As we eagerly await the starting gun on this year’s World Cup this evening at Twickenham between England and Fiji, we take a look at three games this weekend which will have enormous bearing on how two of the Pools, C and D, may look by the time we head into the knockout stages. On Saturday, Ireland open their account against Canada in a match they should win but at the same time will want to make a statement of intent that Pool D is theirs for the taking in no uncertain terms. Meanwhile, their Pool D rivals France have a tough opening encounter against Italy. Italy without their inspirational Captain Sergio Parisse will struggle to overcome the French but will still prove a tricky proposition that certainly has the ability to rattle Les Bleus. Lastly, Sunday sees the Pool decider for Pool C as Argentina face off against New Zealand. The Pumas and the All Blacks will finish in the two top spots in their Pool, of that there is little doubt and most would sensibly back New Zealand to finish first. Argentina have always been competitive and a slightly easier route through the knockout stages were they to finish first will be enormous motivation for them to pull out all the stops on Sunday.
There are other equally interesting matchups at the weekend but as the Lineout doesn’t have the resources to cover them all we sadly will have to leave the efforts of South Africa, Samoa, the USA, Tonga, Wales, Uruguay, Japan and Georgia for others to cover.
Ireland vs Canada
Saturday, September 19th
Saturday sees Ireland get their World Cup proceedings underway against Canada. It’s a game Ireland should win comfortably but one which really needs to see them make a clear statement that some of the weaknesses, particularly defensively, that came to light in the warm-up matches last month have been addressed. Canada does pose some significant attacking potential in their two wingers, both of whom have been instrumental players in last year’s PRO 12 competition. However, apart from this threat out wide Canada offers relatively little that should trouble the Irish. For Canada it will be a case of getting probably their hardest game of the tournament out of the way and attempt to emerge from it with some self-respect.
In their selections for this match, Ireland are holding very little back. The forwards boast Ireland’s starting XV with the exception of Iain Henderson in place of Devin Toner at lock and the absence of Cian Healy in the front row, even though he is likely to make his first appearance since the Six Nations when he comes off the bench for this match. Devin Toner looked less than flash at times in the warm-ups despite a stellar Six Nations campaign whereas Iain Henderson is a real future star in the making and like most Irish supporters I am expecting big things from this young lock during the course of this tournament.
Ireland’s all-star halfback pairing of fly half Johnny Sexton and scrum half Conor Murray start this match which I found slightly surprising given that this match is likely to have a highly physical nature to it, increasing the likelihood of possible injuries. It will be interesting to see how much game time these two get before being replaced by Eoin Reddan and Ian Madigan. Meanwhile in the backs, Coach Joe Schmidt has chosen to rest some of his key players such as Robbie Henshaw and Tommy Bowe. I can understand the decision regarding Henshaw but Tommy Bowe was one of the key exponents of Irish defensive weaknesses in the warm-ups last month. Therefore, I would have thought the opportunity for Bowe to test himself in this department against the strong and speedy Canadian duo of Hassler and DTH Van der Merwe would have been something Schmidt would have wanted Bowe to excel at before the crunch game against France.
On the wings Dave Kearney and Keith Earls should pose the Canadians plenty of problems, though can’t help feeling that the matchup between the very physical Jeff Hassler and Ireland’s Keith Earls is not quite even. The centre partnership between Jared Payne and Luke Fitzgerald is a relatively untried combination but should have enough of an edge over their Canadian counterparts. Meanwhile, Rob Kearney at fullback should easily dominate the high ball and give his Canadian opposite number a very challenging and stressful day. So in short a solid Irish team that should easily get the measure of Canada and one which it will be very hard to provide excuses for should they not deliver on the day.
Canada meanwhile come into this match from a position of weakness and for their supporters it is hoped that with the World Cup now finally here, the recent string of truly wretched results over the last two years is about to come to an end. This is not to say that there are many, yours truly included, that think Canada can win this match, but more that they can acquit themselves well and set themselves up to possibly spoil Italy and France’s parties later in the pool stages. France may be a bridge too far, but if Canada can play well in this match and cause the Irish problems at times, then the game with Italy will surely be something Canada can aspire to winning and thus claim third spot in the pool and automatic qualification for 2019.
Canada’s forward pack is a noble group of scrappers ably led by the bruising figure of lock and Captain Jamie Cudmore – a seasoned European club campaigner. Prop Hubert Buydens boasts a phenomenal work rate and is always in the thick of the action for Canada and Saturday should be no exception. Hooker Ray Barkwill is a feisty character who also manages to keep himself front and centre in Canada’s forward momentum. Jamie Cudmore’s reputation as a fearsome lock who can consistently put in some monster tackles will provide a fascinating contest between the two team Captains as he goes head to head with his opposite number the legendary Paul O’Connell. One to watch for Canada will definitely be flanker John Moonlight who was impressive during an otherwise woeful Pacific Nations Cup for Canada and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him snapped up by one of the big European clubs at the end of this World Cup.
Canada’s backs while not boasting the pedigree of their Irish counterparts with the exception of all-star wingers DTH Van der Merwe and Jeff Hassler, should still be competitive if they have managed to fix the consistent handling errors they showed during Canada’s Pacific Nations Cup campaign. As regular readers of this blog know, I am increasingly frustrated by Canadian Coach Kieran Crowley’s reluctance to use Phil Mack as his starting scrum half, and for this match he has continued to stick with Gordon McRorie favouring his supposed reliability at the kicking tee. If Canada really think they can outplay Ireland’s kicking game in the form of Johnny Sexton then they could be accused of being almost delusional. In a game like this that will be won at the breakdowns the attacking intensity of Phil Mack would have made him an obvious choice for me. At least for this match he is on the bench and expect him to make an impact once he comes on even if it ends up being a case of too little too late. However, I am probably beginning to sound like a broken record on this issue so will leave it at that. Apart from the devastating speed and strength of Canada’s two wingers in Hassler and Van der Merwe, neutral spectators for this game should look out for Canadian centre Nick Blevins who was another of the real revelations of Canada’s Pacific Nations campaign this year and someone I would argue could easily cause his opposite number in Ireland’s Luke Fitzgerald some serious defensive headaches.
Ireland should win this game comfortably by at least 20 points, significantly more if replacement Canadian scrum half Phil Mack is brought on too late in the game to make a difference. Although my heart will be with the Irish on Saturday, as this is a Canadian site I will definitely be hoping that the Canadians can live up to the reputation of the famous Canadian “beardos” of the 2011 tournament who generated so much respect for Canadian rugby. For the Irish they will hopefully shore up the last little gaps in their armor that were exposed in August and come away injury-fee from a solid and convincing win against a brave and worthy opponent.
France vs Italy
Saturday, September 19th
Let’s be honest this game is going to be won up front and for Italy without the talismanic figure of Sergio Parisse and France showing some real power and form in this area, this should be France’s day. There is plenty of potential in both teams’ backlines but as many have rightly pointed out they have rarely clicked in the last year, with France’s shock win over England in Paris in August being the only possible exception. Therefore this should easily be France’s day on Saturday, but they are still going to have to work hard for it, and any lapses in concentration for which they are famous, will cost them dearly. Even without Parisse if the French underestimate Italy for a second at Twickenham they could suddenly find themselves with a much more challenging road through the Pool than they had initially bargained on.
There is little question that the forwards battle will dominate this match and both sides are packing some heavyweights to reflect this, with in my opinion France having the upper hand. Just look at the names – Dusautoir, Arous, Picamoles, Pape, Chouly the list goes on. In his last World Cup, French Captain and lock Thierry Dusautoir will be keen to make the point that as they always are, France are in this tournament to make a dash to the final even though everyone may have already written them off. Looking at France’s clinical dismantling of the highly vaunted English pack in August in Paris, you know that France are more than capable of living up to their dark horse reputation. France’s forward pack on Saturday is one of the most solid weapons in their arsenal and should easily get the better of Italy despite a spirited challenge from the Azurri.
It is in the battle from 9-15 where the question marks hang over French heads. Given that both sides have plenty of potential, whose will really get the execution right on the day? Form would have to side with the French. France’s halfback pairing continues to have question marks around it in the form of Freddie Michalak at number 10. Brilliant one day and a complete disaster the next, it remains to be seen how Michalak holds up as the tournament progresses. His halfback partner in scrum half Sébastien Tillous-Borde however should have no question marks hanging over his head on Saturday. For me he has been one of the few consistent performers for France over the last year and should easily get the better of his Italian counterpart. In the centres we all know how much chaos Mathieu Bastareaud is capable of causing, and if he plays well Alexandre Dumoulin should complement his partner’s efforts. It’s that French back line that if it fires could run Italy and anyone else for that matter ragged. Wings Yoann Huget and Noa Nakaitaci have more than enough potential French flair in the tank should they get the opportunity to show it off. Lastly Scott Spedding at fullback is both fast and powerful in defence and attack while also possessing one of the most devastating long-range boots in the international game right now.
Italy even without Sergio Parisse are still a force to be reckoned with and if they can get the basics right, which let’s be honest they have struggled with at times this year, could still cause the French some serious difficulty should they let their guard down. In the Italian front row, Martin Castrogiovanni and Captain Leonardo Ghiraldini are both proven and respected commodities especially now that Ghiraldini has managed to get the disciplinary problems that plagued his early career under control. Lock Joshua Forno has been outstanding for Italy this year and Parisse’s replacement in the form of number eight Samuela Vunisa is rapidly drawing attention to himself as the future for Italy in this position once Sergio the Great hangs up his boots. However, despite this obvious talent for Italy in the forward division, France’s star-studded offering should just get the better of them.
Although no slackers, Italy’s halfback pairing of fly half Tommaso Allan and scrum half Edoardo Gori are not quite up to the caliber of their illustrious French counterparts. Having said that though for Italy’s sake, it is my hope that Allan will really stamp his authority on the number 10 shirt for the Azurri during the course of this tournament. I think he has had to live in the shadow of first choice fly half Kelly Haimona, absent for the World Cup due to injury, for far too long. As readers of this blog well know I feel that Haimona adds absolutely nothing to the Italian cause, whereas Allan has proven himself both reliable and a player with serious potential for the future. In the backs Italy has lots of speed and strength especially in the shape of wingers Giovanbattista Venditti and Leonardo Sarto. If they can get the passing and handling to work properly expect plenty of danger from these two, ably backed up in the centres by Michele Campagnaro and Andrea Masi. In the fullback position, another of Italy’s imports Luke McLean has some definite potential but for me has rarely done anything to really challenge the authority that his French counterpart, Scott Spedding, will have in this area of the field on Saturday.
So in short if the right French team turns up on Saturday at Twickenham they should get their World Cup off to a winning start, leaving Italy to ultimately duke it out with Canada for third place and an automatic qualifying spot for 2019. However, it’s the World Cup and it very rarely runs according to script especially when the French are involved. Italy will be courageous and a highly troublesome opponent at times but ultimately France should get the win by 8 points, more if they click like they did against England last month.
Argentina vs New Zealand
Sunday, September 20th
As mentioned above, this is the Pool C decider so early on in the competition. Without any disrespect to Argentina and New Zealand’s other pool opponents the writing has always been on the wall that these two would finish in the top two spots. The only question remains in what order? However, even that has for many already been answered with New Zealand having been by a country mile THE dominant force in world rugby since 2011’s global showdown. The flip side of the coin is that they go up against Argentina who are probably the most improved side in international rugby since the 2011 World Cup. In short, expect a battle royale on Sunday at Wembley with Argentina seeking to defy the odds and get themselves a slightly easier route through the knockout stages were they to pull off an upset win.
New Zealand field a side that is the envy of the rest of the world and a bench that would be the stuff of fantasy leagues for most coaches on Sunday. Argentina are renowned for the devastating ability of their scrum, but New Zealand have proved more than capable of matching it and with Dane Coles at hooker they have a player who has shown the blinding speed of a winger if exposed to any kind of open space. With the powerhouse lock combination of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock shoring up the All Black front row, Argentina are going to have to be at their superhuman best in this area. Perhaps the world’s most famous player, All Black flanker Richie McCaw will want to make his last World Cup one to remember alongside the bruising form of Jerome Kaino. Although Kieran Read at number eight has had a few uncomfortable moments at times in the past year, when he is on form he is arguably one of the best if not the best in the world.
New Zealand for me have the best scrum half in the world in the form of Aaron Smith, and his contribution to the Highlanders remarkable victory in this year’s Super Rugby really epitomizes the class and skill he brings to the game. Dan Carter at flyhalf also plays his last World Cup and despite a dip in form after returning from injury you know the talent and world-class vision this player has is not in question. For me one of the big questions for New Zealand in this World Cup will be the form of winger Julian Savea. Considered by many to be the most devastating strike runner in the international game, he has for me remained very much in the shadows for New Zealand over the last year and hasn’t done much to justify such a lofty accolade. We wait and see. On the other hand Ma’a Nonu has quite frankly been the stuff of legends this year. Also playing his last World Cup, expect Nonu to be one of the players of the tournament and alongside his centerfield partner from the Hurricanes, Conrad Smith these two will be ripping defences to pieces for the next seven weeks. Ben Smith at fullback is also probably one of the best fullbacks in the world and while he may not have the dazzling skills of Australia’s Israel Folau for me he is a much better tactician in the position.
Lastly, we come to that man Nehe Milner-Skudder. As regular readers of this blog will know, I consider him probably the most exciting player in international rugby right now and can’t wait to see him in action over the next seven weeks. The Hurricanes winger has been the revelation of the year and despite this being his first Test season in an All Black shirt he has surely made the number 14 position his for the duration of the tournament.
So what can Argentina offer to counter this shiny All Black Juggernaut? In my opinion a great deal! The Argentine scrum is a legend in itself and should be so for this World Cup. However, one of the strengths of this all-conquering Argentine platform has been prop Ramiro Herrera and for this match Argentina are prudently having to relegate him to the bench after his remarkable return from injury. He was part of the heroic Pumas victory over the Springboks in Durban in August and will be key to Argentina’s success in this tournament. As a result of Herrera being on the bench Argentina will not be able to push New Zealand around up front as much as they would like and as was shown when they played the All Blacks in this year’s Rugby Championship, New Zealand can match them man for man here. However in hooker and Captain and Augustin Creevy alongside prop Marcos Ayerza, Argentina have two of the world’s best and will remain a real threat to New Zealand in the set pieces.
The rest of Argentina’s forward pack also smacks of quality with the likes of talismanic figure and lock Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. Alongside him Pablo Matera is rapidly developing a solid reputation for causing havoc in the loose. Lock Tomas Lavanini and number eight Leonardo Senatore have also shown that they are more than capable of upsetting the world’s best.
Argentina’s halfback partnership of Nicolas Sanchez and Tomas Cubelli is solid but lacks the sparkle and vision of their New Zealand counterparts. Meanwhile, the backs while not having some of the household names of their All Black rivals are more than capable of spoiling New Zealand’s party. In his hat trick of tries against the Springboks in Durban, winger Juan Imhoff showed that Argentina has some exceptional attacking potential. Add to the list centerfield stalwarts for the Pumas Marcelo Bosch and Juan Martin Hernandez and you know that it’s never going to be an easy day on the pitch for any opposition, coupled with the fact that Hernandez and Bosch can kick the ball from just about anywhere on the field and make it count. Lastly, Joaquin Tuculet has been a solid fullback and Santiago Cordero has shown some exciting pace on the wing. Even though he was let down in terms of support from the rest of his team earlier this year against Australia, Cordero was one of the standout individual players of that particular match.
To say that Argentina will be up for this match and feel that they have a genuine shot at causing an upset is probably one of the understatements of this year’s World Cup. However, New Zealand will want to go unbeaten in this year’s showdown as a fitting sendoff to many of their veterans who will be seeing their last outing in an All Black shirt. Therefore expect a truly spectacular contest as both sides seek to make a clear statement of intent and probably the best fixture of the opening salvos of the World Cup, barring the opening game between England and Fiji. However, given the sheer quality of this All Black side I have to put my money on them taking a tightly contested match right up until the 70 minute mark at which New Zealand should pull away and win the match by 14 points.