LONDON, ENGLAND – Of all the pools in the Rugby World Cup, Pool C is by far the easiest to predict. Everyone who is anyone in rugby punditry says New Zealand will win their four group-stage matches with varying degrees of insouciant ease, leaving Argentina (ranked ninth in the world) and Tonga (11th) to fight it out for second place.
Georgia and Namibia, meanwhile, are reduced to the roles of group extras – or so you would think. Georgia have set their sights on third place, and plan on beating Namibia and Tonga to get there. But even the Namibians have ambitions at this World Cup – and the little dramas such dreams conjure up makes Pool C much more interesting than if you think of it as just a New Zealand cakewalk.
The best international side in world rugby surely needs no introduction – and the feeling coming into the tournament is clear. This World Cup is New Zealand’s to lose… wait, haven’t we read that somewhere before? But, this time there will be no choking, right?
Richie McCaw is destined to lift the World Cup on October 31, becoming in the process, the first captain to do so twice – and the first All Black to do so on foreign soil; while New Zealand will become the first nation to successfully defend their title.
If other nations are looking for hint of an inkling of a scintilla of a notion of a sniff of a hope, consider this. In the summer, the mighty All Blacks failed to win The Rugby Championship for the first time. It was, admittedly, a shorter, pre-World Cup version of The Rugby Championship – but they didn’t win. And look again at the victories Samoa, Wales, Scotland and England on the road over the past 12 months. None were impressive. Some could even be classed as decidedly ropey.
It is said that a truly great team wins even when they’re not playing well. That’s rather more not-playing-well wins than expected for New Zealand, a team that doesn’t – or at least shouldn’t – do not playing well. And, whatever else you do, don’t mention the Irish at the end of the unbeaten 2013.
Whisper the heretical question quietly, but is age finally wearying McCaw, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith? Is this a World Cup too far?
Probably not, but where there’s wild internet speculation, there’s hope, and all that. It may only be the faintest flickering, but it’s all the other nations have got and is one that they will be clinging to. That and there’s the prospect of France at the Millennium Stadium in the quarter-finals provoking some sort of inherited All Black-genus fear-fuelled rugby paralysis. Somewhere between some hope and no hope, then.
There’s a weight of great expectation on the WYSIWYG side of Pool C in their first World Cup since becoming part of The Rugby Championship. Fans will expect at least a quarter-final place from a nation that finished third in 2007, and beat South Africa in Durban earlier this year.
With Argentina, what you see is a mighty set of forwards. It’s no surprise that what you get is a scrum of such ferocity that it is no surprise to see some sides quail in its presence. The problem is, when Argentina encounter a pack that doesn’t fear them – as they will in their opening fixture against New Zealand, for example – plan B is more than a little hazy. Nebulous, you could say. Maybe even nascent. Or, perhaps, non-existent.
There’s a hint of a sort of ‘release the backs’ idea there, but no real plan to speak of.
Which is a shame, as their three-quarters really could be worth watching, if they get their hands on the ball. Wingers Juan Imhoff and Horacio Agulla can find a way through most defences, Juan Martin Hernandez is a wizard when the mood takes him – and, in Martin Landajo and Tomas Cubelli, the Pumas finally appear to have exorcised the scrum-half ghost of Agustin Pichot past.
This side isn’t as good as the stellar Pumas of 2007 – but it is more than the sum of its parts. Second place in Pool C – and, therefore, a quarter-final place is a strong possibility.
An Argentinian Super Rugby franchise will only make the national side stronger. The UAR says that, by the end of next year, that only players competing in Super Rugby will be considered for the national side. Of the 31-man World Cup squad, 20 have committed to Argentina’s Super Rugby franchise, five are in England, two in France and the remainder are currently unattached.
Random fact alert: What do Tonga and Canada have in common? They are the only two sides have picked up three red cards in Rugby World Cups.
Tonga also, famously, caused the biggest upset in World Cup history, when they beat France 19-14 four years ago. That defeat didn’t stop France limping their way to the final, where they came *this close* to being crowned the most undeserving champions ever as New Zealand threatened to choke at home.
Tonga’s unleashed hell style can be fun to watch for neutrals, but their indiscipline up front is an historic problem that is likely to cost them again at this tournament. Not that it will stop them – and it’s unlikely to be the biggest difficulty they face.
Experience wins World Cups, so the saying goes. If that’s the case, Tonga should be among the favourites. The average age of their pack is 31. Ten of their players are over 32. Three of them are the wrong side of 35.
One of the over 32s is former Northampton fan favourite ‘Tiny’ Tonga’uiha, the 6ft 3in 20-plus stone prop who was snapped up by Racing 92 when they still included the word Metro in their name two seasons ago. Another, flanker and captain Nili Latu, will have to up his game from Japanese Top League-level if he is to compete against the likes of Georgia’s Mamuka Gorgodze.
Tonga have yet to name the final player to make their World Cup roster. Rumour has it Australian rugby league international Andrew Fifita could fill that particular breach – but it would be a risky move for both player and country.
It’s tough being Georgia. Between Rugby World Cups, they win just about every game they play. They won nine of their 10 qualifiers for the tournament – and drew the other one. They won 25 of their last 26 European Nations’ Cup games. If the Six Nations ever becomes the Seven Nations, Georgia would be that seventh nation.
On the biggest rugby stage, though, their record is reversed. It reads just two wins in 10 World Cup matches. But they can cause problems even for the top-tier nations. At Bordeaux in 2007, they led Ireland in the second half, only to eventually lose 14-10. Two years ago, they were 12-9 up against Argentina at halftime, before losing 29-18.
Despite losing their three warm-up games since arriving in England, the Georgians – who are coached by New Zealander Milton Haig – are confident of adding to their wins tally. They were comfortably beaten by Newcastle Falcons, but ran both Canada and Japan close.
Haig described Georgia’s warm-up as ‘perfect’, saying it has been the best preparation the Eastern European nation has had. “They weren’t the results we wanted from our warm-up games but as long as the process is right, I’m a big believer that once the World Cup starts it will be a totally different kettle of fish,” he said.
Everyone knows Toulon’s rampaging flanker Mamuka Gorgodze, who has reported that his knees are back at ‘100%’ after a domestic season plagued by injuries. He’s the captain and focus of gritty side that will fight for every ball from the first whistle to the last.
Watch out, too, for Vasil Lobzhanidze – who is set to become the youngest-ever player at a Rugby World Cup. He will turn 19 a week after the final round of pool games.
If it’s tough being Georgia at World Cups, it’s tougher still being Namibia. They have been to five of them, and played 15 matches. Which resulted in 15 defeats – including a record-breaking 142-0 loss (calling it anything else – an obliteration, a mullering, a smacking – can’t make it any worse than it is) against Australia in 2003. They are 26 points away from conceding 1,000 in World Cups. And they face an opening encounter against New Zealand, where they are sure to smash through that barrier.
Yet no-one could accuse Namibia of lacking heart. In 2011, their captain, whirlwind flanker Jacques Burger, was voted one of the five players of the tournament. What many didn’t know at the time was that he had played through the pain of a nasty knee injury that would later keep him out of action for 18 months. At the same tournament, fellow flanker Tinus du Plessis was named man of the match in an 81-7 defeat against Wales.
Both are back for more in England – while other recognisable names in the Namibian side are Cheetahs’ hooker Torsten van Jaarsveld, Sharks’ flanker Renaldo Bothma, and Exeter Chiefs’ Chrysander Botha – who is on the comeback trail after breaking his leg in November.
The target for Namibia is breaking their winning duck. So, despite a send off from their President to “give the All Blacks hell”, they will be aiming for an upset against either Georgia or Tonga.
That’s the difference between sides like New Zealand and sides like Namibia. For New Zealand, anything less than the title is a failure. For Namibia, one win in Pool C would make this World Cup a massive success.
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