It’s been labelled the Rugby World Cup’s (RWC) “Pool of Death”. So far as pools go, it’s not one you would choose. Probably even less than a pool with no shallow end, that someone has taken a piss in and has a couple of floaters bobbing up and down in the water. England got their campaign off to a solid, if nervous start against Fiji, winning 35-11. But a win is a win. New Zealand (NZ) blew Italy off the Marseille pitch in their first game in the 2007 RWC, winning 76-14. By contrast, they struggled a little in eventually beating Tonga 41-10 in their first game in 2011. If you manage to enjoy the company of a young lady after a night out, does it really matter at that point what your opening line was? Pool A is like a four-man battle royal; four men enter (Australia, England, Fiji and Wales), only two make it out alive. So who will those two be?
England have the home advantage, and it’s a big advantage. Maybe it’s the weather or having to drink warm beer, but visiting teams struggle at Twickenham. Leading into the RWC, England have won 23 of their last 30 matches at Twickenham.
Their warm up form was interesting. They won one and lost one against France, but their forwards were smashed in both games. They blew Ireland off the park in the first half of their final warm up match, in my view England’s best performance since they humped the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2012. But for all their dominance, Ireland had a chance to win the game late, before England scored towards the end to win 21-13. They won, well and good, but if they let opponents back into matches like that they’ll eventually lose one.
Australia come into the RWC in decent form having beaten the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship. They then were duly humped a week later by the All Blacks. It’s a bit like in ‘The Karate Kid’ when Daryl Vidal sweeps all before him in spectacular fashion in the All Valley Under 18 Karate Tournament, only to come a proper cropper when he runs into Johnny in the semifinal.
Australia’s newly aggressive and abrasive forward pack give them a good base to build from. Their biggest problem seems to be they don’t know who their top team is. Do they start Quade Cooper or Bernard Foley at flyhalf? Matt Giteau or Matt Toomua at 12? Or maybe Kurtley Beale? Sekope Kepu or Greg Holmes at tighthead prop? Do they play a loose forward trio featuring both David Pocock and Michael Hooper, which was so successful against the All Blacks? Or if not, who starts in the number seven shirt? What about… well, you get the idea. There are questions as to who they should play.
Another worry is their very ordinary record at Twickenham. The English like to think of themselves as gracious hosts, but in Australia’s last four visits to Twickenham, they’ve only won once. That has to be a bigger worry than whether Beale can get through six weeks at the RWC without punching somebody or nipping out for a 3am burger a day or two before a match. I think it’s at least safe to say he won’t be texting teammates with a photo of coach Michael Cheika and asking them “would you?” as he did with former team manager Di Patston. Or maybe he will. Perhaps Beale is an equal opportunity knucklehead.
Wales rate themselves a good chance to get out of Pool A, but it’s been my belief for the last year or so that they would miss out. Nothing in recent weeks has made me change my mind on that. If anything, I’m more convinced they won’t make it out of the pool. Losing Leigh Halfpenny is a big blow, as he is one of the best goal kickers I’ve ever seen. But Dan Biggar can kick goals pretty well and Halfpenny doesn’t offer a huge amount in attack. Halfback Rhys Webb is a far bigger loss in my view. Eli Walker’s injury isn’t a huge issue as he was a back-up player anyway (centre Jonathan Davies was injured playing for club side Clermont Auvergne in May ruling him out; possibly the biggest injury loss of all), but the cumulative effect can’t help but be significant. After all, at the current rate the Welsh players are getting injured, they might be trotting out a couple of blokes from the Llanglennith senior reserves team by the time they play England on Saturday September 26. At this point, Welsh supporters could do with some good news like supporters of most other teams could do with another video of Gavin Henson being knocked out by one of his teammates. One piece of good news is that all this bad news gives coach Warren Gatland lots to moan about, and Warren could give a London taxi driver a run for his money in the moaning department. I guess that’s not really good news though.
More good news was Wales’ much ballyhooed victory over South Africa last November. Their first victory over a Southern Hemisphere “giant” in 22 matches was supposedly going to be the springboard for many more such victories over Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. But is it really such a big deal? I mean, weren’t they destined to win a game against one of the aforementioned teams eventually? In their last 10 games against those three teams, Argentina have won twice. Once in South Africa no less.
Wales are going to have to beat either Australia or England to make quarter finals. They haven’t beaten Australia in 10 attempts (six of which were played in Cardiff. One was in Auckland in RWC 2011), dating back to 2008. I thus can’t see them beating Australia or England at Twickenham. To be honest, the news doesn’t get a whole lot better when you look at Wales’ recent record against Fiji. In their last four games against Fiji, Wales have won two, drawn one and lost one. And one of their victories, in November last year, was by four points. In Cardiff no less, and Pacific Island teams are always better prepared for RWCs than regular test matches. Is it impossible Fiji turn Wales over again? I’d say no.
Speaking of Fiji, they are a bit of the odd man out in Pool A, in the sense that most in the media see Pool A as a three team shoot out (with all due respect to Uruguay) between RWC hosts England, Australia and Wales. I don’t think Fiji will qualify for the quarter finals, but so far as fourth ranked teams in a pool go, they’re as tough as they get.
In the last couple of weeks, everyone in the UK has been talking about Fijian wing Nemani Nadolo following a few stories in the media highlighting his rather frightening dimensions (194cm and 125kg for the record. That’s 6’4” and 19.5 stone in old money). Not too many Crusaders fans in the UK rugby community I guess, given he seems to have appeared out of nowhere to most people. Fiji doesn’t have as much depth as Wales, but if they get to their October 1 encounter with Wales in reasonable shape, they could very well turn Wales over. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it, but I might be tempted to wager the tractor.
As for Uruguay, in this day and age of ridiculous hyperbole, they are one country who can say their rugby players are literally man eaters. Albeit the circumstances in which the members of the Old Christians club from Montevideo found themselves after their plane crashed in the Andes mountains in 1972 makes it a little less worrying for their opponents in the RWC. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read either ‘Alive’ by Pier Paul Read or ‘Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home’ by Nando Parrado or track down the 1993 movie ‘Alive’ starring Ethan Hawke.
Final Pool A standings: England, Australia, Wales, Fiji, Uruguay.
Predicting the outcome of Pool B is a far more straight forward proposition. South Africa will win the pool. Their recent form isn’t great; they’ve won only one of four this year, including losing to Argentina for the first time ever. Going back to last year they’ve only won five of their last 10. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that prior to winning the 2007 RWC, they finished last in the Tri Nations.
There is also the particularly awkward situation whereby their captain Jean de Villiers isn’t one of their two best midfielders (in my opinion Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel) in the squad. It’s a bit like when Larry Wilcox played Jon Baker in the epic 80’s TV show ‘CHiPs’. Wilcox was the designated star and apparent heart throb of the show. The problem was, Erik Estrada was also signed on, to play Frank “Ponch” Poncherello and became a bit of a hit with the ladies, clearly overshadowing Wilcox. Almost invariably, things got catty on-set. I heard things came to a head when after a heated argument Wilcox pulled a hairbrush on Estrada, who grabbed a make-up brush and went back at him. Ugly scenes. Wilcox ultimately departed the show. It’s a situation the South Africans aren’t unfamiliar with, with former captain Jon Smit being kept on as captain even though he wasn’t the team’s best hooker. De Villiers has been a great player and comes across as a great guy, so maybe it won’t be a problem but it has the potential to cause issues, particularly if they struggle on the field.
The really interesting encounter to me is Scotland v Samoa on Saturday October 10. Samoa arrive at the RWC after a second place finish in the Pacific Nations Cup and a pretty good showing against the All Blacks in Apia. Scotland failed to win a match in this year’s Six Nations championship and has only won three times in its past 10 tests. Two of those have come in recent weeks with wins over Italy in the warm ups. They also gave Ireland and France a few problems in two losses to be fair, but although they have improved under coach Vern Cotter, they are far from the finished product.
Scotland are a bit like a lass on a night out showing off a bit of cleavage. The flesh on show can make you think temporarily think she is much tidier than she is after a more lengthier and reasoned evaluation. Scotland can look great in moments in games, but if you watch them for 80mins you start to see the cracks appearing. Not least in their inability to maintain possession for the length of time required to break down a defence in this day and age. The number of silly mistakes and unforced errors from the Scottish players would be enough to send the blood pressure of even the most patient of their supporters through the roof. Not a good thing for a country with a love of lager, curry and deep-friend Mars bars.
I can see Samoa beating Scotland in the crunch match in the pool. With forwards like Census Johnston, Maurie Maasavalu and Jack Lam they should be able to secure enough ball for their punishing ball carriers. With backs like Kahn Fotuali’I, the Pisi brothers and Tim Nani-Williams, they have firepower enough to open up the best of defences.
Equally for Samoa, they need to make sure they beat the USA first up. The Eagles won’t be easy beats and Samoa will need to keep their eyes on the ball. They have more depth than in previous years, but will need to hope they can keep their top squad largely intact. The USA will at least be hoping to win their fourth ever RWC when they play Japan, whom they have beaten twice before in RWC action (the other victory was a Rocky IV inspired win over Russia in NZ in 2011), but will fancy themselves as being competitive against Samoa and Scotland as well.
Final Pool B standings: South Africa, Samoa, Scotland, USA, Japan.
Pool C is easily the most predictable of all the pools. The big clash is the All Blacks v Argentina in the opening weekend, which I expect the All Blacks to win and go on to maintain their record of never having lost a RWC pool match and qualify top of the group.
They might be a bit battered and bruised by the end of it though; Georgia and Tonga aren’t considered amongst the heavyweights of world rugby in terms of the team’s relative ability, but they are literally heavyweights. One look at the state of Jacques Burger’s nose will tell you the Namibians don’t mind a bit of rough and tumble either.
Because of the nature of their play, I expect Georgia and Tonga will be able to give Argentina a game, but the Pumas almost definitely come out ahead at the end of the day. After all, it’s one thing to talk to the hottest girl in the bar, quite enough to wind up in the taxi home with her.
I can see Georgia overturning the apple cart slightly by keeping the game tight and squeezing out a win over Tonga, but that aside, there won’t be too many surprises in Pool C.
Final Pool C standings: New Zealand, Argentina, Georgia, Tonga, Namibia
A few months ago, Ireland were the almost unbackable favourites to win Pool D. Repeat Six Nations champions, they looked talented, organised and fit. Since then, the bloom has disappeared from the rose a little bit. Their backs don’t look as dangerous, their forwards don’t look quite so physical and their supporters don’t look as drunk. Conversely, France have been like a punchline for the last few years. A Russell Brand-like punchline no less ie not even remotely funny.
However, it seems the French have been training up a storm over the summer, certainly on the physical fitness side of things. Their forwards especially look like they’ve been throwing around tractor tyres and feasting on small children. With maybe some walrus steaks for dessert. In two warm up games against England in London and Paris respectively, France lost and won. However, the French forwards smashed their English counterparts in both games. In the return fixture in Paris, England could hardly get hold of the ball and when they did, they were set upon by French defenders swarming like ravenous dogs on a pack of sausages. The problem for France is, with all their possession and dominance, they never put England to bed (a difficult pill to swallow for a nation which prides themselves on bedding every opportunity that arises) and in the end England came back and could have snatched the game at the end; France holding on to win 25-20. They then put in an uninspiring performance against Scotland, but had already showed me enough to think they can really make some noise at the RWC.
Ireland’s build-up was far less impressive. It wasn’t a disaster, but not great. Kind of ‘Rocky Balboa’ bad, but not a ‘Rocky V’ level disaster. They were impressive enough in beating Wales in Cardiff, did just enough to beat Scotland in Dublin before losing a return fixture with Wales and getting blown away by England at Twickenham. In fairness, despite a Rocky-level beating for 60mins, they hung in the game and when they were finally able to create some opportunities for themselves they could have snuck it late. Now, in rugby as most sports, the way you perform against one team doesn’t necessarily inform how you will perform against another. But the worry for me in terms of Ireland would be that France’s forwards were able to take England’s behind the bike sheds and give them a good hiding. Then England’s forwards were able to do the same to Ireland’s fatties.
Although France’s backs have shown about as much in the warm ups as Jessica Simpson showed Nick Lachey before they were married, I think France might be able to so dominate Ireland up front that they can kick enough penalties and scrape together enough points to beat Ireland. Or maybe this is just a guy who has endured some painful memories at the hands of France over the years speaking.
Given how poor Italy have been recently, that result will serve to decide the pool. I expect Italy will best both Canada and Romania to wind up third in the pool, but if France beat Ireland as I suspect they might, I cannot see them having a let-down like losing to Tonga as they did in NZ in 2011. Of course, it’s France, so who can say anything with certainty.
Final Pool D standings: France, Ireland, Italy, Romania, Canada