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.

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