(I wrote this a few weeks ago)
The Rugby World Cup is now less than 100 days away and I thought it would be a good time for me to review each of the top teams, how their seasons have gone and their chances for victory.
POOL A: NEW ZEALAND-FRANCE-CANADA-TONGA-JAPAN
No team has dominated a sport the way the New Zealand All Blacks dominate the game of Rugby. And yet, despite being the top team most years they have still managed only one World Cup win, back in 1987. Really to review their season is irrelevant, as EVERY season their on top form and still manage to choke at the most important times. They do have what are considered the best players, in Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, but they had those guys at the last World Cup and still managed to get knocked out in the Quarter-Final stage. Although they won the cup in 1987 the game has changed so much since than and they were the only team really prepared. Interestingly they’re main rivals in Pool A are France, who are their World Cup bogey team. Twice now, in 1999 and 2007, France caused an upset and knocked New Zealand out of the Cup. Like every tournament the question will be if the All Blacks can finally do it.
France have had a pretty poor season, capped off by their first ever loss to Italy. The French game is in a bit of a flux at the moment, with bad decisions in personnel and tactics being made and the squad coming under fire from all sides. Still, they are France, and France have always had a sense of magic about them. While they don’t have the same flair that they had back in the 80’s and 90’s, they’re still capable of surprising everyone. It has to be said, though, that they have always had a rather poor showing in the pool stages, only coming into their own when it comes to the knock-out (quarter-/semi-/finals) stages. France will need to be great from the start, as it might be too late afterwards.
Canada, Tonga and Japan are all pretty evenly matched and are some of the top teams approaching the main countries (the best minnows if you like). While an upset against France or New Zealand is off the cards they will still put on a good show. All 3 also appeared in the first ever World Cup, and Canada and Japan have appeared in every tournament. Canada reached the Quarter-finals in 1991.
The Pool A winner will face the Pool B runner-up/Likewise the Pool A runner-up will face the Pool B winner.
POOL B: ARGENTINA-ENGLAND-GEORGIA-ROMANIA-SCOTLAND
This pool will be a 3 horse race between Argentina, England and Scotland. Argentina surprised everyone by reaching 3rd place in the 2007 tournament. Unfortunately they have not being able to maintain their form, losing to Scotland twice at home, and ourselves in the Aviva. They will be joining the Tri-Nations (tournament involving New Zealand, Australia and South Africa) next year so will want to put in a good showing. Their 2 main rivals will be Scotland and England. They were also part of a 3 horse race in 2007 when they faced Ireland and France in the pool stages. They came out of that with a 100% record. Will they be able to repeat that feat?
England are at a crossroads at the moment. They’re having problems with their back-room staff (although I’ve just literally found out that World Cup winning coach Clive Woodward, has being appointed Director of Rugby. It might have come too late for this tournament), and on the field they have one of the worst teams in 25 years. They have some good players, in Ashton, Foden, Flood etc. but no talismanic figure like a Johnson, Dallaglio, Richards. They had a surprising Six Nations, almost winning a Grand Slam. But their lack of experience and big day players showed in a thumping by Ireland. They have a good chance of progressing to the Quarter-Final but likely they won’t go any further. They should look on this World Cup as a learning curve and will be back as a greater force in 2015. I think i can say with certainty that ”Bill’ won’t be coming home!’ (Bill is what the Australian and New Zealanders call the William Webb Ellis trophy/the World Cup/’Coming home’ is in reference to that football song from Euro’96). Scotland. I don’t know what to say about Scotland. They have had a better record in the World Cup than either Wales or Ireland. They have it very difficult at the moment, with little money to support the professional game. Cometh the hour, Cometh the man. They really need to show something special in this tournament. Romania and Georgia will be happy to be there.
I predict that the Quarter-finals will be between New Zealand and England, and France and Argentina. What games they’ll be!
POOL C: IRELAND, AUSTRALIA, ITALY, UNITED STATES, RUSSIA
Now we come to Ireland’s pool, Pool C. I’m sorry to say that Ireland have the worst record of any of the top countries when it comes to the World Cup. We’ve never made it past the Quarter-Finals, and failed to go that far twice, in 1999 and 2007 (which was our worst World Cup performance ever). We need to put 2007 out of our minds (like a lot of teams do (few teams played well in that World Cup) and focus on the now. It’s being a great season for the Irish provinces and the International side has had its moments (forget the upcoming warm-up games. The’re really more to concentrate on the player’s fitness than form). It is quite a difficult group for us, though. Australia have faced us in 4 World Cups, and beaten us every time. Quarter-Finals in 1987 and ‘91 (which was one of the great games, one of the best Irish performances. We were leading until Australia won it at the death), ‘99 and 2003 (which Australia only won by a point). Also Australia were one of the best teams in all those World Cups (they won it in ‘91 and ‘99, runners-up in 2003, and came 4th in ‘87). Still, Australia should be at their best which will make them very difficult to beat. They would love to win a World Cup in perenial rival New Zealands back yard, especially as they have a kiwi as coach. Italy almost beat us in the 6 Nations this year, and will be buoyed by their great win over the French. If it’s that Italian side that turn up, they certainly won’t be pushovers. Interestingly, the U.S. are coached by former Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan. This is the first time Ireland have played the U.S. since O’Sullivan took over (the U.S. were also coached by O’Sullivan when Ireland played them in the ‘99 tournament). O’Sullivan certainly knows alot about the Irish set-up and he would like to get one over his old charges. On another note, the Ireland-US match takes place on the 10th anniversary 9/11 which means the US players will be geared for a win. Russia are actually making their World Cup debuts. They were invited to the inaugural tournament in 1987 but made too many demands and so their place was offered to the US! Once qualification was intoduced for 1991 they missed out on the rest of the tournaments. One Russian player knows quite alot about the Irish team, and especially the Leinster players. Winger Vasily Artemiev is a graduate of both Blackrock College (where he won 2 Senior Cups), and UCD. He was also a part of the Leinster Academy for 2 years. So he’ll certainly be a danger man.
POOL D: SOUTH AFRICA, WALES, FIJI, SAMOA, NAMIBIA
South africa will likely dominate this pool. They have only lost to Wales once, and one draw. And have a perfect record against the rest of the sides in the pool. They have had a relatively poor season, but always manage to bring their best to the World Cup. They’re also defending champs, having won it in 2007. Wales have a very tough task to reach the Quarter-Final. While they have had a poor season, and quite a few players missing through injury, retirement or their own foolishness, they must also contend with the fact of their very poor record against South Africa, and that both Samoa (when they were known as Western Samoa in 1991) and Fiji (in 2007) have knocked them out of the World Cup. Fiji also managed to reach the Quarter-Finals in 2007, which we failed to do. Wales will have a very tough time beating both these sides to win advancement. I would put money on Fiji, who have a better record against Samoa (which should be a great game. The running of Fiji against the hard-tackling of Samoa), reaching the Quarters. Namibia gave us a run for our money in 2007, we played dreadfully and only beat them by a few points. I don’t see any of these teams doing as badly.
All things being equal, i would say that the likely Quarter-Finals from these Pools will be: Australia vs a very exhausted Wales (Wales actually beat Australia back in 1987 to win 3rd place), and South Africa vs Ireland. Australia would probably prefer to face Wales than the unknown quantity of Fiji (who will be a very exciting team to watch).