Rugby World Cup Pool D Preview

Rugby World Cup - Pool D Preview

Written by therock67
Tuesday, 04 September 2007

Every self-respecting tournament that organises itself into pools and a knockout stage has a group of death. Even the GAA have managed to get their hands on one recently with the hurling qualifiers structured to automatically create one difficult and one easily negotiable pool. The IRB have arrived at this situation in Pool D through design more than accident. Argentina made the breakthrough into the second tier of countries 8 years ago and their reward in the next tournament was a draw against Ireland who were the toughest third seeds by a country mile. And so to balance the books Ireland have been punished by a similarly unfavourable grouping with Argentina in 2007. Apparently thats just coincidence.

There is more expected of this group of Irish players than Irish sportspeople are used to. The benchmark is not merely a couple of decent performances anymore. The supporters will be wary of false dawns and grand slam promises that have so far failed to materialise but it is fair to say that the current team is operating on a higher performance plane than any other Irish squad in recent memory. Crucially, the belief is emanating from the players and the management and not from media hype. There is a confidence in the Irish camp that is derived from successful provincial and international campaigns in recent years and it is backed up by a professionalism and dedication that should be the envy of other sports and a model for them to copy. (As a simple example Damien Duff walks in the sea at Portmarnock Beach while Brian ODriscoll and Gordon DArcy are flown to Poland for advanced chryotherapy to treat similar muscle strains). If Eddie OSullivan achieves nothing else in his tenure as Ireland coach he has introduced a world class international setup to Irish rugby, which is quite an achievement in any Irish sporting organisation.

There were few surprises in the Irish squad but even the couple of mildly unexpected selections appeared to favour common sense over blind loyalty. Tommy Bowe has played far more rugby union that Brian Carney but has been overlooked because he is the inferior player. Likewise Mick ODriscoll has dropped from the top of the pecking order in Rome to no longer featuring for the second choice team. Again his versatility and recent experience was no match for Alan Quinlans abrasiveness and superior talent. Beyond that the squad picked itself and the first 15 players are almost cast in stone at this stage. There are few who doubt the abilities of this team when everyone is fit. South Africa, Australia and England were all comfortably beaten in the last year and the only defeat of relevance, to France, occurred without the presence of either Brian ODriscoll or Peter Stringer. Whether this Irish team is capable of beating New Zealand on a good day remains to be seen but there can be no doubting their competitiveness against any other team in the tournament.

Other than the much discussed lack of strength in depth, of which more anon, the principal area of concern for Ireland is the front row. At this stage its not clear whether Rory Best or Jerry Flannery will join Horan and Hayes in the front row but the Ulsterman is the man in possession and is probably favourite to start as hooker in the big games. As ball-carriers, ruckers, maulers, lifters and tacklers there are no real flaws in this front row but their primary art is scrummaging and this is Irelands most glaring weakness. Of the top tier nations only Australia have as weak a scrum as Ireland and it will certainly be an area that Argentina in particular will want to exploit. On the positive side nobody in the Irish pack is a stranger to a retreating scrum. This may sound irrelevant but there is a certain mastery of the fine arts of yielding yards while not conceding penalties or possession. This was most evident in Denis Leamys initial conversion to a Number Eight with Ireland. Leamy is a fine footballer and a very effective forward but at the back of scrum in his first season as an 8 he was inclined to be trampled on and to fumble the ball as he struggled to keep it under his feet. Its a skill he has subsequently mastered and similarly the props have learned for the most part to end most matches with parity on the penalty count which is no mean achievement when youre backpedalling quicker than the Green Party on the Tara Motorway.

The scrum really is the Achilles heel of the Irish pack but it is a vulnerability that should not detract from the other strengths which the forwards possess in abundance. The Irish lineout is not as imperious in recent games as it was a year or two ago, but it is still as good as any other setpiece with the possible exception of South Africa. The loss of form in that area is partly attributable to the hookers jersey moving from Sheahan to Flannery to Best in recent seasons and the long preparation time for this tournament should iron out most of those problems. There were some worrying signs about the performance of the pack at rucks in particular in the Scotland and Italy games recently but it is very difficult to make any sort of assessment on form on the basis of friendly internationals so near a major tournament. The back row were comprehensively outplayed in both those matches but the importance of David Wallaces return to the side should not be underestimated. Wallace has been a key factor in the development of this team over the past couple of seasons and Neil Best is not a genuine openside alternative.

The backline is a real strength for Ireland and on any sort of comfortable platform provided by the forwards there is potential to score tries against any defence. Peter Stringers quick ball has been taken for granted a little in recent years and there have been a few calls for the inclusion of Reddan or Boss in his place. The same fools were clamouring for Guy Easterby to get the scrum halfs jersey a few years ago (stand up George Hook) and only his sheer incompetence forced them to acknowledge what Stringer brings to the team. At out half OGara is in the best form of his life. His punting out of hand is peerless, while he does not have the same distance in his boot as Dan Carter or Percy Montgomery for example, he more than makes up for it with accuracy. Crucially however it is his distribution which has improved beyond recognition in recent seasons and his play calling in attacking situations is excellent.

Outside OGara the Leinster backs operate in a more disciplined manner for Ireland than that employed under Cheika at Leinster but it is no less potent an attacking force. Brian ODriscoll spoke recently about Ireland employing no more than four different moves in the Six Nations, all they varied beyond that was the recipient of the ball. At first this seems like an astonishingly small number of moves to have in our locker to try and unlock international defences but it is the flawless execution of those rehearsed moves that delivers so many tries for Ireland. The reinvigoration of Girvan Dempsey and Denis Hickie in recent seasons is crucial to the success of the backline. Previously the strike runners in the Irish backline were all too obvious because the truth was that Tommy Bowe or Tyrone Howe or a sluggish Girvan Dempsey simply wouldnt be getting the ball in the opponents 22. It may be confidence derived from Leinsters style of play or the coaching of Cheika or OSullivan but whatever the cause there isnt a weak link in the Irish threequarters.

It is easy to focus too much on the negatives of this Irish team but the reality is that this is a superb set of players. Geordan Murphy would be first choice for possibly every other country in the competition but he will have to be content with a place on the bench with Ireland. Brian Carney would be in the first team for Scotland, Wales or England (given their fondness for rugby league converts) but he wont make the Irish bench barring injuries. ODriscoll and DArcy is undoubtedly the best centre partnership in world rugby. New Zealand are peerless in most aspects of their game but they are way behind Ireland in the centres.

Much has been made of the lack of depth in the Irish squad but the reality is that this competition should not be significantly more onerous than a Six Nations campaign. The facile opening games against Namibia and Georgia will be virtually effortless for Ireland and there is a healthy nine day gap between the big games of France and Argentina. The attrition rate in rugby can be very high obviously but this is a well conditioned team and a game a week should not be too much of a burden on the players. Injuries at outside half, outside centre or openside flanker would be fairly damning for Irelands chances but its fair to say that most other countries have key players that theyd really struggle without. The greatest achievement of this Irish team in recent years is consistency. Every Six Nations campaign until last year suffered at lease one 80 minute breakdown where Ireland suffered a horrendous defeat. In 2006 that disaster was restricted to 40 minutes against France, which Ireland nearly recovered from. In 2007 the performances werent all of stellar quality but significantly there was no match where Ireland simply didnt show up la the shocking effort against France in 2003

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France are the clear favourites to win Pool D and it’s not hard to understand why. Home advantage was a big factor in their soccer team winning the 1998 World Cup and the rugby side have always benefited from playing in front of partisan audiences. They are on a decent run of form coming into the tournament with two decent wins over England but these victories followed a disastrous summer when New Zealand murdered them 61-10 in Wellington. Their Six Nations crown was probably deserved over the course of the tournament but after beating an Irish side without Stringer and O’Driscoll they struggled to a victory over Wales and were outplayed and outfought at Twickenham in losing to a very average England. Before that was another humiliation to New Zealand, this time in Lyon where the All Blacks won 47-3. The form is no more impressive than Ireland’s and there is a brittleness there that might be hard to shake.

Even as individuals the French side does not have the air of invincibility of previous outfits. Perhaps the Heineken Cup and Setanta’s coverage of the Top 14 has exposed us to far more of the mediocrity of French rugby than the Irish public might have been aware of before. The backrow for the opening fixture against Argentina contains Remy Martin for example, who doesn’t exactly put the fear of God into opposing flankers. Sebastien Chabal has only made the bench for that game, though he’s sure to play a part. Another man who might have frightened the living daylights out of an unsuspecting opponent in years past but his shortcomings with Sale, and France, are glaringly apparent to any rugby fan these days. The back three includes both Rougerie and Heymans who aren’t terrifyingly elusive in the way French wingers always used to appear. In short, there are weaknesses in this team, and importantly from an Irish perspective, there is nothing to fear from taking them on out wide.

Argentina v France - image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/rsepulvedaOf course France have their brilliance too. The front row battle with Argentina promises fireworks, the front row battle with Ireland will be something closer to genocide. Pelous has had better years but he is a world class forward on the way down, not a journeyman in his 30s. Harinordoquoy and Betsen are top drawer back row forwards and a measure of France’s strength in that area is that Nyanga doesn’t even make the bench against Argentina despite Laporte making room for 3 loose forwards. Behind the scrum there is a little more uncertainty. Ellisade has lost out to Mignoni at scrum half and Skrela has beaten Michalak to the number 10 jersey. While there is an obvious depth of talent at half back the absence of a definitive pairing is as indicative of fluctuating form as of healthy competition. With Damien Traille in at 12 the creativity for France doesn’t really start until the ball moves to second centre where Jauzion looks to be rediscovering his best form.

Fired up in front of full houses it is hard to imagine France getting ambushed by Argentina in the first game of the group stage. It won’t all be plain sailing for them throughout the group however and the game against Ireland will be a real test of their tournament pedigree. France will need to achieve the sort of consistency that has eluded them in the past few seasons if they’re to have any hope of winning the tournament. With the debates over selection sure to extend for as many rounds as France are involved in, it’s hard to believe they will arrive at a settled side and without consistency of selection their form is likely to be erratic also.

The supposed dark horses of Pool D are Argentina but the whole world has seen them coming thanks to some high profile performances in the last two world cups as well as a storming of “Fortress Twickenham.” Two test wins against (a depleted) Ireland at the start of the summer will have reminded everyone just how potent a threat they can be and France won’t be unaware of their strengths either, having played to them more times that any other nation.

Still there is more than a surprise factor in Argentina’s locker. They possess a formidable pack, half a half back partnership, and some exciting outside backs. It is no disservice to any other aspect of Argentina’s play to say that their front row is undoubtedly their strongest weapon. Mario Ledesma is possibly the best hooker in the game today alongside John Smit and he is ably propped up by a combination of Roncero, Hasan and Ayerza. Argentina delivers an endless supply of top class props who run with the ball almost as well as they scrummage. They will be a key weapon in Argentina’s efforts against Ireland in particular and if the Pumas can keep the ball in the trenches then Ireland will be in serious trouble.

The rest of the pack is not too shabby either but it lacks the obvious class of the front row. Lobbe and Alvarez are a very handy second row pairing and there is a wealth of international class back-rowers though guys like Longo, Ostiglia and Durand are all the wrong side of 30. As a unit they will be fiercely competitive however and will certainly relish contact situations where brute strength is likely to be their main advantage over opponents.

The pack will be marshalled as ever by Pichot at scrum half who mixes the options superbly for Argentina. Like all good scrum halves he has a range of options open to him at all times including his own break which has created plenty of scores over the years. Out half is a big decision for coach Marcelo Loffreda and the indications are that he’s likely to opt for the conservative kicking game of Todeschini over the altogether more expansive Felipe Contepomi. This is a significant limitation of Argentina’s attacking abilities because while they’re blessed with pace outside, there is a definite difficulty in moving the ball from out half to the wings. In fairness moving Contepomi to out half would merely be rearranging the deckchairs on HMS Sheffield because there is a deficiency at centre also, worsened by the loss of Gaitan to a heart ailment. The pity for Argentina is that they are blessed with impressive talents outside. Lucas Borges and Ignacio Corleto will be a match for almost any opponents they are faced with and Juan Martin Hernandez at full back is an astonishingly effective runner with the ball.

Argentina are certainly a talented squad and they will relish the tag of underdogs in the group. The reality however, is that they are underdogs because they’re not quite at the same level as either Ireland or France. The pack is a bruising bunch but it lacks a little in the back five. They have a maestro at scrum half but they’re unlikely to pair him with his equally mercurial partner at half back because he’s needed to plug a hole elsewhere. Like Ireland they lack depth but worse they’re probably a team of 11 or 12 great players and not the 15 or 16 that Ireland have. It’s a crying shame that they have been shafted yet again when their chance to shine on the big stage has come along but expect Argentina to drop out in the pool stages.

So can Ireland emerge from this group, and if so can they challenge for honours in the tournament? Undoubtedly Argentina make for tough opponents but the reality is that they’re not as good a side as Ireland and while they will provide a keen contest it would still be quite a shock if Ireland were turned over by the Pumas. Other than that game Ireland have to win one tough match to reach the World Cup semi-finals. Beat France and it’s easy street against Scotland or Italy in the easy half of the draw. Lose to France and there’s one game against an untested New Zealand team to reach the last four. It’s not supposed to be a procession at this level of international rugby and all the pools should be as competitive (or close to it) as this grouping. Ireland and France will have it tough early on but they should emerge from the group and they’ll be battle-hardened when arriving into the quarter finals which might be no harm at all in the long run.

Predictions:

  1. Ireland (finalists)
  2. France (quarter-finalists)
  3. Argentina
  4. Namibia
  5. Georgia