An alternative RWC prognostication

Rugby World Cup 2019 doesn’t start until the 20th of September and there’s a Rugby Championship, Elgon Cup, Pacific Nations Cup and World Cup warm up games to squeeze in before then too. Coaches don’t have to name a final 31 man squad until the 2nd of September and with so many games to be played injuries are virtually guaranteed so it’s far too early to make sweeping predictions about who will definitely make the final so here’s a “what could happen if the underdogs come good” view.

Pool A only had two teams who are currently ranked inside the top 10 in Ireland and Scotland but in Japan they have the team ranked 11th who drew with France in November 2017 and who lead England after 56 minutes at Twickenham last autumn, so there’s definite upset potential with a home crowd behind them. The brave blossoms have the enviable task of playing Russia in their first game (Russia are ranked 20th and have win – loss record of 8 – 9 since 2017) while Ireland and Scotland get to battle it out in the most brutal conditions the tournament promises to provide. Then Japan have a shot at an Ireland team coming off 6 days rest (Japan have an 8 day rest since they open the show) while Scotland take on a Samoa team who are always physical and look to have some incredibly large humans in their Pacific Nations squad. Japan v Scotland will be the final pool game so Japan have a very real chance of qualifying for the Quarter Finals and for the purposes of this highly imaginative story let’s say they do (outside Murrayfield where Scotland look like world beaters and terrified the All Blacks in 2017 Scotland have a pretty dodgy record). Historically Ireland have had mixed results at World Cup’s but its difficult to see them losing a pool game even in a fantasy land scenario.

Pool B is more of a forgone conclusion than all the other pool’s, really only New Zealand and South Africa can qualify, Italy did beat South Africa by 2 points in 2016 but they have only won 3 games since) and Canada and Namibia are the two lowest ranked teams in the competition.

Pool C is the polar opposite of B with England, France and Argentina all incredibly close as England seem to be stalling slightly under Eddie Jones, France have had to parachute new coaches in to save them and Argentina appear to be on the rise as they welcome back their overseas stars. USA can’t be completely ruled out of the running either as Major League Rugby seems to be developing their talent pool and they’ve called 3 of their 7’s stars into the training squad. USA are actually afforded the luxury of taking on England just 4 days after England’s bruising encounter against Tonga in what will be the Eagles first game of the tournament. USA’s fixture list actually throws a lot of opportunities for them to cause some upsets, their second game is 6 days later against a France team coming off an 11 day break (imagine France spending 11 whole days in each others company, what could possibly go wrong), then they have a whole week off before they play Argentina just 4 days after the Pumas take on England. The USA’s short rest week is before they play Tonga and by then they could have already qualified for the next round. Purely hypothetically let’s say Argentina top the pool and USA qualify second.

Pool D is also far from simple, Wales are currently ranked second in the world rankings, Australia are sixth and Fiji are 9th but as their name suggests the Fijians are currently flying on the pitch (they’ve won 5 of their last 7 and only lost to Ireland by 3 in 2017) even if they appear to be having a few issues with money and coaches leaving their camp. Australia appear to have the kindest schedule with 8 days rest before they play Wales, 6 days before they take on Uruguay and another 6 rest days before they face Georgia (although Georgia’s scrum could cause some issues for everyone especially the Wallabies). Wales get the luxury of resting most of their starters in the first game against Georgia while Australia have the tricky task of keeping a lid on Fiji (and that could be a particularly feisty encounter with a few Fijians opting to represent Australia). Wales and Australia meet in their second game of the pool so the pool could realistically be decided by how Fiji perform at the start of the pool games, but we’re not here to be realistic so let’s imagine Fiji top Pool D and Australia overcome their “annus horribilis” (take that republicans) and sneak into second place.

That would provide the unlikely Quarter Final matchups of Argentina v Australia, New Zealand v Japan, Fiji v USA and Ireland v South Africa (actually not that unlikely).

In the spirit of creativity let’s go with Argentina v New Zealand in Semi Final 1 (and they traditionally serve up absolute belters at world cups) and Fiji v Ireland in the Semi Final numero deux which could lead to the tantalising prospect of Argentina and their contingent of Los Jaguares playing possession rugby against the flying Fijians, sexy rugby all round! I reckon the Pumas would probably sneak it by virtue of having a better place kicker but it would certainly be fun to watch.

Rugby Championship round 1 matchups 

If I was going to write a preview of Australia v New Zealand I’d find it pretty hard to get away from the fact that the All Black tight 5 should be too strong for their Wallaby counterparts. I’m almost expecting a replay of the first Bledisloe game last season where Australia had plenty of opportunities to score early but they made 3 errors and the All Blacks lead 32-3 at half time. The one thing the Wallabies have got on their side is that they should be well rested because none of them have played for 3 weeks and the ones who aren’t Brumbies have had am extra week with the rigours of a Super Rugby game. 

Since I can really only see an All Blacks victory on the cards in Sydney (they’re favoured to win by at least 13) I thought I’d look at a few player matchups that should be interesting to see (at least they will be for a geek like me).

Liam Squire at 6 for the All Blacks against 22 year old Ned Hanigan who made his debut against Fiji earliethis season looks a particular interesting battle. Squire is just 26 and only has 8 caps, but 3 of them have come in Bledisloe games and he’s yet to lose one. Squire is more at home as an 8 but he’s a great line-out jumper and he’s not afraid to clean out rucks, so he Michael Hooper should probably be keeping one eye on him. Hanigan on the other hand is more known as a Lock, so he may have been picked to add an extra option at line-out time, he is slightly smaller than Squire so Cheika might be hoping he can be more nimble around the park than his opposite number but Squire is no slouch and if the All Black tight five do dominate Hanigan might spend his evening chasing an auxiliary number 8 around ANZ Stadium.

Sean McMahon against Kieran Read will be fun to watch too, McMahon is a great and destructive ball carrier but if the guys in front of him can’t get him front foot ball he’ll be tackling and scrabbling around at ruck time way more than Cheika would like. Read always performs best in the biggest games and winning away in the Bledisloe will require a big game, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he scored the winning try in this one.

Kurtley Beale against Sonny Bill Williams in the 12 channel is definitely going to be fascinating because they’re totally different players. I’m a huge fan of Sonny Bill as a person and as one of the most talented athletes to ever grace this earth, but I think I actually prefer Ryan Crotty at 12 (although the number on the shirt of these All Blacks backs is only really a guide, expect Crotty, Smith and McKenzie to all pop up at first receiver at some point) if Sonny Bill spends 80 minutes just charging towards Beale then you’d frankly fear for the Wallaby vice-captain’s safety! How the All Blacks use Sonny Bill will be the most fascinating part, he’s an excellent dummy runner as well as distributor but he’s not a great kicking option. Beale on the other hand is a great kicker and runner but can sometimes throw wayward passes and with a 4 inch difference in height and about a 3 stone disparity on the scales it’s tough to see the Wallaby dominating the gainline. 

Rieko Ioane is always box office in attack and with Ben Smith and Damian McKenzie’s lightning fast feet in the backfield the Wallabies will need to kick extremely well of they’ll just be giving tries away for free. Ioane lines up against Henry Speight who like Ioane is an expert finisher with great acceleration and a commanding physical presence (he’s over 6 feet tall and weighs more than 15 stone) but Ioane is taller and heavier than Speight! Ioane can have a tendency to wander off in defence so if the Wallabies can get the ball in Speight’s hands early (which they don’t always manage) he’ll definitely fancy his chances. Ioane on the other hand can finish from anywhere and the All Blacks tend to spot the space quicker than their Australian counterparts. 

If opposing Fullbacks Damian McKenzie and Israel Folau clash at any stage of the game it could be fairly hilarious, purely based on the fact that McKenzie is 5ft 9 (probably with his long studs in) and weighs about 12 and a half stone while Folau stands a gargantuan 6ft 4 and tips the scales at over 16 stone. On a serious note the All Black back 3 don’t have anyone as tall as Folau and the Wallabies might fancy their chances with cross kicks in the All Black 22 so keep an eye on Kieran Read who will probably end up man marking Folau if the Wallabies get close enough to their opponents try line