Exeter’s first taste of Test rugby is not going to change the World Cup landscape and probably will not even shape the final look of the pool for that matter, but more than 10,000 people left Sandy Park on Tuesday night having had value for their money.
They had also seen one of those World Cup displays when a player previously unknown to most of them, Telusa Veainu, left an indelible impression, the Tonga wing scoring twice and setting up a third try only to be denied his own hat-trick by a remarkable tackle that bundled all 5ft 10in of him into touch a fraction before the ball was dotted down.
Veainu, born in New Zealand’s north island, plays for Melbourne Rebels, Danny Cirpriani’s old side. At around 13 stone, he was far from the largest specimen on show but he was everywhere, nominally starting on the left wing but just as often on the right and sometimes making hits in midfield and covering close on 200 metres in the process, considerably more than twice anyone else.
Jack Ram, the Tonga flanker who also scored twice, also did well but the only performance which came close to that of Veainu was Jacques Burger, the Namibia captain who also got a double to inspire something of a comeback when Namibia looked dangerously close to being swamped in the early-evening sun.
The shame is that Namibia are still without a World Cup win and Burger admits it hurts the side ranked lowest among the 20 in the competition. “I keep talking win. We want to win a match,” said the Saracens flanker, his right shoulder buried under a pile of ice.
He is the first Namibian to score twice in any of their four World Cup competitions and he said he saw a third coming: “I don’t score many and it’s a really good feeling. It’s good to get two tries, but I’d swap it for a win.”
Between them Tonga and Namibia made 17 changes after their first-round defeats, nine to the islanders whose ambitions had slipped following the Georgia defeat from eyeing a place in the quarter-finals to qualifying automatically for Japan in four years by finishing third in the group. And that means that after this game they will need something from the match at Leicester next Sunday when they meet the fast-improving Argentina before a final pool match against New Zealand in Newcastle.
Namibia’s route is hardly easier with Georgia – again at Sandy Park – and Argentina, two of the more physical scrummagers at the tournament, to come. For a team made up of as many dentists, engineers, diamond-traders, farmers, construction workers and builders as full-time rugby players, it is a daunting 10 days, especially as their inspirational coach, Danie Vermeulen, is no longer around. He resigned three months ago citing union interference and a depleted backroom staff, to be replaced by Phil Davies, the former Cardiff coach whose Blues once lost 41-3 in a European match here. Not a good omen.
Not for nothing were the bookies making Tonga 12-1 on favourites and anyone taking the gamble will have stopped wondering about their money as early as the second minute, when a pass was redirected by a Namibian hand into the path of London Irish’s Tongan wing David Halaifonua.
However it was the other wing, Veainu, who opened the scoring with a try that could have been copied from the Japan song sheet for South Africa. This time it was the fly-half Latiume Fosita who opened up the defence and Veainu who shot through the gap, sliding the final few feet to the line. Seven down after six minutes, things really started to look bad by the time another six had passed. Namibia’s scrum collapsed for the first of many occasions. The penalty produced a lineout and Ram, who plays in Super Rugby with Auckland Blues, bullied his way around the front of the lineout and over the line. It was so conclusive that for once the TMO was not involved.
It all seemed too easy and Tonga paid for some carelessness when the Namibian lock Tjiuee Uanivi scooped up a loose ball to put his wing Johan Tromp in. The kick reduced the lead to five, but a another lineout restored some order. This time it was Soane Tonga’uiha, looking less svelte than in his Northampton days, who made the dent and fly-half Fosita who slipped in.
The surprise was that the bonus point was another 10 minutes coming, although that was because Russell van Wyk denied Veainu on the half-time whistle.
“I was proud of the way we tried to play,” said Davies. “The players put in a big effort against a big Tongan team. It was a game where we could be happy with some areas, but not our discipline. You cannot fault the effort, but Tonga were better than us, although I got excited on a few occasions. We are going to have to keep working if we are going to get that elusive win we’re after.”