Ardie Savea, Yato among early stand-outs at Rugby World Cup

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              Fiji’s Peceli Yato is airborne to score a try against Australia during the Rugby World Cup Pool D game at Sapporo Dome between Australia and Fiji in Sapporo, northern Japan, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. (Masanori Takei/Kyodo News via AP)
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All Blacks backrower Ardie Savea is among players whose performances on the opening weekend of the Rugby World Cup put them among the leaders in the race to become the star of the tournament.

Russia winger Kirill Golosnitskiy was first out of the blocks, earning a permanent footnote in rugby history — and a katana sword — as the first try-scorer of the 2019 tournament.

His Japan opposite, Kotaro Matsushima, then surged to the lead as the first player to score a hat-trick of tries in the tournament’s opening match. Japan is everyone’s favorite underdog and more than likely to provide a number of crowd favorites, among them flyhalf Yu Tamura, resilient captain Michael Leitch and hooker Shota Horie, already a popular figure in Japan.

Fiji flanker Peceli Yato was a stand-out as the Pacific Islanders gave Australia a huge fright in Pool D before losing 39-21. The Flying Fijians have a number of players who could win star status at the World Cup, including flyhalf Ben Volavola whose skill and good looks have already won plenty of fans.

Replacement hooker Julian Montoya scored two tries from mauls as Argentina came close to pulling off the biggest comeback in Rugby World Cup history in a 23-21 loss to France.

There was no more dominating figure in the Pool B blockbuster between New Zealand and South Africa than Savea, who carried the ball for 62 meters, made eight tackles and won two turnovers. Savea’s punishing runs contributed to both of New Zealand’s tries.

Surprisingly, the Man of the Match award went to All Blacks fullback Beauden Barrett whose contribution was less imporant but more conspicuous.

Before the match Barrett had singled out Savea as a player central to the All Blacks’ game plan.

“His work rate is immense,” Barrett said. “The influence he is on a rugby game when it comes to the breakdown, but then you see him run around wingers on the edges. He’s probably our most influential player in terms of work rate that we have at the moment.”

This World Cup may be Savea’s breakout moment on the world stage. He began his international career in the shadow of his brother, All Blacks winger Julian Savea, and has taken time to establish himself in New Zealand’s starting lineup, making most of impressive forays from the bench.

As openside flanker, he has been ranked behind starting No. 7 Sam Cane. But the absence from the New Zealand squad of blindside flanker Liam Squire has seen Savea take over the No. 6 jersey. Though he is considered small by regular standards for a No. 6, the All Blacks have been able to deploy him in a way which makes maximum use of his skills.

Ireland may have a player who can match Savea’s backrow skills. Flanker C.J. Stander was superb in Ireland’s 27-3 Pool A win over Scotland, making 43 meters in 15 carries, adding nine tackles and one clean line break.

“We put in a lot of effort over the pre-season, we trained well and it’s just a start so we’re looking forward to the next game,” Stander said. “We can’t look back on it too much because we’re playing in six days time.”

Other stand outs over the first weekend of the tournament included lock Federico Ruzza, who was voted player of the match in Italy’s 47-22 win over Namibia, though he spent only 44 minutes on the field.

Powerful center Manu Tuilagi scored two tries in England’s patchy 35-3 win over Tonga, and emphasized he remains a challenge to any defense.