And so it is here, the Rugby World Cup kicks off on Friday with the hosts England entertaining Fiji. For many households, the fight for television supremacy will be akin to the two packs trying to wrestle control of the tv remote control. For the die hard rugby fan, this is Christmas ninety-nine days early, pool game overload in the next four weeks will lead to the exciting knockout action. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his crystal ball on the pools and looks at the potential stories which could dominate this tournament.
Host Nation Apathy?
Will the English public embrace this tournament? The answer is trivial in the rugby heartland which is the West Country, East Midlands and around London. The question is whether rugby union will catch fire up north such as Leeds (strong rugby league heartland) and Newcastle (Falcons do play there but St James Park gives the game a bigger profile). It is imperative that the English public gets behind the tournament, otherwise English media coverage could wane in the weeks to come with soccer fixtures going on as normal. The rugby public waits with baited breathe.
IRB organizers have to be applauded for introducing the four try bonus point and also the loser point (loss the game by less than seven points). It should result in more attractive pool games and force teams particularly at the end of the pool phrase to go for the juggler. Cautious conservative game plans will not top pools in this tournament. The officiating will be under the spotlight. Let us hope for some level of consistency in the application of the laws of the game. I would hope that the attacking team gets the benefit of the doubt, defensive teams are getting away with several infringements (offside, killing ball at the breakdown). It is time that this tournament is remembered for flowing running rugby and not depressing stalemates in the breakdown and laborious kicking tactics from opposing back threes.
The toughest pool to call is Pool ‘A’ – the pool of death between the Commonwealth buddies of England, Australia and Wales. Wales have being dealt two massive blows with injuries to Rhys Webb who has excelled in the scrum half position since taking over from Mike Philips last season and Leigh Halfpenny for his full back and goal kicking, what an asset lost before a ball was kicked in the tournament. I still am baffled why both played against Italy in that fateful international pre-season game after a massive game against Ireland the previous week. Wales can go in two directions now, offer little in resistance or regroup and come out fighting. I sense Wales will come out swinging but there are massive issues at front row. Samson Lee will be rushed into action with achilles not fully healed. Hibbert’s exclusion is still baffling as the other Wales options offer little in terms of dynamism around the field and their throwing at set-piece to second and third lineout options leaves plenty for improvement. Wales’ success will be based off their back row. Their back row options are embarrassing. Tipuric who was superb against Ireland in the recent friendly match may not get into the starting lineup. Lydiate, Faletau and Warburton will be selected and their experience, know how in disrupting opposition ball could cause both England and Australia massive problems. Mike Philips will be asked to control affairs, nothing too flashy as without Jonathan Davies and Halfpenny, there is no real cutting edge to Wales’ back play. Wales will try hard but the injuries and lack of squad depth in the front row area will prove fatal. England and Australia to advance but questions abound on their chances. England are solid, waiting for Sam Burgess to explode for initial gain line advantage but their inability to reduce the penalty count (scrum time and offside) in addition to not putting teams to bed when having them by the throat will only be exposed when the knockout phrase of the tournament commences. Australia on paper have the most free flowing rugby team in this competition but questions on the front five continue to haunt Chieka. Australia in seven days in August proved the point, a sensational victory over New Zealand based on excellent running lines and a pack which fronted up to New Zealand was then reduced to rubble in Christchurch. Their pack were second best and this is the achilles heel which will dent their tournament hopes. England to top the group and Australia despite their pack problems will advance. Wales unluckily exiting the tournament at this early stage.
Pool B should see South Africa and Scotland advance to the last eight but Samoa are the dark horse that could wreck that prediction. Samoa’s aggressive running rugby style will pose problems for Scotland. Will Scotland be able to nullify the threat? Missed first time tackles count will spell disaster for Scotland. South Africa come into this tournament with allegations of discrimination in squad selection ringing in their ears. Victor Matfield’s led pack have the best lineout in the tournament, incredible options with Matfield and Etzebeth. The Boks are an extremely solid unit, no obvious weak links and with Ruan Pienaar and Morne Steyn at half-backs, a solid platform will be laid for the likes of De Villiers and Habana to flourish. Pollard and Le Roux have the potential to turn a game on its head. Patrick Lambie’s ability to fill most back positions is a real asset to the team. They will advance to the last four and after that, it is the lap of the gods and lady luck to decide what happens. Scotland should be buoyed by recent pre-season outings. Vern Cotter has had to look for a quality front row replacement to the retired Euan Murray (what a massive loss) but has being comforted by the form of his Glasgow contingent who won the Guinness Pro 12 playing a brilliant brand of running rugby. When you add the late season emergence of Edinburgh who won the European Challenge Cup, things look bright. The Scottish aim is to advance from the pool stage but with Samoa in the pool, it is a 50/50 game. Scotland get the nod based on the support from the stands. Hidalgo Clyne to be a highlight of the tournament.
Pool C is straightforward. The only question is how many tries New Zealand will accumulate during the pool phrase. This could be a world record total. Argentina will attempt to bludgeon the All Blacks with an aggressive pack and kicking game but resistance will be futile. Tonga, Georgia and Namibia – thanks for coming, not sure what benefit a 60+ hiding from New Zealand will do for their long term ambitions and aspirations. The easiest pool of the tournament.
Pool D represents on paper an intriguing three team battle for two spots. France – the enigma of the tournament, can either be world class or a shambolic Sunday League rugby pub team with little organization. France at the RWC can never be written off but their talent pool has diminished with the emergence of foreign players in the key positions in the French league. Philippe Saint Andre looks a proverbial sitting duck ala Marc Lievremont four years ago. If the team advances, it will be down to the players and not the coach who will be replaced by Guy Noves (ten years too late). Saint Andre surely has nothing in his game plan book that has not being seen before. Parra and Fofana are keys to France’s progress. Parra needs to game manage when required, kick his penalties while Fofana has to be prominent in all attacking play. The pack will be abrasive, scrum will be seriously competitive and looks like one of the best scrum outfits in this tournament.
Italy will provide passion in spades but without Parrisse in the opening game, the Azzuri will be already with their backs against the wall. Italy have shown precious little in the warm-up games, hit for fifty by Scotland. No back line threat will mean that the Italian set piece and pack will be overworked. The lack of accurate penalty kicker could be decisive in their pool elimination.
Ireland, the expectations are tempered after successive warm-up games losses against Wales and England. Ireland’s progression will depend on how mentally tough the squad and management is. What do I mean by this? Ireland’s under performance in recent World Cups looms large in the mind, the lack of composure against Wales four years ago, the total lack of performance eight years previous should be an inspiration but will it? Ireland will get out of the pool but it all hinges on Cian Healy’s fitness. If in form, the Leinster talisman will be a formidable opponent against the French in the scrum and in open play. I dread the thought of Tadhg Furlong having to face the French scrum, the likes of Nicolas Mas in scrum time, oh dear, where is the bind? Penalty guzzling machine beckons. Hoping I am wrong but in all honesty, France will rise to the Ireland game and will beat Ireland by less than seven points. Ireland to win if they can banish the mental scars of the past but it looks a stretch. Ireland to face New Zealand in the last eight, oh dear.
Pool A – England (1), Australia (2)
Pool B – South Africa (1), Scotland (2)
Pool C – New Zealand (1), Argentina (2)
Pool D – France (1), Ireland (2)
QF1 – South Africa to beat Australia (classic)
QF2 – New Zealand to beat Ireland (ten point win for All Blacks after a gallant Ireland display)
QF3 – Argentina (to shock France)
QF4 – England to beat Scotland (narrowly)
SF1 – South Africa (to shock New Zealand)
SF2 – England (to beat Argentina)
Final – South Africa (they will be dancing in the courts of Johannesburg on this result)