Rugby World Cup - Pool A Preview

Rugby World Cup - Pool A Preview

Written by therock67
Sunday, 12 August 2007

England v South Africa - image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffhester/One of the least pleasing aspects of the rugby world cup is the lack of interest in the group stages which in too many cases simply involves one match to determine the order of the quarter final draw and nine matches which have little or no relevance to the outcome of the tournament. In Pool A that match takes place on the second weekend of the tournament when England and South Africa battle in St Denis. Both camps have enough swagger about them to promise quite a spectacle when they cross paths in that game but is this arrogance the result of focused confidence or pure hype?

England, being England, will expect to win the pool. As recently as six months ago this English side was hammered in Dublin by an on-form Ireland and the personnel haven’t changed all that much since. Of course the English hype machine will point to a team in transition during the Six Nations and the time required by Brian Ashton to put his own mark on his team and there is an element of truth in that. However these are the same people who claimed the revolution was already successful by the time of Ashton’s Six Nations squad announcement. For we were told in January that this was the best English squad in years. Ashton enjoys a great reputation in the game as an innovator and for some reason this makes him almost immune to criticism in the English media and he has quite a fanclub with Stuart Barnes a particularly vociferous supporter.

As this website argued back in February before the Six Nations began , England do not accept or strive for medicority. They decide that their rugby team, or their soccer team, or their cricket team, or their favourite Prince’s wife is either the best or the worst ever. There is no middle ground. So by the end of Robinson’s era in charge of England a defeat to Argentina was patronisingly painted as a lowpoint in the history of sport in England but a couple of months later the whole picture was turned on its head and England were superpowers once again. The huge defeats to Ireland and South Africa in 2007 are conveniently ignored because England are back.

The reality is that England are steadily improving but they’re not good enough to win the tournament. They have a decent pack by international standards but while that was enough for them to win the last World Cup this group of forwards is decidedly less intimidating. Guys like Nick Easter, Steve Borthwick and Joe Worsley are talented players but they’re not in the same league as Back, Johnson and Dallaglio. They will not be able to boss opposing packs around the park and without such forward superiority the “magical inventions” that Ashton has weaved behind the scrum won’t be able to capitalise.

Thus England will be competitive but not ultra dominant up front but their back line lacks real world class quality. Jonny Wilkinson is at present a shadow of the player he was 4 years ago. His form this year has been decent, far from breathtaking, and the truth is that since he returned from injury on the last Lions tour he’s been shown up as a limited fly half. His kicking game is still a bit special but there are tactical errors in abundance and he still insists on kicking the ball straight down the middle of the park on occasion - presumably out of loyalty to that other great innovator Clive Woodward. Outside him Jamie Noon and Mike Catt look likely to form the centre pairing with Andy Farrell and possibly Hipkiss or the injured Mike Tindall as backup. It’s a particularly one dimensional looking midfield and that’s been an area of weakness for England for a while now. The outside backs are more penetrative and in Josh Lewsey, Jason Robinson and Paul Sackey they have real pace on the wings. The trouble will be getting the ball out that wide however and the limitations in midfield may be their downfall.

South Africa arrive in the tournament with similarly high aspirations for similarly shallow reasons. The Springboks looked shaky last autumn on their European team when they were heavily beaten by Ireland. That was an experimental South African team but most of them are first choice starters for the Springboks now and they have proved little in the interim. A narrow home defeat to New Zealand at the start of the Tri Nations illustrated the strength of the South African pack and of their defence. It was also a serious reminder of the paucity of talent in their backline however. A week previously they had recorded a 3 point victory at home over Australia and the word on the street was that South Africa were genuine world cup contenders.

And the Springboks left it at that. They decided not to compete with a first choice side in the rest of the Tri Nations and yet the conclusions that this is a serious South African side went unchallenged. They were admittedly impressive in dismanting an understrength England in the build-up to the Tri Nations but there are plenty of similarities between the two teams. They are both aggressive defenders who rely on their forwards to win games for them. The New Zealand match in particular was telling for South Africa because with the game on a knife-edge in the last 15 minutes the All Blacks decided to change their style completely and play an expansive running game. They scythed through the Springboks with ease and exposed some serious flaws in their backline. The excellent South African pack will win games for them but with such glaring (and obvious) limitations out wide South Africa won’t be winning this tournament.

If there was anything other than national pride at stake this pool would be most competitive in the battle for minor places where Samoa, Tonga and the USA are all capable of beating one another. There is the supposedly enticing incentive of a guaranteed place at the next World Cup for third placed finishers in each group but it’s highly unlikely that any of these three teams would fail to qualify anyway. Their real significance may be in the damage they do to the two main contenders in Pool A. South Africa have to face Samoa five days before they play England (who are paired with the more benign but still potentially dangerous Americans in their opening fixture). Expect to see a run out for plenty of second choice players in those games but meeting both Samoa and Tonga in the pool stages cannot be an enticing prospect for any team with aspirations to play in every round up to the final.

The winners of this group face the runners up from Pool B (Wales or Australia in all probability) before probably meeting the winners of Pool D (France, Ireland or Argentina). In other words the rewards for winnng the group are twofold: avoid Australia (or an in-form Wales) in the quarter final and stay on the other side of the draw from New Zealand. That incentive alone should guarantee a ferocious battle between South Africa and England in their Pool fixture. South Africa should prevail.

Predictions:

  1. South Africa (semi-finalists)
  2. England (semi-finalists)
  3. Samoa
  4. USA
  5. Tonga