Sunday, 28 August 2011
The Total Flanker Guide to: Rugby World Cup 2011
A word of warning. Please do not expect anything particularly insightful from what follows. I have about as much clue as the next man as to what is about to transpire. Although my preview of the 2007 tournament was spookily accurate in some respects it was also miles wide of the mark in others. Such is the reliability of pure, unadulterated guesswork.
Anyroadup, not very long ago the tournament seemed an age away, with all the talk being of Super Duper Rugby, Tri Nations, pre-season training camps and warm-up matches but suddenly that's all behind us, the phony war is over, the tournament is imminent and before you know it some lucky captain will have his mitts on the Webb Ellis trophy.
But which captain will that be?
Taking an investigative peak at the qualifying pools:
Pool A - Canada, France, Japan, New Zealand, Tonga
Once again New Zealand find themselves in a pool unlikely to provide much serious competition. 'Sacre Bleu' - I hear you say - 'surely the French will provide a stern test?' Frankly I doubt it (and don't call me Shirley). Actually I very much doubt that Monsieur Lièvremont will even bother to field his strongest line up against New Zealand (assuming he knows what that is). He may prove me wrong but, despite recent hiccups, all I see here is the All Blacks strolling through. A possible danger is that that they may yet again be undercooked come the latter stages, but I suspect recent defeats may provide the required kick up the jacksie. France to secure an easy second spot, with Japan making history by securing two wins against Canada and Tonga respectively, who will fight it out to decide who props up Pool A.
Pool B - Argentina, England, Georgia, Romania, Scotland
Tough, tough pool for England. Argentina first-up is potentially the stuff of nightmares, Scotland are nothing if not awkward buggers and both Georgia and Romania are likely to present an overtly physical challenge. Assuming everything goes to plan and England win the pool (not a foregone conclusion by any means) they'll enter the knockout stages either in a state of battle-hardened readiness or battered, bruised and exhausted. Those players on standby would be wise keeping themselves fit. I'd expect Argentinian nous to be too strong for Scotland, who may also struggle against the tough Georgians. The once upon a time dangerous Romanians, I suspect, will end up bringing up the rear.
Pool C - Australia, Ireland, Italy, Russia, USA
I have, for some time, had a nagging feeling that the Aussies are going to have a good tournament and their recent TriNations triumph has done nothing to quell my unease. The question is, might this also be the year when the Irish finally get things right? Recent results suggest not and Declan Kidney is going to have to manage BOD's fitness very carefully while trying to coax a few more stellar performances out of the likes of POC and DOC if they are to have a chance. Italy's fearsome scrummage provides an opportunity to gatecrash the top two's party, while Russia v USA will provide a unique contest within a contest as they re-enact Cold War hostilities.
Pool D - Fiji, Namibia, Samoa, South Africa, Wales
Let's just assume for one minute that the senior South African players largely decide to ignore their coach and run their own campaign, the main question for this pool will be whether Wales can see off their Pacific Island dual nemeses, having been dumped out of previous tournaments by both Fiji and Samoa. I suspect that Fiji will struggle to overcome their well-documented problems but Samoa, more or less playing at home, will have a great shot, and I remain unconvinced that Wales have what it takes mentally to see off the Samoan storm heading their way. Sadly, I think Namibia are destined to be the tournament's whipping boys - keeping the score respectable and their players safe will need to be their priority.
New Zealand start as clear favourites and it's difficult to see much beyond them as champions. Doubts do persist, however, about how they might handle the pressure once the serious stuff takes over - although failing to secure this year's TriNations may turn out to be a huge blessing in disguise. What's patently obvious is that a fit Dan Carter will be essential to the cause. A Springbok victory isn't out of the question, but it would be in spite of (rather than because of) the efforts of their coach. My nagging feeling about the Aussies refuses to go away whilst England's ability to play knockout rugby can never be discounted (if the 2007 team could reach the final then really anything is possible). Anyone else? Not really. It's a well worn cliché, but who knows which French team will turn up, whilst for an elderly Ireland team the latter stages of a Rugby World Cup are simply virgin territory.
So, with my head on the block and being startlingly unoriginal, New Zealand it is. Maybe.