Rugby World Cup - Pool C Preview

Rugby World Cup - Pool C Preview

Written by Fats
Thursday, 23 August 2007

NZ Haka - image by there’s one factor that has damaged the credibility of previous Rugby World Cups, it’s the lack of competition in the group stages. Too many matches are cricket-score turkey-shoots with the qualifiers to the knock-out stages tediously predictable from the outset. Finally, at the sixth attempt, the situation appears to be improving slightly. Leaving aside Ireland’s ludicrously difficult Pool D, and the not impossible but blissfully appealing prospect of Samoa dumping England out at the group stages, there is one other member of the traditional elite whose supporters are starting to feel a little nervous and it’s in Pool C. New Zealand could probably play their second fifteen and still comfortably top this group, but the key interest is in the race for second where Italy carry realistic hopes of toppling Scotland and finishing runners-up.

Let’s get New Zealand out of the way first. Basically, they’re amazing. They’ve probably had the first and second best teams in the world over the last two years and are stand-out favourites for the tournament. Theyll walk this group and most pundits have had them pencilled in as champions since their demolition of the woefully inept Lions of 2005. And yet. They’ve been favourites for probably every tournament except 2003 and have crumbled with the finishing line in sight in all but the first. Graham Henry claims to have exorcised these mental demons and the current squad certainly appear incredibly well-prepared, with quality back-up methodically developed in nearly every position. However, they failed to impress to their usual standards in the recent Tri-Nations where they appeared to be seizing up at crucial moments. Australia turned them over and, no less than Ireland, it’s hard not to think that injuries to their talismans McCaw and Carter would rattle them.

New Zealand - image by, theres no doubt that New Zealand possess far superior quality in depth to any other nation and their first fifteen features a beautiful blend between supremely gifted athletes like Carter and Rokocoko and fearsome wrecking balls like Collins and Hayman. But that’s not to say that there aren’t areas in the team that are weaker than others. At hooker Mealamu and Oliver are competent international players but by no means the best in the world. In the backrow, Rodney So’oialo is a powerful number 8, but clearly not the equal in quality of McCaw and Collins. And at thirteen, Ma’a Nonu is an exceptionally strong and fast runner but his game is riddled with defects, both mental and technical. South Africa, Australia and France will all hold realistic hopes, if not expectations, that if they can stay with New Zealand until late in the game, those nagging doubts will start to creep in and the all powerful All Blacks could start to unravel. The danger for the New Zealand management is that the players start to worry about what other people are whispering; that the All Blacks have peaked too early. Again.

First up for New Zealand are Italy in the opening match of Pool B. The Italians have come on leaps and bounds in recent years and now possess a strong physical pack the equal of any of the Celtic nations. In lock Marco Bortolami and flankers Marco Bergamasco and Sergio Parisse, they have powerful, mobile and abrasive forwards while their combative front row of Martin Catrogiovanni, Salvatore Perugini and hooker Fabio Ongaro is an excellent scrummaging unit that likes to hurt people in the loose. It is to the Italian forwards’ credit that opposing packs in the Six Nations always cite Rome as the most physical venue in the tournament.

Unfortunately, the parity of possession and territory that the pack can win tends not to be converted into parity of points by the somewhat lightweight backs. Despite quality players like Mirco Bergamasco and Gonzalo Canale, Italy’s backs have tended to be a poorly organised unit who lack pace and cohesion. A dearth of incisive attacking skills allied to a generally poor kicking game from the back three, mean that Italy’s backs tend to squander much of the forwards good work. With little choice but to select the limited and defensively questionable Remiro Pez, coach Pierre Berbizier will try to play to Italy’s strength by opting for a conservative kicking game based around forward power. In short, they will take the Scots on upfront.

Of all the former powers, Scotland has been hurt the most by professionalism. With a recent record of dismal failure in the Six Nations and the all too real prospect of only one professional club team operating in the country, it’s hard to remember that Scotland were only narrowly defeated by England in the 1991 World Cup semi final. It now appears that it was the very nature of the amateur game which allowed the Scots to punch above their weight in playing numbers. A Scottish team has only once qualified for the quarter finals of the Heineken Cup and they finished bottom of the Six Nations last year, after providing Italy with their first ever away win in the tournament.

Nonetheless, Scotland have improved under Frank Hadden after the disastrous and embarrassingly self-serving tenure of former Leinster coach Matt Williams. As evidenced in the recent warm-up fixture against Ireland, their strongest area is in the back-row. Simon Taylor, Alistair Hogg and the outstanding Jason White simply blew the Irish backrow off the pitch. Quick and powerful forwards are necessary to implement the traditional Scottish fast-rucking game and Hadden seems to favour playing to Scotland’s strengths. The choice between playing to the pack and a more expansive game is crystallised in the selection at out-half. Dan Parks is a kicking fly-half who struggles to move his backs. Yet the experiment of playing the fleet-footed Chris Patterson at pivot has had mixed results. Despite a relatively lightweight front five and the possession of some genuine pace on the wings, expect Hadden to revert to type against the Italians. There’s simply too much at stake for him to risk trying to develop a more expansive game, especially considering the disastrous results this had the last time these teams met, when the Italians had scored three tries within seven minutes.

And so to the makeweights. While you’d think dodging all the cars on the M50 would lend itself to fast feet and better balance, sad to say, the increased exposure to rugby union through the burgeoning Romanian population in Ireland has so far failed to provide a noticeable fillip to the national team. Despite having one of the best props in the game, in the devastatingly destructive Petru Balan of Biarritz and possessing a growing number of players plying their trade in the French league, the Romanians simply don’t have the strength in depth to mount a serious challenge to the third tier teams of Scotland and Italy. While their star players such as Balan and Perpignan hooker Marius Tincu may win their individual battles, they’re doomed to be let down by home-based amateurs in other positions. In 2003 against Ireland, the especially weak link was provided by the painfully inept and slightly onomatopoeic outhalf Ionut Tofan. Unfortunately, it’s likely to be more of the same this time out. The outstanding Balan deserves better and it behoves the other Northern Hemisphere unions to follow France’s example and provide greater support to the game in Romania.

And finally what of Pool C’s minnows, Portugal? An improving side in recent years, this is the first Rugby World Cup finals they’ve qualified for and they will be bristling with Iberian pride to represent their country on a world stage. So can they provide any shocks? Not a fucking chance. I don’t know anything about them, but they’ll probably get thrashed by Romania.

So then, New Zealand at a canter but the real interest is in the final group game between Scotland and Italy in Saint Etienne on Saturday 29th September. After a disgraceful itinerary in the last World Cup saw them play four games in fourteen days, this time the playing schedule favours the Italians. After their first game against New Zealand, they play Romania and Portugal, giving them time to regroup before their winner-takes-all tie against the Scots. Scotland, on the other hand, face New Zealand in Murrayfield just six days before the Italian match. If the situation were reversed, Italy would probably rest some of their key players in anticipation of the crunch game. Taking account of the likelihood of their beating the All Blacks, Scotland might be well advised to do the same. But given their fragile confidence, the management may feel they cannot afford a morale-sapping thrashing from the Blacks. Furthermore, as a member of the traditional elite, the once proud Scots will be reluctant to be humiliated on their home ground while in the process admitting they are scared by the prospect of facing Italy. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t for the management, with criticism from the home press likely either way. However, this is the new reality for the Scots. If they can’t accept that, an early exit is all the more possible. It would be another body-blow for Scottish rugby and one that it might not recover from.

In Irish rugby circles there has been a barely concealed undercurrent of at best ambivalence and at worst schadenfreude towards Scottish rugby’s decline in recent years. More understandably, a lot of rugby fans would like to see the Italians qualify, not just because they’re the underdogs, but because of what it would signify about the spread of rugby into new territories. However, those people might also spend a little time considering what such a result would mean for the future of rugby in one of its traditional strongholds.