PHILALPHIA, PA – The big happening in Wellington, NZ this weekend has to be the Costume Catwalk competition and the rugby tournament that surrounds it. With $15,000 to be given to the winners, there should be some top-notch costumes.
Beyond the costumes, the big headline heading into the third tournament of the series is Sonny Bill Williams. All squads have been changed, at least a little, from Cape Town, but no squad is likely to be as improved as New Zealand. Not all of that comes down to SBW; the Ioane brothers and Ardie Savea make this a different looking side than the one that limped out of Cape Town.
The 2015-2016 series has seen the All Blacks off to a rocky start. But this is their tournament; they’ve won 8 times, including last year. Surely, they will finish well above their current series standing of 7th.
Here is what to keep an eye on in each pool. The numbers in parentheses are the current standings. If you need help getting excited, this video should do the trick.
Pool A: South Africa(2), New Zealand(7), Scotland(10), Russia(14)
The New Zealand squad includes 6 players who were not involved in Dubai and Cape Town. If Gordon Tietjiens has selected Williams, he must be putting in the hard work at training, and he is a player who has a track record of adjusting to different situations brilliantly. Everyone is curious how Williams will get on, but I suspect opposing coaches are more worried by the likes of Rieko Ioane returning.
South Africa will be without regular captain Kyle Brown and star Cecil Afrika, both out with injuries. The Blitzbokke have been rolling along pretty smoothly with only two losses in two tournaments. (USA in Dubai; Kenya in Cape Town.)
South Africa and New Zealand will meet in the final match of pool play. That will likely determine who wins the pool, but both should advance.
Expected Cup Quarterfinalists: South Africa and New Zealand.
Pool B: Fiji (1), Argentina(4), Wales(12), Japan(15)
Ben Ryan has the Fijians flying right along. They won the first series tournament, Dubai, and are joined in Pool B by Argentina who made it to the Cup Finals in Cape Town. Wales and Japan will need to catch some breaks in order to have a chance at the Cup Quarterfinals.
Pio Tuwai might be the most dangerous player in the series at the moment. He has been making one ridiculous offload after another with a few brutal fends for good measure.
Argentina in the first two stops consistently beat the sides they were expected to beat, but they have been thumped by Fiji twice in this series already. Fiji also have Semi Kunatani back in the squad, so it is hard to see how they don’t cruise through their pool.
Expected Cup Quarterfinalists: Fiji and Argentina.
Pool C: USA(3), England(5), France(6), Samoa(11)
The biggest personnel news in this pool is who is missing. France will be without Virimi Vakatawa. Vakatawa has been named in the French 15s 6 Nations squad. He was excellent in Dubai and Cape Town. France won’t be able to replace his skill and power.
USA and England have played once this series (Cup Semi-Finals in Dubai), and England won. Phil Burgess scored after the hooter in what was a tied match.
Every point, scored and conceded, will be critical in determining who moves on to the Cup Quarterfinals. Winning the pool might end up making a big difference since the runner up will play the winner of Pool C, likely Fiji. The winner of the pool gets the Pool C runner up, likely Argentina.
I will have a more detailed look at the USA squad shortly.
Expected Cup Quarterfinalists: England and USA.
Pool D: Australia(8), Kenya(9), Canada(13), Portugal(16)
None of the sides in this pool has quite hit their stride. Australia have an interim head coach at the tournament, though the full time coach, Andy Friend, has already been named. Friend will take charge at the next tournament, Sydney, which is also when Quade Cooper will show up.
Kenya has looked great – in Cape Town, they defeated South Africa and USA – and terrible – lost all 3 pool play matches in Dubai (England, Australia, and Wales). Meanwhile, Canada will be missing four veterans due to injury, but still have plenty of collective experience. If youngster Phil Berna can add some spark to Canada’s attack, they have a real chance to advance to the Cup Quarterfinals, but it won’t be easy.
Expected Cup Quarterfinalists: Australia and Kenya.
The complete match schedule is here.
Also, if you are looking to catch up on the first two tournaments, this Video Hub is a great way to do it.
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