96 days to go now….

rugbyPool C features the perennial number 1 team in the World in New Zealand and nobody else in the top 7 teams of the current World Rugby rankings, so the All Blacks should cruise through as the top team. Argentina (who are ranked 8th in the world) however always save their best performances for World Cup games against the Kiwis, so there is 1 potential banana skin for Richie McCaw’s boys to avoid. Argentina should be the other qualifier in this group as the other 3 teams in Pool C are Tonga, Georgia and Namibia who all have excellent players in their ranks but not in the depth that the All Blacks and the Pumas (Jaguars. Tomato, tomato. yadda, yadda etc). Tonga vs. New Zealand at St James’ Park on a Friday night in October is almost certain to be a fiery affair and with Argentina’s last group game being against Namibia the All Blacks could need a convincing win to secure top spoor in the group. Jacques Burger leading his Namibian side against the All Blacks at the Olympic Stadium will be scintillating viewing too, if World Rugby’s player of the year Brodie Retallick didn’t know who Courtney Lawes was before the All Blacks played England last summer then he won’t know who Burger is. He definitely will by the 25th of September.
Only 15 ranking places separates the team’s in Pool D, with Ireland currently ranked 3rd , France standing at 7th, Italy 15th, Canada 17th and Romania 18th. Ireland have been in a phenomenal run since Joe Schmidt took over as their head coach picking up consecutive 6 Nations titles for the first time ever and won 17 out of 25 Test since the start of 2013 beating South Africa and Australia along the way. Ireland are not always at their most comfortable during World Cup tournaments though but with 2 games in London where there will surely have a raucous following should make them feel slightly more at ease than they have done in previous World Cups in France and New Zealand. France are the most unpredictable team in World Rugby, the fact that their coach will be leaving following this tournament should be an indication of exactly how disappointing they have been recently though. They should have enough to get past Canada and Romania although the Canadian back row and outside backs could well pose more than a few problems for a French backline who are regularly tinkered with by Phillipe Saint-Andre and the Romanian forwards will relish the challenge that Les Bleus forwards will provide them, so that might be a bit of a dog fight in the Olympic Stadium. Italy will have to battle the fact that they have a fairly old squad now with the occasional sprinkling of youth and with 4 games in 22 days they will do well to keep the squad intact let alone compete in every outing. The one they have got going for them is that their first game will be at Twickenham against the French so they should be able to give their Garibaldi Cup opponents both barrels and if they can upset Les Bleus then the Azzuri may very well finish 2nd in this group.
The first Quarter Final will almost certainly be contested between New Zealand and France in the Millennium Stadium, so if Wayne Barnes is reffing the ALL Blacks are toast! In all seriousness I can see France pulling out all the stops to upset the apple cart in Cardiff à la 2007. I can’t imagine that New Zealand will want a repeat of that result, but with the possibility of a few ageing bodies in their squad having to play 4 games in 19 days (finishing off with a bruising tussle with Tonga), no Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett coming off an injury spoiled season they are far from infallible. For the purpose of this flight of fancy we’ll say that the All Blacks will make it past the French and advance to a semi final in Twickenham. The second Quarter Final will in all likelihood be between South Africa and Wales in Twickenham (well it saves travelling too far for the semi’s) and while Wales have recently made a habit of getting dangerously close to the Springboks (and putting my own personal optimism to one side) they have never beaten them outside of Cardiff so I suspect the team who will face the daunting prospect of a meeting with the All Blacks in West London will be South Africa, with so many Springboks unlikely to play in another RWC they won’t to go out with a whimper in the first knockout phase. Quarter Final 3 will be played in Cardiff and should see Ireland take on Argentina, which could be tricky for an Irish side who won’t want to become embroiled in a forward battle with the Pumas I imagine the team who maintains discipline will be the victor here and while that will be a bit of a lottery and largely dependent on who is refereeing I’ll say Joe Schmidt will guide Ireland through to the semi final in Twickenham where they will meet England who should do a number on Samoa on their home field.

South Africa and New Zealand in a RWC semi final in Twickenham is a mouth watering prospect and certainly worthy of a RWC Final (remember 1994?) they have played some absolutely fantastic matches in the last 3 seasons and if Nigel Owens is refereeing then it might be time to get the abacus out to keep score. I think South Africa might just have enough forward power to upset the favourites (this is a World Cup remember, there has to be an upset somewhere along the lines) and advance to the final. In the second semi final England could actually face the prospect of playing a RWC semi final on their home pitch whilst being underdogs. Ireland have beaten England in 8 of their last 13 meetings and while England squeaked past the Irishmen 13-10 the last time they played at Twickenham I’m backing Ireland to send England to the Olympic Park for a 3rd and 4th playoff against New Zealand.
South Africa v Ireland in the RWC final then, since the 12th of June 2004 they have played each other 8 times and both have 4 wins so this could prove to be an intriguing finale to any tournament. You’d say South Africa would be favourites having had a more difficult path to the final but after battling with New Zealand having played Samoa and Wales they very well be depleted by the time they get to Twickenham on the final day of October so if Ireland are to win their first RWC this would be a perfect time. I still can’t shake the feeling that experience is more vital in a World Cup final than it is in any other big game so the trophy should be headed south of the equator as the Springboks scoop the big prize for a third time.
Oh yeah, does anyone care who “wins” 3rd place? No? I didn’t think so.

103 days ‘til the Rugby World Cup. But who’s counting? (cont.)

rugbyGroup B seems to be more of a one horse race than Group A with South Africa seemingly destined to easily win the group and progress to a Quarter Final in Twickenham. The battle for second in the group however is much more interesting with the teams ranked 9th, 10th, 13th and 16th all in with a chance of sneaking into the Quarter Finals. Samoa are the highest ranked of the teams battling it out for second place. They stand 1 place ahead of Scotland with Japan currently ranked 13th and the USA in 16th, although there are less than 8 ranking points separating all four of the sides.

Samoa are one of the Pacific Island teams who, like Fiji are bursting with talent but struggle to adapt to the structured nature of International rugby. However they have beaten Wales (who they could face in the Quarter Final stage) twice in previous World Cups and once more as recently as November 2012 in Cardiff, so they certainly won’t fear any opposition this autumn. If they can manage to compete at set piece time then a backline including the likes of former New Zealand 7’s representative Tim Nanai-Williams, Northampton Saints’ brothers Ken and George Pisi and the cousin of the late, great Jerry Collins Newcastle Falcons Sinoti Sinoti (who has notched up 10 tries in 27 appearances this season) will threaten opposing defences from all angles.

It’s difficult what to know what to expect from Scotland, in the Autumn of 2014 they were talked about as being a resurgent force under the stewardship of Kiwi coach Vern Cotter but during the 6 Nations they were beaten by everyone and ended the tournament with a resounding 40-10 thumping at the hands of tournament winners Ireland. Cotter responded by including 8 uncapped players in his initial World Cup training party including South African born W.P Nel and Josh Strauss and New Zealand born Hugh Blake who has only played 3 professional games in Scotland since he moved there last year. Scotland’s main problem is that their best 4 players are all scrum halves and they can’t seem to find an outside half who can consistently provide the structure needed to provide scoring opportunities for their potent outside backs like Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser.

Japan and the United States are in similar positions as the Pacific Island nations in as much as they have an array of talented players but they are spread across a large number of foreign countries as they ply their trade in different top flight league’s so they often struggle for consistency both in selection and in terms of team cohesion. The USA however have made serious improvements in recent years and with 7’s now being an Olympic sport Rugby Union is becoming increasingly popular and the money on offer for playing top flight rugby is attracting the interest of athlete’s who do not quite make in more traditional American sports like American Football and Athletics, particularly sprinters like Carlin Isles and Perry Baker who have been recently seen ripping defences to shreds on the IRB 7’s tour. If Rugby continues to enjoy support in the States and it should do after they won the Twickenham leg of the IRB 7’s series this year then the USA will become a serious threat in future World Cups.

South Africa would have suffer an unusual number of injuries to not win all of their group games and qualify for the Quarter Finals and I think that Samoa should have the individual flair to finish second, but as all the other teams really have the same weakness, a lack of organisation and a 10 who can consistently make good decisions and provide an accurate tactical kicking game there really is a Quarter Final spot up for grabs in this group.

103 days ’til the Rugby World Cup. But who’s counting?

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Predicting who will win a tournament that doesn’t start for over 3 months, a full month before the Rugby Championship has even began in the Southern Hemisphere and when no coaches have even finalised their squad’s would be utter madness, but hey there’s not much going on in my world at the moment, so here goes.
Group A seems a logical place to start and when it was drawn it was immediately given the moniker “group of death” (original, eh?) but for me it has since become more of a group of opportunity with the winner facing a Quarter Final against either Samoa, the USA or Scotland and a possible Semi Final against Ireland. 3 of the top 6 teams in World rugby will be vying for 2 qualification spots so one of the big teams will miss out and with Fiji currently 11th in the world rankings and Fijian players standing out in Super Rugby, the Top 14, the Pro 12 and the Aviva Premiership it’s hard to rule them out of contention in the group either.
Australia, England and Wales are 3 of the top 6 teams in the World at the moment (according to the World Rugby rankings) and as somebody who’s taken a keen interest in the Super Rugby season I can honestly say I can’t remember a more disappointing showing from the Australian franchises in recent times. Australia are currently ranked 6th with Wales 5th and England 4th, so theoretically Australia should be the team to miss out however English player’s are doing their damndest to make Stuart Lancaster’s coaching job neigh on impossible.
Between Wales selecting players who could have been in England’s squad and English players getting themselves injured, banned or arrested England (who should be favourites with home advantage) are now having to cobble together a team from players who even 6 weeks wouldn’t have been expecting to make the training party let alone starting against Fiji in a little under 15 weeks.
This leaves Wales who showed why it’s impossible to predict what they will do in this year’s 6 Nations tournament. After a mediocre last 60 minutes against England which resulted in a 16-21 loss in Cardiff they improved progressively, building to a crescendo when a Liam Williams inspired team thrashed Italy 61-20 in Rome in the final round of games.
The major concern for Wales is the injuries they have accumulated over the last season. Samson Lee was injured in their first 6 Nations game and has been recuperating and rehabbing from an Achilles tendon operation for 5 months, fellow tight head Rhodri Jones has not played during the second half of the season after dislocating a shoulder, Outside Centre Jonathan Davies has been ruled out of the World Cup after rupturing his cruciate ligaments playing for Clermont and the highest profile injury (possibly in World rugby) George North. He’s the youngest Welsh player to win 50 caps at the unfeasibly young age of 22 has not played since March after suffering a 3rd concussion in 4 months and as he’s yet to pass all the concussion protocols his health is rightly taking precedent over his career. Injuries are probably less of a concern for Wales than they are for most teams though because their current style of play is designed to be more about the system than the personnel in that system, the one area of real concern is the front row and if Samson Lee and Rhodri Jones are unable to play any part in the tournament then Welsh chances will almost evaporate in front of them.
Fiji are and always have been a team comprised of fantastically talented individuals who are not always able to become a team that matches the sum of their parts. If they can maximise their talents then with players like the 6ft 5 inch and 20 plus stone Nemani Nadolo, 6ft 5 and near 19 stone Taqele Naiyarovo will be almost unstoppable for opposing wingers, just as they have in Super Rugby this season.

Beyond the fact that they have 2 players who ply their trade in Pro D2 in France and that they only have 2 players over the age of 30 in their squad there’s not really much to say about Uruguay but hopefully this tournament will serve as a learning experience for their young squad or maybe a shop window and more of them will be seen playing in top European league’s in the not too distant future.  For the very near future though I fear they will be the whipping boys of the group.
I’m hoping that the Wales are at full strength and their level of performance in all of their group games is the same one they met in Rome in March, but as everyone knows Wales, good fortune and major tournaments are very rarely in the same place so I suspect home advantage will be enough to see England topping the group of death (I’m also predicting no actual deaths will occur in the group). The second place team will have a terrifically difficult Quarter Final ahead of them, probably against South Africa who love a World Cup and the likely winner of this dubious prize will be whoever wins when Wales meet Australia in Twickenham on Saturday October the 10th. Unless Australia’s players have a serious turnaround in form and fortune then Wales should be the ones who get to look forward to the tough Quarter Final at Twickenham the following Saturday.