Well, after 4 long years it’s finally upon us. In just 2 short days the Rugby World Cup 2011 finally kicks off in New Zealand. The last 4 years, and this year especially, have brought mixed fortunes for each of the competing teams, and players. Some have achieved great successes, while others have suffered terrible losses. But all of that is thrown to the curb now, as it’s the next 8 weeks that really matters. This is where the men are separated from the boys. When it’s all up for grabs, who will rise to the challenge, and who will fall at the first hurdle.
The World Cup starts this weekend with a number of interesting matches to kick it off. Let’s run them down pool-by-pool.
POOL A: NEW ZEALAND, FRANCE, TONGA, CANADA, JAPAN
New Zealand are the favourites, and as host nation they kick off the tournament with a match against Tonga. The ‘All Blacks’ (as New Zealand are known) had a disastrous time in the last World Cup, in 2007, where they were beaten by France in the quarter-final stage. This was their worst ever showing in the tournaments so far and they will want to redeem themselves. They still have a lot of key personnel from 2007 playing this year, including the talismanic out-half Dan Carter, and captain, and flanker, Richie McCaw (a lot of rugby pundits consider theses 2 as the best players in the world). New Zealand have had a mixed season so far. They were odds-on favourites to win the Tri-Nations, and started in dominant form, beating both South Africa, and Australia, comfortably. The return matches were a different story, though. South Africa had fielded a below strength side in the first game due to injuries, and most of their team were fully fit for the rematch. New Zealand, on the other hand, decided to rest a few of their players, and so were under-strength. With the roles reversed, South Africa managed to win 2nd game. Australia were beaten comfortably in the first game, but managed to turn it around in the rematch (each country plays the other 2 in the Tri-Nations twice-South Africa, New Zealand and Australia). Losing 2 matches in a row is unusual for New Zealand, and may affect their confidence going into the World Cup (of course, been favourites has always been detrimental to the ‘All Blacks’ so these losses may have come at just the right time). Luckily for them, they start off against Tonga (which is the first match of the tournament, on Sept 9th), who will be competitive, but shouldn’t provide New Zealand with too many problems.
Tonga have never beaten New Zealand, in 3 games, and have conceded heavy scores in each match. Interestingly, Tonga have a warm-up routine similar to the New Zealand Haka. It will be interesting to see someone respond to the Haka in kind.
France start off the tournament against Japan (on Saturday 10th). France have had a pretty poor season. They were unimpressive during the Six Nations, losing to England, and in a major shock Italy, and nearly losing to us. They reclaimed some of their pride during the summer series, beating us twice, but never looked particularly impressive doing it. They also had a pretty depressing 2007 World Cup. Despite beating New Zealand in the quarter-final, they lost to Argentina twice (in the opening game, and in the 3rd place play-off). Still, where the French are concerned anything is possible (the last time the World Cup was taking place in New Zealand (1987) the French managed to get all the way to the final. That should lift their spirits). Again, Japan shouldn’t provide too much of a test for them (interestingly France are coached by former New Zealand World Cup winner, and star of ’87, John Kirwan. Canada don’t have their first game until the 14th.
POOL B: ARGENTINA, ENGLAND, SCOTLAND, GEORGIA, ROMANIA
Scotland have had a difficult time of it. They’ve suffered the most from rugby becoming a professional game, with many of their best players leaving to play in other countries. They’ve languished towards the bottom of the 6 Nations table for many years, with victories few and far between, and are the only team that didn’t win the tournament in the ‘noughties’. Recently they did manage a 2 match victory over Argentina, in Argentina, which few teams have done. They face off against Argentina in this pool, which will boost their confidence. They start the tournament off against Romania (10th) who have only beaten them twice out of 12 attempts. Won’t be as easy a victory as the other matches, but still Scotland should win it quite comfortably.
One of the most exciting matches of the week-end, sees Argentina squaring off against England. Only 2 teams advance from each pool, and this pool sees a real 3-horse race for those spots. England have had a pretty good year. They almost one the Grand Slam (beating Italy, Wales, France and Scotland) and then managed to beat Wales and us in their summer series. They did have disappointments, against us in March, and Wales in their second game, and didn’t look particularly impressive. But the same could have been said about England four years ago, and they managed to get to the final in the last World Cup, so they have a good chance.
Argentina have had a bad run of luck in recent years. They shocked everyone by managing to reach the semi-final in 2007, and beat France to come 3rd in that year’s tournament, but their fortunes have not been good since then. They were beaten by Scotland in a 2 match series, last year, and lost against Wales in the summer. I fear the best of Argentina is behind them. This match should determine which of these teams go through to the quarter-final (Scotland and England have always reached the quarter-final in the World Cup). Georgia, who almost upset us in 2007, and that would have been very upsetting, have their first match on the 14th as well.
POOL C: AUSTRALIA, IRELAND, ITALY, USA, RUSSIA
Australia are most, non-New Zealanders, pick to win this years World Cup. They have comparable skill with the ‘All Blacks’, have won the trophy twice, and have none of the mental baggage that New Zealand will carry into the tournament. They also had a very successful Tri-Nations. Although they lost to New Zealand once, they won the return game, and both games against South Africa. They start off their campaign against Italy (on the 11th), who despite beating France earlier in the year, shouldn’t provide much of a challenge.
Ireland play that same day, against the U.S. Nothing is certain in this game, there are many contributing factors: Ireland have had a very poor form recently, they don’t do well when they’re the favourites, the U.S. are coached by former Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan, they’re playing on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, so national feeling will be high. Ireland need to start off the tournament with a good win, to lift everyone’s spirits but it will be a tough game. The Americans will provide a sterner test than either Georgia, or Namibia did last year and they almost beat us. We also need to be wary of Italy. They rest all their best players, figuring they’d have a better chance of beating us, and thereby advancing to the quarter-final. Also, a good performance by them, against Australia, may very well lift their spirits.
POOL D: SOUTH AFRICA, WALES, SAMOA, FIJI, NAMIBIA
The most exciting match of the weekend will be the Pool D clash between Wales, and defending champions South Africa (11th). South Africa won the last World Cup, but have had a difficult time of it since then. The high point was beating a very good British and Irish Lion’s side, 2-1, in 2009. They fielded a depleted side in this year’s Tri-Nations, and only won one match out of 4. Many felt that they were resting players for the World Cup, so now it’s time to see if their gamble paid off.
Wales had a poor World Cup in 2007, failing to advance to the quarter-final. This time around they have an equally difficult pool, having been knocked out before by both, Samoa (twice), and Fiji, never mind South Africa. They could possibly field a team consisting of a lot of the Lions who almost beat the ‘Springboks’ (as South Africa are known) in ’09. Still, despite South Africa’s recent poor form, I can’t see them falling sooner than at least a semi-final (they have won the trophy twice). They have only once failed to reach a semi-final, and that was in 2003, when they lost against England. And England beat everybody that year. Wales should play out of their skins, but will still lose.
Fiji play Namibia on the 10th. Fiji are one of the most exciting teams to watch playing rugby, and they managed to reach the quarter-finals last time around. They are realistically in a 3-horse race with Wales and Samoa, for 2nd place in the pool. They should find it much easier to beat Namibia than we did 4 years ago.
It should be a great weekend of rugby, and it’s just the start!