RWC 2019: Pool A Preview

Pool A: Can Japan repeat their 2015 exploits?

In this opening preview blog, Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool A. The key question is whether Japan as the host nation can emulate their standout pool performances of 2015?

Pool A

The pool team setup is intriguing. Take Russia out of the equation and we potentially are going to have some very competitive fixtures in this pool. Ireland and Scotland will be fancied but can Japan and Samoa upset the form guide?

Russia vulnerabilities to be ruthlessly exposed

Let us cut to the chase with respect to Russia. The side have shown little in preseason games to render much consideration in this pool. An abrasive pack but the discipline and back three defensive structure is pretty poor.

Connacht traveled to Moscow and dispatched Russia with the minimum of fuss and one wonders how Lyn Jones and Mark McDermott can resurrect this tournament before a ball is kicked. Expect some really heavy losses, enthusiasm in abundance but the lack of experience in international test match rugby will be ruthlessly exposed.

Vasily Artemyev

The key player for Russia is Vasily Artemyev. He has the unenviable job of trying to organize the back three. His experience will be crucial for Russia and his wing and full back versatility should be a positive in what could be potentially an arduous tournament.

With Russia out of the picture, we will look at the other pool teams.

Ireland: Confidence slowly restored

Ireland come into the tournament with confidence somewhat restored after a shaky 6 Nations campaign and horrendous preseason loss to England at Twickenham.

The subsequent performances against Wales in Cardiff and Dublin this past weekend has restored confidence among the fans, confidence in the side with Murray and Sexton showing positive signs in the 19-10 win over Wales.

The Ireland squad selection was not without several soundbites. The omission of Kieran Marmion at scrum half was particularly harsh and the fact that Joe Schmidt has decided to go with only two scrum halves is a calculated risk.

The other key omissions were Jordi Murphy, Will Addison and Devin Toner whose omission has riled up the Irish press rat pack. How dare Devin Toner be omitted for Jean Kleyn?

The selection process has been ruthless. The question is whether the Ireland line out has been undermined by the Toner omission who has managed the set piece for such a long time. Time will tell.

The opening fixture against Scotland will define how Ireland perform in this tournament. Ireland squad on paper is excellent, the form guide in this World Cup cycle has been outstanding. The enigma of a Rugby World Cup and getting past the quarter final is the issue?

Scotland: Pack needs to be deliver

The Scottish squad selection has thrown up several surprises. The initial omission of Bradbury is a key mistake. The Edinburgh Rugby forward leads by example and his set piece execution is outstanding. He is currently on standby with Jamie Ritchie injury concerns.

The key question for me is how the front five of Scotland perform? They have deliberately picked Georgia for preseason games to test their pack unit. There are key questions still to be answered in the set piece and their defensive maul. Teams can bully Scotland’s pack and that could spell trouble for Townsend and management.

The key strengths is their open play, their ability to create scoring opportunities from deep. Hogg at full back along with Graham look to have pace and danger with ball in hand. The omission of the likes of Huw Jones could be another omission that could come to haunt Scotland in this tournament.

Finn Russell

The key player is Finn Russell again for Scotland. His game management, play making from ten will be crucial. If his back row unit can deliver quick ruck ball to the Racing 92 player, expect fireworks. Laidlaw at scrum half will also play a crucial role; his goal kicking and box kicking will be required in key fixtures against Ireland and Japan.

Japan: Host nation the dark horse

The 2015 Rugby World Cup saw Japan produce standout performances against South Africa and Samoa. Their attacking front foot offloading play was sensational and they were unfortunate not to advance to the quarter final phase of the competition.

Fast forward four years. Japan are primed to host this Rugby World Cup and with an opening fixture against a vulnerable Russia, confidence should be established quickly.

The key strengths from Japan is their pace and speed. Their ability to offload and beat the first tackle will be standouts. Their conditioning will be immense and teams will need to play for the full eighty minutes.

Michael Leitch

The unfortunate weak points could be the pack set piece. The pack boosts the mercurial Michael Leitch in the back row and could easily slot into the second row if the need arises. The line out and their defensive maul shape at times can be exposed.

If Ireland and Scotland are not on their game, expect Japan with their passionate home support to cause a shock. Whether it will be good enough to get out of this pool is an entirely different story.

Samoa: Consistency key

The lead up to this tournament has being shrouded in disarray. Players not getting released for training camps, the disconnect between the association and the player group.

Samoa needed to get through the playoff process to advance to this tournament. An efficient playoff victory over Germany was mission accomplished but the real work starts now.

Rey Lee-Lo

What to expect from Samoa? Physicality and creativity with off the cuff attacking moves. There are dangerous players in the side and watch out for the Cardiff Blues centre Rey Lee-Ho; his explosive speed off the line is sensational and will cause issues for opposition.

The weak points unfortunately is a lack of consistency in set piece execution and when that goes, the discipline is not far behind. The lack of composure could see disciplinary issues for Samoa with yellow and red cards.

Their fixture against Japan will define their tournament. Japan will enter this fixture with confidence and whether Samoa have the collective structured game to defeat Japan is a difficult question to answer. This could be potentially an arduous tournament for Samoa.


Ireland provided that their pack platform is established early can beat Scotland and Japan to secure top spot in the pool. Who they play in the last eight will be a difficult task (New Zealand or South Africa) regardless of the opponent.

The second place is the one that intrigues me. Samoa will try hard but look set to finish fourth in this pool. It is up to Japan and Scotland for the second spot and I just wonder if Japan can sneak the second spot in this pool?

Scotland have had a mixed preseason. A heavy loss to France focused the squad and management to then deliver victories over France at home (albeit struggled in the opening period) and then a double against a tough but limited Georgia side.

Japan for me is the dark horse. Their front five is going to determine their progression and I think they match up well against Scotland. I am going to go with the host nation to upset Scotland and get into the quarter final phase.

FIFA World Cup Russia 2018: Best and Worse Moments

I have the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 withdrawals today. The prospect of no soccer today was disappointing but it is time to reflect on the tournament as a whole. The hosts held a superb tournament for the most part. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the tournament and gives out the best and worse gongs.

Embarrassing moment

A couple of standout moments come to mind and unfortunately it is all South American themed. Argentina were shambolic both on and off the pitch. A team deeply divided, a team whose coach could have easily being a Sunday League pub team gaffer such was the control that Sampaoli had during this tournament. Argentina were lucky to get out of their pool. Nigeria had them where they wanted them but did not get the job done. Messi struck a forlorn figure during this tourney.

The absence of Dybala was a disgrace and Sampaoli conceivably should have gone after the Croatian result. A team on a downward spiral. Messi would do well and retire from international football. The Argentinian national side is in crisis and an embarrassment much like Diego Maradona whose cameos at the tournament were nauseating at best. The Spanish meltdown sacking their head coach before the tourney or VAR would normally get the crown but Argentina were at a different level of embarrassment in this tourney.

Tournament Clown

The sight of Neymar rolling around the pitch resembled an injured bird after hitting a clean window. This was a tournament where the Brazilian Superstar was supposed to be the main guy; the guy to take over the mantle from Ronaldo or Messi. Wrong. The player had some excellent moments but there were disgraceful con jobs along the way. Belgium beating Brazil was the most welcome victory of the tournament; if only to get rid of Neymar whose stock value has devalued to the extent that PSG may struggle to offload the player even if they wanted to this summer.

Vinny Jones Hard Out Award

Colombia. Easy decision. Four years prior, Colombia played superb passing football but thoughts of their elimination from the tourney saw a different side to the Colombian side. The side were cynical as early as the opening exchanges against Japan. An early red card for deliberate handball was the prelude. Senegal and Poland wins subtly dampened down the dirt factor but their performance against England was deplorable. Hatchet job comes to mind; the Harry Kane penalty in normal time belied belief. Colombian players kicking turf from the penalty spot. Their antics around the referee throughout the tournament beggared belief. Their capitulation in the penalty shootout was a fitting exit for the side.

Easy on the eye Award

France flirted with the neutral with their attacking prowess against Argentina and also in the second half of their World Cup final win over Croatia. However, defensive solidity was paramount and they miss out on this award. Belgium and Croatia for me were the teams that were easy on the eye, loved their style of play, passing football. Hazard, De Bruyne vs. Modric and Rakitic. It is so hard to chose. Seeing as both side did not win anything, they jointly win this reward for their cameos in the tournament.

High Notions Award

England media. Well done England for securing a World Cup semi-final berth but the record  ignoring the win over Panama (pub side),  there was ample precious attacking moments from open play. Set piece execution was the pivotal attacking weapon of choice for England. Kane’s goals secured a quarter final berth and then Sweden came with a shockingly poor performance. Southgate is realistic; the side are going in the right direction but the side have some way to go before being considered a contender in a tournament of this stature. The losses to Belgium and Croatia exposed composure and skill shortcomings to the max in the side. England media can calm down again.

Minty Fresh Team Award

Japan. Their performances were a breathe of fresh air; incredible honesty and ethos to their play. Pundits will ridicule their tactic of all out attack against Belgium at the death in the last sixteen round but it was so adventurous; a change from the standard negativity and hold what you have approach. Martin O’Neill would have being disgusted. Their games were high octane and their never say die attitude was one of my personal favorite moments.

Manager Award

A couple of manager’s come to mind. Carlos Queiroz had Iran superbly organized and with a little more conviction in front of goal should have secured a second round berth. Gareth Southgate to lead a limited England side to a semi-final berth; most unexpected. Roberto Martinez for orchestrating the best half of tactical football in their defeat of Brazil. Didier Deschamps for me is the manager of the tournament; to even get Paul Pogba to execute at the level of performance in this tourney was outstanding (given his difficulties at Manchester United). Squad depth was abundant but the ability to create the cohesion defensively and attacking wise was seen at different points of the tournament. The water carrier has done well indeed.

Player of the Tournament 

Easy decision. Luka Modric creativity, game management and goal threat was seen to the fore throughout the tournament. The mercurial genius was unfortunately on the wrong end of the final result yesterday but his cameos in the previous rounds oozed class.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group D

Group D looks tough. Argentina will look to Lionel Messi for the inspiration, creativity and goals to advance but the side defensively look vulnerable when you consider that Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are group opponents. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the squads.


Jorge Sampaoli has a delicate balancing act to achieve with this Argentinian squad loaded with attacking talent in striker and midfield positions but unfortunately there are questions on how defensively solid the side are with this talent in the side. The friendly loss to Spain at the start of this year was evidence if evidence was needed that Argentina defensively as a team is a work in progress and whether Sampaoli can fix this during training camp is ambitious at best.

The pros for the side are the attacking talent options. Aguero, Messi, Dybala, Di Maria, and Higuain are incredible options to have. How Sampaoli keeps these players happy with sufficient game minutes to partner the mercurial Messi is the another fine balancing act required?

Plenty of defensive leadership and responsibility is going to rest on the likes of Mascherano and Otamendi. They will need support from their central midfield area with the likes of Biglia will need to be on point in their defensive duties. Banega is another player who could have a positive impact for Argentina in this tournament.

The lack of defensive nous collectively in the team is going to give group opposition an opportunity in these opening round fixtures. Argentina to just sneak into the second round but this opening round will see vulnerabilities in this Argentinian side which a potential last sixteen side will gleefully accept despite the brilliance of Messi.


A team of the sum of all its parts. The many years of cultivating a well run, efficient youth development system to unearth Icelandic talent has reaped its rewards. Iceland feature in yet another marquee tournament. Their support and the trademark hand clap will be greatly appreciated from the World Cup organizers.

The pluses for the side is their organization; hard to break down defensively and well organized. Their ability to execute superb set piece delivery led by Gylfi Sigurrdson and Johann Berg Gudmunson has created numerous goals and will be a live threat to all opponents. Their ability to go direct plays to the strengths of their forward line options such as Finbogason.

The negatives for the side are that they will be up against potentially at least two of the most potent attacking units in the tournament. Argentina’s attacking arsenal and their electric pace will test Iceland’s rearguard who at times have struggled to contain pacy attacking sides; elude to France quarter final loss in the UEFA Championships. The personnel has not changed drastically from this encounter. Croatia have the potential to pass a team into exhaustion.

Iceland will need to realistically get something from the Argentina and Croatia games to have a realistic chance of advancing to the second round.

Can Iceland evolve their game plan to throw different looks to their opposition? I have my doubts and I think they will at times look incredibly one dimensional. Alas, Iceland to go out in the opening round of the tournament.


A team which should get to the semi-finals of this tournament. They are an incredible solid squad; defensively solid and with marquee midfield and attacking options to cause endless issues to opponents in this campaign.

The pros for the side are the midfield options. Luka Modric has the ability to beat teams on his own; his ability to change tempo when required, his passing range and ability to come up with decisive goals from long range are huge pluses.

Mateo Kovacic has the ability to be a player of the tournament. The Real Madrid central midfielder ticks all the boxes; good with the ball, defensively on point and ability to support his strikers with searing runs from deep.

Ivan Perisic, Nikola Kalinic and Mario Mandzukic are quality front men and offer pace, power and aerlal threat for the national side. Mandzukic in particular has had another terrific season with Juventus at club level and if provided with good service, will be scoring plenty.

If there is a negative, it can be that Croatia can at times take their foot off the pedal during a fixture. It cost them during the European Champions and the qualification saw a couple of indifferent end of campaign results due to complacency during the game.

I would be disappointed for Croatia if they cannot emerge from this group as winners. They are the standout team in this group; experience and no genuine weak links in the squad. Their passing game has the potential to destroy teams in this group. Group winners for me.


The African nation is known for its pace and powerful football. From their cameos in USA ’94 where the likes of Finidi George became a household name to the footballing world, this side have not being afraid to express themselves on a football pitch.

There have being years of turmoil between the association and players but this is all behind the country as they look forward to this tournament.

The side have experience straight down the spine of their side with the likes of Obi Mikel, Moses, Musa, Etebo, Ndidi, Iwobi and Ighalo. They have pace and power to exploit teams on the counter attack which could cause issues for their pool opponents.

The negative is in the defensive squad depth. The goalkeeping position in particular is quite inexperienced with Ezenwa with only twenty-six caps, the other keepers have only a handful caps between them.

The defensive options are for me personally something of an unknown and I fear that the team may be prone to a couple of defensive lapses which will cause decisive goals being conceded.

Entertaining football is the objective but whether defensively they can be solid enough is a big question mark and for this reason, it looks like an opening round exit.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group C

An interesting group on paper. A group where France, Denmark, Australia and Peru will lock horns. A group where France should be the clear favorite to top the pool but the other three teams will pose different looks which makes this group an intriguing one to predict.


The squad is loaded with depth and talent in all positions. Lloris, Varane, Umiti, Pogba, Kante and Griezmann to name but a few of the star studded squad assembled for Le Bleu. The key point is the harmony between management and players as in tournaments past, all has not being so rosy in the French camp leading and during major tournaments, look no further than the South African World Cup when the French side under-performed and infighting in the camp was rife.

A nice group for France to evaluate their chances of World Cup success starts with a fixture against Australia. The Danish fixture potentially is the game to decide top spot. Hoping France produce a high tempo game plan where the likes of Lemar revel out wide to supply the likes of Griezmann who will look to end speculation om his club future with an TV cameo in Spain tonight.

France personally are another dark horse in this tournament; their speed and pace is a live threat for anyone if the team are in the mood. They will top this group with a bit to spare.


The Danish challenge needs to be respected. Their performance in their second leg playoff demolition of the Republic of Ireland was evidence that given the time and space, they will punish teams. The team is centered around Christian Eriksen, the mercurial midfielder looks destined to have an excellent tournament. His passing range, ability to create chances for colleagues and to score goals from runs from deep or long range efforts is the standout threat. Delaney as well fresh from his transfer to Borussia Dortmund can also contribute from a midfield perspective.

The team is defensively solid with the likes of Schmeichel, Christensen and Kjaer in the ranks. The issue for Denmark is if teams target Eriksen, what is the alternative Plan B. There were indifferent performances in the qualification phase of play when teams flooded the midfield area and nullified Eriksen’s influence as a result.

Their fixture against Peru who will be cagey and defensive will test Denmark’s patience and nerve to keep composed. If they can win their opening fixture, they are primed to qualify for the second round but France personally have too much in squad depth for this group of players.


The case of Paolo Guerrero has captivated all World Cup preparations for Peru. The inspirational Peru captain is now free to play in the tournament and is a timely boost for a team who will need goals to advance from this group. They have live threats upfront with Farfan and now the available Guerrero but question marks abound on the midfield creativity of the side.

Peru will look to play on the counter in these pool games and if teams do not respect Peru’s pace on the counter attack could get caught out. A potential star for Peru in the engine room of midfield is Tapia, a versatile player who plays in midfield for Feyenoord but can also play full back and center half as well. Peru’s inability to supply their key strikers could be the key impediment to qualification; defensively they are solid evident in their South American campaign.


The Socceroos will enter this group with nothing to lose. The squad is filled with domestic league players as well as players plying their trade in European leagues. The EPL and SPL representatives will need to set the tone for others to follow. Tom Rogic, Miles Jedinak, Matt Ryan have impressed with their clubs and need to show the same form in this tournament.

Aaron Mooy needs to be the play maker for this side and his performances will be an excellent gauge of how this side fare. The squad depth is a concern particularly defensively if suspension issues arise in the first two fixtures but expect Australia to provide pool opponents with plenty of issues in physicality and work rate.

Tim Cahill’s cameos to nick a goal may be required once or twice in this tournament. Australia are the underdogs in this group but there is an upset result in this group of players; not enough to advance but may dash another side’s hopes of second round progression.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group B

Group B. The battle of Iberia and then you add Morocco and Iran to the mix, hoping beyond hope that they can pull off an unlikely upset. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on a group where the opening fixtures of the round could fundamentally change the course of the tournament.


The opening fixture of this group for Portugal will determine realistically how far they will go in this tournament. A fixture against the old enemy Spain. A fixture where both teams will look to win and establish a decisive blow in the outcome of the group. The runner up of this group has a daunting task to overcome a quietly fancied Uruguay in the second round. The winner of the group, a potential date with Russia or Egypt. What fixture would you prefer?

Portugal had an indifferent qualification campaign but got their act together at the end of the campaign to beat Switzerland comprehensively to secure automatic World Cup qualification. The squad is loaded with talent. Cristano Ronaldo will look to create and score for a side who have massive experience defensively and in midfield with the likes of Alves ,Pepe, Quaresma and Moutinho in the ranks.

Bernardo Silva has the ability and potential to be one of the stars of this tournament. The Manchester City midfielder / forward passing range and potency in front of goal will be a huge asset for Portugal to supplement the attacking workload from Ronaldo.

How will Portugal setup though for Friday’s opening fixture against Spain? I hope that they do not go into their defensive shell and look to counter attack with the attacking talent at their disposal but I suspect they will go with prototype park the bus against Spain and ultimately loss to finish second.


Julen Lopetegui has being quick to decide his future as he was announced as Real Madrid manager for next season today. The managerial announcement will surely have caused a stir in the squad particularly among the Catalan players. Unity in the camp is going to be the key for Spain to succeed in this tournament; any discontent in the camp and this tournament is over before it starts.

The squad on paper is exceptional. From David De Gea in goals to Diego Costa upfront, there is a wealth of talent and depth in the squad to cover multiple positions. The lack of goals in recent warm-up games is a concern but it was not as if Spain were not creating good attacking chances?

Iniesta and Busquets in the heart of the Spanish midfield will dictate tempo and provide defensive stability respectively. Costa in attack will irritate defenders to the brink and will punish any lapses in concentration. David Silva’s play making and runs from deep will pose opponents in this group massive issues.

The first fixture against Portugal will be the decisive fixture; a cagey encounter beckons provided no early goals are scored. Both teams will look to perform from minute one but there will be a bit of ring rust with the start of the tournament. Spain are the team to beat in this group; their qualification campaign was impressive too with their performance at home to Italy very impressive. Spain to top the pool and avoid Suarez and Godin.


An interesting outfit to evaluate; undoubted talent with the likes of Benatia and Hakimi in the defensive ranks but I am looking for an attacking outlet to cause problems for the two big European teams. I am struggling. El Kaabi is an unknown attacking quantity and there does not appear to be goals flourishing in the ranks. Herve Renard quite frankly has his work cut out for him in this group and can only see an early exit for the North African nation whose fans will bring color, atmosphere to their fixtures.


Carlos Queiroz like Herve Renard will look to be defensively solid and look to launch counter attacks against their other group rivals. A daunting task given a look at the squad depth. Azmoun and Ghoochannejhad will provide the attacking threat for the Iranians. The worry is the other end of the pitch, not sure if the players in the goalkeeping and defensive ranks have either the experience or caliber to compete in this group. When you consider Ronaldo or Diego Costa against Iran, you suddenly start to feel my concerns for the Iranians. A result perhaps against Morocco is the objective but no hope of qualification for Iran. Queiroz will look to roam for pastures new immediately after the tournament.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview: Group A

Italy, The Netherlands, Republic of Ireland and USA may not be at the big dance but it would not be this blog’s style without doing a proper review of the upcoming FIFA World Cup Russia 2018. This is the opening preview salvo will focus on the opening group (Group A) and the host nation have not done too badly in the draw.


Russia come into this tournament needing to answer questions on their form and their ability to create from an attacking perspective. Their preparations for the tournament have being less than ideal with a couple of notable underwhelming performances. An opening game against a Saudi Arabia who on paper offer quite less going forward should present a good opportunity for Russia to score a couple of goals and gain confidence. Russia to look to counter-attack at every given opportunity so defensively, the hosts will need to be on point. Akinfeev is a vastly experienced keeper with over one hundred caps, quality shot stopper but his ability on crosses will be thoroughly tested. The defensive shape of the side will be led and organized by the likes of Ignashevich. Smolov and Dzyuba will provide the attacking threat but need midfield quality in the form of Zhirkov to come to the fore. If they cannot produce a convincing performance against Saudi Arabia in their opening game, then this group could prove problematic but think they will just about qualify to the last sixteen where that will be that.

Saudi Arabia

Juan Antonio Pizzi is only recently appointed, his two predecessors fired in double quick time. The majority of the squad play their football domestically in Al-Alhi or Al-Hilal. Given the unrest in management issues, how will the side setup in this tournament? The attacking onus will fall on the players who ply their trade in La Liga. Al-Dawsari and Al-Muwallad are technically gifted players who will look to create for the Middle East nation but defensively they look vulnerable given the level of competition that the squad play at  domestically and even from an international perspective. Saudi Arabia will look to entice Russia out of their counter-attacking shell in the opening game; this is the key fixture for the Saudis to set the tone for the rest of the tournament. A heavy defeat and who knows if Pizzi will be leading the team for the second round of games? A potential point against Egypt is optimistic, more realistic is three losses and an early flight home.


It is amazing to think that Egypt’s last World Cup appearance was in 1990. Egypt will not lack for physicality, fitness and quality in their ranks. Hector Cuper is a shrewd tactician and will hope that Mohammed Salah is back to full fitness to provide a serious attacking threat upfront. If the forward is, then Egypt are a massive live threat as the side have the defensive and midfield nous to cause problems for the other sides in the group. Hegazi in the heart of the defense needs to provide organization and keep his colleagues focused. Egypt defensively at times are prone to the lapse in concentration seen in their recent loss to Belgium in a warm-up contest. An even contest was blown open by two quick fire goals from Belgium. Fitness concerns abound on Elneny too, the central midfielder can provide stability for Egypt defensively. Fitness is the keyword for this Egyptian squad. If everyone is on top form, they can spring an upset against Russia and beat Saudi Arabia but lack of game time and cohesion could be their undoing. Early opening round exit due to these factors is the hunch.


A proverbial dark horse in this tournament. A nice opening group to settle into the tournament. Massive quality throughout a squad which is vastly experienced. Muslera is an accomplished net minder and his defensive cover boosts the likes of Godin and Gimenez. A notoriously tough team to break down defensively and then you have the sublime attacking threats in attack. Suarez and Cavani provided they receive adequate service out wide have the ability to decide games with moments of brilliance. They are the form side in this group; they should win the group with minimum fuss and look to rest their front line starters before the end of this competition phase.


Saudi Arabia, thanks for the coming but you are gone before a ball is kicked. Uruguay will top the group and it is then a battle between Russia and Egypt for the second spot in the group. Russia as host nation pip Egypt who will rue fitness issues for the lack of progression in this tournament.