In the final RWC 2019 pool blog preview series, Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool D. Can Wales top the pool? Can Fiji rattle Australia in the opening fixture of this pool? What do Georgia have outside of their pack?
Australia: Consistency key
You have to love Australia. Regardless of their form heading into a world championship or important series, their sport teams always have a swag, always have a confidence that they will deliver the goods.
The Michael Cheika era has been an interesting era. The line out platform has been standout but the scrum set piece has experienced issues. The back options have excelled at various points; the reintegration of O’Connor to accompany the marauding running lines of Kerevi and Kuridrani is a nice addition considering the furor on Israel Folau.
This is a very experienced squad selected. There should be plenty of nous and game management at half back with the likes of Foley, Genia and White in the mix. The sight of Christian Lealiifano in the squad is superb news; class player on and off the pitch.
The back row unit has two standout performers in Hooper and Pocock who needs to be managed well in order for Australia to have any ambitions of World Cup glory. Pocock’s all action style and supreme breakdown work is incredible.
Given the experienced squad assembled, there are issues with the scrum. New Zealand destroyed Australia in this area of play in the previous test match. Other teams have probed Australia in this set piece area too and that could be decisive in a knockout round game.
The Fiji fixture is a massive game. Fiji are a dangerous side to play particularly if you intend to throw the ball around. Australia will look to do this in abundance and could leave themselves open to the counter attack which Fiji could take advantage of.
If Australia can win this opening fixture, then they look with confidence with their match up against Wales, a team which they have had a good recent record against. A nation expects and Australia will look to deliver.
Wales: Gatland era comes to an end
It is the end of an era in Welsh rugby. Warren Gatland is departing back to native New Zealand after the conclusion of this tournament. Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones will then be entrusted to take the national side to new heights. Interesting times.
Prior to preseason, Wales were standout candidates in this pool. Their structured game management style rewarded with a superb 6 Nations Grand Slam. They forced opposition to submit. Their second half dismantling of England was emphatic.
They have identified a back three with extreme potency. Halfpenny / Williams, North and Adams will look to light up the tournament but whether the Wales game plan will provide sufficient early ball for them to impress is an entirely different question.
The preseason has been a mixed bag truth be told. England have been on top form during preseason and Wales were not the only team to face England in a ruthless mood at Twickenham. Wales did beat England a week later but the performance lacked excitement.
The Ireland fixtures during preseason were more of the same. Ireland dominated a second string Welsh selection for sixty minutes only for Wales to rustle up an excellent final quarter to nearly snatch a win on Gatland’s farewell game at the Principality Stadium.
The Ireland away trip saw some good moments from Wales. Parkes’ try was well worked by the pack but once Ireland’s pack asserted dominance in the third quarter, Wales had no answer.
The absence of the likes of Rob Evans, Samson Lee really struck home on that performance in the front row and without the injured Taulupe Faletau in the back row, there was no spark in the pack.
Minds will be focused in the Welsh camp after this preseason. The training put in by the squad has been incredible so may explain the flat performances in recent preseason games. The focus and mindset is to top the pool but they need to get past their nemesis Australia to do so.
Pack platform is everything for this Welsh side. The scrum platform needs to be on point but question marks abound after this squad selection. Lee and Evans omission opens questions in this facet of play. Line out should stand out given Jones, Tipuric and Ball as viable options.
Wales’s back row unit has always been stellar, they will disrupt opposition ball and with the likes of Navidi, Tipuric in the side. Gatland will resist tweaking the game plan that has served his side so well; it may work for the pool phase but in the knockout rounds, that might need to be evaluated.
Georgia: Scrum Central
No sign of Georgia entering the NH top brass and participating in Tier 1 test match fixtures anytime soon. A disappointment given the Tbilisi attendances for the national team. It is stifling the team’s development and progression in the sport.
The focus of this Georgia side will be the set piece; specifically the scrum. Their reputation in this area of play precedes itself. Their scrummaging unit has been asked to train with the likes of England in the past, sessions which were fiery to say the least. Mikheil Nariashvili is a prop who will shine in this tournament. The Montpellier club player is a scrummaging freak.
The pack which is being coached superbly by Graham Rowntree contain several marquee names from French Rugby. Gorgodze is a massive unit and will lead from the front. It is a vastly experienced pack and will pose issues for opposition but after that lies the issue.
Due to the lack of standout Tier 1 test match fixtures, Georgia are still struggling to implement an efficient half back and back line game plan. The game management can be very inconsistent; indecisive decision making at vital moments a plight on the side.
If this was a scrummaging tournament and pack contest, Georgia would be one of the favorites but it is not and the weak points will be ruthlessly exposed particularly in the back field defensively.
Fiji: Offloading excitement reigns
Fiji will add excitement to the tournament. Their offloading game is par excellence and their pack led by the likes of Leone Nakarawa will pose issues for pool opponents.
How will pool opponents play Fiji? Will they go conservative and look to create out wide once the pack platform is secured or do they look to exploit any defensive back field deficiencies early which is dangerous but Fiji love unstructured contests and will eat up any attacking miscues from opposition.
The pack contains massive ball carrying threat. Nakarawa is a specimen in the second row. His speed and mobility is incredible and his offloading ability is world class. You throw in Mata from the back row and you have potency in the pack which will need to be looked at.
The weak point. The lack of team cohesion due to players playing in far flung countries. Preseason has been promising but fixtures against Tonga are not going to cut it when facing Australia and Wales in particular.
The scrum set piece can be exposed; their front row if moved around the park will tire and see opposition look to exploit this area in the pool phases. A team to be respected. A team where pool opposition tactical setup will be intriguing to see.
Uruguay: Tough Ask
Good to see Uruguay in this tournament. They will bring passion, endeavor and hard work but the squad looks quite exposed in multiple areas. They secured their World Cup ticket by beating Canada in the playoffs; that is the baseline performance to evaluate the side.
The squad has no marquee names of note. It could be a breakout tournament for some players. This looks a daunting task for Uruguay. Hopefully they will be competitive but a distinct lack of preseason games makes this a tournament too far. This could get embarrassing.
Hoping that Fiji upset the pool form guide and beat one of either Australia or Wales. If they can, then this pool gets interesting but for now think they will be just short given lack of team cohesion and competitive fixtures.
Australia have a superb record against Wales in recent seasons and I think they will have the nous and game smarts to win this test match. Wales will look to build momentum as the pool progresses; they should do so provided that they are accurate against Fiji in particular.
Georgia and Uruguay are looking at a winner take all game to not finish bottom in the pool.