LONDON, ENGLAND – Friday, September 18, 2015. A date burned into the brains of rugby fans across the planet. The date that, after all the hype and preamble, the 2015 Rugby World Cup kicks off, as hosts England take on Fiji at Twickenham.
Six weeks later, on October 31, we will know which nation will call themselves World Champions for the next four years. New Zealand, in Pool C, obviously start as big favourites, but it is possible that the captain of a side from Pool A will lift the Webb Ellis Trophy.
First, though, that captain and that side have to survive the toughest group stage of the competition. It was unanimously awarded ‘Pool of Death’ status within seconds of being announced. With good reason. Three sides – Australia, England and Wales – are in the top five in current World Rugby rankings. But only two of them will qualify for the knockout phase of the competition. The other two sides in Pool A are Fiji, currently ninth in the World Rugby standings, and pool punchbag Uruguay.
Pundits scrutinised the decisions of the coaches more closely than any other pool in the competition.
They questioned the wisdom of both Wales and Australia’s decision to name only two hookers in their 31-player squads. Wales coach Warren Gatland has said that prop Aaron Jarvis would provide cover in the middle of the front row if necessary, while Scott Sio is likely to take on the job for the Wallabies.
It’s a policy that has raised more than a few eyebrows. World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward, a man with a ready talking point if ever there was one, has even suggested that both nations would not be too upset to see uncontested scrums against England.
“I suspect neither Wales nor Australia would be unhappy (if the referee ordered uncontested scrums) … given their desire not to really engage with the England pack in the tight any more than they have to,” Sir Clive wrote in a column for English newspaper the Daily Mail.
But Australia’s forwards coach and former Argentina hooker Mario Ledesma argues there is no problem with a prop playing at hooker. “When you go in to a game you have to say who is playing tight or loose [head prop] – or if they are playing both,” Ledesma told the Sydney Morning Herald. “If we don’t put it there, they cannot play on either side; but if you put it there, nobody is asking you, ‘Is this guy able to play both sides?’ [With] the hooker, [it] is the same. I mean, he is a prop. It is not like we are playing a No. 9 as a hooker. That would be dangerous; but a prop as a hooker … there is no danger there.”
We’ll have to wait and see which team has got its selection policy right – and, in Pool A, where finishing second means a route to the final that’s likely to feature both South Africa and New Zealand, that could be close to everything.
So, let’s take a look at the five Pool A teams:
Expect all eyes to focus on the pack. At least to begin with. When France showed up weaknesses in the scrum, lineout and breakdown, coach Stuart Lancaster did not panic. Publicly. Instead, he did what Stuart Lancaster does, and worked out what needed to be done.
Against Ireland in the final World Cup warm-up game, England won every one of their lineouts. Geoff Parling was immense; Tom Wood brought balance to the back row – and finally proved he is no mug with the ball in hand; Ben Morgan looked sharp, despite missing just coming back from breaking his leg.
In the backs, wingers Jonny May and Anthony Watson will put the fear of speed into any defenders. Between them, they have touched down eight times in the last seven Tests, while Jonathan Joseph adds a dash of twinkle-toes to Sam Burgess’s all-out power in midfield. With the gritty Mike Brown at fullback, and Ben Youngs with either Owen Farrell or George Ford forming a likely halfback pairing, England’s three-quarters are starting to look more settled and threatening.
Add in the fact that England are hosting this World Cup. They have the support. They have the players. Qualification from Pool A is assured. Isn’t it?
Speaking of forward units, Australia have been working hard on theirs. The Wallabies’ scrum was once regarded as the team’s weak link. No more, say the Australians, after they remembered that this is rugby union, not rugby league.
Australia do not lack for talented players. Israel Folau, David Pocock, captain and hooker Stephen Moore, Matt Giteau, Henry Speight, Will Skelton, Michael Hooper, Quade Cooper, and Will Genia would grace many a national side.
But coach Michael Cheika has been in the job for little more than a year. While the likes of Lancaster and Gatland were some distance along the World Cup preparation route, he was accepting the poison chalice of the Australia job after Ewen McKenzie’s sudden departure in early 2014.
That Cheika has even managed to get people to even consider taking seriously Australia’s chances of winning the World Cup is something akin to a miracle.
The key game for Australia is likely to be against Wales – a side they have beaten on the last 10 occasions – on October 10, seven days after the Wallabies play England.
But the inconvenient truth is this is not Australia’s tournament. Their scrum may be better than it has been, but it’s probably not strong enough, while question marks remain over their ideal halfback pairing. England 2015 has come too soon for Cheika and his team. Japan 2019, or wherever the next World Cup is held, however, now that’s a different story.
Welsh front-row selection questions have been overtaken by more recent events. The World Cup ambitions of points machine Leigh Halfpenny and influential scrum-half Rhys Webb ended when both were stretchered off in Wales’s final warm-up match against Italy. The question is: did they take a country’s ambitions with them?
Gatland copped a fair amount of justified flak for his decision to play two players who would have been key to Welsh World Cup dreams in a match in which their participation was hardly necessary. It was a needless risk without any reward. And it backfired spectacularly. Halfpenny, in particular probably shouldn’t have played, given there was barely part of his body that wasn’t strapped up.
One thing is sure, without Halfpenny and Webb, the Welsh job of qualifying from Pool A has become much more difficult. It may even be – with the margins in modern top-class rugby being so small – that this pre-World Cup error of managerial judgement has scuppered their hopes before the competition kicks off.
Of equal, but so far quieter concern for the Welsh is the fitness of Alun Wyn Jones. Chances are he will be wrapped in cotton wool until the matches and brought out only for the matches against England and Australia. They need him more than ever now…
Meet the Pool A Kingmakers – the ninth highest-ranked team in current World Rugby standings.
Bob Dwyer, who coached Australia to the 1991 World Cup and who therefore probably knows a thing or two, arguably said it best when he told The Rugby Paper: “Fiji are a serious threat. They are capable of one big result. That will ensure that whoever they beat won’t get out of the pool.”
There’s talent to burn in the Pacific Nations Cup champions’ line-up. The best-known is the 6ft 5in, 19st three-quarter Nemani Nadolo, who has 19 international caps and has scored 15 tries – to go with the 21 tries he has scored in 27 Super Rugby appearances for the Crusaders. He also kicks goals, but tends to leave that job to some chap called Dan Carter when he’s playing for his club.
Meanwhile, Akapusi Qera leads a sizeable number of sizeable players who ply their trade in the French Top 14, and Vereniki Goneva will find plenty of Fiji colleagues in opposition ranks after the World Cup, with Nikola Matawalu, Asaeli Tikoirotuma and Netani Talei heading to the Aviva Premiership.
Strangely, it’s in the front row where Fiji are most vulnerable. Two of their World Cup props – Lee Roy Atalifo and Peni Ravai – are still amateurs, so there’s likely to be a great deal of pressure on the shoulders of veteran hooker Sunia Koto.
It’s tough on Uruguay, where rugby is a byword for toughness and resilience, to be readily identified as Pool A whipping boys. But, cruel though it is, it’s probably fair.
Such is the strength of Pool A, that a side harking back to rugby’s amateur days – and featuring a doctor, a banker, an engineer who was forced to quit his job to find time for training, and other players lost their jobs for taking too much time off to turn out for their country – will find that passion, power, commitment and aggression is not quite enough any more in these days of professionalism.
Qualifying for the Rugby World Cup finals was achievement enough. Uruguay’s mighty pack led the way as they came from behind to beat Russia in a two-leg playoff to book their place at England 2015. That was their World Cup final. What happens in the competition itself is just icing – especially as they will be without their most successful player.
Castres Olympique captain Rodrigo Capo Ortega controversially decided he would not be available for selection, despite taking part in that play-off and being named in Los Teros’ squad for the finals.
Halfbacks Agustin Ormaechea and Felipe Berchesi, who both play in France’s ProD2, will be there – and with them rests Uruguay’s best hopes of giving their more illustrious opponents the occasional scare.
Check back tomorrow for a preview of Pool B.
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