It’s T-Minus three days, and counting, until the most euphoric (or depressing) event of the South African sporting calendar kicks-off. And we can’t wait. STYLI CHARALAMBOUS previews Rugby World Cup 2011 and what we can expect from each pool.
Deemed somewhat of a poorer cousin to its Football World Cup equivalent when it debuted in 1987, the Rugby World Cup has matured into a global spectacle, with each tournament surpassing the milestones set by its predecessor.
At the inaugural event hosted by New Zealand and Australia, the full IRB board member countries, bar South Africa – excluded due to the apartheid global sporting ban – automatically filled seven of the 16 places. The balance of the participating teams were specially invited by the IRB, albeit with a few controversies along the way, as Western Samoa was snubbed by the IRB and the USSR declined the invitation, as a protest against the fact South Africa was still a full IRB board member.
Since then the tournament has prospered to the extent that the 2007 tournament achieved several notable landmarks. The global TV audience grew from 300 million in the maiden tournament to surpass 4 billion for the first time, and was broadcast to 238 countries. And in France, the television audience was evenly split between men and women. The RWC now boasts fourth place on the list of most-watched sporting events, after the Fifa World Cup, the summer Olympics and the Tour de France.
As RWC 2011, looks to break all records, we take a look at each pool and the likely road to the play-off rounds.
The opening match kicks off at 10:30 CAT on 9 September, with hosts New Zealand taking on South Pacific rivals, Tonga. The All Blacks are talking up Tonga’s chances saying how tough the match will be, but with the subplot of trying to defuse the pressure of a nation’s hopes. Tonga, as they showed South Africa in 2007, are capable of scaring higher-rated teams, but are still unlikely to cause an upset. The Kiwi’s have never lost a pool game in the RWC and the Tongans have never progressed to the play-offs, which is why the bookies are expecting a 65-point rout by the hosts.
The main game of Pool A will be when the mercurial French and so often the Achilles heel of the All Blacks, take on the tournament favourites on 24 September in Auckland. Billed as THE match of the pool stages, French fans hope for another surprise performance that will throw playoff predictions into disarray. France have had a decent warm-up campaign to this RWC, with wins over Ireland, while the All Blacks are coming off the back of consecutive Tri-Nations losses.
France will be counting on the psychological weight of the islands to deter the home side along with some Gaelic magic to emerge as Pool A victors and a slightly easier playoff voyage. While Graham Henry and his men will be wary of the French challenge, they will know that past embarrassments at the hands of the Tricolours have come in the playoff stages, and not in the pool stages where the pressure is less intense. Expect New Zealand to edge out the French in a close, yet comfortable encounter and the rest of the teams to battle for third spot.
Daily Maverick Prediction: New Zealand, France, Japan, Tonga, Canada
This group, along with South Africa’s Pool D, is viewed as the most likely to offer an upset victory. Scotland upended Ireland in their first RWC warm-up match and are one of three challengers that could top this pool. No doubt Andy Robinson’s charges will be watching endless re-runs of “Braveheart” in the lead-up to what could be the pool decider against England, on 1 October in Auckland.
If the all-British encounter were played earlier in the pool stages, when the depth of the Scottish squad were less likely to be tested, we’d be putting a few bob on a close win for the Scots. Similarly, if they get to play England without any key injuries, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a poor English performance to hand the Scots the pool.
Argentina will be hoping to emulate their stellar 2007 performance, by upsetting the northern hemisphere applecart in this tough group. Having been well beaten by Wales in their warm-up campaign, and losing several playmakers to retirement and injury, many will be writing off the challenge of the South Americans, albeit at their peril. Eastern Europeans Romania and Georgia will offer some resistance to the second-string teams of their bigger rivals, but ultimately battle it out to evade the wooden spoon.
Daily Maverick Prediction: Scotland, England, Argentina, Romania, Georgia
Australia, one the pre-tournament favourites after beating New Zealand to lift the Tri-Nations trophy, are likely shoo-ins to top this group. The only real challenge should come from Ireland, even though they clocked up three consecutive warm-up losses leading into the tournament. While the Irish do not have a proud World Cup pedigree, they do have a history of running Australia close, twice losing out to last-gasp scores by the Wallabies.
Nick Mallet’s Italians will be looking to send off their coach on a high, but realistically will only be hoping to pilfer second place from the Irish when they meet in the final encounter of this pool. A lot will depend on the state of the Irish psyche after the Australian test. If they run the Aussies close, expect the Irish to close out any challenge from the Italians. However, if Australia manage to obliterate the men in emerald green, the Azzuri could sneak into second position. USA and Russia will play out their version of the cold war, without offering any real challenge to the other teams.
Daily Maverick Prediction: Australia, Ireland, Italy, USA, Russia
The desires of 50 million South Africans will be egging on their team to avert any slip-ups before the knockout stages. A physically tough series of examinations await the Boks as they line-up against the Welsh on 11 September and then Fiji on the 17th. Both teams are capable of upsets, with the Welsh beating England in a warm-up match and Fiji nearly providing South African fans with complimentary heart-attacks in France 2007. And to round off the pool, the every physical Samoans await the Boks, fresh from defeating Australia in a Tri-Nations warm-up match.
Fiji, will be eyeing the Welsh encounter as their opportunity to book a ticket into the next round, hoping to repeat their feats of the previous tournament where they shocked the Joneses and effectively ended their slim chances of progressing past the pool stages. Wales should, however, deal with the Fijian challenge, but it’s against the ever-improving Samoans where they could blush. If South Africa beat the Welsh convincingly in the opening encounter and impose an injury concern or two, the men from the South Pacific could turn the dragons over in the surprise result of the tournament.
If South Africa finish the pool unscathed, in defeat and injury, they will be in a good position to take on challengers in the next stage of the tournament. But that is a biggish “if”. Expect a tight group finish, with results having to be ground out with numerous penalty goals for infringements against the lower-ranked teams that will struggle technically at scrum time. Namibia, will unfortunately for them, provide the cannon fodder for the group.
Daily Maverick Prediction: South Africa, Samoa, Wales, Fiji, Namibia
Pool Play-Off Schedule (all times CAT)
08/10 – 07:00 Winner C – Runner-up D Wellington
08/10 – 09:30 Winner B – Runner-up A Auckland
09/10 – 07:00 Winner D – Runner-up C Wellington
09/10 – 09:30 Winner A – Runner-up B Auckland
15/10 – 10:00 Winner QF 1 – Winner QF 2 Auckland
16/10 – 10:00 Winner QF 3 – Winner QF 4 Auckland
3rd Place Play-Off
21/10 – 09:30 Loser SF 1 – Loser SF 2 Auckland
23/10 – 10:00 Winner SF 1 – Winner SF 2 Auckland
Here’s to tries, drop goals and a flurry of upsets. Here’s to growing the reach of the game and most of all, here’s to an enthralling month-and-a-half of rugby pleasure, that will no doubt keep SAB Miller’s share price elevated. DM
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas