Archive for the ‘Rugby World Cup 2015’ Category

While it was hard to top the excitement and surprises of Day Two, the third day of this year’s Rugby World Cup provided plenty of drama. Argentina and New Zealand put on a high-octane display to determine who would top Pool C barring any major surprises in front of a record-breaking crowd for a rugby match. Samoa eagerly anticipating their clash with South Africa this coming Saturday made sure they got their campaign off to a winning start against the USA and Wales opened their World Cup with an emphatic win over Uruguay but continued to add more casualties to their growing injury list.

Samoa vs USA
Final Score – Samoa 24/USA 16
Brighton

Samoa – 7/10

Always physical and increasingly fast, Samoa are a consistent force to reckon with as the USA found to their cost once again this Sunday in Brighton. Samoa took the game to the USA for the full eighty minutes and were it not for a lack of finishing skills by the Samoans at key moments, the Pacific Islanders would have come away with an even bigger winning margin. Buoyed by this success and South Africa’s shock defeat to Japan the day before, Samoa will fancy their chances in an increasingly wide open Pool B.

Samoa used their power to dominate much of the possession and territory in this match, often starving the Americans of any sort of quality ball or attacking opportunities. The fact that for the most part they were able to do this for the full eighty minutes bodes well for the rest of their campaign. Fullback Tim Nanai-Williams was a real threat and someone the rest of Samoa’s opponents in this tournament will have to work very hard to contain. Furthermore, despite the intensely physical nature of their attacks Samoa did well to keep the penalty count as low as they did, despite the usual bizarre refereeing style of Irish referee George Clancy. Samoa’s biggest problem in this match was their finishing skills which caused them to see at least two possible tries go astray. If they can get this right they will pose an enormous threat to a wounded and disjointed Springbok side come Saturday.

USA – 6/10

The USA are getting better of that there is little doubt, but against Samoa they often found themselves pushed to focus on defence, an area in which they struggled at times. The Samoan challenge and its intensity however gave them far fewer opportunities to attack. They played a good defensive game at times, but consistently denied any real periods of quality possession by Samoa they had few opportunities to really challenge Samoa on the scoreboard. In addition, despite some progress made this summer, discipline continues to be a problem for this Eagles team even allowing for Irish referee George Clancy’s often questionable calls.

There were some positives for the USA however, primarily in the shape of flyhalf AJ MacGinty who gets better on each outing with the Eagles. His reliable goal kicking was coupled with some superb breaks through the Samoan defences. He has a keen eye for opportunity and how to capitalise on opposition mistakes. MacGinty has been a real find for the Eagles and on only his sixth cap, he is already looking like a real talent for the future for the USA. Chris Wyles provided some solid work on the wing reflected in a superb try from a MacGinty offload. If the USA can fix their discipline problems and more importantly cut down on the missed tackles, they have the potential to be a real competitor in a Pool that is rapidly looking to be the mostly openly contested of this year’s World Cup.

Wales vs Uruguay
Final Score – Wales 54/Uruguay 9
Cardiff

Wales – 7/10

Wales got their World Cup campaign off to a convincing start but in the process increased the body count at the Cardiff infirmary, begging the question how much more injury can this side take and still remain competitive? The result was rarely in doubt and it was unlikely that Uruguay would replicate the heroics of say Japan the day before. Nevertheless all credit must be given to a Uruguayan side that despite the odds stacked against them, made Wales work hard for 80 minutes.

Wales ran in an impressive number of tries especially through some excellent work by hat trick hero, centre Cory Allen, which made his subsequent loss to injury for the rest of Wales’ World Cup campaign even harder to swallow. However Wales can take strength in the fact that prop Samson Lee seems to have returned to full fitness at just the right time, his try and solidity in Wales’ forward pack will be key to their success especially against the physicality of England. Liam Williams had a good afternoon in the fullback position and Wales will be crossing their fingers on his fitness for the rest of the campaign. Gareth Davies also showed some real promise in replacing the injured Six Nations hero Rhys Webb in the scrum half position.

For me however, probably Wales most valuable player surely has to be flanker Justin Tipuric. His work rate is truly phenomenal, and he was influential in all aspects of the good work that Wales did on Sunday. His influence on the team over the coming weeks will be critical to Wales. Tipuric’s own try was just reward for an afternoon of sterling service to the Welsh cause.

Although Wales won this game comfortably they did make far too many errors to really make them look a threat to either England or Australia, despite the considerable promise they showed. If they can improve their efficiency then there is no question that the top two spots in Pool A are still up for grabs and certainly a second place finish is within Wales’ grasp. The importance of Saturday’s game against England is without doubt the make or break moment in Wales’ World Cup ambitions.

Uruguay – 6/10

Although losing by more than a 40 point margin, may be seem like a thrashing you have to take your hat off to the Uruguayans who never gave up and at times put in a truly heroic defensive effort. Furthermore, although it was short-lived we shouldn’t forget that they were actually winning the game at one point 6-0. It is for their courage and determination in the face of overwhelming odds that I feel they are justified a score of 6. They may never have looked like winning, but the obvious pride of all the players at representing their country on such an auspicious stage was there for all to see. It was a courageous performance that deserved the utmost respect. Although the scoreline doesn’t flatter Uruguay they put up a solid defence against the Welsh which was extremely effective at denying Wales quick ball for long periods of time. Despite the odds and being the second lowest ranked team in the competition Uruguay never looked like a pushover. They came to play and were not daunted by their illustrious opponents. It can only be hoped that on the back of this performance Uruguay can continue to dig deep and leave this tournament having gained a greater respect from the rugby world at large.

Argentina vs New Zealand
Final Score – Argentina 16/New Zealand 26
Wembley

Argentina – 8/10

Argentina were easily equal opponents of tournament favourites New Zealand in this match and despite their loss and can feel justifiably proud of a massive performance that almost upset the bookmakers odds. What let them down in the end was the inability to go the distance with New Zealand in attack and a slightly less effective bench than that of their All Black opponents. Despite that their defence was immense and they are going to be a huge problem for other teams to overcome as they head into the knockout stages and barring injuries, get better and better.

Through the power of their scrum and their ability to slow things down at the breakdown, Argentina was able to match New Zealand man for man and for the first half and early stages of the second looked the dominant side despite spending less time in New Zealand’s half than the All Blacks did in theirs. There was no questioning their motivation and how well they had prepared for this match. New Zealand were clearly frustrated by the continuous Argentine pressure to the point where they were forced into disciplinary lapses that you simply don’t expect to see from a team like the All Blacks. Argentina was pushing them hard and New Zealand seemed to be struggling to find the right answers.

As the game headed towards the hour mark though, one had to question whether or not the Herculean effort of Argentina was starting to take its toll on tired bodies. New Zealand have shown they are masters of absorbing pressure for very long periods of time, while waiting patiently for weaknesses in the opposition to develop.

Argentina’s only try of the match just before half time, was a classic example of Argentine forward power and seemed to tip the balance clearly in favour of the Pumas. However, this was the only time the Pumas really looked like scoring. The All Blacks were starting to regroup and get the measure of them and Aaron Smith’s try just before the hour mark would swing the balance of the game back towards New Zealand, leaving Argentina to put all their defensive skills to the test. Although they lost I would argue that defensively Argentina have a very sound platform and there was plenty of evidence on Sunday of how effective it is. Despite the considerable impact of New Zealand’s bench in the last quarter, Argentina were still able to keep the scoreline respectable.

It was a solid team effort from Argentina on Sunday, and it is hard to pick out individuals but there were three that really stood out for me. Mariano Galarza who replaced injured try scorer Guido Petti at lock, had an absolute stormer of a game, tackling everything that moved and being instrumental in slowing New Zealand’s momentum. Leonardo Senatore at number eight was outstanding and was all over the park and excelled at disrupting New Zealand as well as gaining some useful turnover ball for the Pumas. Lastly, winger Santiago Cordero had a huge game. His defence and tackling were superb and he was instrumental in getting Argentina some good attacking phases. An exciting player to watch and someone I think we will be seeing a lot of as the tournament unfolds.

Argentina although not getting the win they were hoping for, really stood out as a team that has the potential and capability to make a serious mark on this competition. Ireland and France will surely have watched this game with trepidation knowing that a quarter-final with the Pumas in their current state is going to be a battle of epic proportions.

New Zealand – 8/10

New Zealand in winning this match after looking decidedly rattled for a long period of the game, showed that they are still the masters of adaptation and closing out big games. Add to that the fact they have so much depth in their squad with the result that their bench is always a deadly weapon and game changer for the last quarter. This is what we saw on Sunday, as New Zealand shaken by the ferocity of the Argentinian challenge, simply found another gear in the shape of their powerhouse bench which ensured that the sting was taken out of any potential Pumas attack and that the South Americans would have to defend like demons for the last twenty minutes.

Despite their precision and superiority in attack, epitomised in the form of Sonny Bill Williams when he came off the bench, New Zealand did not look invincible in this match which surely must give heart to the other teams aspiring to get their hands on the Webb Ellis trophy this year. Don’t get me wrong, they are still one of the world’s best and the consummate masters of turning games around to their advantage. However, as the first half showed rattle them and keep it up and they can be beaten. Richie McCaw’s cynical and disgraceful trip on Argentina’s Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, smacked of a side running out of answers.

Nevertheless, New Zealand showed that they can regroup themselves better than any other team even if the situation is unravelling before them. The last twenty minutes of this match was vintage All Blacks and is where any opposition team will need to figure out how to beat them. Sonny Bill Williams efforts after he replaced Ma’a Nonu in centre field were superb. He singlehandedly sliced up the Pumas defences and created the space New Zealand had been looking for all match. I felt that Nehe Milner-Skudder on the wing was unfortunate to get replaced immediately after he lost a Williams hand-off that under normal circumstances he would have caught with his eyes closed. It was evidence of the kind of pressure that the Pumas were putting New Zealand under in defence more than a lack of skill from the young All Black winger.

Aaron Smith as always had a good game at scrum-half, even if he struggled to find the measure of the Pumas in the first forty minutes. Richie McCaw however, I felt started to show that he is losing some of his edge and his reputation for playing on the boundaries of the game’s laws is really starting to catch up with him.  As a result he could even be in danger of becoming a liability for the All Blacks – unlikely but possible. Daniel Carter is still not quite the legend of years gone by though is not far from it and is likely only going to improve as the tournament wears on.

Don’t get me wrong, New Zealand are still the team to beat in this year’s tournament, but it is pretty obvious that they are not the all-conquering juggernaut of two years ago.  On the day there are still four or five teams, Argentina included, who could send New Zealand home empty-handed this year if they’re not careful.

As we all catch our breath from the talking point of the day after Japan’s historic triumph over South Africa, we continue our look at how the teams doing battle on an action packed Day Two fared.  Day Two saw four matches which provided plenty of ecitement and which proved just how competitive this World Cup is going to be!  What perhaps impressed me the most about the day’s actions was the fact that two second tier countries, Georgia and Japan, bagged the best report card scores surpassing traditional giants like Ireland, France and South Africa.

Tonga vs Georgia
Final Score – Tonga 10/Georgia 17
Gloucester

Tonga – 7/10

One of the most interesting things about the opening weekend of this year’s Rugby World Cup is that for all intents and purposes, barring some Namibian miracles, the pecking order of Pool C was determined.  New Zealand and Argentina are likely to finish 1st and 2nd respectively, while as this blog predicted Georgia’s win over Tonga will see them finish third and Tonga and Namibia come in fourth and fifth.  Tonga came into this match as slight favourites between two very physical and passionate sides, but Tonga’s pace in their backs would likely see them get the edge.  However, as it would come down to an epic physical struggle the winner would be the one who kept their composure the best and it that department Georgia held the edge over Tonga.

Early on Tonga were simply committing too many errors, and we saw the same in their recent Pacific Nations campaign.  A proud and passionate side who when it all clicks are impressive, but sadly seem unable to maintain the consistency that their other Pacific Island rivals Fiji and Samoa do on a regular basis.  However, all credit must go to Tonga for a sustained late charge that could well have unseated Georgia had Tonga been able to play like that right from the start.  Sadly it was too little too late, but gained the respect of their opposition and the capacity crowd at Kingsholm Park.  Tonga found some real life in the last quarter and it is for that fight back and a genuine attempt to acquit themselves with honor that I am giving them a 7.

Georgia – 9/10

What the world is rapidly coming to realise is that rugby is big in Georgia – very big!  This little country tucked away in the Caucasus is genuinely passionate about their rugby and is getting better with every World Cup. In addition, for the last few years they have dominated the second tier European competitions.  The big stage is beckoning sooner rather than later for Georgian rugby and their fan favourite status at the last World Cup looks set to continue in this year’s tournament.

Georgia, played a massive game against Tonga and the passion and motivation in these players was clearly there for all to see, none more so than in the figure of their Captain Mamuka Gorgodze who has the same kind of talismanic effect on his team as Italy’s legendary Sergio Parisse.  Georgia are renowned for their physical approach to the game, but are also developing some pace in their back line.  However, it was their clear and clinical domination of the forward aspects of this match that carried them through.  In such a physical encounter as this it is often easy for discipline to break down and Georgia have to be commended for holding their own for the full eighty minutes.  The power of their forwards in getting two superb tries from first Captain and number 8 Mamuka Gorgodze and then Giorgi Tkhilaishvili was exemplary.  Exceptionally strong in the scrums and clinical at the breakdowns and lineouts, Georgia clearly had the edge in terms of execution over Tonga.

Georgia’s entire forward pack deserve honorable mention in this match, but for me Captain Mamuka Gorgodze was the standout player.  His influence on his teammates was immense.  Constantly the rock to which they turned to when things started to unravel, Gorgodze inspired and motivated this team for the full eighty minutes while putting in a massive performance of his own.  As Tonga was fighting hard in the last quarter and putting enormous stress on the Georgian defensive lines, Gorgozde was tireless in his organisation of Georgia’s resistance.  His own joy, pride and elation at the final whistle and commitment to his teammates were images from this World Cup that will live on for years to come.  A great player and a real credit to the game and his country.

Georgia’s next tussle with Argentina is probably a bridge too far but Argentina will know that to take this impressive group of individuals lightly would be a very serious mistake.  Georgia will be competitive up front against Argentina of that there is little doubt, but Argentina’s impressive back line just has too much firepower that Georgia will struggle to match.  Still an exciting match awaits and Georgia will no doubt have, in addition to their very vocal supporters, a significant amount of neutral fans cheering them on.

Ireland vs Canada
Final Score – Ireland 50/Canada 7
Cardiff

Ireland – 8/10

There was little doubt that Ireland would walk away comfortable winners from their opening match, however, I did think that Canada might have put up more of a resistance than their one and only try.  Ireland can however feel pleased that for the most part their defensive structures worked, they sustained no injuries and their discipline against a very physical Canadian side held firm for the most part.  It was clinical and apart from a patch of errors and a gift of a try to Canada, Ireland should be pretty pleased with a good day out.

As many commentators have pointed out ultimately a sound defence will likely be the decider of who lifts the Webb Ellis trophy on October 31st, and in this regard Ireland can feel that Canada was excellent preparation.  Despite the scoreline Canada put up a very spirited and courageous challenge at times that tested Ireland in close defensive formations and out wide.  Apart from one error of judgement by Jared Payne which resulted in Canada’s only try, Ireland were watertight in defence whilst at the same time demonstrating the ability to get enough five pointers when needed.  Johnny Sexton had a solid 50 plus minutes on the field which once again demonstrated his superb game management.

For Ireland there were many standout performances that will make Coach Joe Schmidt feel pretty confident as the calibre of their opponents steadily ramps up during the course of the pool stages, with the ultimate test coming against France.  Flyhalf Johnny Sexton as mentioned did a superb job of constantly keeping Ireland in charge of the match as well as scoring a superb try of his own.  In the forwards, for me Iain Henderson was absolutely immense and I can’t help feeling that come the end of the tournament he may be consistently getting the nod over Devin Toner.  Sean O’Brien is rapidly getting back to his best while Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony are very much the established Captain and his understudy.  In the back line Dave Kearney continues to impress, but I am still not a hundred per cent sure about Luke Fitzgerald and Jared Payne, despite a solid try from the latter.  If Keith Earls can stay fit I think his contribution to Ireland’s cause will increase with every match, while Ian Madigan is also likely to do the same.

In short a good solid Irish effort against a spirited Canadian side.  However, once another feisty challenge from Romania is dealt with then we will really start to see Ireland’s World Cup campaign heat up, but for now they certainly seem to be on track and building nicely.

Canada – 5/10

It was spirited and passionate but ultimately just not good enough to really cause Ireland any major headaches.  Canada despite the potentially humiliating scoreline can walk away with a sense of pride.  They did make Ireland work exceptionally hard at times during this match both in defence and on attack.  However, the gap in skill levels particularly when it came to finishing was there for all to see.  It was a good fight from Canada and having seen Italy’s poor opening effort against France, if Canada can find the finishing skills they so desperately need in a motivated and talented group of players by the time they face Italy, they surely must feel they are in with a chance.

The one thing that really killed Canada in this match though was discipline, and Captain Jamie Cudmore’s yellow card was just simply unacceptable from one of Canada’s most professional and experienced players.  The fact that Canada leaked three tries in his absence says it all.  A bit like Richie McCaw’s deliberate trip on an Argentine player in the All Blacks/Pumas match you are at a loss to explain such behaviour from players of this caliber.

Canada however can take some heart from some stellar performances from prop Hubert Buydens.  He was the epitome of Canada’s effort in defence and as he always does for Canada put in a massive and effective shift at the coal face along with hooker Ray Barkwill.  In the backs, Nathan Hirayama had a fantastic game in the flyhalf position and is a real talent for Canada.  DTH van der Merwe was fantastic on the wing for Canada all night and often proved hard to bring down. Van der Merwe’s work rate was rewarded with his try that was one of the real highlights of the weekend.  Lastly when he came on as a replacement, scrum half Phil Mack provided some impetus and go forward to the rest of his team.  As readers of this blog are well aware I have struggled to understand Coach Kieran Crowley’s preference for Gord McRorie in the starting scrum half berth.  The intensity and speed at the breakdown that Mack brings is in my mind far superior to that of McRorie.  Add to that a crisp delivery to both his forwards and backs with a willingness to go into contact when necessary and for me if Mack had been on from the start, the scoreline might not have been so one-sided.

If Canada can build on this performance and take it to another level then, given Italy’s problems against France, they may well have a chance at upsetting the Italians.  With the return from injury of regular Captain Tyler Ardron for the Italy match, there is the hope that Canada’s run of bad form over the last two years may start to reverse.  In short, Canada is still very much a work in progress and I am not sure we are going to see the end result in this World Cup.

South Africa vs Japan
Final Score – South Africa 32/Japan 34
Brighton

South Africa – 5/10

Where to begin? The Springboks, in what overall has been a dismal year for them, have surely hit rock bottom and it can only be onwards and upwards from here.  Having said this, it in no way detracts from an absolutely brilliant Japanese performance which has rightly caught the imagination of rugby fans around the world.  However, for South Africa they must surely be feeling the pain of a loss which showed them far from their best and looking rather like rugby dinosaurs.

In short, South Africa appeared to approach this match with the wrong attitude thinking that it was merely a warm-up before the real business of their pool began against Samoa and Scotland.  In terms of wake-up calls it doesn’t get much better than this.  Furthermore they seemed completely unable to adapt to the situation they found themselves in.  In the last ten minutes, it was all about Japan who were full of self-belief even though they still essentially had a mountain to climb while the Springboks looked on in stunned disbelief.

There is little to say in terms of positives for South Africa in this match.  They tried to be competitive by relying on the age-old Springbok tactic of bludgeoning supposedly weaker sides into submission.  As a result, so much of their play was so predictable that once Japan got the measure of it, they were easily able to use it to their advantage.  There seemed little semblance of a game plan and how to contain the Japanese.  There was lots of intensity but it didn’t seem to be channeled  into any kind of structure or tactics.  South Africa are still a daunting side but one increasingly easy to read.

If you’re familiar with this blog you will know that I think one of the key problems in the Springbok camp lies in the coaching structure.  I have little if any faith in Coach Heyneke Meyer’s abilities to get South Africa to where it needs to be.  I for one, think much of the political instability plaguing South African rugby is being used as a smokescreen to hide some simple deficiencies in Meyer’s coaching style.  Rooted in the past glories of South African rugby he seems reluctant or ill-equipped to adapt to the demands of the rapidly changing modern game.  Springbok teams increasingly appear devoid of imagination or ingenuity and instead seem to rely on brute strength alone.  Add to that a bizarre obsession with kicking away perfectly good possession time and again, and you suddenly realize that despite having some of the best rugby talent in the world South Africa is essentially without a blueprint for how to use all its skills in the new rugby reality.

I don’t think that South African rugby is per se in decline and they are certainly not out of this tournament yet.  They will regroup as the pride in the jersey is simply too strong.  Perhaps the most useful thing Coach Heyneke Meyer can do in the remaining Pool games is sit down with his players, especially the younger generation and try to master the type of game they want to play.  The French teams of World Cups gone by have often lost complete faith in their coach and seemed to take on the responsibility of coaching themselves with surprisingly positive results.  Perhaps this is what this Springbok team needs to do.  In short, down but not out!  However, the Samoan test on Saturday will be one of the sternest tests this proud team has faced in their history – here’s wishing them well!

Japan – 10/10

In short brilliant!  Japan’s shock defeat of the mighty Springboks has been THE moment of the tournament so far and a piece of rugby history we will all remember for many years to come. To say that this was an exciting game is an understatement. It was a glorious sporting moment that no matter who you were supporting on the day, you knew that rugby ultimately was the winner. As we all sat on the edge of our seats you had to admire the growing self-belief in the Japanese team that they really could pull off one of the biggest upsets in sports history. That last ten minutes was the stuff of legends as Japan set the tournament on fire and emerged very much a worthy winner. It is the hope of every rugby fan that they can live up to the expectations they have created when they face up to Scotland on Wednesday.

The Japanese have really profited under the expert tutelage of Coach Eddie Jones, who is no stranger to South African rugby, having been part of the coaching team that led the Springboks to the 2007 World Cup. For me there were two simple things that the Japanese did so well on Saturday against South Africa. Knowing they could not compete for very long in the scrum against South Africa, when they did scrum they didn’t try to make any forward momentum with the scrum itself. Instead, they would just keep it stable enough for the ball to be quickly squirted out the back and distributed at speed to their back line. The speed at which this was done consistently caught South Africa off-guard who were focused on bulldozing the Japanese backwards and winning scrum penalties, and thus left with little or no time to reorganize their defences. Japan’s speed at the breakdown and quick and accurate passing constantly kept wrongfooting the South African defences. Add to that consistent and reliable goalkicking from Japanese fullback Ayumu Goromaru and South Africa were constantly having to be on the defensive. South Africa did score four tries of their own but the majority came more from defensive errors from the Japanese than a clearly worked set of moves from the South Africans.

The Japanese always kept themselves within reach of South Africa on the scoreboard. However, it was the South Africans who found themselves increasingly frustrated by the fact that the Japanese simply wouldn’t go away. As a result they lost their cohesion in the last ten minutes and the Japanese smelt victory. The decision with literally no more than a few precious minutes left to go for the try and thus the win by Japanese Captain Michael Leitch, was an act of remarkable courage and conviction when a draw was probably a less risky choice. That determination paid off and despite having played a frantic eighty minutes Japan were able to swing the ball from one side of the field to the other to get that match winning try and set the rugby world alight whilst almost making it look easy.

Every single player on that Japanese team played their heart out, but it was Ayumu Goromaru’s clinical composure with the boot and his own glorious try that perhaps more than anything sealed it for the Japanese. Add to that some inspirational leadership amongst the forwards by Captain Michael Leitch and some explosive running from replacement loose forward Amanaki Mafi towards the end of the match and it is little wonder that this Japanese team looked as sharp as they did.

Can Japan do it all over again in just four days as they go up against Scotland on Wednesday? It’s a tall order and I have a horrible feeling that after such a remarkable achievement it may be too much to ask. But then surely the motivation and self-belief in this team right now must be something truly special, so it would be foolish for any of us to dismiss the Japanese. Coach Eddie Jones has no illusions about the mountain he is asking his troops to climb, but Scotland will be extremely wary as Pool B has now become perhaps the most interesting and exciting pool in the tournament.

France vs Italy
Final Score – France 32/Italy 10
Twickenham

France – 7/10

Whichever way you cut it, this was a fairly scrappy game and after the glorious spectacle of the South Africa/Japan game it was rather an anti-climax. Italy’s complete lack of discipline ended up producing a dirge-like affair with Freddie Michalak slotting penalty after penalty for France, with Scott Spedding banging them over from long-range just to add insult to injury to the Italians.

France were not spectacular but against a shambolic Italy they didn’t need to be. It was a travesty that in such a tedious game France would lose winger Yoann Huget to a knee injury that has now ruled him out of the rest of the tournament. The anguish on Huget’s face as he was helped off the field was heartbreaking to see as his World Cup came to such an early end, and his presence will be sorely missed by France in the weeks to come.

Where France really did dominate, was in their forwards. They are immense and their scrum is proving to be a real weapon. At the back of the pack Louis Picamoles is proving his weight in gold and is no doubt going to be one of the players of the tournament at number eight. Freddie Michalak barely put a foot wrong and Scott Spedding at fullback is rapidly developing into a serious threat on attack as well as being a rock solid last line of defence. Add Spedding’s remarkable long-range boot and France can cover all areas of the park from a kicking point of view. The one player I am having a lot of trouble being convinced by is winger Noa Nakaitaci. His runs and breaks are often brilliant but his handling and ball retention often looks sloppy and careless, making him more of a liability than an asset. If he tightens this aspect of his game up then he is a definite threat but otherwise he could end up being the difference between some very narrow wins and losses.

In short, France have heaps of depth in their forwards, but as the injury to Huget showed the resources in the backs are being seriously stretched. Based on this performance they should have no trouble with Romania or Canada but Ireland and thus top spot in the pool is going to be a serious challenge for them. However, as always it’s a long time between now and October 11th when France meet Ireland and as history has shown it would be complete lunacy to write off the French, despite the comfort and inspiration it seems to give them over the years in this tournament.

Italy – 4/10

As mentioned above, I must confess to not really enjoying this game and found little to get excited about from an Italian perspective. For the most part they looked disorganised and their discipline was absolutely awful. Whether this was down to nerves or frustration, is hard to judge, but Italy really did themselves no favours in this match. If they are to put up a decent showing against Ireland then they have an enormous amount of work to do, and based on this performance their next opponents Canada must surely feel they are in with a chance.

Italy did have some moments to cheer about. When they did manage to put forward a cohesive attack they did look threatening, even if their finishing still left a lot to be desired. Furthermore, when not plagued by poor discipline their defence did look respectable. Tommaso Allan is looking more confident at fly half and I felt for the most part had a good game. I thought replacement back Enrico Bacchin put in a very solid shift after being called in early as a replacement for the injured centre Andrea Masi who tragically for Italy has been ruled out of the rest of their World Cup campaign. Giovanbattista Venditti as always impressed on the wing and his try was a real bright spark in an otherwise fairly dismal Italian performance.

I am giving Italy the lowest score of Day Two, as this is a team that should be doing so much better but for a variety of reasons just isn’t. There is no question that the injury count is hurting them badly, especially the continued absence of Captain Sergio Parisse, but they are not the only squad battling injuries. Furthermore, they really need to tighten up their discipline lest any matches with Italy degenerate into dirge like penalty kicking affairs as we saw on Saturday, instead of some positive and exciting running rugby which we know this team is capable of. There is a lot of passion in this team and especially if Sergio Parisse returns they will rise to the occasion. In the meantime, they are left pondering what will surely be a very physical and demanding encounter with the Canadians who will also have a great deal to prove. Plenty of homework for the Azurri this week!

And so it’s finally here! After much anticipation, the most competitive World Cup in the history of the tournament got underway on Friday night in Twickenham in front of an enthralled audience as England got proceedings started against Fiji.  With all the rugby coming at us in the next few weeks as we work our way through the Pool stages, the Lineout won’t be covering each match with a preview/review as per normal, we just don’t have the resources to do that till we get to the more manageable knockout stages of the competition.  Therefore for the Pool stages we will be handing out report cards to the teams involved each match day and a score out of 10 on how we feel they performed, as well as highlighting individual players who really stood out.  On the basis of this we’ll also look ahead to their next match.

Day 1 only saw one match – the tournament opener of England vs Fiji.

England vs Fiji
Final Score – England 35/Fiji 11
Twickenham

England – 7/10

Yes England got the win, but they seemed to really struggle to assert some authority on the match until the last quarter when their bench came on to make a huge impact.  Ultimately they emerged with the bonus point, but the scoreline didn’t really reflect the closeness of the match which really only opened up in England’s favor in the last ten minutes..  Furthermore, in the opening stanzas of the second half one could argue that Fiji had the edge over England.  You surely can put a lot down to opening night nerves for both sides, and especially England who in front of an expectant home crowd have so much to prove.  Nevertheless at times England looked like they were having to work awfully hard to contain a Fijian side determined to cause an upset and as a result only get a score of 7 for their opening match.

England got the match off to a comfortable start as their forward pack made a solid statement of intent through a devastating rolling maul that had Fijian defenders spinning off it right left and centre.  In sheer desperation Fiji had to resort to illegal play to try to stop the English steamroller resulting in England’s first try which was awarded as a penalty try.  Ten minutes later fullback Mike Brown, who for me was unquestionably the man of the match, would score England’s next try and at the end of the first quarter you felt England were in charge.  It was the next forty minutes where Fiji really started to get under England’s skin and the nerves were there for all to see.  Fiji were able to match England in physical intensity and their speedy backs, especially in the form of one man wrecking ball Nemani Nadolo were causing the English defence all kinds of headaches.

Where England will be concerned is that after a stellar twenty minutes where it looked like they had the match sewn up, Fiji managed to claw their way into the match to the point where until a raft of English substitutions came on, the Pacific Islanders looked like they were starting to get the ascendancy.  What England can take great heart from though is the impact of their bench.  Billy Vunipola who came on for Ben Morgan literally single-handedly changed the fortunes of the match for England.  I was disappointed to see Ben Morgan not up to his usual standards but perhaps his return from injury has left him without the stamina and fitness he needs at this level just yet.  Vunipola however put in a massive performance for England and really broke up the Fijian defence, ably assisted by Joe Launchbury who I thought really made a difference once he came on.

What did impress me was England’s back line.  Mike Brown was everywhere and put in an exceptional night’s work in defence and on attack.  His two tries were solid efforts that showed both his strength and ability to break open opposition defences.  He was reliable and abrasive in defence and exceptionally courageous and quick on attack.  Winger Anthony Watson never really got the better of his opposite number Nemani Nadolo, as evidenced by the aerial contest between the two which resulted in Nemani’s try.  I thought Johnny May although not as robust as Brown also put in a good night’s work and showed some real athleticism in his last-ditch tackle on Matawalu ably assisted by Brown which led to the knock on which caused the Fijian’s try to be disallowed.

On that note the subsequent review of the try by the Television Match Official after it had been awarded by referee Jaco Peyper was handled exceptionally poorly.  The officiating through the TMO was really badly done and often sapped the game and players of momentum at key points.  It is hoped that this will be dramatically improved at the tournament wears on.

Two other English replacements worthy of mention were Sam Burgess, who took over from Brad Barritt at centre who I felt had a poor evening.  Burgess immediately lent some much-needed physicality to the midfield and put in some great charging runs and solid tackles.  Owen Farrell also displayed some real quality in his stint as George Ford’s replacement in the second half and his vision and willingness to take the ball into contact while still keeping possession was instrumental in setting up Mike Brown’s second try.

In short a good effort from England, but one which lacked the polish and composure, with the exception of the last ten minutes, of what a World Cup winning side should look like.  The potential is there without any shadow of a doubt and England are only likely to get better with each outing, especially against a fired up but injury stricken Wales this weekend.  England got the job done and kept their World Cup aspirations on track but still don’t quite look the finished product especially in defence, and their scrum did get given a very stern work over by the Fijians.  Meanwhile their breakdown work for long periods was poor in relation to the Fijians success rate in this area.  Lots of homework to do, but they should continue building nicely.

Fiji – 7/10

Despite the scoreline at the end of the match, I still feel that for long periods of this match England and Fiji were evenly matched and hence me giving them the same score as England.  What let them down ultimately was fitness in the last ten minutes and the fact that their bench didn’t quite pack the punch that England’s had.  However, once they got over their initial nerves they looked good from the second quarter of the first half till the final ten minutes.  Despite the yellow card awarded to scrum half Nikola Matawalu, they managed to keep their discipline relatively intact during repeated English physical onslaughts.  Their traditional weakness, the scrum held up exceptionally well against England and the forward battle was an equal contest.  Their rush defence really started to pay dividends as the game wore on and was clearly rattling English nerves.  Apart from initial jitters, their goal kicking through fly half Ben Volavola was relatively consistent as was his tactical game.  Winger Nemani Nadolo’s abilities at goal kicking time were also put to good use.

Overall Fiji looked a strong competitor and like England will only get better as the tournament progresses.  They will be a challenge for Australia, though the Wallabies should have a slightly better understanding now of what to expect and how to prepare for it than England did.  Nikola Matawalu at scrum half, despite his early yellow card, was impressive all night and had he just maintained better control of the ball in his thirty metre dash off the back of a scrum we might have ended up with a very different game.  I thought fly half Ben Volavola had a really solid game for Fiji and his perfectly weighted kick to Nemani Nadolo for Fiji’s only try was one of the best moments of the match.  Nemani Nadolo lived up to all the hype surrounding him, and his one bullocking run down the centre of the field in which he brushed off at least five English defenders, brought back memories of a certain Jonah Lomu.  In short, Nadolo will be a handful for any of the defences he will face in this tournament and just to make life even more difficult for the opposition he also packs a very handy boot.

Whether or not Fiji can really rattle Australia the way they did England, especially as Australia should now have a pretty good idea of what to expect, remains to be seen.  They will be competitive and will be looking to cause an upset but it will be a tough ask against Australia especially with the likes of Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper and David Pocock in the forwards mix for the Wallabies.  However, Wales especially given their injury list must be feeling concerned, and I can’t help feeling that Fiji are more than capable of an upset when the two meet on October 4th.

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
Cardiff

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
Twickenham

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
Wembley

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.

Four years of waiting and at last the fireworks erupt at Twickenham on Friday night in one of the most anticipated World Cups in the tournament’s history.  The Lineout will be previewing/reviewing as many as of the major matchups as possible in the coming weeks, but let’s face it there is a hell of a lot of rugby to get through so we’ll do our best.

First up we look at the tournament opener on Friday night between Pool A opponents England and Fiji.

England vs Fiji
Friday, October 18th
Twickenham

Although there must be a certain degree of anxiety in the English camp about this fixture as an opener, they surely must be looking forward to an encounter that will so ably test their sense of composure under the bright lights.  Fiji are famous for their ability to surprise and England will need to have all their wits about them to maintain a consistent and steady performance that will set the tone for the rest of their campaign.  Although England should emerge the winners, Fiji will be a superb initial test of how well prepared they are particularly defensively.  Fiji on the other hand come to the party full of intent and determined to cause at least one if not more upsets.  While I can’t necessarily see it happening on Friday night, you can be sure that at times they will literally scare the living daylights out of England and as a result are really worthy opponents in the tournament’s curtain raiser.  Fiji is a team that everyone loves to watch and they will be an excellent test of England’s nerves on the big stage.  In short a fabulous opening contest awaits!

England have made it clear that they have a great deal of respect for the threat that Fiji presents and their selections reflect this.  Recognizing that Fiji’s most potent threat will come from their powerful and incredibly quick backs, England has picked their frontline troops for this World Cup from positions 9-15.  Mike Brown’s try saving tackles and work with the boot will be key to ensuring that Fiji are not allowed too many inroads into England’s 22.  Meanwhile, England will count on the match winning form of Johnny May and Anthony Watson on the wings.  Johnny May has certainly answered his defensive critics in the warm-up matches over the course of the summer but he will have his work cut out for him in trying to contain Fiji’s Nemani Nadolo.  The centre pairing of Brad Barritt and the electric Jonathan Joseph should have the better of their Fijian counterparts providing a useful balance of speed and physicality with the big hitting form of Sam Burgess standing by to come off the bench to lend a hand with his trademark tackling should the Fijians start to run this area of the park.

England’s tried and trusted halfback pairing of George Ford and Ben Youngs should be more than capable of running a well-managed tactical game and ensuring that Fiji’s explosive back line are not given the opportunity to cut loose.  England’s forward pack speaks for itself and, particularly in terms of structure and discipline, should easily have the edge over their Fijian counterparts.  I was particularly pleased to see Ben Morgan back in the fold at number eight for England over the much vaunted Billy Vunipola.  I can’t help feeling that Morgan offers much more to England.  His breakdown work for me has always been more dynamic and better disciplined than Vunipola, furthermore he has a much better eye for opposition indiscretion and ill-discipline in these areas and how best to work them to England’s advantage.

Fiji are worthy opponents for such an auspicious occasion and are unlikely to be daunted by the challenge ahead of them.  In the shape of Nemani Nadolo they have one of the players most likely to create some magic moments in this World Cup.  Despite his size, Nadolo is one of the most explosive runners in the game and has the ability to simply brush defenders aside reminiscent of a certain Jonah Lomu.  England will no doubt have watched a few video replays of their efforts against New Zealand in 95 and 99 and the havoc caused by Lomu to remind them of the threat of not containing individuals like Nadolo.  Fiji have plenty of threats elsewhere in their back line, and will provide a stern test of England’s defences.  I can’t help feeling that despite the considerable talents of Fijian scrum half Nikola Matawalu who has had a stellar season with Glasgow in the PRO 12, England’s halfback pairing simply has too much class and experience to be too troubled with Fiji’s offerings.

In the forwards, Fiji will be competitive make no mistake as these are all big and powerful men, who made a serious impression by claiming this year’s Pacific Nations Cup for Fiji.  However, against the combined experience of England it will be hard for Fiji to match up.  Furthermore as the game wears on, discipline which has often been an Achilles heel for Fiji in the forward aspect of their game may well start to become an issue, especially as in terms of fitness England’s preparations have probably given them the edge here.

The first half should be a tight affair, especially as England settle into their groove and I imagine the scoreline to be fairly close.  However, the second half should see England pull away from a tiring Fiji and the penalty count start to mount against the Pacific Islanders.

All of this is likely to be interspersed with moments of pure magic from both teams.  Fiji will score one or two spectacular tries particularly if that man Nadolo is let loose.  Johnny May, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson though are likely to reply with interest.  There is the possible scenario that Fiji manage to rattle English composure early on as their back line’s speed and power find England’s defences wanting and this catches England off guard causing them to chase the game in the first half.  I personally think that this is actually a distinct possibility, especially if opening night nerves get the better of England.  However, even if this is the case then I am pretty confident that the second half will be a completely different picture, as England regroup through their forwards and put Fiji under serious pressure giving Ford and Youngs the confidence to impose their authority and starve Fiji of quality ball while at the same time providing England’s back line with plenty of it.  George Ford’s increasing tactical composure with the boot, Ben Morgan’s work at the breakdown and Johnny May and Anthony Watson’s speed and sidestepping ability should ultimately allow England to pull away comfortably in the end and give the game to England by 12 points.  Fiji will surprise England at times by providing us with some glorious running rugby and make this fixture a truly fitting opening to the greatest show on earth.  Good luck to both of these worthy opponents and I think it’s safe to say we all can’t wait!

In Part 4 and the last of the Lineout’s Crystal Ball musings for next week’s Rugby World Cup we look at the possible fortunes of the Pool D contestants.  As we did in Parts 1-3, we have a look at each of the teams individually based on form and make our predictions from there.  Then to spark the debate in pubs and bars we end with our Alternate Reality section and some wild speculations as to what might happen if our predictions all go horribly wrong!

So without any further ado let’s have a look at Pool D.

Pool D

Canada
France
Ireland
Italy
Romania

Canada

Let’s face it the last two years have not been kind to Canada with only 5 wins out of 17 games.  This is a side that on paper should simply be doing so much better than it is.  The team boasts plenty of talent and some big name players in European Club rugby with winger DTH van der Merwe being instrumental in Glasgow Warriors’ winning form in this year’s Pro 12 series.  Other players like Jamie Cudmore and Jeff Hassler bring further European top-level club rugby pedigree to the side matched alongside some exciting young players who have also made a name for Canada on the Sevens circuit.  Despite all this talent, something is just not clicking for the Canadians at the moment and it is hoped that some of the right glue is found before their World Cup opener against Ireland.

Yes that’s right, a side struggling with form gets a baptism of fire in their opening World Cup match against back to back Six Nations champions Ireland.  For many, how Canada does in this match will set the tone for the rest their campaign.  Ireland are likely to field a strong side in their own opening match, and Canada will be hard pressed to match Ireland’s clinical intensity and mastery of the set-piece and speed at the breakdown.  Therefore, despite all the best intent in the world, expect a spirited Canadian performance but a game that Ireland should walk away from comfortable winners.

After this match it is time to regroup for a match that, if Canada are to make a statement that their dramatic dip in form of the last two years is a thing of the past, they really have to win.  Italy are not in the greatest form at the moment themselves despite the potential they have.  Nevertheless this is still going to be an exceptionally tough game for Canada.  If as likely Canada face an almost full strength Italian side they are going to find it hard to come away with anything other than a narrow loss.  Italy when it matters against weaker teams are more than capable of putting in big performances and this match should be no exception.

It simply doesn’t get any easier for Canada as they then have to take on France.  Pool D is being tipped as a two-horse race between France and Ireland, and Canada will be hard pressed to put one past a French side that is also desperate to prove to its critics that is a real World Cup contender.  If the French are well organised in defence, then French flair in their back line should see them get past some solid Canadian grit and determination.

Canada’s last game against Romania will in many ways be the most important for this group of players as it will be their last chance to salvage some pride from a potentially disappointing World Cup.  Here though the worrying shadow of form rears its ugly head once again as Canada have lost their last two encounters with Romania.  However, I really believe that this side has too much talent to leave the World Cup without a win, and therefore am handing Canada a win here and a departure from the tournament finishing in fourth place in their pool.

France

The World Cup’s greatest variable – the French!  A side which has come so close so many times, turned the odds upside down on countless occasions and given us probably the greatest game in the tournament’s history – their upset win over New Zealand in the 1999 semi-final.  A World Cup without the French simply wouldn’t be a World Cup, and even though they usually have been written off by the time the proceedings get underway they somehow invariably end up finding themselves in the semi-finals and have a remarkable track record of going all the way to the final.  Will this year be any different – who knows?  Yes on paper they simply don’t match up but that has never stopped them in the past!

France open their account in this year’s World Cup against Italy and expect fireworks aplenty.  However, injury woes in the Italian camp should see the French settle their nerves and just close out an edgy Italian challenge.  They then get a chance to take their foot off the gas a bit against Romania and barring any hiccoughs should win this game comfortably.  Canada will provide them with their next challenge and at the last World Cup Canada caused France some serious difficulty at times.  However this Canadian team is not quite the “beardos” crew of 2011 and France should emerge from the game with a straightforward win.

Then comes one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the Pool Stages as France go head to head with their Six Nations rivals Ireland.  Expect this match to have the intensity of a quarter-final as the loser will most likely have to face New Zealand in the first round of the knock out stages.  Ireland, despite dipping a bit in form since the Six Nations, still have a stronger game plan and tactical structure than France.  It should be an epic contest but unless France suddenly come up with a game plan rather than relying on individual talent of which they have plenty, Ireland should get the better of the Men in Blue, leaving France to claim second place in the Pool.

Ireland

Probably the World Cup’s greatest underachievers, even with one of the greatest players the game has ever seen in their ranks – the legendary Brian O’Driscoll, Ireland this year feel they have a chance to compete for the ultimate prize.  The World Cup has not been kind to Ireland over the years and teams which have held so much promise have never made it beyond the quarter-final stage.  Under the tutelage of new coach Joe Schmidt who is probably one of the best rugby brains in the international game right now, surely Ireland’s fortunes are set to change!

Ireland get their campaign underway with a match against a Canadian side that boasts lots of talent but are suffering from one of the worst track records in Canadian history in terms of producing results.  It will be a big physical challenge and Canada should still give Ireland a solid workout to settle the nerves and make sure their structures are clicking properly.  After what should be a gritty but ultimately comfortable win against Canada, Ireland then get a chance to put the finishing touches to their game plan, tighten up any weaknesses exposed in the Canadian game and also give some of their first choice players a rest and some game time for their second string team as they take on Romania.  Once again this should be a fairly straightforward outing for the Irish, and set them up 2 for 2 going into the remaining two matches where the real work of their World Cup campaign begins.

Ireland’s game against Italy should see the Men in Green emerge triumphant, especially if they have remained injury free up to this point.  Italy will be competitive make no mistake and it will definitely be Ireland’s first real test of the tournament.  However, with injury concerns around a few key Italian players such as talismanic Captain Sergio Parisse, Italy don’t quite look the force they could be.  However, any sense of complacency by the Irish going into this match could see them trip up horribly.  As mentioned above with coach Joe Schmidt in charge this is unlikely to happen and Ireland should walk away the winners.

Ireland end their campaign in the pool stages of this year’s World Cup with a monster clash with France.  Along with some of the mouth-watering match-ups in Pool A, this fixture is one of THE most eagerly anticipated Pool games of this year’s World Cup.  The winner will most likely avoid a quarter-final clash with New Zealand unless Argentina pull off one of the upsets of the tournament.  Therefore expect a match akin to a warm-up World Cup final between Ireland and France with no quarters given and no prisoners taken by either side.  France will either be brilliant or have a shocker under pressure.  Ireland should keep their cool and if their halfback pairing of Sexton and Murray are still fully fit at this stage, Ireland should outthink and outplay the French.  It still will be close at times and probably a nail-biting contest right to the final whistle, but unless the French put in a display akin to their 1999 semi-final heroics, I see Ireland walking away the winner and taking first place in Pool D.

Italy

Always having the ability to surprise, Italy are a side that are desperate to make it out of the pool stages and into the knockout rounds, a feat they have never achieved in the tournament’s history.  Italy have improved over the years and their inclusion in the Six Nations has paid enormous dividends.  They have a team that has the essential components of a good pack, powerful forwards and some very quick backs, however it often rarely all comes together for Italy on the day.  They also have one of the most inspirational Captains in the modern game in the form of number eight Sergio Parisse.  With Parisse on the field Italy are always an exciting prospect, but injury concerns are casting doubts on how much of Italy’s World Cup campaign Parisse will actually play a part in.

Italy open their World Cup account with an exceptionally challenging fixture with France, made worse by the fact that they will be without regular Captain and talisman Sergio Parisse.  Italy looked shaky in their World Cup warm-ups with the exception of the game against Wales, where you guessed it Parisse was on the field.  Nevertheless Italy have an encouraging track record against the French having beaten the Gallic giants a few times now in the Six Nations.  As both sides settle their World Cup nerves it should be a close match but one that the French should ultimately walk away as the winners.

Next up Italy get a chance to regroup against a Canadian side smarting from a probable schooling from the Irish.  Canada will be up for this game, make no mistake and Italy will not be able to take the challenge lightly.  However, they have played Canada since the last World Cup and came out on top and I see no reason for them not to do so again.

Buoyed up by a confident performance against the Canadians, Italy will need this sense of self-belief as they head into probably their toughest match of the pool against Ireland.  They have surprised Ireland in the past, but I can’t really see this happening especially if Ireland have all their first choice players on the field and their systems are clicking.  If Italy have got Parisse back by this stage they will push Ireland hard at times but Ireland should have a clear tactical edge and be able to effectively snuff out any Italian challenge.

Consequently Italy will head into their final Pool match with Romania, desperate for a comprehensive win in order to clinch third place in the Pool and exit the tournament with their pride and self-esteem intact.  With no disrespect to Romania, Italy should easily achieve this objective and try to take some important lessons with them to build for the next World Cup where with a new coach taking over after this tournament, they will finally get beyond the Pool stages.

Romania

A side that has always caused a few surprises at the World Cup and the occasional uncomfortable moments for some of the bigger sides, Romania are never a pushover and this year should be no exception.  Boasting a powerful and competitive set of forwards, an encounter with the Romanians will always be a bruising affair.

Romania start their World Cup campaign off against France and while I imagine they will make France’s forward pack work hard, given that this is one area where France has looked impressive over the last few months France should get the win here.  Next up Romania square off against Ireland, which will be a massive challenge for them.  I am sure they will play with a great deal of pride and passion but it is unlikely they will be able to give Ireland too much cause for concern.

Next up they face Italy where I imagine they will be able to run the Italians close at times.  Nevertheless, Italy at this stage will have a serious point to prove and with that much more experience should manage to clinch a win over Romania.  Romania’s last game of the World Cup will be against Canada.  This is a game they know they can win, particularly if their forwards dominate the Canadians as they have in the last two encounters between these two countries.  However, Canada will be desperate to end a poor string of performances and will be throwing everything they have into this match.  Expect an epic contest but one which Canada being under so much pressure for results, should just win by a narrow margin.  Therefore, Romania sadly should exit the Pool in last place.  However, they will play with pride and passion every time they go out onto the pitch and as they always do earn the respect of all the teams they go up against as well as a strong degree of support and encouragement from all the neutral supporters attending their games.  With continued European exposure Romania are only going to get better and this will serve them well for the next World Cup.

Pool D Alternate Reality

So here’s the bit once again where everyone starts calling me a lunatic and hurling insults but may cause some entertaining debates.

I had tipped as an alternate scenario Italy upsetting France in the opening match for both sides but without Parisse on the field for Italy I can’t really see it happening.  Therefore the opening rounds of this pool should go according to predictions till the match up between Italy and Ireland.  Parisse is match fit for the game with Ireland and spurs Italy onto new heights, with the game ending up being a closely fought physical battle.  Ireland’s Johnny Sexton picks up a minor injury causing him to miss Ireland’s remaining pool game with France.  France take the opportunity and seize the day as Ireland without Sexton lose their cohesion.  France comes out on top of the pool and avoid a quarter-final clash with New Zealand.  Ireland finish second and know they now have it all to do in a quarter-final with the All Blacks while sweating over Sexton’s fitness for such a do or die match.  Italy still clinch third place, but Romania continue their impressive track record against Canada and emerge the winners against a Canadian side suffering a genuine crisis of confidence.  Romania finish in fourth place and Canada finish in last place and reflect on their worst World Cup ever!

“It’s life Jim, but not as we know it” – now pass me that pint would you!

In Part 3 of the Lineout’s Crystal Ball for next week’s Rugby World Cup we look at the possible fortunes of the Pool C contestants.  As we did in Parts 1 and 2, we have a look at each of the teams individually based on form and make our predictions from there.  Then to spark the debate in pubs and bars we end with our Alternate Reality section and some wild speculations as to what might happen if our predictions all go horribly wrong!

So without any further ado let’s have a look at Pool C.

Pool C

Argentina
Georgia
Namibia
New Zealand
Tonga

Argentina

One of the most improved sides in international rugby in the last ten years, Argentina have risen through the ranks to now proudly hold their place amongst the top ten nations in the sport, and on their day are able to compete with and beat the best.  After their most successful Rugby Championship to date this year where they finished third ahead of South Africa after an epic win against the Springboks in Durban, there can be little doubt that the Pumas are heading into this World Cup full of confidence.  Of concern will be the fact that on the return fixture in Buenos Aires against South Africa, Argentina lacked much of the shine they showed in Durban and keeping their key players fit will be a major concern for the Pumas.  Question marks still centre around the match fitness of prop Ramiro Herrera, and his influence in helping Argentina dominate forward play through one of the world’s best scrums will be crucial – his absence in the match against South Africa in Buenos Aires was painfully obvious.

Argentina start their campaign with their biggest game of the pool stages and possibly the tournament as they take on Rugby Championship rivals New Zealand.  Although never having beaten the All Blacks the Pumas have always looked competitive against New Zealand and have often been able to disrupt their rhythm.  Expect a monumental clash as both sides seek to clinch first spot in the pool.  While I expect Argentina to run New Zealand close at times ultimately New Zealand will likely be too clinical in their first outing as defending World Cup champions.  From here on though Argentina should sail comfortably through the pool stages.  Their main concern in the remaining games, in addition to making a clean sweep of it, will be to avoid injuries in some very physical games.  Their next opponents Georgia are no strangers to intense forward battles.  However, the Argentine scrum is such a highly perfected platform they should be able to quickly gain the ascendancy over Georgia and walk away comfortable winners especially once they cut their back line loose.

Next up is another bruising encounter with Tonga.  Tonga is a strong side that should be able to match the Argentinians for power and pace, but the Pumas superior finishing and tactical skills should get them a gritty win.  However, just like the Georgian game injury worries will be a concern.  Argentina end their pool campaign with a game against Namibia who sadly as the lowest ranked team in the tournament are unlikely to pose much of a challenge.  This should be a chance for Argentina to rest any players as necessary as well as give their B side a good run out.  So in short, a relatively easy albeit physical ride to the knockout stages for Argentina as runners-up in second place.

Georgia

Georgia in the last few years has made great strides in making their claim to be a force to be reckoned with in international rugby with increasing interest in the country eventually being included in an expanded Six Nations tournament.  Georgia boasts a passionate fan base and the game has a huge following at home.  With large numbers of their players serving their time in European Club rugby, Georgia is now boasting some significant international experience.  Georgia are well-known for their physical power and a strong forward game and as a result we can expect them to be highly competitive.

Georgia’s opening encounter with Tonga should be a very physical encounter.  If Georgia can contain the Tongan back line and force them to lose their discipline up front (an Achilles heel for Tonga), then I am predicting a close win for Georgia.  This will give them the confidence to take on Argentina.  As mentioned above I can’t see Argentina losing this fixture, but I do expect to see Georgia give Argentina a real workout.  As a neutral you would want to see Georgia do well against the Pumas in order to take some real confidence into their next daunting encounter with New Zealand.

In their game against New Zealand, I expect Georgia to play with exceptional courage and determination and win the hearts of all the neutral supporters in the crowd at the Millenium Stadium.  I don’t imagine they will be daunted in the slightest by taking on the world’s best, however I can’t really see anything other than an emphatic win for the New Zealanders against a highly spirited challenge from the Georgians.

Georgia’s last game with Namibia, should see them comfortably walk away with the win and third place in the pool as well as a renewed sense of respect from the international rugby community.  Georgia have always been fan favourites at World Cups and it is my hope that this will continue in this tournament and help give them the encouragement that is so beneficial to the development of the sport in tier two countries.

Namibia

Just like Uruguay in Pool A, your heart has to go out to Namibia.  Although not quite the pool of death that Uruguay finds itself in, Pool C is still an enormous challenge for Namibia ranked 20th in the world.  You know that just as they have always done, Namibia will play with plenty of heart and courage, and we all really hope that they don’t end up simply as cannon fodder for the other teams in the pool.

Namibia start their World Cup campaign with a baptism of fire against New Zealand.  With no disrespect to Namibia all they can really hope for in this match is that the scoreline doesn’t end up like a cricket score.  It probably won’t be pretty as New Zealand walk away very comfortable winners.  Providing they are not too shell-shocked from their encounter with the All Blacks it is hoped Namibia can regroup and put up a good fight against the very physical Tongans.  Once again though, while I expect the scoreline to be much closer, I doubt that Namibia will be able to upset the Tongans.

Next up it’s another punishing physical challenge against Georgia.  Once again expect a great deal of heart from Namibia, but the considerable international experience of many of Georgia’s squad should see them get the win over a feisty Namibian effort.  Lastly, Namibia take on Argentina and the end of the road for their World Cup adventure.  Argentina’s tactical superiority up front and enterprising back line should see the Pumas claim an easy win and Namibia have to settle for last place in the pool.  It`s going to be a very tough road for Namibia this year, but like for all the smaller nations you really hope neutral spectators at the grounds Namibia will play at will really get behind the team and allow them to leave the World Cup with a real sense of appreciation for their efforts and pride in their achievements.

New Zealand

Two times World Champions and tournament favourites New Zealand have ironically ended up in probably the easiest of pools for a team of their stature.  While the tag of favourites to lift the Webb Ellis trophy on October 31st can often be a curse, New Zealand have been there before and it is still going to take a pretty exceptional team to deny the All Blacks from living up to expectations.

New Zealand open their account against Argentina, in a match that will essentially decide who takes 1st and 2nd spot in the pool.  Barring any major surprises, Pool C is essentially over after this match.  New Zealand will come out no doubt wanting to make the statement that their tag of tournament favourites is completely justified.  Argentina will be no pushover and they have the ability to rattle the All Black structure and unsettle their plans.  However, while it may be close at times, I just can’t help feeling that in New Zealand’s big game of the pool stages they will pull out all the stops and walk away comfortable winners in the end.

For the rest of the pool, and this is said in no disrespect to any of New Zealand’s other pool opponents, the All Blacks will essentially get three warm-up games for the knockout stages.  For Namibia’s sake you really hope that New Zealand don’t emerge with a cricket score victory, but would be surprised if New Zealand walked away with anything less than at least a 30 point winning margin.  Georgia will provide New Zealand with some excellent scrummaging practise but once again the All Blacks should completely overpower Georgia once they find their rhythm.  Their last match sees them take on the very physical but ill-disciplined Tonga.  Injuries will probably be a worry for New Zealand in this match and their last outing before the knockout stages, so expect to see the vast majority of their key players rested for this one.  As a result, even though New Zealand should get a relatively easy win the scoreline should be reflective of a sterling and respectable effort from the Tongans.

So bit of a no brainer here, New Zealand to finish on top of the pool after, apart from the Argentinian game, the easiest ride of all the countries tipped to be in the hunt for the Webb Ellis trophy this year.

Tonga

In short take this team lightly at your peril, and while Tonga won’t make it out of the pools, they will be competitors right to the very end of every game.  Intensely physical and famous for the passion for which they play for the shirt, Tonga is always a tricky prospect.  With big powerful forwards and pacy backs Tonga are always a force to be reckoned with as France found to their cost in the pool stages of the last World Cup.  Nevertheless as much potential as Tonga has, they are often let down by poor organisation and woeful discipline which has seen them hold the red card record in the tournament’s history.

Tonga get their campaign going against Georgia, and I must say as a neutral this is a game I am really looking forward to.  It should be close as both teams are very evenly matched in terms of skill levels.  However, I can’t help feeling that Georgia are able to maintain slightly cooler heads under pressure than Tonga.  Tonga will play with plenty of passion but sometimes this passion can get in the way of discipline and composure under pressure.  It will go down to the wire and should be a real contest, but I think Georgia will just sneak the win.

Tonga then take on Namibia, in what I see to be a fairly one-sided contest, with Tonga getting a relatively comfortable win.  After that Tonga get to face up to the Pumas who should be able to tactically out think them as well as dominate the forward play through better discipline.  Tonga’s final game against New Zealand should be well worth watching even though the outcome will ultimately favour New Zealand.  Tonga’s reputation of being utterly fearless against the best sides in the world will be much in evidence.  As Tonga’s last game of the tournament they will want to do the shirt proud and put in a big performance against the best side in the world.  Expect the sparks to fly and New Zealand will surely be concerned about keeping the body count to a minimum.  As a result they may hold back some of their key players allowing Tonga to put up a credible resistance.  The scoreline will most likely not be a runaway victory for New Zealand and I expect Tonga to run them very close at times.  New Zealand will get the victory but Tonga will emerge with their pride intact and respect restored, as they exit the pool and the tournament in fourth place.

Pool C Alternate Reality

So here’s the bit once again where everyone starts calling me a lunatic and hurling insults but may cause some entertaining debates.  Although for this pool I really struggled to come up with much of an alternate reality, as the outcome is pretty certain whichever way you cut it – anyway here goes and let the daggers fly!

Argentina, fully fit and motivated to play one of the biggest games in the history of the Pumas, come out and catch New Zealand completely off guard.  Similar to their runaway blitz of tries in Durban earlier in the year, the Pumas build a healthy lead early on.  New Zealand struggle to come to grips with a script they were not expecting, as well as some of their key players not playing with their customary finesse.  New Zealand regroup but it is too little too late and Argentina walk away with a 3 point victory as their defence just proves to be impenetrable.  Argentina keep up the momentum from this match and make a clean sweep of the pool clinching top spot.  New Zealand as they always do, regroup and annihilate their remaining opponents to finish second.  Meanwhile Tonga bring their customary passion to the pool coupled with a water-tight sense of discipline and put Georgia and Namibia to the sword as well as running Argentina close, finishing in third place.  Georgia get the inevitable win over Namibia and clinch fourth place.  Not much change in Namibia’s fortunes in last place I’m afraid.

“It’s life Jim, but not as we know it” – now pass me that pint would you!

In Part 2 of the Lineout’s Crystal Ball for next week’s Rugby World Cup we look at the possible fortunes of the Pool B contestants.  As we did in Part 1 we have a look at each of the teams individually based on form and make our predictions from there.  Then to spark the debate in pubs and bars we end with our Alternate Reality section and some wild speculations as to what might happen if our predictions all go horribly wrong!

So without any further ado let’s have a look at Pool B.

Pool B

Japan
Samoa
Scotland
South Africa
USA

Japan

Japan are an intriguing team and one that with the growth of the sport in Japan and hosts of the next tournament (unless the current issues at time of writing are not resolved) will really want to lay down a marker at this World Cup.  Furthermore, they have the luxury of getting their two hardest games out of the way at the beginning of the tournament leaving them to focus on the two matches they will feel they have a chance of winning.

I watched Japan in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup and was in the crowd when they played Fiji in Toronto where despite losing the match, they put up one hell of a contest at times.  There is plenty of promise in this team, despite the fact that after a bright start to the Pacific Nations Cup this year they lost momentum.  However, with Australian Eddie Jones coaching the team there is plenty of pedigree and rugby nous behind them.  I would argue that the team learnt a great deal from the Pacific Nations and will put that experience to good use particularly against the USA.  Japan have some very pacy backs and the days of them being pushed around the field up front seem to be a thing of the past.  Furthermore, for their final game against the USA they will have a whole week off to rest and prepare.

I imagine that their first game against South Africa will be a relatively painful but useful learning experience as will their next game against Scotland.  From there they should be able to be competitive against Samoa despite the Pacific Islanders ultimately overpowering them by the last quarter.  That leaves their final game against the USA.  As hosts of the next global showdown Japan will be highly motivated to put on a big show.  They have the talent and probably more than any World Cup they have appeared in to date the motivation to do well.  It will be a close contest but I expect Japan to just get the edge over the USA for their only win of the tournament and finish fourth in the pool.  In their final match of Rugby World Cup 2015 against the USA expect to see plenty of the courage and never say die attitude they are famous for.

Samoa

Big, physical and deceptively fast for their size Samoa are always a problem for any opposition.  They will be riding high from a strong showing against New Zealand a few months ago and a strong Pacific Nations campaign which saw them finish in second place just behind Fiji.  Despite some of the political turmoil plaguing the game in Samoa, the team has managed to rise above it and be a serious threat to anyone who takes them lightly.  Like Fiji in Pool A they have the potential to cause an upset.  However, unfortunately for them I can’t quite see it happening this year.

They open their account with a game against the USA whom they will be very familiar with after this year’s Pacific Nations tournament.  Although the USA pushed Samoa to the limit, Samoa are unlikely to make the same mistakes twice and should emerge the winners.  From there it gets a bit more complicated as they have to face South Africa’s Springboks.  They have caused the Springboks plenty of problems in the past and it should be no different this time around, but South Africa should have settled enough from their opening game against Japan that Samoa will be competitive but ultimately fall short of the mark.  Samoa then takes on Japan who they dispatched fairly easily a few months ago and I see no reason to expect them not to do the same again.

Their last match against Scotland should be an epic encounter and I predict it to be very close especially as the Samoans will throw everything they have against the Scots in one last guts and glory performance.  If it was the Scotland team of a year ago then I would definitely fancy Samoa’s chances of an upset, however the Scotland team of new Coach Vern Cotter is a very different beast and seem to get better with each consecutive outing.  As a result, it will be a barnstormer of a match but one which should see Scotland just hold off the Samoans.  Consequently Samoa will have provided us with plenty of entertainment but ultimately finish third in the pool.

Scotland

As mentioned in the Samoa section of this post, a year ago I would have argued that Scotland were in serious danger of not even making it out of the pool stages of this year’s World Cup.  However, in the last year Coach Vern Cotter has worked wonders with the team and the wins are starting to come.  They were highly competitive in this summer’s warm-up games and had two solid wins against the Italians.  Furthermore, they seem to play better with each successive outing.

Scotland’s first match against Japan should be a mere formality especially as they will have had the luxury of seeing how South Africa dismantle Japan a few days previously.  With that out of the way, comes a second relatively easy outing for Scotland against the USA, putting them in a good position of 2 for 2 in the crunch pool game against South Africa.  Although weak in the scrum itself, there is nothing weak in Scotland’s back row forwards and here right through to their back line they will be able to compete head to head with South Africa, and let’s face it South Africa’s scrum has creaked at times this year.  The motivation in this Scottish team is probably at an all time high and they will certainly approach the game with the belief that they can win it.  However, as long as South Africa don’t implode the way they did against Argentina this summer in Durban, South Africa should just get the edge over Scotland especially from an experience level.

Scotland’s last match against Samoa should have just as much intensity as the South African game, but whereas I think they will come short against the physicality of South Africa, their electric back line particularly with Stuart Hogg at fullback in the mix should see them power past Samoa in an epic tussle of grit and determination.  There will be plenty of sparks and fireworks as both teams attempt to exit the pool stages on a high note, but this new look Scotland just has too much skill and firepower on the day and should see them get the win.  Therefore Scotland to ultimately finish a comfortable second in the pool and if they have played well who knows what miracles this team could pull off in the knockout stages?

South Africa

South Africa have not had a great year let’s face it, and no longer strike fear into the hearts of opposition teams the way they once did.  Nevertheless, the two times World Champions are still one of the major forces in International Rugby and are always contenders when there is silverware up for grabs.  Despite a rough year especially away from home, this World Cup should be no different for South Africa.

South Africa open their campaign against Japan which should be a good opportunity to settle the nerves and get a comfortable win.  Next up come Samoa who have always given the Springboks a run for their money especially at World Cup time.  However, provided there are no sudden crises of confidence, the wealth of talent and experience in this current Springbok side should see them get the job done.  Nevertheless it will be a very bruising physical encounter and South Africa will be happy to get through it without any injuries, especially with some of their key players such as centre Jean de Villiers and number eight Duane Vermeulen just returning to the Springbok fold after a long layoff.

Next South Africa go up against Scotland which should be the pool decider.  As good has Scotland is rapidly becoming, I can’t see them taking down a Springbok side which barring injuries should have built up a significant momentum by this stage as well as being a squad full of self-belief if things have gone according to plan in the first two games.  It should be the most exciting game of the pool and expect plenty of surprises but South Africa should emerge the winner.  Their last match sees them take on the USA which should be a chance to rest key players while still getting a comfortable win and emerge top of Pool B.

USA

Like Japan, the USA has shown some real improvement in the last few years and this year in particular apart from a serious wobble against Tonga in the Pacific Nations Cup, the USA looked good overall despite some consistent problems with discipline.

That being said, I can’t seem them making much headway in their opening game against Samoa.  The sheer physical nature of this encounter should bring out the frustration factor in the USA which should lead to a break down in discipline which has been their Achilles heel this year, with several players narrowly avoiding red cards.  Their next match against Scotland will be a very different encounter where the USA will have to work hard to contain Scotland’s increasingly devastating and quick back line.  Thus with two hard-fought losses to their name, confidence may be at an all time low by the time they take on their third opponent South Africa.  South Africa’s intense physicality and speed in the back line is going to cause the USA all kinds of frustration and heartache resulting once more in the penalty count probably ticking over heavily in favour of the Springboks.

Thus by the time of their final match against Japan, the USA will be desperate to walk away from the tournament with something to show for their efforts other than being cannon fodder for Samoa, Scotland and South Africa.  In what should be a very entertaining final contest with Japan, the USA will have to pull out all the stops.  However, with Japan’s coaching pedigree in the form of Australia’s Eddie Jones, I can’t help feeling that Japan will just have the tactical edge over the Americans and sneak the win.  Therefore expect plenty of bravery and determination from the USA, but ultimately I think they will have to settle for last place in the pool.

Pool B Alternate Reality

So here’s the bit once again where everyone starts calling me a lunatic and hurling insults but may cause some entertaining debates.

South Africa come unstuck against Samoa as nerves, bizarre coaching decisions by Heyneke Meyer and an injury count from hell see Samoa just lose to the Springboks by less than a converted try.  Meanwhile, Scotland are on a roll and sweep away Japan and the USA by big margins.  South Africa’s crisis in confidence and potential injury list see them come unstuck against a Scottish side who start to really believe in themselves.  Scotland get the win over South Africa and end up finishing on top of their pool after a gritty encounter with Samoa which goes down to the wire, leaving South Africa as runners-up.  Samoa still hang onto a comfortable third place while the USA repeat their Pacific Nations Cup success against Japan, keep their discipline and take fourth spot in the pool. The Japanese are left with a wooden spoon to take with them as hosts of the next World Cup!

Remember it’s called alternate reality for a reason – now pass me that pint won’t you!

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.

Pool A

Australia
England
Fiji
Uruguay
Wales

Australia

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.

England

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.

Fiji

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.

Uruguay

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.

Wales

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!

A slight departure from the norm here for the Lineout, as family and work pressures over the last week have left little time to watch as much rugby as I would have liked.  So no match reports from last week and just previews of this weekend’s fixtures with reference obviously to the two games last weekend.

This is a big weekend for the Six Nations countries as they all have one final match before the World Cup starts in a fortnight.  In an epic clash at Twickenham, Ireland line up against England who are desperate to rectify the dismal performance of a fortnight ago in France.  For the vast majority of Irish supporters, a win would be a great confidence booster but perhaps of more importance is emerging from this game with all their star players fit and injury-free.  Meanwhile, Scotland and France do battle in Paris with both sides brimming with confidence after their previous two outings against Italy and England respectively.  Scotland in particular have got better and better with each warm-up game and with both sides fielding very strong line-ups it should be a great contest.  Lastly, Italy take on Wales in Cardiff and will be looking to find some inspiration after a fairly dismal series of warm-up games against Scotland as well as being boosted by the return of their inspirational Captain Sergio Parisse.  Wales on the other hand will be seeking to make a statement as they field essentially the same side that dispatched Ireland last weekend, but for many Welsh supporters the concern will surely be to avoid injury against an often ill-disciplined Italian side.  As a result many supporters have questioned the decision by Welsh Coach Warren Gatland to use so many of his World Cup starting XV players for a game Wales should win comfortably.

Fixtures this weekend

England vs Ireland
Saturday, September 5th
Twickenham

The weekend starts off with a game that many are eagerly anticipating but if you’re like me, also slightly dreading.  While it is important for both sides to get a result, and in many ways probably more so for England, the game has been so hyped up that both coaches seem to be urging their teams to put in the type of performance akin to a Six Nations decider.  While this may produce some great rugby for the spectators I can’t help feeling concerned that if both sides really go hammer and tongs at each other there is a definite danger of an unnecessary injury count which could prove seriously detrimental to both sides’ World Cup chances so close to the start of the global showdown in a fortnight.  Therefore if you’re like me you’ll probably be breathing a lot easier if the medics have little to do on Saturday.

For England there are essentially only a few changes to the side that got eaten alive by the French in Paris a fortnight ago.  The main exception being Brad Barritt coming in at centre and Anthony Watson coming back onto the wing.  The halfback pairing of Ford/Young remains the same and the much vaunted English pack, which was completely overpowered for much of the match against France, remains unchanged with the exception of Ben Morgan coming in at number eight, Geoff Parling replacing Joe Launchbury at lock and James Haskell being replaced by Tom Wood at flanker.  The front row remains unchanged from the game against France, and Coach Stuart Lancaster will be keen to see a real improvement from his front three as they were completely outclassed in the scrum and in the lineouts.  English supporters should be happy to see the return of Ben Morgan at number eight for a game which seems to have so much significance to England’s World Cup preparations.  However, Morgan has only just returned from injury and if this game proves to be as physical as some are predicting there will be concerns in this area regarding Morgan.  For me he has so much more to offer England in the eight jersey than Billy Vunipola and I really hope for his sake  and England’s that he emerges with a clean bill of health from this match.

For Ireland, they are also fielding for all intents and purposes, with one or two key omissions, their starting XV for the World Cup and just like England will be praying that the medics have a quiet afternoon at Twickenham.  The back row sees significant change from the game against Wales, with Simon Zebo replacing first choice fullback Rob Kearney.  This will be the ultimate test for Zebo in terms of his defensive skills.  While brilliant on the counter attack he has often been cited for poor coverage in defence especially in the fullback position and with the likes of Mike Brown, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Johnny May coming at him all afternoon, Zebo is going to have his work cut out for him.  Furthermore England flyhalf George Ford will probably be testing him under the high ball on a regular basis as well.  On the wings Ireland return to the traditional strengths of Tommy Bowe and Dave Kearney, while the centerfield sees the return of Six Nations pair Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne.  Ireland’s world-class halfback pairing of Sexton and Murray returns and despite some rustiness on the part of Sexton in the game against Wales last weekend, by the end of it these two were once again starting to click nicely.  Irish supporters’ biggest concern will be Sexton’s willingness to put his body on the line especially against such an old rival as England and given his crucial importance to Ireland’s World Cup aspirations, an injury to Sexton at this stage in Ireland’s preparations could be catastrophic!

Ireland’s forward pack is to a letter the eight gentlemen we expect to see starting for Ireland in the World Cup and this obviously reflects Ireland’s ambition to attack any weaknesses in England’s pack as evidenced in the game against France in Paris a fortnight ago.  If Ireland keep their discipline, they should be able to push England around up front in much the same way as the French did.  If England have not fixed their problems in the scrum and even more critically their issues in the lineout then this Irish forward pack could make it a very long and frustrating afternoon at Twickenham for the Men in White.

In short, if Ireland play well but conservatively in order to avoid injuries then England should just edge this game in front of a Twickenham crowd who will demand a big performance from the home team in their last outing before the World Cup.  As an Irish supporter, my fear is that Ireland end up going hammer and tongs against England in a match that is ultimately still a sideshow to the main event in a fortnight and pick up a raft of unnecessary injuries.  England will have the same concerns but in front of their home crowd may just have to throw caution to the wind that much more.  It surely will be a fascinating and entertaining game but the question on everyone’s lips is at what cost?  If you’re like me you will be eagerly anticipating the final whistle in this match and as long as a good performance has been put in by all, won’t be overly concerned about the result, particularly if the medics have had a holiday.  Nevertheless, England by 5!

France vs Scotland
Saturday, September 5th
Paris

Another really intriguing contest here.  France have suddenly found some structure at just the right time, while Scotland are getting better with every outing.  This should be a really good game, though much like the game at Twickenham, Scottish and French supporters will be hoping that both sides stay clear of injury.

France looked good against England a fortnight ago in Paris – really good!  If they bring that kind of intensity to the World Cup then once again the tag of dark horse, as it seems to every World Cup, will surely be theirs.  The French forward pack that effectively ate their English counterparts a fortnight ago in Paris for breakfast, lunch and dinner essentially remains unchanged.  However, of the two changes made, Alexandre Flanquart at lock and Thierry Dusatoir at flanker, it is the latter that is the big talking point.  Dusatoir’s return as Captain will only add some extra power and inspiration to an already impressive French forward effort.  The Scots will be very hard pressed to contain this pack of heavyweights, and with Dusatoir and Picamoles being exceptionally effective in the loose it will be a real test of Scotland’s defenses and skills at the breakdown.  The halfback pairing of Frederic Michalak and Sébastien Tillous-Borde remains unchanged and if Michalak maintains his composure and form of a fortnight ago Scotland will have to maintain their discipline at all times.  Meanwhile, I was really impressed with Tillous-Borde in the game against England and he should continue to maintain the intensity generated by France’s forwards as seen a fortnight ago in Paris.  In the backs France remain unchanged from the game against England and expect plenty of fireworks from Huget, Nakaitaci and Fofana, while one man wrecking ball Bastareaud wreaks havoc in centerfield.  Lastly at fullback Scott Spedding was superb against England and adds a very powerful long-range boot to France’s counterattacks and goal kicking duties.

Scotland are fielding a side that seems to take into account the kind of game they are expecting France to play.  The only notable exception for me is Stuart Hogg being left out at fullback.  However, by the same token he is one of Scotland’s wonder weapons for the World Cup and I can understand them wanting to rest him for the main event.  Nevertheless, there is enough physicality in the Scottish back line, particularly in the form of Tim Visser and Matt Scott that they should be able to put up some solid resistance to whatever dashes of French flair they may get to see on Saturday.  The return of both Gray brothers to the forward pack gives Scotland plenty of opportunity to compete at the breakdown and the contest between prop Alasdair Dickinson and his French opposite number Eddy Ben Arous should be one of the game’s most interesting head to heads.  The big talking point in Scotland this week has been the omission from Scotland’s World Cup squad of flanker Blair Cowan who has been instrumental in getting Scotland turnover ball in the last year.  His replacement John Hardie, a controversial choice for many will certainly feel under the spotlight on Saturday, and as good as he is, really will have a point to prove to justify him getting the call up over Cowan – a decision I can’t help feeling Scotland may end up regretting come the World Cup.

In short, this is a capable and competitive Scottish side, but if the French show any of the form of a fortnight ago and with Thierry Dusatoir leading them on, this should be France’s day in Paris.  Barring any key injuries, it should be a fast flowing and potentially exciting game, but France at home should come away the winners by 10 points!

Wales vs Italy
Saturday, September 5th
Cardiff

In short, the only surprising aspect about this game is the fact that Welsh coach Warren Gatland has chosen such a strong side for a game Wales should win comfortably.  This is said in no disrespect to Italy who field a strong team, boosted by the return of their inspirational Captain Sergio Parisse.  However, in their two warm-ups against Scotland, Italy have looked weak and could struggle to clinch anything more than third spot in their pool when the World Cup starts in a fortnight.

Wales on the other hand, looked very good against Ireland last weekend, and although the Irish put them under serious pressure at the end of the game in the rain in Dublin, they were clinically well  organised in defence so that just as in the Six Nations Ireland were ultimately unable to find their way through.  Leigh Halfpenny at fullback is probably one of, if not the best fullbacks in the world right now, and Justin Tipuric at flanker had a devastating game for the Welsh against Ireland.  Tipuric for me has been one of the real standout forwards of these warm-up games along with Iain Henderson of Ireland and Louis Picamoles of France.

Leigh Halfpenny’s game saving move on Sean Cronin’s last gasp crossing of the Welsh line at the death for Ireland, showed the fullback’s vast experience under pressure and helped ensure that Wales would hang on to an edgy win in Dublin.  I doubt he will be required to provide the same amount of heroism this weekend in Cardiff, and as is the case for all the supporters this weekend, the Welsh will be hoping that this last burst of game time before the big event will not result in any injuries to such a key player.  Justin Tipuric having proved his worth ten times over during the course of August, gets the luxury of the weekend off and in his place Sam Warburton will be looking to make sure he gets as much starting time as Tipuric come the middle of September.

As mentioned above for all intents and purposes it is a full strength Welsh side barring a few omissions taking on what is likely to be Italy’s starting XV come the World Cup.  I doubt very much that Italy will be as poor as they have been in August and they are fielding a team with plenty of talent but perhaps a bit short on organisation and finishing.  They will be competitive make no mistake and Captain Sergio Parisse should help them find a lot of the finesse and inspiration that was lacking in their previous two outings, but the Welsh team they are up against simply has too much class and experience and is already tipped as a possible quarter finalist come the World Cup.  Italy will look to put in a strong performance that might serve to make the French nervous should they be unable to repeat their form against England when they take on Scotland this weekend.  Nevertheless Wales should take this match comfortably and barring any injuries to key players, emerge the winners by at least 10 points!