WITH World Cup kick-off now just a day away, things are getting tense in Tokyo. There has been a lot of speculation about who will lift the Webb Ellis Cup in five weeks’ time, but the not inconsequential matter of who will progress from the pool stage – and with what seeding – must be established first
It is not as straightforward as it seems. Just ask England, who didn’t make it out of the pool in 2015, or Scotland in 2011, or Wales and Ireland in 2007. Or Italy in every one of the eight previous tournaments.
So, how will the pool stage pan out this time?
Pool A: An intriguing and competitive pool, bar Ivan in the corner.
Participants: Ireland, Japan, Scotland, Samoa and Russia
Ireland and Scotland are favourites to progress but the hosts cast a shadow over the whole pool. The Japanese public may not be ardent rugby fans but they will turn out in droves to cheer the Brave Blossoms when the eyes of the world are watching. Samoa won’t qualify but they may yet have a say in who does. For so long the whipping boys of international rugby, Japan will spank Russia hard in tomorrow’s opener and everyone else will do the same to Russia further on down the tracks. They are only there because Romania, Spain and Portugal were caught fielding ineligible players and Russia may yet have cause to regret it.
Qualify: Ireland & Scotland….although you wouldn’t want your mortgage riding on it.
Pool B: A two-horse race that starts and finishes with that opening tie.
Participants: Canada, Namibia, Italy, New Zealand and South Africa.
This is the dullest pool in the competition, effectively over after the big clash between the two front-runners on the opening weekend. You have to feel a little for Italy who have zero chance of making their debut in the playoffs after drawing the form team going into the tournament and the perennial favourites in their group … nae luck. Canada and Namibia (the lowest ranked country in the competition at 24th) will just hope to get the hell out of Dodge with the minimum of casualties because neither side looks remotely capable of coping with what is coming down the tracks.
Qualify: New Zealand & South Africa although not necessarily in that order.
Pool C: A two-horse race for second place?
Participants: Argentina, England, France, Tonga and USA.
Given their crushing superiority in several warm-up matches, you would think Eddie Jones’ England should secure top slot in this pool, but you never know. Argentina and France generally reserve their best for the World Cup, but the Pumas have overlooked several experienced and talented European-based players – Facundo Isa, Santi Cordero and Juan Imhoff to name three. The tactic might work – the Jaguares reached the Super Rugby final after all – but from a distance it looks like a mistake. Tonga were kyboshed by the Blacks recently and can expect more of the same, but the USA will want to lay down a marker before bidding to host RWC’27.
Qualify: England & France.
Pool D. Includes every fan’s ‘second team’.
Participants: Australia, Fiji, Georgia, Uruguay and Wales.
This one is wide open and, whatever they may say in public, in private most players/coaches will want to top Pool D if only to avoid England in the quarter-finals (presuming Pool C sticks to the script). Georgia may be the “best of the rest” in Europe but, as Scottish fans have seen, that is not particularly good. Uruguay will go down swinging while Fiji, and please pray to your own god(s) that I am wrong on this, will exhilarate and exasperate in equal measure without, quite, having the discipline and the defence to give Wales or the Wallabies a real hurry up.
Qualify: Australia & Wales…in that order.