Opinion: Chile’s Toulouse thriller is what makes the Rugby World Cup special

Chile Rugby World Cup v Japan Credit: Alamy
Chile Rugby World Cup v Japan Credit: Alamy

It was not quite the Brighton Miracle or the home team heroics of 2019, but Chile’s performance against Japan in their Rugby World Cup debut is what makes the tournament so special.

Chile made their tournament debut against Japan, the 2019 hosts who famously beat the far more favoured Ireland and Scotland four years ago.

And while the South Americans were unable to produce their own historic win over the side that has provided the rugby public with memorable victories in the past two tournaments, they can be incredibly proud of their efforts.

Chile, coached by former Uruguay prop Pablo Lemoine – who scored his country’s only try in the 111-13 defeat to England in 2003 – were ultimately defeated 42-12. Still, that final scoreline was certainly bloated and did not pay credit to just how they played.

Not making up the numbers at the World Cup

The Chileans qualified for the Rugby World Cup squad thanks largely to the frankly outrageous try from Rodrigo Fernandez in July last year against the USA in the first leg of their qualifier, and it was the mercurial fly-half who etched his name into the history books in Toulouse.

Full-back Inaki Ayarza tore through the Japanese defence, leaving three defenders in his wake before linking up with Marcelo Torrealba.

Torrealba looked to have butchered the try when he failed to make the most of a three-on-one, but a loose ball was pounced on by Fernandez, who followed one of rugby’s most basic rules ‘PLAY TO THE WHISTLE’ and toed the ball onto score Chile’s first-ever Rugby World Cup try.

It was an incredible moment just five minutes into the game, and it came with a statement: Chile are not here to make up the numbers.

Even when Japan hit back shortly after a knock-on from the restart from Chile, their heads did not drop.

They were fierce on defence and did not let the occasion get the best of them.

Yellow cards to prop Matias Dittus and inspirational captain Martin Sirgen could have been Chile’s undoing, but again, they tried their utmost and continued to express themselves not only with some lovely attacking patterns but a sharp kicking game.

Almost upsetting the favourites

Japan were the clear favourites for the match, but if one ignored the scoreline and looked purely at the statistics, the underdogs seemingly dominated the fixture.

They had 56 per cent of possession across both halves and forced Japan to attempt 149 tackles, 28 of which they missed. Lemoine’s men, in turn, were asked to make 100 tackles but crucially missed 20.

Amato Fakatava, Jack Cornelson, Michael Leitch, Kanji Shimokawa, Amanaki Saumaki, and Keita Inagaki all made 10 tackles or more during the match, with only one Chilean player forced to do so.

Alfonso Escobar scored in the 49th minute in what looked like a try that would spur another stellar comeback from the side that came from 19-0 down to defeat USA 31-29 to qualify for the tournament.

However, it was not to be as Japan hit back swiftly afterwards as they eventually took control of the match to seal the win.

Ahead of the World Cup, Japan were officially upgraded to Tier One status, and Chile can take a lot of confidence from their performance, having not played against a Tier One nation building up to the tournament – the closest they came was playing Scotland A last year and an Argentina XV before the World Cup.

Had they got a shot at a stronger nation before the tournament, perhaps they would have been more prepared for the challenge at the set pieces of the bigger nations because the Brave Blossoms’ set-piece and maul got them over the line in their World Cup opener after Chile gave them a real scare.

“We gave it everything, and we can be proud of our performance. We gave a good fight, maybe not right to the last minute, but we really enjoyed it, which is a really important part of it as well,” captain Sigren said after the match, and he is right.

They had their opportunities; they took two and could have done better with others, but they made a great account of themselves and have put themselves on the rugby map for thousands more fans.

Individual performances

Every World Cup provides the opportunity for fans to discover some of the lesser known talents around the world and this game was no different.

Hooker Diego Escobar was box-office from minute one shining on both sides of the ball and being accurate at the lineout.

The 23-year-old was another player who did not go into his shell on the big occasions. He won a joint-match high of two turnovers in a pesky performance at the breakdown while he thundered into eight tackles and, gained 30 metres from nine carries, and beat four defenders.

Lock Clemente Saavedra was excellent at the lineouts and made a stellar run down the touchline, leaving several Japanese defenders in his wake, in a run remanence of the late great Jonah Lomu.

We already mentioned the brilliance of Fernandez, who was simply imperious throughout the 80 minutes, but his half-back partner Marcel Torrealba produced the kind of performance that will have European scouts clamouring for his agent’s phone number.

Centre Matias Garafulic was just as impressive, shining in defence, where he landed hammering tackles.

There was a lot to love about the performance at Chile and it is just another reminder of what makes the World Cup so special. It’s not just the pursuit of lifting the William Webb Ellis Cup. For some, just being able to compete on rugby’s biggest stage is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and Chile have grabbed their chance with both hands.

You won’t want to miss a single minute of the inspiration South Americans this tournament.

READ MORE: Bonus-point Japan down historic Chile in exciting Rugby World Cup clash

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