Rugby World Cup Pool B Preview

Rugby World Cup Pool B Preview

Saturday, 01 September 2007

Pool B serves up a number of interesting questions that should proffer some intriguing answers as the group runs its course, and which in turn should provide useful pointers for the tournament as a whole. Does Australias promising Tri-Nations performance point, as John Eales suggested, to them being able to mount a credible challenge to claiming a third Webb Ellis trophy? Will the outright hostility from the Welsh media towards coach Gareth Jenkins and certain aspects of his team foster a positive siege mentality that can allow them to scale the heights reached in their Grand Slam winning year of 2005 or will it lead to bitter recrimination and in-fighting more reminiscent of the Dutch footballers?

Will the French organisers and the IRBs decision to pander to the Welsh Union and grant them the plumb tie of the group at a partisan Millennium Stadium in return for a Welsh vote in support of France to host the World Cup provide the Welsh with an unfair advantage in what will surely be the group decider on 15th September? Can Fiji overcome the twin obstacles of the loss of most of their top players to Australia and New Zealand and the shameful behaviour of top-tier nations refusing to play them with any sort of regularity to mount a credible challenge in the group? Are Japan and Canada likely to be anything other than cannon fodder for Australian and Welsh backs as they notch up cricket scores in humiliating routs or can they salvage pride for themselves and the IRB in its plans to develop the game on a broader level? To answer these questions we need to look at the merits of the individual pool participants.

Australia are a rare team in rugby (and indeed most sporting) terms. Almost the opposite to New Zealand, the Wallabies punch above their weight, embrace adversity and raise their game when the chips are down. They are the most successful team in Rugby World Cup history, having reached 3 finals and won two. There appears to be something in the Australian psyche that produces leaders who stand up to be counted and relish high-pressure situations think of John Eales, Tim Horan, Michael Lynagh, David Campese and George Gregan. This Aussie battler mentality leads to performances like those against the Lions in 2001 and New Zealand in the semi-final in 2003 where a supposedly inferior Wallaby team raises its game to confound the bookies expectations. Indeed, only an England pack that did not know how to lose and Jonny Wilkinsons metronomic right boot prevented the Aussies from going the whole way on home soil four years ago. The issues for Australia in 2007 are whether the problems of three and a half years of indifferent form, a poor pack, aging stars and a tough draw can be overcome in the manner of tournaments past.

Australia v Wales - image by In terms of the Pool, it must be said that Australia should not have any difficulties at all in qualifying Paddy Power currently price them at 1-4 to win the group outright. As mentioned above, the concerns for them are whether they can ensure that they beat Wales to top the group and prove the bookies correct and whether they can develop sufficient momentum to win what would be a tough quarter final against (presumably) England or South Africa and progress further in the tournament. The Wallabies have shown in recent times that, as ever, they are finding the form and confidence at just the right time to do just that. John Connolly is an astute coach and he has stated outright that anything less than bringing home the World Cup would be a failure. He appears to have developed his team to the extent that it is able to challenge the top teams in spite of its deficiencies namely a weak front five and a squad that lacks the depth of New Zealand, France or South Africa. In the Tri-Nations, Australia came a very credible second behind the (up till now) all-conquering All Blacks, in the process becoming the only team to beat New Zealand this year. They beat (an admittedly second string) South African side in Australia and would have achieved the double over the Springboks but for two wonder drop goals from Frans Steyn in Cape Town. The pack buckled against the other southern hemisphere heavyweights (with props Guy Sheperdson and Matt Dunning being compared to Tweedledum and Tweedledee by New Zealands 1987 World Cup winning captain David Kirk) but did not fold, while a quality back row of Rocky Elsom, Stephen Hoiles and George Smith achieved parity.

It is behind the scrum, though, where the main Australian strengths lie. There is no more experienced half-back pairing in world rugby than George Gregan and Stephen Larkham and these two quality performers will want to sign their international careers off on the highest of notes by setting loose exciting backs like the versatile Matt Giteau, captain Stirling Mortlock, Lote Tuqiri and the excellent Chris Latham (who has achieved full fitness from knee ligament trouble earlier in the year). This core of experienced players has been ably added to by players such as Adam Ashley-Cooper and Drew Mitchell, both of whom shone in the Tri-Nations. In short their backline bears favourable comparison to any team in the world, including New Zealand there is a balance and inventiveness there that can cut apart any team. Their defence is also very strong and well organised by Connolly and his backup staff. Age is a potential problem for the Australians (particularly given the relative weakness of the squad) although the format of the group (Australia start off against Japan and finish against Canada, with the far tougher tests of Wales and Fiji in between) means that Connolly should be able to shuffle the pack to guarantee freshness for the important group games and beyond. The aim for Connolly and his senior players will be to win the group convincingly to set them up for tougher challenges further on in the competition.

Wales, then, represent the only legitimate challengers to Australia in topping Pool B. On the face of things, given the turmoil in the Welsh camp over the past two years, this may not seem a realistic prospect. However, the doom mongers of the Welsh media should not be so pessimistic a number of factors point to a definite ability to be competitive with the Wallabies on 15th September. First, though, to the doom.

Wales v Australia - image by The modern Welsh rugby team has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent itself since the advent of professionalism. In recent times they have gone from basket case to a team that ran eventual champions England scarily close in the last World Cup. A reversion to type after the 2003 tournament was followed by a remarkable Grand Slam winning season before a spectacular implosion in 2006 and 2007 that saw them win two Six Nations matches out of 10, sack their Championship-winning coach, have their captain suffer a breakdown live on television and have their current coach suffer a media backlash that Steve Staunton would be proud of. The root causes of the medias concerns with Gareth Jenkins stem from their poor Six Nations form (although a morale boosting victory over old enemy England tempered this somewhat), a terrible hiding at the hands of the English in a World Cup warm up match, the jettisoning of injury-prone, pretty boy media darling Gavin Henson while outhalf Stephen Jones is given every chance to prove his fitness and the failure to play current wonder boy James Hook at his favoured 10 whenever Jones is fit.



Jenkins, though, is unfairly maligned. First off, no team set the world alight in this year’s Six Nations – and losing to Scotland in Murrayfield and Italy in Rome is nothing to be ashamed of on current form (as Ireland have discovered). Secondly, shipping 60 points to a limited England side is not an ideal result but the fact that it was essentially a second string Welsh team and that England, despite their problems, are no mugs when playing in Twickenham temper the negative implications of the result somewhat. Thirdly, it seems astonishing to a neutral observer that anybody even remotely connected to the Welsh team would lose sleep over Henson’s absence from the squad – his celebrity adds unnecessary media attention, while his rugby skills (a booming right foot in the loose or from dead balls and a fearlessness in the tackle) add little to the mix in terms of backline balance. In short, Henson’s participation in the World Cup should largely be an irrelevance (aside from the loss of enjoyment opposing fans have in roundly booing the shaven-legged nancy boy of course). Finally, the scapegoating of Stephen Jones seems bizarre given all that the Llanelli man has achieved in the game. Granted, he had a poor Six Nations (although he wasn’t fit) and Hook did well when he replaced him. However, Jones’ experience is an invaluable asset when it comes to the big games; he has an excellent understanding and partnership with Dwayne Peel for club and country; and his playmaking is as incisive as his goal kicking is reliable. Hook offers a genuine alternative at 10 (something Ireland painfully lack) and an option at 12. He does not, however, offer a panacea to all Wales’ problems, no more than Jones is the cause of those problems.

So the Welsh media appear to be misguided and if the players are mentally strong (which is, perhaps, a big “if”) they should be able to profit from the media criticism – circle the wagons, foster team spirit and support the coach in what he is trying to achieve. Noise emanating from the camp indicates that this is the case and the response to losing to England and (an admittedly superior) France was positive and lacked the reproach and bitterness one might expect from a team under such pressure from the media. The team itself has a number of reasons to feel optimistic about facing the Wallabies. Player for player there is not much between the two. The Australians might have the slightly more potent backline, but the Welsh can also cut fast and loose against any team on their day. Shane Williams is a tricky (albeit lightweight) winger, Gareth Thomas offers vast experience and versatility, while the likes of Tom Shanklin, Kevin Morgan and Dafydd James are decent players that link up well with their colleagues and are solid in both defence and attack. Hook is a potential future star while Peel must already be considered world class – his partnership with Jones (or Hook) will be vital in setting the tempo to the Welsh play and dictating options behind the pack. Up front, as mentioned, the Aussies have nothing particularly special to write home about and Wales should be confident of achieving at least parity. The front row contains abrasive scrummagers in Gethin Jenkins, Chris Horsman, Duncan Jones and Adam Jones – crucially there are more options for Gareth Jenkins to change things around here than there are for John Connolly. Matthew Rees is a decent hooker, although the lineout has struggled recently (against France, Argentina and England) – whether this is his fault or more of a system error remains to be seen. The second row again offers solid players like Alun-Wyn Jones while the back row battle with the Aussies could be one of the most explosive of the group phases. Martyn Williams is an arch spoiler at 7, while a combination of the ever-improving Alix Popham, Michael Owen, Jonathan Thomas and Colin Charvis will cause problems for the Australians.

The Welsh have another crucial advantage in playing the Wallabies, that of playing at home. As mentioned, the IRB has done itself no favours in terms of transparency or fairness with its behind closed doors decision to grant the Welsh and Scots two home ties for a “French” World Cup. A country like France is perfectly capable of hosting the tournament alone – indeed it surely adds to the quality of the tournament to have all matches (apart from those of the hosts of course) played neutrally. Assuming the Welsh public actually get behind their team, then the fantastic atmosphere that the closed roof of the Millennium Stadium can create should help galvanise them against the Australians. Indeed, the recent form of the Welsh against the Wallabies indicates that the match will be a lot tighter than might be imagined. Last Autumn Wales recovered from a nightmare start to draw with Australia in Cardiff (although that Australian team was a shadow of that which performed so admirably in the Tri Nations) and the Australians needed a last minute try to defeat the Welsh in the first of their meetings in Sydney in May. Wales should feel confident that they can at least seriously push Australia for top spot in the group. Both sides will need to be wary of the ultra-physical challenge posed by the Fijians though.

Fiji, like their Pacific Islands brethren in Samoa and Tonga, face the problem of losing many of their top players to Australia and New Zealand. This problem is exacerbated by the IRB’s refusal to back up its oft-spoken desire to foster the game outside of the traditional elite with action – their failure to pressurise the top nations to play the Islanders on any consistent basis must rank (alongside the sidelining of Argentina’s attempts to get a place at the top tables) as the most craven example of the lack of professionalism and desire to maintain the status quo in favour of the established powers that characterise the governing body. Anyway, in spite of these problems, Fiji’s coach, the former Wallaby flanker Ilie Tabua, is remarkably confident about his side’s ability to pull off one of the shocks of the tournament’s history and qualify for the quarter finals. To this end he has targeted the match against Wales in Nantes on 29th September as pivotal. The Fijian players will bring their usual flair and physicality to bear in all games and they will be confident of beating Japan and Canada in their first two games of the group. They will then be in a position to rest their frontliners against Australia (against whom they lost 49-0 in June) on 23rd before putting all of their energies into the Welsh match. The squad is largely unknown, with their portly superstar Rupeni Caucaunibuca having been left behind after he tested positive for cannabis while playing for Agen - the tournament as a whole will be the poorer for the loss of the pie eating maestro. The rest of the squad is in an upbeat mood despite his absence and despite their warm up 29-20 loss to French Top-14 club side Auch, however one feels that the fact that only 60 percent of it plays rugby professionally will count against them if it does come down to a tight finish against the Welsh. Expect fireworks from them, but do not expect the Fijians to be in the mix once the quarter finalists have been decided.

Finally, to the minnows. Surely it is too much to think that Canada and Japan will provide anything other than brave performances in the group before going down to the big guns. They play each other on 25th September and, typically for the IRB’s attitude to smaller nations, have tough turnaround times for their games – Japan play Wales on 20th September while Canada face Australia on 29th. The match against each other surely offers the best chance for both to garner some points and pride in the group. Both have reasons for optimism that they can avoid the wooden spoon. Canada were certainly not humiliated in losing 64-13 in a Tri-Nations warm up match against New Zealand. They beat Portugal 42-12 in Ottawa and in Stade Francais lock Mike James and Albi scrum-half and captain Morgan Williams (who scored two tries against France in the 1999 World Cup) they have experienced leaders. Japan, now coached by former Italian boss and All Black legend John Kirwin, have had a decent warm up – they made Italy struggle in beating them 36-12 in early August. Since then, and like Canada, they beat Portugal, albeit by a far less impressive margin of only two points. They have a spine of New Zealanders and naturalised Pacific Islanders in the team who should add some bite and experience, although they have suffered a big setback with the injury of Daisuke Ohata in the Portugal match – Ohata, a former Montferrand winger, is the world’s leading international try scorer, his 69 eclipsing the 64 scored by David Campese. The Japanese will play with a lot of heart and they carry with them a sense of responsibility for developing the popularity of the game at home, but in reality Kirwin faces an extremely difficult task in getting his players up to the standard required.

So, to sum up, Pool B promises some fascination. How much will depend on the potential shocks – can Wales turn Australia over at home and can Fiji capitalise on their raw talent against the Welsh? In truth the answer to both of these questions is probably no. The Australians are hitting form at just the right time and should have too much for Wales, while the Welsh should be too professional to fall foul of the Islanders. Canada should feel confident about facing the Japanese so expect Japan to finish bottom, preceded by the Canucks and Fijians, with Wales next and Australia joining them in the Quarter Finals as group winners.