LONDON, ENGLAND – Three Six Nations rivals line up in Pool D of the Rugby World Cup. History dictates that France and Ireland will qualify ahead of Italy – with the big question on most people’s lips being who will go on to lose to pre-tournament champions-elect New Zealand in the quarter-finals.
That does Canada and Romania a disservice. With automatic qualification for the 2019 tournament at stake and troubled Italy apparently being there for the taking, they have everything to play for and precious little to lose.
Unless everyone in rugby has fallen for the most astonishing long-con in rugby history, France won’t come close to winning the World Cup this year, despite the optimistic comments that have spewed from the mouth of coach Philippe Saint-Andre between another dismal Six Nations for Les Bleus and the World Cup warm-ups.
The quarter-finals are probably the best they can hope for – but, such is the mythology surrounding France and the indecipherable ‘French flair’ that some pundits are wondering, tongue only partly in cheek, if they may even be engineering a last-eight match against New Zealand, with the intention of putting the fear of … well, France … into the mighty All Blacks.
Others are, finally, belatedly, mourning the death of French flair in the national team – for a long time few noticed it had expired in a fug of organisation, discipline and forward power back in the days of Bernard Laporte. But many still hope to catch glimpses of it. Though the cleverer ones prefer the word ‘unpredictability’ these days.
Don’t expect to see much of the mythical French flair from Philippe Saint-Andre’s France, then. To call the coach’s record dismal is to miss the perfect opportunity to use the word woeful, in direct violation of the rugby writers’ charter.
PSA took over from Marc Lievremont, who was little more than a moustachioed spectator in 2011, as his side mutinied and, despite being ripped apart by in-fighting, still somehow managed to crawl and argue their way to the final. Since then, France have finished no higher than fourth in the Six Nations. Worse, they have looked bloody awful in the process.
Saint-Andre has insisted he could turn French fortunes around if given enough time to prepare his players. He’s had that – but it would be a brave, nay foolish, punter who bet the rent money on Les Bleus.
Coach Joe Schmidt has named a strong side for Ireland’s opening Pool D match against Canada. It’s as strong an indication as any that the Irish are determined to qualify at the top of the pool. And no wonder. Unless the universe is fundamentally and bizarrely rewritten, the Pool D winners will avoid New Zealand in the quarter-finals, and will instead most likely end up facing the much less terrifying prospect of Argentina.
Against Canada, Paul O’Connell will equal John Hayes’ 106 Irish caps as his international career enters what many expect to be its final seven matches, while Jonny Sexton is likely to score the six points he needs to break the 500 barrier for his country.
The World Cup fixture list has been almost as kind to Ireland as the draw. One of the northern hemisphere’s two best hopes for the title can ease into the competition with healthy workouts against Canada and Romania, before their more difficult games – the first against Italy before Le O’Crunch Pool D decider against France on October 10.
It’s good news for Ireland because their run-in has not exactly gone to plan, and they come into the tournament on the back of two defeats – against Wales in Dublin and England at Twickenham.
Perversely, this may be just what the doctor ordered, as it reintroduced a little reality into unhealthy Irish optimism.
The fact is Ireland do not wear expectation well. Their golden boys were expected to do well in 2007, but limped through out at the pool stage. In contrast, the 2011 side was much less stellar, was consequently not weighed down with Irish dreams and reached the last eight.
Until those two warm-up losses, the Irish media were talking confidently about the last four. Now, the public confidence has gone. Behind closed doors, the confidence may still be there, but that weight of mass expectation has been lifted.
The Azurris’ – typically, chaotically Italian – preparation for the Rugby World Cup is an object lesson in how not to do it.
The president of the Italian rugby union damned his players as “pensioners” in April, after their dismal Six Nations campaign. They threatened to walk out on strike in June in a linked row over appearance fees. They have lost their three warm-up matches – two of them badly. Their coach Jacques Brunel said that he “did not know what happened” after Scotland hammered them 48-7 last month. Fly-halves have become even thinner on the ground since journeyman and Toga’d Kiwi Kelly Haimona broke his arm – and their one true world-class player, captain and legend Sergio Parisse, will more than likely miss the opening match against France due to injury.
Without Captain Invincible, Italy are rudderless. He missed the two worst warm-up games, and – when he finally was there – he galvanised his side to something approaching a decent performance against Scotland last time out.
Haimona’s absence, meanwhile, heaps the pressure on 22-year-old number 10 Tomasso Allan. The Italian-born nephew of ex-Scotland hooker John Allan has just 17 caps to his name and struggled to make much of an impact during the Six Nations. But fate has left it to him to marshall the Azurri challenge.
He has a secret weapon. A mysterious, anonymous kicking coach, with whom he has been working over the internet for several months. And, if he can release Italy’s reasonably talented backline, they may cause even Pool D favourites France and Ireland a few problems.
What Allan needs is a stable platform. His powerful forwards, with or without Parisse, should be able to supply that at least. Which just leaves Italy needing a strong hand on the tiller. And that means they really need Parisse.
Any side with a captain who sounds like a Marvel Comics baddie has to be worth watching. Just don’t say anything like that in front of Ospreys’ flanker Tyler Ardron – especially as a knee injury has ruled him out of Canada’s opening game against Ireland. He’ll be like a bear with a sore… knee.
Instead, Clermont’s wild man of the rucks Jamie Cudmore – in his last World Cup – will captain Canada in their opening game, as he renews age-old hostilities with Ireland’s own lock in a hard place Paul O’Connell – in his last World Cup – at the lineouts. And, like Italy when Parisse’s in the side, Canada play better when Cudmore’s snarling and glowering his way across just about every blade of grass.
He missed the Pacific Nations Cup. They lost every match. He missed the game against USA. They lost. He played, as captain, in a World Cup warm-up against Pro12 champions Glasgow. They won. He played against Georgia. Canada won. Then, Fiji hammered them.
Video of that match will have been required viewing among the staff of Canada’s Pool D rivals. Fiji’s secret was to keep Canada’s mighty breakaway forwards well away from the ball. Which meant they were unable to win any turnovers from isolated Fijian backs.
Meanwhile, problems in the front row will also have been spotted. A rib injury has forced American Football convert Jason Marshall out of the tournament. It’s a blow to Canada’s hopes – but they will be targeting a win over Romania, and looking closely for a chink to exploit in Italy’s armour.
Romania have set out their stall to win two Pool D games, which would give them a third-place finish and automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup. The Canada game on October 6 is their ‘banker’ – they won 18-9 the last time the two sides met in November, but defeating any one of Pool D’s Six Nations sides would be a real coup. Italy, their final Pool D game on October 11, is Romania’s best hope – but even that is a faint one.
Romania’s gameplan is simple, disciplined and pragmatic. Keep it tight. Keep it with the forwards. Win penalties. Let the excellent Florin Vlaicu kick points.
It’s the latest version of a successful policy that has seen them qualify for every World Cup to date. Anyone who accuses the Eastern Europeans of playing one-dimensional rugby will be greeted with a shrug. As head coach Lynn Howells – a veteran of Wales’s 1999 campaign under Graham Henry – has openly admitted: “Our best players are all forwards. The backs have some way to go, to be honest.”
If Romania do suffer a rush of blood to the head and let the backs get their hands on the ball, that yellow streak you’re only likely to see if you don’t blink is Saracens’ scarcely-used fullback Catalin Fercu, whose fear of flying forced him to turn his back on going to the 2011 World Cup as he was about to board the plane to New Zealand.
Two wins. It’s a million-to-one shot, but if Romania’s tight five can put together four ferocious performances and they get a referee sympathetic to the hard work the forwards put in, it just might work.
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