This week, as the final round of warm-up matches was poorly covered in terms of broadcasting here in Canada, yours truly didn’t get a chance to watch much of the action. However, we can now fully devote ourselves to the main event that starts next Friday – the 2015 World Cup! We’ll be covering all the big matchups between the ten major Northern and Southern Hemisphere teams, the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams, as well as all of Canada’s games over the next seven weeks. We’ll obviously be looking at some of the other key match-ups outside of these such as the opening game between Fiji and England and others depending on their relevance to the final pool outcomes.
In the meantime and to get us in the mood it’s time for the Lineout to do a little bit of crystal ball gazing and make its predictions on how the tournament might pan out. We’ll do this per pool in two ways, the first prediction will be what we think will happen based on what the general consensus is around current form and then have what we call an alternate reality section for each pool should it not pan out as expected. Let’s face it, is the World Cup after all and in the history of the tournament it has very rarely gone according to script and initial predictions. That’s what makes it so interesting and the subject of so many heated debates in pubs and bars around the world!
We’ll work our way through the Pools over the next few days so let’s start with Pool A.
Two time World Champions Australia find themselves with the unenviable task of being put in the same pool as England and Wales, while the other two teams who have raised the Webb Ellis cup twice, New Zealand and South Africa have a much easier ride to the knockout stages. Having said that, there is little doubt that Australia will get out of the pool – the question is more around whether they do it as pool winners or as the runners-up. You would have to argue that with Wales’ injury list the Pool of Death is not looking so ominous anymore.
Australia start their campaign like England against Fiji. Their key advantage here is they will have had a chance to watch Fiji play England in the opening game of the tournament, and whereas England may be caught out by any surprises Fiji may have up their sleeve coupled with opening night nerves in front of an expectant home crowd, Australia should have a pretty good idea of what to expect. As a result while there is a very slim chance that Fiji could cause an upset against hosts England, it is highly unlikely they would be able to repeat it a few days later against a well prepared Australia. Therefore Australia should easily win their opening game which will put them in good stead to put a brave but probably completely outclassed Uruguayan side to the sword while resting some of their key players.
Then comes the big one against England. At this stage England should have got over any issues they had against Fiji and should be riding high from a confident win over a depleted Wales. As a result the pressure will all be on Australia, and I can’t help feeling that they won’t be able to pull it off. Australian flyhalf Quade Cooper’s nerves, discipline and decision-making under this kind of pressure is often suspect and if he is chosen as the starting number 10 for the Wallabies, then he may well be instrumental in causing them to unravel against a fired up England team. I was surprised at his selection to begin with by Coach Michael Cheika, and although Cooper does have occasional flashes of pure genius, he often makes even the most basic aspects of rugby look exceptionally difficult and his mistakes have cost the Wallabies too many big games in the past.
Australia will then need a win over Wales to finish their efforts in the pool. Australia’s track record against Wales in the last four years is impeccable and considering that Wales will be missing two of their key players then although close at times, this match should be a formality for Australia and not much more. Get the basics right and the game is theirs! Consequently Australia to win all their pool matches except against England and emerge runners-up. This is a side barring any Quade Cooper wobbles, that is only going to get better as the tournament progresses and for that reason should get the dark horse label.
The infamous Pool of Death of which there is always one at the World Cup, sees host England having it all to do to just get through to the knockout stages. This could be a blessing in disguise for England as on the one hand unlike all the other teams in the other pools they will have so much high quality game time by the time they get to the crucial knockout stages the momentum they will gain could be unstoppable. However, the flip side of the same coin is that the potential for injuries to key players and sheer fatigue of having to put in three massive performances before they even get to the knockout stages could run the risk of leaving very little in the tank for the last critical games.
Nevertheless, barring a hiccough against Australia or even worse Fiji on the opening night, England should battle their way to top spot in the pool. They were successful against the Wallabies at Twickenham the last time the two met in November of last year, and with two good games against Fiji and Wales under their belt they should be in a good position for the pool decider against Australia. If England perform badly against Fiji on the opening night, as we saw after their poor second performance against France in the warm-up matches last month, they will quickly recover in time for their next match against Wales. Given Wales’ injury woes I really can’t see them getting the better of England and thus England should be 2 for 2 halfway through the pool stages. Up against Australia for the pool decider, I am fairly confident that in the battle of the flyhalves, England’s George Ford will outshine and outplay Australia’s Quade Cooper, particularly if Ford is able to put Cooper under pressure. Therefore England to see off Australia in the most anticipated and exciting game of this pool in an epic battle of wills.
With the pool in the bag, England then get a holiday as they take on Uruguay in their last match before heading to the knockout stages. Without any disrespect to the Uruguayans who you know will put everything into their last game, England should emerge with a healthy scoreline which should address any points difference issues they may have in getting them past Australia for first place in the pool.
One of the teams that everyone always enjoy watching at the World Cup and one you know are capable of causing an upset on the day. For me this year, I’m predicting the upset will be against Wales and let’s face it they have done it before, with the Welsh wanting to forget the time these two met in the pool stages of the 2007 World Cup.
Having said that, Fiji are unlikely still to get beyond the Pool stages in my opinion. Discipline has been a problem as has lasting a full 80 minutes at this kind of intensity. Nevertheless with the likes of Nemani Nadolo in the squad anything is possible. I am expecting Nadolo to put in some big performances at this year’s World Cup and the Fijian winger to have several Jonah Lomu like moments. He is one of the world’s most exciting players, and once he has developed a full head of steam almost impossible to stop as he singlehandedly decimates opposition defences. For this reason and without their star fullback Leigh Halfpenny as the last line of defence for Wales, I am giving Fiji an upset win over the Welsh. I expect them to put in a credible performance against a nervous England in the tournament’s opening game which should cause several severe heart palpitations amongst English supporters. However, this should have given the Australians a good idea of what to expect and thus I can’t help feeling that Fiji’s game against Australia could end up being a fairly one-sided affair with the Wallabies walking away the clear winners.
After that Fiji should regroup and cause all kinds of problems for Wales who without fullback Leigh Halfpenny and scrum half Rhys Webb look vulnerable. Fiji will want to repeat their glorious success of 2007 against the Welsh and end their tournament on a high. In a game that will go down to the wire, I am sticking my neck out and expecting Fiji to cause one of the big upsets of this year’s World Cup and come out on top in the game against Wales. Fiji end their campaign against Uruguay with the South Americans probably being subjected to yet another schooling in the art of rugby by the Pacific Islanders. Fiji will provide us with some of the most memorable moments of the pool stages of the competition but will end up finishing third just ahead of Wales.
Your heart really has to go out to Uruguay. Ranked 19th in the world, only just ahead of Namibia, they end up in the most unforgiving and punishing pool imaginable. To say that they have an exceptionally tough and potentially demoralising World Cup ahead of them is the understatement of the year. They start their campaign with Wales and finish it with England, with Australia and Fiji giving them a solid work over in between. Their most realistic chance at World Cup glory will be to try to get within a converted try of Fiji, but with the Fijian back line looking fairly terrifying in terms of pace and power, even this will be a monumental challenge for Uruguay who are only playing in their third World Cup.
Uruguay do have some players who have plied their trade in France but overall this is a team that will be hard pressed to match up to the four big sides they are being asked to compete against. Sadly for Uruguay I can’t help feeling the other four teams will be using them to perfect and fix any aspects of their games that had been found wanting. As a result while Uruguay will get an enormous amount of respect from opposition teams as well as fans attending the games, they are unlikely to be much more than cannon fodder for Australia, England, Fiji and Wales. I, like many wish Uruguay all the very best and really hope that for the sake of their players they can dig deep and emerge with honor from all of their four incredibly tough matches.
Going into this World Cup, I was convinced that Pool A was going to be without any shadow of a doubt an equal three-horse race between Australia, England and Wales. However, the loss of Welsh fullback LeighHalfpenny and scrum half Rhys Webb for Wales’ World Cup campaign has left them with an enormous challenge to get to the knockout rounds. With these two key players Wales looked a significant threat but sadly without them, it does look like it will be relatively easy for England and Australia, and perhaps even Fiji to tame the Welsh dragon.
Wales start their campaign with a match against Uruguay which they should win comfortably as well as settling the team and its playing structures after the loss of Halfpenny and Webb. After that though it all gets intensely more difficult for Wales. They then have to face a fired up England whose pace and power, as well as depth off the bench is much stronger than what Wales can offer and therefore I can’t see Wales getting a win against the Men in White. Next up they have Fiji, and if as expected they implode against England, Fiji stand a good chance of getting an upset win over a Welsh side lacking in confidence and at times experience.
Finally, Wales have to take on Australia and if as I predict things have not gone well against the English and Fijians then Wales’ poor track record against Australia in the last four years means that this will most likely be their final game in the 2015 World Cup. Wales may find another layer of depth over the course of the tournament, but from what we saw of them in the warm-up matches last month, without Halfpenny and Webb they looked poor for the most part. As one of rugby’s legendary heartlands all of us want to see Wales do well, but I have a horrible feeling that this year’s World Cup may be one they and their supporters will end up wanting to forget as Wales finish their pool in fourth place.
Pool A Alternate Reality
So here’s the bit where everyone starts calling me a lunatic and hurling insults but may cause some entertaining debates.
England get opening night jitters against Fiji in the first game of the tournament. Fiji capitalise on their weakness and run them close by less than a converted try with England losing one or two players to injury for the rest of the tournament to rub salt into the wound of a narrow England victory (as a side note I am not wishing injury to any of England’s players and like their supporters would feel gutted for them were this to be the case). Wales then play out of their skins to honor their fallen comrades Halfpenny and Webb, and put in one of the most inspirational performances of the World Cup to beat England by less than a converted try. England are now on the ropes and need a big score against Australia to ensure they get out of the pool on points difference. Australia capitalise on England’s vulnerability and England under too much pressure and the weight of expectation of being the tournament host implode against the Wallabies with the Australians emerging with a very healthy win. Wales beat Fiji but even though they lose to Australia, get past England on points difference. Australia emerge as pool winners and Wales as runners-up with the hosts England knocked out in the pool stages.
Remember it’s called alternate reality for a reason – now pass me that pint won’t you!