakkies Botha was surprisingly named in the team to start against Fiji on Saturday.
“I will still feel a bit of stiffness but it’s like an old farm vehicle in the morning, it smokes a bit when you start it up but when you drive it around for half an hour and it gets hot, it can go,” said the 31-year-old after overcoming an Achilles injury that at one time seemed to put his tournament involvement in doubt.
Botha’s return comes as Victor Matfield, Butch James, Bryan Habana and centre Jean de Villiers were all ruled out with injuries sustained in the opening one-point win over Wales.
English officials felt the need to issue a statement in support of their players on Thursday after tabloid pictures showed some of them enjoying a boozy night out in Queenstown following their win over Argentina.
Stand-in captain Mike Tindall, who married the Queen of England’s granddaughter Zara Phillips in July, was the centre of attention as several England players attended a nightclub that featured dwarf racing amongst its attractions.
“Like all the lads, he plays for England with a massive amount of passion and he was relaxing after a tough match,” the Rugby Football Union said.
England will name their team on Friday for Sunday’s match against Georgia, with injury-plagued flanker and nominal captain Lewis Moody expected to make his first appearance of the tournament.
Former England coach Andy Robinson, now in charge of Scotland, joined the chorus of voices calling for a change in the competition’s draw that currently gives the major nations a week’s rest between matches but forces many of the “also-rans” to play all four of their pool games in as little as 16-18 days.
Scotland managed to win their games against Romania and Georgia in the space of five days but Robinson said the smaller teams were severely disadvantaged.
“A four-day turnaround for squads that don’t have the real depth is something that has to be improved,” Robinson said. “It does put you under huge pressure.”
However, the man who was assistant to Clive Woodward when England won the World Cup in 2003, predicted that the gap would continue to close.
“I have always enjoyed banging the drum for the Tier Two nations because for the game of rugby to go truly global we need 20 teams there competing for the World Cup as you have in soccer,” Robinson said.
“I see that happening in probably 16 years’ time.” (Editing by Alan Baldwin; to query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)