RWC Power Rankings (week 5)

In the final week of warm up games Connacht arose as a surprise dark horse as they beat Russia in Moscow (that’s 2 wins for Irish provinces against teams going to the world cup during the warm up games).

  1. New Zealand – George Bridge carried the ball 247 metres and scored 3 more tries against Tonga than Wales did against Ireland as the All Blacks romped to a 92-7 victory. They seem to be rounding into form nicely!
  2. Ireland – like every good church Ireland run a lot smoother when there’s a good Sexton around and they dominated territory and possession on their way to a 19-10 victory. The World Cup Final we’ve all been waiting for is back on.
  3. England – despise a fairly experimental backline Eddie Jones’ boys thrashed Connor O’Shea’s Italy who can only really take comfort in having Canada and Namibia awaiting them in Pool C.
  4. South Africa – they travelled to Japan to dish out a 41-7 whooping to the very convivial hosts. Just imagine Amanaki Mafi and Eben Etzebeth in the same car park, actually don’t.
  5. Australia – the Wallabies dominated their game over Samoa but didn’t put the game to bed until the 70th minute. Just to add insult to the Samoan injury Matt To’omua scored a try. no really, he did, I swear.
  6. USA – they look to be in a seriously good place at the moment, unfortunately they share Pool with England and France but they could have a very real chance of upsetting Argentina if they avoid too many awkward scrums.
  7. Scotland – 2 wins in 2 weeks for Gregor Townsend’s team doesn’t happen too regularly but they were both against Georgia!
  8. Wales – Ireland have given plenty of teams problem in the Aviva over recent years and while Wales won 100% of their set pieces against a strong pack their ineffectual breakdown work should be a concern.
  9. Japan – losing 7-41 at home is never ideal but when it’s to a team who have beaten and drawn with the All Blacks recently it’s not disastrous. They won 100% of their scrums, only conceded 7 penalties, beat 22 defenders and the brave blossoms snaffled 18 turnovers so there’s plenty of positives to take away.
  10. Samoa – if they had a 10 they’d be dangerous Tusi Pisi looks out of his depth in the Gallagher Premiership so in a Test match he’s a liability. Despite losing 6 line outs and missing 36 tackles they were within 7 points until the 69th minute.
  11. Tonga – they might have been pasted, but they got pasted by an All Black team going for a third successive RWC title. They did only concede 5 penalties (3 fewer than the New Zealanders) in the whole game which is a huge improvement for a traditionally “feisty” team. They will probably on the receiving end against England but there’s no clear favourite to finish second in Pool C so who knows.
  12. Georgia – they scored 9 points in Murrayfield but conceded 8 fewer points than they did last week, small victories an all that.
  13. Italy – even against a hot England team a 37-0 loss is pretty tough to polish.
  14. Canada – Sir Graham Henry seems to have had an instant impact, they lead 12-0 at half time against a very good USA team but tailed off as the substitutes rolled on. Their first Pool B game is against Italy on a short rest week for the Azzuri and their final game is against Namibia after the Welwitschias have played the All Blacks, so with a bit more Henry magic they could have some very close games ahead.
  15. Russia – Lyn Jones had already gone on record bemoaning how their late qualification has effected their build up but losing to a Connacht preseason team should set all the alarm bells ringing!

RWC Power Rankings (week 4)

Just the 4 games this week, but a few of them point toward who could be successful in Japan.

  1. Ireland – James Ryan comes back into the squad and Ireland win again (sunrise, sunset). But that hasn’t stopped Irish rugby twitter having a Jean Kleyn sized meltdown, well done everyone.
  2. France – they always beat Italy but they don’t always do it with 7 tries and a 28 point margin. 2 forwards binned for repeated infringements might be a concern though.
  3. Scotland – Townsend’s boys have discovered how to win away from home, play in Tbilisi in a half empty Dinamo Stadium.
  4. Fiji – another win for the Flying Fijians but only by 10 points against Tonga who are probably going to get a 60 point spanking in Waikato next weekend.
  5. Wales – Rhys Patchell dusted off his mercurial best and dragged Wales to within 5 points of an equitable draw with a bit of help from half back partner Tomos Williams. They now go to Dublin with Gatland weighing up whether or not to throw caution to the wind in his last 3 months or to stick to grinding opponents into a fine dust.
  6. Italy – Bellini (the 6 foot 3 winger, not the cocktail) and Polledri scored 3 tries against a resurgent French team. Bellini even managed to find time to get sin binned too, busy boy.
  7. Tonga – took an early lead against Fiji through Piutau but then allowed Fiji to score the next 22 points. Yikes!
  8. Georgia – They did score a try against Scotland but their overall performance was so alarming they dragged 35 year old Mamuke Gorgodze out of for retirement for a sweaty trip to Japan.

RWC Power Rankings (week 3)

Only 5 Nations played warm up games this weekend but in the spirit of fair play I have to continue the weekly rankings (although theoretically Leinster have half a chance at winning the RWC if this week is anything to go by)

  1. England – 57 points is a lot in any game even against an Irish team who were missing key players and are clearly in a different part of their conditioning schedule.
  2. Scotland – a win is a win and a bounce back win against France who thrashed them last week keeps things in Pool A potentially very interesting
  3. France – after a comprehensive win last week they lost by 3 points this week. To coin a phrase “France gonna France”.
  4. Ireland – Quite a few players struggled in defence but that’s usually a sign they’re in a heavy training cycle. The line out issues could be more worrying for Joe Schmidt.
  5. Canada – but only because Leinster’s touring side aren’t able to compete in Japan. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again what is Kingsley Jones doing (or not doing) to get such poor results? They did score 5 tries (against a very unsettled Provincial team) but they went 19-0 down inside 28 minutes and conceded 14 points in the last 7 minutes!

RWC Power Rankings

As the World Rugby ranking algorithm seems to be at best “complicated” I thought I’d come up with a way of ranking the Rugby World Cup teams based on their most recent performance –

  1. Australia (there may have been a Scott Barrett brain fart involved but that’s the most points New Zealand have ever conceded)
  2. South Africa (winning away by 33 points is mighty impressive)
  3. England (winning at a canter with most of the stars on the bench has to be a positive)
  4. Ireland (5 tries in a 19 point win with only 1 first choice forward starting deserves plenty of respect)
  5. Japan (they beat a USA team but who had made a few changes by 14 points and they had made several changes too including positional switches)
  6. Fiji (held Samoa to 3 points without Tuisova, Yato or Murimurivalu in the starting XV)
  7. New Zealand (obviously still RWC favourites, but in terms of recency there’s not many positives in a 21 point drubbing)
  8. Wales (lost by 14 points at Twickenham which is pretty normal stuff but lost the Grand Slam winning 10 who brings the calm and confidence to the whole squad)
  9. Samoa (lost to Fiji’s changed team but only by 7 points)
  10. Argentina (Los Jaguares exploits in Super Rugby seem to be kicking in now and Nicholas Sanchez seems to be Ledesma’s Emperor’s New Clothes)
  11. Italy (picked a bit of a mish mash backline but losing by 19 to an underpowered Ireland seems cause for concern)
  12. USA (lost by 14 points to Japan but they’re trying to blend some new players and integrate 2 of the successful 7’s squad into the 15’s set up)
  13. Tonga (they made a few changes and actually won but they conspired to concede 23 points against Canada who hadn’t scored more than 20 points in a Pacific Nations Cup game since 2014)
  14. Canada (its a mystery how Kingsley Jones gets so little out of that squad).

Russia, France, Scotland, Namibia, Georgia and Uruguay all avoided games this week and therefore any unnecessary (see also heart breaking) injuries.

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.

Pro 12 2016-17 season preview


New Zealand dominance might not just be a phrase appearing in relation to this year’s Rugby Championship and next year’s Lions tour, there should be 8 big name Kiwi players making debuts in the Pro 12 this season.  While the lesser known Hagen Schulte and Dominic Robertson-McCoy are also arriving from the land of the long white cloud and looking to play International rugby for Scotland and Ireland respectively, who they qualify for via their Grandparents.

Probably the biggest name headed to Ireland this season is Charles Piutau, in a previous life (well 2011 to be precise) Piutau scored in a Junior Rugby World Cup final alongside some bloke called Beauden Barrett and the now Welsh (occasional Fullback) Gareth Anscombe (George Ford, Christian Wade and Henry Thomas scored too, it was a hell of game that the Baby Blacks won 22-33).  Last season Piutau scored an 80th minute try that put Wasps into the European Champions Cup semi-final at the expense of Exeter Chiefs, so he has a knack of scoring big tries at important times.  Piutau’s arrival allied to the arrival of Rodney Ah You, Kieran Treadwell and 26 time capped Springbok flanker Marcel Coetzee to bolster the pack are why Ulster should finish top of the tree this term.

Another high profile Kiwi import is Corey Flynn who is moving from Toulouse to join Glasgow and should be the lynchpin of a very effective Warriors pack.  Flynn only amassed 15 All Black caps over the course of 8 years but he was a member of the 2011 RWC winning squad and during his 12 seasons with the Crusaders they reached 6 finals, winning 4 of them.  Flynn’s addition, the return of journeyman Rory Clegg and the signings of Italian winger Leonardo Sarto, young Fly Half Hagen Schulte and a smattering of experienced internationals from Canada, Namibia and Fiji should be enough to get the Warriors a home semi final come playoff time and with their new “plastic pitch” they should score a lot of tries at home all year round.

Scarlets have their own potential superstar arriving from New Zealand in Johnny McNicholl but as a winger his effectiveness will be largely dependent on how often the forwards manage to win the ball and to that effect the signing of Werner Kruger from the Blue Bulls is more important.  The 31 year old tight head won 4 caps for the Springboks and if he’s able to solidify the Scarlets set-piece in Samson Lee’s absence (flogging a 23 year old because none of your other props cut it is a pretty brutal way to shorten a career) then their much hyped backline including new Wales cap Rhys Patchell, the returning Jonathan Davies and Canadian flyer DTH Van Der Merwe could notch up a serious amount of “meat pies”.  The Scarlets have lost 19 players since last season, either as a result of retirement or because they released them, so they may take a while to adapt to that turnover in personnel, Michael Collins return to New Zealand is a particular disappointment as the 23 year old was a very exciting ball player who just looked to be settling in.  Jordan Williams move to Bristol sees the Scarlets lose another firebrand who could set the Aviva Premiership alight but he’d not featured under Wayne Pivac so his decision is understandable.  Gareth Owen has largely been their only creative influence for about 2 seasons now which is why Pivac had taken to including him anywhere he could (even out on the wing where he didn’t look especially comfortable) and with the influx of backs to the squad Owen may find it hard to retain a starting spot and the Scarlets will probably suffer without his inspiration.  Similarly Steffan Evans has provided a cutting edge to the Scarlets’ attack over recent seasons but with Liam Williams returning from his injury woes and McNicholl’s signing Evans will probably be reduced to playing during International windows, unfortunately in the painful to watch LV Cup.  The injection of fresh (albeit mature) blood should help the Scarlets finish in the playoff places but unless they sneak into the top 2 for a home semi-final they will struggle to advance.

Leinster haven’t made many signings but their Kiwi import could be the most exciting player in the Pro 12 next season, Jamison Gibson-Park played for the Super Rugby winning Hurricanes last season and made an appearance off the bench in the final against the Lions.  He’s a fleet-footed Scrum Half with a habit of sweeping the ball away from the ruck quick smart and with the back-row depth the Dublin based team have in their squad they could be playing seriously quick rugby next season.  Potential British and Irish Lion Robbie Henshaw and Niall Morris join a backline who in Garry Ringrose and Noel Reid already have 2 of the most exciting young talents in Celtic rugby so Leinster should be able to challenge for a top 4 spot.

Last season 9 points separated 5th to 9th, so this is where predicting any sort of order becomes increasingly tricky, Munster finished 6th last season and as Connacht have to deal with the loss of 10 players whilst bedding in 7 newbie’s and the Ospreys have already lost 2 of their best players from last season in Sam Underhill and Owen Watkin for at least 4 months (Watkin possibly for the whole season) Munster must surely be the team closest to challenging the top 4 this coming season too.

Munster strangely enough don’t have a big name Kiwi signing this season but they do have two South African imports, Lock Jean Kleyn (all 6 feet 8 inches of him) and 25 year old Jaco Taute who represented South Africa at the same Junior Rugby World Cup that Piutau, Barrett, Ford and Wade starred at (given Etzebeth, Elliot Daly, Marlon Yarde, Michael Hooper, Kuridrani and Jules Plisson featured too it must have been the best ever).  Taute is an injury replacement for twice capped All Black Francis Saili and while he certainly has the same physicality as Saili he will bring a certain subtlety that the Kiwi doesn’t always employ.  Last season Munster missed out on a top 4 finish because they failed to score as many tries as 4 of the 5 teams ahead of them and bringing in two experienced forwards in John Andress and Darren O’Shea alongside the 20 year old Centre Sam Arnold may not be the best way to fix that shortcoming.

Connacht finished 7th 2 seasons ago before the Pat Lam effect launched them up the table to 2nd last term but with 10 players finding their way to the exit door including Robbie Henshaw, AJ McGinty, the Ulster bound Rodney Ah You and Aly Muldowney a veteran of 93 games for the province even Pat Lam will struggle to work enough magic to get the Devil’s Own back into the top 4.  Dominic Robertson-McCoy and Josh Rowland could be worth keeping an eye on though as both are born and raised in New Zealand but qualify to represent Ireland.

Edinburgh’s rather disappointing 11th place finish saw them splash the cash in the off season and the inclusion of 12 new faces while they allowed 11 others to leave for pastures new shows just how proactive they’ve been in preparation for the new season (although Jason Tovey did arrive north of the border in March as a loan signing before finalising his permanent move).  Tovey’s arrival did see an increase in Edinburgh’s try scoring, they scored 11 in the 4 games that he was involved in and notched one of their two try scoring bonus points after he signed.  Duncan Weir’s arrival from Glasgow should see the Edinburgh backline become even more dynamic this season and with Samoan born Centre Sasa Tofilau arriving from Kirkcaldy RFC, Alex Northam an “Australian born speedster” who has been described as one of the fastest men in world rugby (10.69 for the 100m certainly is not too shabby) and Junior Rasolea who has Australian 7’s caps outside Weir or Tovey Edinburgh certainly shouldn’t struggle for 5 pointers this time around.

16 players left Cardiff Blues at the end of last season (in what was called a “squad cull”) and they were replaced by just 7 as the management team signalled their intention to use more academy players.  Head Coach Danny Wilson said “You can train with far more intensity with a squad of 45 than you can with a squad of 58” quality over quantity it is then, although the key to this plan is the quality of the signings.  In Matthew Morgan (who also played at the 2011 Junior Rugby World Cup), Steven Shingler and their very own Kiwi signing Willis Halaholo the Blues have bought in some quality but in Nick Williams and Rhys Gill they have signed 2 players with a combined age of 62 who are more known for giving away penalties than they are for threatening opposing defences.  The addition of South African Lock George Earle to a squad that already includes Jarrad Hoeata is a potential red flag for Pro 12 referees and a sign that the Blues won’t be backing down from any physical confrontations this season.  Danny Wilson made his name as a forwards coach at Newport and Bristol before the Blues took him on as a Head Coach and for such a highly regarded forwards coach to oversee such a poor pack last season must have been quite galling for the Weston-super-Mare man, so to not sign a Tight Head Prop and instead to rely on a combination of veteran’s Salesi Ma’afu (33 years old), who in fairness did improve their scrum last year following his signing (Toulon released him following an assault conviction) Tau Filise (39 years old) and the 20 year old Dillon Lewis seems a massive gamble.

The Ospreys have taken a similar approach to the Blues and have seen 14 players up sticks whilst they have bought in just 5 fresh faces.  Of the new singings only Rhodri Jones is under 25 and along with fellow new boy Hugh Gustafson he has been an almost permanent injury concern for the last 2 season, so exactly what sort of value both these signings will provide is questionable.  The problem for the Ospreys in the last few seasons has appeared to be more with the coaching staff than the playing staff as a soft pack of forwards has looked lethargic in big games (usually away from home in Europe) and a stuttering backline hasn’t helped them.  Kieron Fonotia the Ospreys big name signing from New Zealand (it’d be rude to not make at least one) could help to settle the backline down but if the forwards can’t provide them with quality, quick ball then he’ll just have to cover all the tackles that Sam Davies will miss inside him.

It’s difficult to pick an order for the bottom 3 teams based on their playing staff purely because they all look like they have plenty of talented players to select from but previous experience proves that there is something wrong within all 3 setups.  The Dragons seem to be permanently engulfed in internal political wrangling, there have been rumblings of “potential new investors” around Rodney Park for months now but no actual investors or new owners have actually materialised.  Zebre have some scintillating backs in the form of Matteo Pratichetti and Mattia Bellini and their new signing from (guess where…) New Zealand (I know, right?) Kurt Baker, who is an absolute flying machine and veteran of 24 World 7’s Series tournaments with Sir Gordon Tietjens’ unstoppable (until this year) team.  With Giovanbattista Venditti returning from his spell in Newcastle they also have a 17 and a half stone monster on the wing so they won’t lack for incision or brute force in their three quarters.  Discipline has always been an issue for Zebre and with their largely Italian coaching team keeping a lid on emotions can sometimes take a backseat to exasperated gesturing on the sidelines while the team on the field just rack up the yellow cards.

On the other hand Treviso have a new Head Coach in the form of ex-All Black Kieran Crowley and with the experienced team around of him of  Ongaro, Bortolami and Marius Goosen they may well be the surprise package of the coming season.  Their biggest battle will be trying to integrate 15 new players into a squad of 42, however with all the new signings Treviso now have 24 capped Internationals in their 42 so they should be able to string together some wins.  Obviously they’ve got a New Zealander joining them in the form of Fly Half Marty Banks, Banks is a veteran of 3 Super Rugby campaigns (he’s also played in Russia but don’t let that put you off) Banks scored a rather impressive 9 tries in his 22 Super Rugby appearances so his attacking intent is there for all to see.  Banks isn’t the only Fly Half that Treviso have signed up for next season as the mercurial Tomasso Allen returns to Italy from France and with Michael Tagicakibau joining David Odiete and the dangerous Jayden Hayward and Angelo Esposito bringing some experience of Italian rugby to the backline Treviso should improve on the measly 3 wins they recorded last season.

The Dragons are frankly a worry, after last season’s Lyn Jones-gate (was he ill, was in West London for an interview? We’ll never know) Kingsley Jones oversaw a complete shock of a victory in Kingsholm and suddenly there was a reason for optimism in Gwent, but then the Montpellier pack showed just how brittle the Dragons pack is (as the South African exiles did to most packs in Europe) and that basic issue remains.  They have signed three props, two from the Blues who were hardly Montpellier-esque in their forward dominance last season and one, Tom Davies (who was deemed surplus to requirements in Cardiff back in 2011) from Doncaster.  The Dragons have two of the most exciting young back row players in Wales in Harrison Keddie and Ollie Griffiths who when mixed with the experience of New Zealand Maori Nick Crosswell (who could be the most underrated rugby player in the Pro 12) and the likes of Ed Jackson, Lewis Evans and Nic Cudd could challenge any group of back rowers in the league.  The fact that they have to play almost exclusively on the back foot however completely negates any amount of talent of experience that they posses.  The Dragons are not wanting for talent in the back division either with Ashton Hewitt, Tyler Morgan and Hallam Amos forming a triumphant of speedy outside backs who will have the likes of South African born Carl Meyer (in his second full season) and Pat Howard to link up with.  Nick McLeod’s arrival from Sale gives them an experienced head to steer them around the field and he should be an ideal accomplice for either the busy Sarel Pretorius or the bustling Charlie Davies at Scrum Half.  However if the Dragons can’t find a dominant Tight Head then they could struggle even more than they did last time out.

So I’d expect the final standings to look like this-

  1. Ulster
  2. Glasgow
  3. Scarlets
  4. Leinster
  5. Munster
  6. Connacht
  7. Edinburgh
  8. Blues
  9. Ospreys
  10. Benetton Treviso
  11. Zebre
  12. Newport Gwent Dragons

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?


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.