In the second part of this Rugby World 2019 preview series; Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool B. It is a pool where two of the tournament favorites New Zealand (reigning champions) and South Africa are pitted against each other and their clash on the 21st September will go a long way in determining the destination of the Webb Ellis Cup this year.
You have to feel for Italy, Namibia and Canada. They have got the proverbial stinker of a pool.
The press media duties from these sides will be ‘look forward’, ‘pitting our wits against the best’ but in all honesty, the morale of these squads must be a mix of trepidation and nervousness ahead of this tournament kickoff.
The pool teams to advance from this pool before a ball is kicked will be New Zealand and South Africa. The only question is who will top the pool?
New Zealand: Confidence and form on the rise ominously
If there was any hint of overconfidence in the New Zealand prior to the World Cup, it was well and truly smashed in the performances against South Africa (home) and Australia (away) in the Rugby Championship.
Two subdued performances, two inaccurate performances where discipline reared its head against Australia away with the opening period red card. Some respected figures in the sport were beginning to question New Zealand? They should have known better.
The performances since then have been on point. The shutout victory against Australia at home issued a fiercely defiant statement of intent from Steve Hansen’s side.
Their defensive shape and structure was sublime; they never gave Australia a sniff. Their line speed with / without the ball was vastly improved.
Their complete demolition of poor Tonga last weekend in Hamilton with a second string team lineup further evidence of their upturn in form. Their skill set and line speed were devastating to watch. Tonga never stood a chance.
There are so many strong points to this New Zealand squad; their coaching and playing staff experience to win this competition is huge. Their skill set and ability to create from any facet of play is outstanding.
Steve Hansen has not been afraid to drop loyal test match performers of the past; evident in the omission of Owen Franks in the pack. Their all round game is so solid and with the likes of Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga orchestrating behind the scrum, good things should happen for New Zealand.
The potential question ahead of this tournament is selection consistency. Who plays at ten? Barrett or Mo’unga are vying for that jersey. Barrett has switched to full back in recent test games with mixed results.
Ben Smith (personally) is an incredible full back option still and it will be interesting who Steve Hansen and management deem to be the better ten option for the side.
The scrum potentially may be an area to watch for New Zealand. The pool opponents apart from South Africa are realistically not going to threaten or identify many issues.
The key opening fixture against South Africa will provide potential New Zealand foes will plenty to scrutinize in the pack exchanges; the scrum can at times be exposed and the absence of the likes of Franks may be felt.
South Africa: On the rise under Erasmus
The fact that we are talking about South Africa as a genuine World Cup 2019 contender is a testament to the work and transformation undertaken by Rassie Erasmus and coaching staff.
Reverse the tape back to the start of this world cup cycle, the team were in complete chaos with little direction or game plan. Painful defeats to New Zealand and then a humiliating Northern Hemisphere tour in 2017 where Ireland in particular had a record win over the South Africans signaled that changes were required.
Rassie Erasmus as he did in Munster Rugby came in and started to laid the foundations of success and the performances in the past eighteen months have been on the upward curve.
South Africa’s pack platform has been huge in this revival. Eben Etzebeth has led the pack from the front; his all action style accompanied by a superb set piece game has provided the side with confidence. The assured captaincy of Kolisi (albeit has been sidelined with injury for a good chunk of the preseason) has also been prominent in the pack / breakdown area.
There is a formidable half back partnership in Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard whose sniping runs and assured game management respectively have posed serious issues for opposition in recent test matches. The back three is loaded with pace and expect the likes of Willie le Roux and Cheslin Kolbe to revel in the fast track conditions of Japan.
The key question is how they will stack up against New Zealand on September 21st at Yokohama. The pack needs to bully New Zealand who are now well warned of their threat after that draw in the Rugby Championship.
The half back depth chart is a concern. Elton Jantijes has threatened to become a superb test match operator but his lack of consistency and composure is frustrating to watch in recent seasons.
A win over New Zealand and this tournament suddenly opens up for South Africa. A loss in the opening game and there is then the prospect of a potential bruising last eight encounter with Ireland.
Italy: Best of the rest
Conor O’Shea has laid solid foundations during his tenure as Italian head coach in recent years. The emergence of Benetton Rugby last season in Guinness Pro14 action is reward for concerted effort in player recruitment and development. Zebre Rugby continues to be the key developmental squad for the national side.
Progression is now been seen in underage teams but the improvements in these areas are slow to reach the senior national team at present and this pool setup does little for their overall confidence, development and progression.
What to look out for from Italy? The hope is that Italy can execute an efficient game plan on both sides of the ball. The pack set piece has been a mixed bag in recent seasons particularly the scrum; they cannot give away the number of penalties in this area of play in this tournament.
The line out should be solid platform ball with the likes of Ghiraldini at the controls.
Tebaldi and Allan need to provide direction in their attacking play which at times has been extremely one dimensional; one out runners – no variation in attacking lines and then the back three defensively have been exposed in their shape and coverage at various points in recent seasons.
The word is progression from an Italian perspective. Unless the top two have an extreme off day (highly unlikely), they are not going to qualify from this pool. The focus is performance delivery as a springboard for the future. Campagnaro hopefully can provide attacking threat.
Namibia: Little to suggest any upsets
The Namibian challenge is tough to assess given the lack of quality test match opposition in this World Cup cycle.
Their most illustrious opponent came in the form of Russia which is no gauge to evaluate the side. The pool of players in the county is small (90 registered players) and the cohesion issues of the side given the lack of top quality test match opposition will rear its head in this tournament.
Namibia should provide sufficient physicality in the pack but conditioning and endurance will be key issues here in the third / fourth quarter of games.
The attacking side of their game will be focused on the likes of Johan Deysel who plays with Colomiers in France. Janco Venter will be required to perform at an ultra-high level of performance at the breakdown area.
Realistically, Namibia are going to aim for a long awaited Rugby World cup win against a vulnerable looking Canadian side. If they achieve this result, then mission accomplished for Phil Davies, coaching staff and playing squad.
Canada: Vulnerable squad limitations to be ruthlessly exposed
Kingsley Jones has had an unenviable job as Canada head coach. There has been a changing of the guard in this World Cup cycle and the squad is very much in transitional mode, looking to gain experience and consistency at test match level.
From an Ireland perspective, there is plenty of interest in this squad with the inclusion of the likes of Peter Nelson (full back) and Shane O’Leary (Fly-Half) in the squad. Both are solid performers but will they get sufficient game time to impress for Canada?
The key player for Canada is the all action Tyler Ardron whose has impressed with Waikato Chiefs this season. He will look to lead from the front but question marks on the pack set piece are huge.
You can see the side being turned over by the better sides and they look particularly vulnerable against Namibia in the wooden spoon pool game.
The hope is that DTH van der Merwe and Jeff Hassler can provide attacking threat but it is dependent on Ardron and the pack to provide good ruck ball; this is going to be a challenge.
Canada were the last team to qualify for this World Cup and I fear for them when they face the big two in the pool.
This will be a pool with precious few surprises. New Zealand until they are beaten for me will top the pool. South Africa will comfortably finish second while the others will hope that their dignity is intact after some awful beat downs come the end of this pool phase.