LONDON, ENGLAND – If Pool A at the 2015 Rugby World Cup is the ominous ‘Pool of Death’, Pool B is the much more promising-sounding ‘Pool of Opportunity’. After South Africa, you could perm any one from the remaining four sides to reach the quarter finals. And that makes it more difficult to call than even Pool A.
It could also be the ‘Cocoon Pool’, as it boasts more than its fair share of sprightly veterans. At 38, the Springboks’ second-row Methuselah Victor Matfield is the oldest player at this Rugby World Cup, while Japan’s own evergreen lock Hitoshi Ono is the second oldest at 37.
South Africa are not one of the favourites for the Rugby World Cup – at least they’re not if you believe Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer.
He wants his side to move through the World Cup “under the radar, if at all possible, and insisted that winning a third World Cup would involve “winning seven finals”.
“All the opponents will be difficult and you have to approach each game as if it were a final. The challenge is to play seven great games in a row,” he said recently.
And he has singled out three areas where South Africa need to dominate: the scrum, line drives and the breakdown. Which explains a great deal about his squad selection, and suggests that pretty rugby is not a priority.
But South Africa do have a problem. Key players including skipper Jean de Villiers, Duane Vermeulen, Fourie du Preez, Willem Alberts, Pat Lambie, Victor Matfield and Francois Louw are just coming back from injury. So, Meyer will be pleased that Springbok qualification from Pool B is pretty much assured, and that his side will kick off their campaign against Japan in Brighton.
Maybe Meyer has a point. This time last year, South Africa were in their accustomed second place in the World Rugby rankings. But then came a disastrous Rugby Championship. They finished in last place, a spot previously only occupied by Argentina, and slipped to fifth in the world standings. Recent World Cup warm-up defeats for England and Ireland have seen them move back up into third, but these are unaccustomed and uncomfortable times for Meyer and his country.
It’s not all bad news – though the good brings with it some tough decisions. Skipper Jean de Villiers is back from an awful injury, but should Meyer break up the seriously promising young midfield duo of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel. And should the old man of the World Cup Victor Matfield, South Africa’s vice-captain, be included when the pairing of Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager are playing so well?
Fans of Aviva Premiership rugby should recognise a sizeable chunk of the Samoa World Cup squad – 12 of them ply their trade in the English top flight. Three of them – Kahn Fotuali’i and the Pisi boys, Ken and George – play for Northampton Saints, who reached the Premiership final and the European Champions Cup quarter-finals.
But, if Samoa are skilful and pacy in the three-quarters, which they are, then they’re equally if not more skilful up front, with an added dash of brute force. Again, a British-based contingent make up much of their pack – which features Bristol’s Anthony Perenise and Jack Lam, Newcastle’s Kane Thompson, Bath’s Alafoti Fa’osiliva and Sale’s TJ Ioane, while Toulouse prop Census Johnston has been tempted out of retirement to provide cover for the injured Logovi’i Mulipola, of Leicester.
Despite all their talent, it has been a difficult 12 months or so for Samoa – players famously threatened to boycott November’s international against England amid a dispute surrounding the administration of the Samoa Rugby Union. The match finally went ahead, with players claiming that they had been threatened with non-selection for the World Cup if they went ahead with their planned strike.
An agreement was finally reached the day before the squad flew out for the World Cup, allowing the players – finally – to concentrate on playing rugby. Which could be bad news for a few other teams in Pool B…
You have to admire Japan’s ambition. Even though, back home, plans for the 2019 World Cup and a Japanese Super Rugby franchise appear to be in turmoil, they are determined to put on a good show in England.
They made their aim clear early on. When he announced his squad, coach Eddie Jones told the assembled rugby media: “We want to make the final eight at the World Cup and be remembered as the team of the tournament”.
That’s some ask for a nation that has played at every World Cup to date but has so far failed to progress beyond the group stages, and has in fact managed just one win – which was 24 years ago.
So, Jones has given himself and his charges a big job. But it would be wrong to say it’s a mission impossible. ‘The Brave Blossoms’ are 13th in the World Rugby rankings, above USA, a side they have beaten in five of their last six meetings and who have similar quarter-final ambitions. They also beat Pool B rivals Samoa convincingly last year.
Since Jones took over in 2012, Japan have also beaten Italy and Wales – and have developed a more open Super Rugby style of play. As his side has blossomed, Jones has seen three of his players – captain Michael Leitch, Fumiaki Tanaka, and Hendrik Tui – sign for Super Rugby sides. Watch out, too, for kicker Ayumu Goromaru, who scored more international points than anyone else in world rugby last year.
Jones’s Japan will have to play out of their skins in every match, but with second place in Pool B up for grabs, they have every incentive. As does every team in Pool B that isn’t South Africa.
Vern Cotter’s plans for the World Cup suffered a blow this week when it was confirmed hooker Stuart McInally had failed to recover from a neck injury. The player has been released back to his club Edinburgh, with Glasgow Warriors’ Kevin Bryce coming in as a replacement.
Of all the sides in Pool B that aren’t South Africa, Scotland are the most likely to qualify for the last eight. They are ranked 10th in the world, the best of the rest in this group.
They have reached the quarter-finals in all-but the last World Cup – and were a simple Gavin Hasting’s penalty away from the final in 1991. Rugby history could have been quite different if he had knocked over that sitter against England.
Coach Cotter threw several curves when he unveiled his World Cup squad – notably among the forwards. Lock Tim Swinson didn’t play in any of the warm-up matches and wasn’t even in the extended training squad, but made the final 31. South-African tighthead Willem Nel only qualified for Scotland in time to play twice for his adopted country before the World Cup; Kilted Kiwi John Hardie’s qualification period passed in time for him to manage just one game. Another South African, Josh Strauss, will officially ‘become Scottish’ on Saturday, the day after the competition kicks off.
Behind the scrum, captain Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell will direct proceedings at halfback. Much hinges on this pair – and whether Scotland’s untested pack can give them a decent platform. If that happens, and they can release a genuinely talented and pretty quick backline, then Scotland should have the smarts to make it out of Pool B.
Rugby’s sleeping giant is stirring. A quarter-final place is a possibility, if the Eagles live up to their potential.
It won’t be easy. They open their account on Sunday against Samoa in Brighton, but make no mistake, USA aren’t here just to make up Pool B numbers.
The Eagles may have lost Scott LaValla to injury, while the Todd Clever non-selection continues to divide rugby fans, but a back row that features Toulon-bound Samu Manoa, along with two of flanker John Quill and sevens stars Danny Barrett and Andrew Durutalo is not the worst you’re likely to see at this World Cup.
Cardiff’s Cam Dolan, Glasgow lock Greg Peterson and Saracens’ second row Hayden Smith bring plenty of Pro12 and Aviva Premiership nous and grunt, while coach Mike Tolkin has gone down the two-hookers-only route by bringing Zach Fenoglio and Phil Thiel.
The Eagles look exciting behind the scrum. In midfield, there’s a choice of young centre Seamus Kelly and London Welsh’s Thretton Palamo, sevens specialist Folau Niua, and that old warhorse Andrew Suniula.
And don’t forget the back three. Chris Wyles at full back, Biarritz flyer Takudzwa Ngwenya and Cardiff Blues winger Blaine Scully can cause Pool B rivals plenty of problems.
Like Scotland, much will depend on the success of the partnership between experienced scrum half Mike Petri, and Dublin-born fly-half AJ McGinty, who qualified on residency grounds earlier this year.
Yes, it’s asking a lot of the Eagles to make the knockout phase – but this is a talented side. With a fair wind, favourable results elsewhere and some big performances, it’s doable. And it could wake the sleeping giant.
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