Pool A: NZ, France, Tonga, Japan, Canada
Pool A hosts the opening game of the World Cup so look forward to discussion about the merits of warm up games ending and the real stuff beginning.
The first Rugby World Cup opened with New Zealand annihilating Italy and winning by massive margins in the pool stages has become a New Zealand tradition. New Zealand and France will qualify from this pool, in that order. None of the other teams really have a chance of upsetting the top two, who could pick any selection from their squads and win the three games required. Of more interest will be the composition of Henry and Lievremont’s first choice XVs. Who will Graham Henry allow into his prefect’s club? His rotation of the starting halfbacks could be the rock upon which this World Cup tilt perishes. There’s a nagging suspicion that Lievremont picks his team blindfolded, after a few glasses of red wine. France have the personnel to go far in the competition but rarely set the pool stages alight and often make heavy work of less talented opposition.
Pool B: England, Scotland, Argentina, Georgia, Romania
Pool B may feature the ugliest rugby of the tournament. The Scotland v Argentina quarter in the last World Cup was a low watermark and as neither team looks any more creative this time around, in what is essentially a knockout game, I fear that it might be more of the same.
England are favourites for this pool and open against Argentina, who will test them in the front five and make it difficult. England’s greater fire power will see them through. Scotland play Romania on the same day before locking horns with Georgia four days later. The Scots are well drilled and will approach the tournament quietly confident. However, their lack of cutting edge is a worry. Argentina play Scotland in the penultimate round, while England play Scotland in the last round. This makes it a pure cup match for Argentina while Scotland technically have a chance to lose and still beat England.
I think that Scotland will qualify at the expense of Argentina and could give England an uncomfortable time. Georgia will improve again and raise questions about the possibility of their gaining access to more international rugby.
Pool C: Australia, Ireland, Italy, Russia, USA
Australia’s recent Tri-Nations triumph has seen their odds shorten and many pundits tip them for the final, if not outright victory. They might do it but the loss of Ben Robinson, question marks over Quade Cooper and their place kicking means that the price looks too short for me. Their Tri Nations win has to be seen in light of South Africa sending a second team on tour to the Antipodes and New Zealand doing the same for the Port Elizabeth game. The match against Ireland promises to decide the group and based on August’s form, is a straightforward win for Australia. If Ireland can get their physicality up to par then they can win this one. The Italians look short at half back. Their chronicled lack of away form is also against them.
The World Cup benefits from surprises, and I think Ireland turning over Australia will be one of them. Ireland to win this group with Australia second with a superior points difference.
Pool D: South Africa, Wales, Samoa, Fiji, Namibia
This is definitely the best pool. South Africa are an old team but have great depth in their squad and a superb tournament pedigree. Wales looked sharp in August while Samoa and Fiji will both benefit from the extended amount of time available to get co-ordinated.
Wales open against South Africa in what promises to be the best match of the opening round. It is conceivable that Wales could beat the ‘Boks but I don’t expect them to do so. Samoa play Namibia on the 14th September and have a four day turnaround before playing Wales on the 18th. Tournament scheduling could be the saving grace for Wales, who have struggled against the islanders. I’m taking Samoa to win this one, setting themselves up for another quarter final and an inquiry into the wisdom of giving Warren Gatland a four year contract prior to the World Cup. Wales are susceptible to throwing too many 50-50 passes, which gives a team like Samoa the opportunity to smash static receivers and dislodge the ball. They’d be better advised kicking to the corners in this game and taking penalty opportunities when presented.
Fiji, like Argentina, don’t have the same quality of players as four years ago, notably at half back. Caucau has not been selected which is disappointing as the man is an outstanding rugby player, if an inconsistent professional athlete.
South Africa to finish top with Samoa in second.
Based on the predictions above, Ireland v Samoa is the first quarter final. Samoa’s pool is tougher than Ireland’s and their playing base is smaller so injuries will affect them more. I take Ireland to go through to their first ever semi final.
England play France in the other quarter final. England aren’t that good but winning the World Cup added even more to their confidence and this will be another game of attrition that France lose by becoming frustrated and worrying about le Jonny.
South Africa v Australia is mouth watering. Quade Cooper is the key man in this match. If he is focused and on form then Australia can win. However, I predict the Springboks will prove too difficult to beat and go through to face New Zealand, who will hose Scotland.
Ireland beat England for the seventh time in eight years in March but the big stage will probably get the better of Declan Kidney’s men, despite the best efforts of Brian O’Driscoll. Unlikely to be favoured by the referee, I unfortunately see England winning this one.
New Zealand v South Africa will be the most intense game of the World Cup. Expect to hear references to 1937 and 1995. The wisdom of giving the World Cup to a small country like New Zealand will also be questioned because the atmosphere in the build up to the game is likely to be too tense to be enjoyable. New Zealand will win this one, and will be too good for England in the final.