World Cup Preview: Fiji & Namibia

Group D Opposition: South Africa, Wales, Samoa

Pedigree: With a very respectable history at this tournament, Fiji are twice quarter-finalists, most recently in 2007. Despite having no right to be on the same field as the Springboks (copyright Jacque Fourie), they were far from disgraced in a 37-20 defeat, having earlier disposed of Wales in the pool stages.

This will be Namibia’s 4th successive finals, although they have no wins to report – their best result being the 17-32 humiliation wreaked on Eddie’s Ireland in Bordeaux. To put that in context, their next best results are 30-point defeats to Romania and Georgia, and their worst was 0-142 against the Wallabies in 2003.

Players to watch: Fijian flyer Napolioni Nalaga intimidated much of Europe as part of an all-conquering (well, all except Munster and Leinster) Clermont side, but he failed to return from holiday, then said he was suffering from depression, and ended up being let go. His whereabouts were a mystery until he appeared (and scored two tries) at the PNC – lets hope he is back in full fitness (mental and physical) and his best. Anyone who has watched Racing Metro this season has probably seen Albert VuliVuli get a yellow card for a high tackle – the man is a powerful centre and should love the Bokkebosh game.
If you were told of a Jacques Burger who plays for Saracens, you might guess his nationality as Seth Efrican. But you’d be wrong – he’s Namibian, like Percy Montgomery. Although he’s unlikely to emulate Percy’s 2007 feats. Namibia also have a hooker who has piqued our interest – a man called Egbertus O’Callaghan. We wonder does he give away dumb penalties when Namibia have the opposition under control? If so, we have a funny feeling we know one of his distant cousins…

Good tournament: For Fiji, another quarter-final will be the expectation, and they have respectable records against all of the bigger guns in this pool. Namibia will hope to get away with their dignity intact.

Bad tournament: For Fiji, losing to both Wales and Samoa is the worst-case scenario. Namibia will fear having a century put on them by the notoriously sympathetic-to-the-underdog South Africa – and having the ability to speak the same language as Bakkies Botha is not necessarily a good thing.

Prospects: In one sense, it’s harsh to put these teams together as, unlike some of our other minnows previews, one team is streets ahead of the other. But we had to put Namibia somewhere. They are comprised mostly of home-based players and semi-pros playing in their powerful neighbour next door, with a few lads based in France, England and Romania (!) thrown in. They recently beat Portugal and came within a score of depleted Romania and Georgia sides in the Nations Cup, which is far from disgraceful, although their previous tour in November 2010 saw them emerge winless from Iberia.

At 20th in the world, they are the lowest ranked team in the competition, despite it being their best ever position. As always, one hopes they can do their country proud and expand rugby’s appeal, but this could be a high-water mark, given the cultural background of the sport in their country, and the up-coming teams from Iberia and South America who could potentially overtake them in the near future.

Fiji surpassed all expectations in 2007 with a first quarter-final appearance in 20 years, welting Wales after struggling past Japan and Canada; then giving the Springboks a decent run for their money. Since then, they have exported a few big and threatening backs to France, and had a few pretty successful tours of the Northern hemisphere. In 2009 in the lashing rain at the RDS, they saw Jonny Sexton and Mushy make promising debuts for Ireland, and were in contention until giving away a silly try after half-time, then fell apart. This winter, they should have won in the Millennium, but failed to put away a woeful Welsh side when the opportunity presented itself.

They mostly beat Samoa in their PNC games, but Samoa have more players from Europe to bring in. It’s a huge pity that perhaps their best eligible player, Isa Nacewa, has refused a call-up. It’s hard to blame him, given the circumstances of his single cap, but he would be exactly the kind of intelligent pivot this team could do with if they’re to win three games in this group.

Verdict: Like Samoa, Fiji are involved in a three-team mini-league with Wales. The three teams are fairly closely matched, and it’s feasible each could win one from two. But we anticipate Wales to have too much class and squeeze out Fiji and Samoa in the final reckoning, possibly due to bonus points. Namibia will get panned by all-comers – they have been thrown in with three teams who enjoy throwing the ball around and a fourth who enjoy kicking the ball into orbit and beating up on minnows – we anticipate an average losing margin of around 50 points.

Irelandwatch: Things Are Grim, But It’s Not 2007 Yet

As the final whistle went at Lansdowne Road, the only positive to take from the game was that there were none left until the real business begins.  No more opportunities to get injured, no need to endure another 80 punishing minutes of lateral passing and one-out runners.  It’s been a grim series for Ireland, with injuries now beginning to pile-up and confidence shattered.  They have been outmuscled upfront, and dull in attack.  Wally and Felix Jones have been lost to injury, while BOD, O’Brien, Kearney, Heaslip and Healy will travel injured.

The question now being posed is, Are we in a worse position than in 2007?  Then Ireland travelled with little confidence after a similarly poor showing in the warm-up games, but at least everyone was fit (and buff!).  Factor in a daft new contract handed out to management, and you begin to get a sense of deja vu.  The answer, though, is a straight ‘no’.  Yes, we are playing badly.  Yes, the warm up series looks misguided now.  No, we won’t beat Australia.  No, we certainly won’t make it beyond a quarter-final.  But a horror show of 2007 proportions is still a long shot.

Four years ago, each player knew which half of the squad they were in: the untouchables or the tackle-bag-holders.  For all Kidney’s flaws of selection and tactics, he has created a little competition for places.  By leaving O’Leary and Fitzgerald at home, he has served notice that nobody is untouchable.  Yes, he looks to have curious soft spots for the likes of Leamy and O’Callaghan, but it’s not quite a two tier squad.

Life in camp can hardly be worse this time around.  In 2007, the players hated the trips to Spala, hated their soulless Bordeaux hotel, hated the food they got served, hated the long training sessions that were a substitute for games, and a deep malaise set in.  This time around, the hip student town of Queenstown beckons, training will be very light, and the players are currently buying presents for each other.  How lovely!  Everyone in the squad is great friends!  What a shame they’re playing like drains.

Finally, and most importantly, Ireland’s draw is nowhere near as arduous.  In 2007, Ireland were pitted against France in Paris, usually a banker, and a superb Argentina side, which turned up with an almost feral desire to stick one on the old boys club that is the established nations.  When Argentina won the opening encounter against France, it was the worst possible outcome for Ireland, as it effectively left us needing to beat Argentina by four tries.  This time we can be confident Australia will trounce all-comers, leaving us in a straight shootout with Italy – beaten comfortably by Scotland last weekend – to qualify. 

So, it’s good news!  Ireland can play rubbish and still get out with at least their dignity intact, by winning just one out of three games against established opposition.  It’ll be very disappointing, and we know this squad is capable of better, but it’s one notch above abject humiliation.

Bosh it, kick it, stick it up the jumper, but just don’t run it.

When England beat Australia 35-18 in November it was the most lauded international performance of the year, and not just because it was England. Here was Johnson’s New England! Playing with width and pace!  It was a handsome win, owing much to running with the ball in the players’ actual hands, and a pack notable not so much for their chest measurements as their mobility, with Croft, Lawes and Moody to the fore.  England took their newfound attacking game into the Six Nations and easily disposed of Wales and Italy, and if they spluttered a bit through the second half of the campaign, they topped the log nonetheless.

But now, on the eve of the World Cup, all the talk in Camp England is of reverting  to what Martin Johnson describes as ‘cup rugby’ (translation: bosh and boot) and even flying wing Chris Ashton has said that England will ‘kick the leather off the ball if they have to’. Sounds terrific. The squad, loaded with five props, 17 forwards, and not a sniff of an openside flanker or a creative midfielder, is geared towards playing only one way.  And it seems Jonny Wilkinson is set to displace Flood at 10, a surefire sign that scores will be racked up in multiples of three.

So, what was the point in developing the fast-paced game that dismantled Australia and won England their first Six Nations since 2003, only to revert when it most matters to the old dull England that gave us such thrilling encounters as drawing 15-15 with Scotland?  Is this the shrewd thinking of a World Cup winner who knows how to navigate his way through knockout rugby?  Or has Jonno simply bottled it?  We suspect it’s the latter.  Perhaps Jonno’s thighs are moistening as the impending tournament stirs memories of his 2003 triumph, which was won with, shall we say, a less than exciting brand of rugger.  But that England pack was littered with world class players – the current one is nowhere near as good.  Looking at their group opposition – namely Scotland and Argentina – it looks like the best way for England to beat them is to put a bit of pace and width on it.  Why do these two dogged but uninspiring sides the favour of dragging yourself down to their level?
It’s enough to make us revisit our forecast that England will make a semi-final.  Perhaps this will be the year France, who are looking good, and will be happy to play it either way, finally get on top of them.

World Cup Preview: Samoa

Group D Opposition: South Africa, Wales, Fiji, Namibia

Pedigree: Samoa (as Western Samoa) were the first of the so-called Tier 2 nations to shock a big gun – beating Wales in 1991. Thay have a proud record, making 2 quarter-finals and one quarter-final play-off (in 1999, the stage where Ireland tried a 14 man lineout against Argentina). Recent editions haven’t been as happy – 2007 was their worst tournament to date, with only one win – and they finished as the lowest ranked Pacific team.

Players to watch: The entire team bristles with power, pace and no little footballing skills. For some reason, players who spend their Premiership careers aiming for contact become skilled steppers in their national shirt. like Ooooooooohh Seilala Mapasua – you won’t see pointless knock-ons like you do in Reading. Ooooooooohh Alesana Tuilagi made the WoC HEC Team of the Year, and deservedly so – he gave the Leinster defence more problems that any other player, except (bizarrely) Ooooooooohh James Downey. The era of Pacific packs being shunted around the place are long gone – formidable technicians who love the set piece have emerged, the best of which is Toulouse man-mountain and Iskanders fan Ooooooooohh Census Johnston.

Good tournament: With their RWC record against Wales (P2 W2), a quarter-final is the expectation in Samoa. If they get there, giving Australia a game is required.

Bad tournament: Not getting out of the group – it’s going to be doggedly competitive, but expectations have been raised by recent results.

Prospects: Samoa are a proud rugby nation, and bring real personality and charm to the tournament. The innate physical strength and handling skills of the Samoans have been honed at Sevens level, and for a country with less people than Cork, they punch way above their weight.

The virtual wipeout in 2007 was a huge disappointment in Samoa, and being usurped by Fiji and Tonga even more so, especially given the quality of the squad. Post-2009, the IRB formally included Pacific teams in the international schedule, giving the islands a chance to re-connect with players in Europe, and build between tournaments. In Samoa’s case, this seemed to herald the development of a low-risk percentage game utterly different to tradition.

The tours to the Northern Hemisphere in 2009 and 2010 featured grinding defeats to Ireland, England, Scotland & Wales without the pyrotechnics and running from everywhere expected. A slight suspicion Samoa were developing a backbone of steel was confirmed in Sydney last month, when Australia were downed 32-23 in a game Samoa dominated, both at the breakdown and in line breaks – Matt Giteau certainly won’t forget it in a while, given he has been cast aside as a result.

The draw for this tournament is a little tricky for Samoa – while Wales haven’t beaten them in World Cups, South Africa have beaten them by 50 points in the last two editions, and Fiji have won 5 of the last 7 against Samoa, dating back to 2005. The team have had more time in camp than any previous tournament, and should show well, but the win over the Wallabies may have done more harm than good to their aspirations in New Zealand.

Verdict: They won’t get near the Boks, so it’s going to come down to a three team mini-league with Wales and Fiji. One win is probable, but not two – they are likely to be squeezed out in the group stage for the third tournament running, although they will certainly light it up, and might even make a tackle below the shoulders.

World Cup Preview: Wales

Group D Opposition: South Africa, Fiji, Samoa, Namibia

Pedigree: A mixed bag as you might expect.  Semi-finalists in 1987 (they won the third place playoff against Australia) and quarter finalists in 1999 and 2003, when they gave England a real scare before finally succumbing to the eventual champions. On the flipside, in 1991, 1995 and 2007 they failed to get out of their group. A habit of wayward, unfocused performances into the hands of Pacific Island nations has gotten them into trouble before…
Players to watch: A decent team is taking shape: George North looks like he could set the tournament alight, while Wales look like the only Six Nations team bringing a dedicated breakdown forward in Sam Warburton. In what could be an inspired move, Gatty has made the brilliant 22-year old his captain. Alongside him, there will be hope that Dragons’ afro’d Toby Felatau can be the dynamic ball carrying No.8 they have long required. Key to the whole operation is James Hook – he is wonderfully talented, but continues to be shunted around the backline without a set position. Can they finally get the bet out of him? 

Good tournament: Wales are in a pig of a group, and if they get out of it that will be considered good enough.

Bad tournament: Fail to get out of the group and Wazza will have issues.

Prospects: Not four weeks ago, things looked desperately grim: Wales were lucky to draw with Fiji in the autumn, were mediocre in the Six Nations and all their best players seemed to be either injured or developing a penchant for late night brawling (something which applied to the coaching staff as well).  We were all set to predict yet another Pacific Island-induced early exit for the Valleysmen. 

But things are looking up.  There still appears to be some sort of injury jinx hanging over the squad (Stoddart, Rees and Henson are out with long term injuries and Gethin Jenkins is likely to travel even though he may not play a part until the latter stages), but several long-term absentees are back in harness.  Lee Byrne is available, Adam Jones, so important to the Welsh scrum, made his comebck successfully, and Jamie Roberts and Lee 0.5p are back too.

Results have been good. Wales were competitive in Twickenham, won the reverse fixture in spite of being dominated in terms of territory and possesion, and toughed it out against a physical Argentina side. If Wales can get James Hook at his best and put him centre stage, they can surprise a few people this autumn.

The one worry is that the teams they have played so far are, shall we say, predictable, in their attacking patterns. Which is most definitely something you could not say about Samoa or Fiji. How the Welsh blitz defence will cope with hard and varied lines and runners on the shoulder is anyone’s guess. The likelihood is they won’t look half as comfortable against the Pacific teams, but can potentially score more as well.

Here’s where the setup of the team will come in – where is Jamie Roberts going to play, and can he free his hands? Can Lee Byrne discover his 2008 form? And will Hook be given charge of the team? It’s quite easy to see a scenario where the management team go with the certainty of Stephen Jones against Samoa after a ropey Hook showing against the Boks – this ia the nightmare scenario as its Hook’s quick mind, hands and feet which unlock the physical Pacific defences.

Verdict: Given Wales’ history, the draw could scarcely have been more unkind, with both Fiji and Samoa potential banana skins.  They effectively have three test level games, and all will be hugely physical, not a traditional Welsh strength. It’s not inconceivable that they could come a cropper – they struggled badly against Fiji this season, and Samoa recently toppled Australia in a remarkable game. Only as little as a fortnight ago we were leaning towards Samoa, but given Wales’ momentum, they should be able to get out of the pool, to reach a quarter final where Australia will surely beat them.

Kidney Shows Capacity for Surprise

We did not see it coming.  Tomás O’Leary, the blue-eyed boy, coached by Uncle Deccie since he was a schoolboy, given every chance – every chance – to play himself into any kind of form, is not going to the World Cup. Nor is fellow 2009 Grand Slammer and test Lion Luke Fitzgerald. The perils of trying to second guess Deccie are there for all to see. Just when you think you have him read, he pulls a huge surprise out of the bag, and backs it up with impenetrable nonsense at the press conference.

First of all, credit where it’s due. They are two seismic calls, and both are correct.  Tomás O’Leary played like a broken footballer on Sturday, to the point where he was simply a liability.  He needs to go back to Munster and start again from scratch – you find form against the Dragons and Glasgow’s of this world, not against France. In his place comes Conor Murray, a superb ball player who can travel, not just as back up, but as Ireland’s premier 9 – the tournament is now his oyster.

Luke Fitzgerald’s situation is more complicated.  He showed some sparkle in the warm up games, not least with two dashing breaks against France (he certainly outplayed Keith Earls). But dedicated full-back cover for Rob Kearney is essential, so Murphy simply had to go – although in a remarkable twist, he is only going due to this (we almost cried ourselves seeing his face). Fergus McFadden also merits his place on the plane, even if we didn’t see much of him over the last few weeks. He provides invaluable cover at centre as well as on the wing. Plus, you know what you’ll get from him, something that cannot be said for Fitzgerald in his current state. Then there’s Trimble, who is on fire. Luke just got squeezed out, and Earls may have been closer to the chop than anyone ever thought. Lets leave it at this – all of the backs on the plane have had better seasons than Luke, so on that basis, he deserves to be at home.

Elsewhere, Buckle edged out Hayes in the cripple-fight for the chance to get shunted around by the Russian pack, and Leamy and Ryan, as expected, swelled the ranks of touring blindsides, now a regular feature of Irish World Cups. We must accept that Jennings didn’t do enough when given his chance, and although McLaughlin deserved a better shot, he would not rectify the imbalance of the squad. Ryan’s selection is as a 4/6, which becomes interesting/superfluous when one reads of Fez training in the second row (and by Lord, how we need power there).

We are of the opinion that the three loss streak has played a part in this. Ireland sleepwalked through 50 minutes on Saturday, and it’s entirely possible Deccie’s intention is, at least to some extent, to light a fire under the players and jolt them into action. He’s certainly done that to us anyway – even if we predicted it. Kind of.

Anyway, hats off to the 30 going – your names are in lights below.  Fush and chups all round (2 fush for Mushy).

Ireland Rugby World Cup Squad 2011

Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster)
Isaac Boss (Terenure College/Leinster)
Tommy Bowe (Ospreys)
Tony Buckley (Sale Sharks)
Tom Court (Malone/Ulster)
Sean Cronin (Leinster)
Leo Cullen (Blackrock College/Leinster)
Gordon D’Arcy (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster)
Stephen Ferris (Dungannon/Ulster)
Jerry Flannery (Shannon/Munster)
Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster)
Jamie Heaslip (Naas/Leinster)
Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster)
Denis Leamy (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Fergus McFadden (Old Belvedere/Leinster)
Geordan Murphy (Leicester Tigers)
Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster)
Sean O’Brien (Clontarf/Leinster)
Donncha O’Callaghan (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Paul O’Connell (Young Munster/Munster)
Brian O’Driscoll (UCD/Leinster) Captain
Ronan O’Gara (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Eoin Reddan (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Mike Ross (Clontarf/Leinster)
Donnacha Ryan (Shannon/Munster)
Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
Andrew Trimble (Ballymena/Ulster)
Paddy Wallace (Ballymena/Ulster)
David Wallace (Garryowen/Munster)

World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 4

Geordan Murphy tweeted on wednesday night that ‘the obese lady was opening up her vocal chords’.  It didn’t take a genius to read between the lines.  Felix Jones had been given the nod for the France game, Murphy was left to tog out against Connacht, putting Jones in the box seat for the World Cup.  Geordan is of the age profile where, if he doesn’t make the World Cup, he is likely to retire.  Last night’s try-scoring  performance is likely to be his last in green.

The same, only more so, goes for John Hayes.  It looks as if the Irish management are willing Buckley to be the player they believe he can be, and are giving him every chance to show something – anything! – to get him on the plane.  Hayes, unlike Murphy, is incapable of the sort of eye-catching performance that would demand he be picked – indeed the scrum was dire last night, and it’s increasingly a case of ‘who is the least terrible’.  In one sense though you can sympathise with Deccie – Hayes can’t produce any more, at least Mushy might.  If the Bruff man doesn’t make the cut, the game against Connacht is likely to be his last ever game of senior rugby.  In many ways it’s a fittingly fanfare-free way for him to bow out. 

Wednesday’s team sheets gave us – at last – an insight into Deccie’s thinking.  Indeed, it all but named his squad.  For the likes of Jennings, McLaughlin and Fergus McFadden, it effectively shut the door on their World Cup chances (injuries notwithstanding).  Donncha Ryan appears all but certain to go.  It’s a remarkable call – Ryan has just a single Heineken Cup start to his name, and it was one in which he singularly failed to impress (he was immediately dropped for Mick O’Driscoll).  Similarly, Leamy is nailed on in spite of a wild, indisciplined season just gone.  Meanwhile, Kevin McLaughlin has barely been given a chance to stake a claim.  It looked curtains for Jennings too, but Wally’s injury might give him an unexpected chance to impress.  It is probably too late for him, but let’s hope he can at least give Deccie something to think about.

At scrum half, Conor Murray was rewarded for his confident French cameo with 30 minutes against Connacht and is now odds against – Deccie has perhaps decided Boss’s experience is what is required, in spite of never fancying him before. Curious.

France beckons tomorrow, and this time there can be few positives if Ireland lose.  After two defeats, Ireland need to beat a mixed France team (they’re never the same without Dusatoir) to build confidence.  Oh, and some meet and greet with the opposition’s whitewash wouldn’t go amiss either.

World Cup Preview: South Africa

Group D Opposition: Wales, Samoa, Fiji, Namibia

Pedigree: Very impressive. Not invited to the first two tournaments because of the whole apartheid thing, they promptly and memorably won it all at the first attempt (with a little help from Suzie) and repeated the trick in France in 2007. Two wins from four is the best hit ratio of them all.

Players to watch: He might be behind Moondust Steyn and Spear James in the reckoning for the 10 shirt, but Patrick Lambie is the most exciting youngster in South African rugby right now, and if the Bokke look more one dimensional than usual, he could make an impact from the bench. Jean de Villiers might not have impressed Mick O’Driscoll much, but he is half of one of the best centre partnerships in the world, and will be anxious to impress after missing the 2003 edition, and most of 2007 one, through injury. In 2009, Heinrich Brussouw tortured the Lions and has been laid up since – if he hits form, he will create the breakdown mayhem Saracens South Africa will need to progress. Bismarck du Plessis is the best hooker in the world (sorry, Sean Cronin fans).

Good tournament: With their pedigree, signing off a great team by retaining the trophy would be nice.

Bad tournament: Ireland have a decent record against the Boks of late, and losing to Paddy Wallace and co. in the quarter final won’t go down well in the highveldt.

Prospects: It may seem astonishing now, but in the run up to the 2007 tournament, the general feeling was the Springboks were a bit too callow and inconsistent to take home the trophy. In the event, the side, suberbly marshalled by John Smit with a little help from Botha, Matfield and du Preez, steamed home. Only England in the final gave them a game, although the Tongans gave their reserves a few dicey moments.

That set forth a 3 year domination of world rugby, encompassing 3 Super Rugby titles (including the Bulls just before RWC07), a Tri-Nations and a Lions tour victory. 2009 was their peak, when they followed the Lions win by beating the All Blacks 3 times.

However, since then, they have gradually ran out of puff, and are facing down the barrel of a first ever Tri-Nations whitewash. Their old guard are looking less durable than ever, and the younger men aren’t demanding to step into the shirt. The team is backboned by triple Super Rugby winners the Blue Bulls, who put together a defiant run in the latter stages of this years Super Rugby, but then failed to make the play-offs with a limp loss at home to the Sharks in the last day of the regular season.

Ironically then, its a Sharks player who is the biggest problem – the captain John Smit. Due to Bismarck’s consistent excellence, Smit is being shoe-horned into the team at tight-head, but to the detriment of the scrum. As evidenced by the humiliation of being shoved around Durban by the Australian pack.

Ally this to the comically mis-named Beast, injured stalwarts like Juan Smith and Fourie du Preez, no defined 10, and a far-from-intimidating collection of outside backs, and things do not look rosey. They still hit the rucks harder than any other team and will play a tactically simple but very effective bosh and boot game, aiming to contest the breakdown agressively and grind teams down, but it’s exhausting, and you must wonder are the bodies still able.

Verdict: The pool is likely to be about as dangerous as an Ian Humphreys tackle. The talented Samoans will fancy taking one of the big guns, but muscle memory and physical power alone should get the Boks through with 4 wins. After that, it’s going to be Ireland in a quarter-final. That is going to be one of the best games of the tournament, but without pre-empting our Ireland preview, whoever wins will be swatted aside by New Zealand. One way or another, this great Springbok team is going to run out of road. We’ll always have the Second Lions Test in 2009 – the team’s zenith, and one of the best games of all time.

World Cup Preview: USA & Russia

Group C Opposition: Australia, Ireland, Italy

Pedigree: Having been at every tournament except 1995, the Eagles are respected members of rugby’s second tier. They have two wins in RWC history, both against Japan. Regular tests against professional B-teams due to the Churchill Cup means they are well-steeled. Russia are here for the first time, although they declined an invitation (as the Soviet Union) to compete in 1987. Bizarrely, they have a win against the Barbarians on their CV, 29-23 in their first international as Russia in 1992. The USA are also reigning Olympic champions (albeit from 1924).

Players to watch: Those who watch their rugby only on YouTube will point to Takwudza Ngwenya as one of the best wingers in world rugby, while others call him an overrated sprinter who once outpaced another overrated sprinter. Highly-regarded Highlanders wing James Paterson is a much better player, and he actually has a reason to wear a USA shirt, having gone to school in Colorado, and captained the USA at underage. Trinity College Dublin lock and captain Scott LaValla has just signed for Stade Francais – a step down in our opinion.

There is also a Southside connection in the Russia squad – with former Blackrock College flyer, and newly-minted Northampton Saint, Vasily Armetiev Roysh on the wing. Leinster briefly scooped up Artemiev alongside his school-mates Luke Fitzgerald and Niall Morris for the Academy, but he didn’t make the grade (although he did play U-19 for Ireland). Artemiev will be joined in the Premiership by lock Andrei Ostrikov, who will be helpng Mushy blow the Sale Sharks kebab budget. One who did get to put on a Leinster shirt was the Russian-sounding Adam Byrnes, a Melbourne Rebel who qualified under the Granny Rule – though presumably not Granny Byrnes.

Good Tournament: Very easy – the aim is to win against one another. And hopefully not get too embarrassed by the big guns.

Bad Tournament: Not winning against one another.

Prospects: The contrast between these sides as rugby nations is very interesting. American rugby hotbeds tend to be swish colleges in well-to-do suburbs – Rhode Island, Connecticut or California. Russia, on the other hand, has its egg-chasing centre of influence in Krasnoyarsk – a grimy Siberian hell-hole better known for industrial pollution and decrepit nuclear weapon storage. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast in world rugby then the pampered trust fund frat boys of the US team and the hard-bitten Russkies, except of course that between the tough, honest warriors of Limerick and the flakey posh dandies of D4.

Russia very much buck the trend of Eastern European rugby – that is, they eschew the 8 man game played by Georgia and Romania in favour of something more expansive. It’s a laudable ambition but seems rather counter-intuitive in a country where weightlifting is so popular. They were far from disgraced in a 54-19 defeat to Northampton, which included 19 points given up when a man down in the first half (they were just 26-12 down at half-time), and also play the Dragons and the Ospreys, both this week.

In recent years, they have been fully integrated into the global IRB schedule, and will be familiar with other second tier nations. They have a scalp of Romania in Bucharest on their CV, but have fallen short repeatedly against Georgia, Canada and the US, and endured a 72 point beating by Japan last year.  This may be one RWC too soon for them, but there is a feeling they could be a force in the future.  Remarkably, there is a professional league in Russia, and the sport’s recently acquired Olympic status has given it access to state funding and top class facilities (Russian schools can only play Olympic sports).  There is a huge will to grow the sport in the country.

The USA play to a pretty consistent template – domestic (typically college) players with a smattering of Europe-based pros who are familiar with what is required to not disgrace themselves against Test opposition. They are perfect for Eddie’s hands-on coaching style – the American sporting psyche very much likes an overarching dictator imposing his will on the team – and will be better off for his big tournament experience (stop sniggering at the back!).

The US have been putting themselves up against Six Nations B sides (or Wolfhounds or whatever) in the Churchill Cup for a while, but haven’t quite got the giant-killing factor nailed down – they haven’t any notable wins from 9 years of the series, which has now been discontinued. What they do have is money, high-tech facilities and a man who was being touted as the next Lions coach this time 4 years ago. The 9/11 game against Ireland will be emotional for the players and also for the coach, who will have to watch as the men he overlooked in 2007 put their hands up for the Wallabies game.

Verdict: If this was 1972 and it was a basketball (or chess) game, the world would be watching. Regretably it’s 2011 and rugby, and the audience is likely to comprise two men, a dog, Egg Chaser and Mini Egg. Russia look exciting and are attracting a lot of positive media coverage, but the USA are more solid, and should win. Regarding the rest of the group, the Eagles caused England, Samoa and Tonga a few awkward moments in 2003, so Ireland or Italy might struggle to put them away, but should in the end. Russia’s open gameplan could end in humiliation against the Wallaby reserves and possibly Ireland, although we tend to get dragged down to the level of inferior teams.

World Cup Preview: Italy

Group C Opposition: Australia, Ireland, USA and Russia

Pedigree: Not good.  Italy have never really brought the ferocity with which they play in the Six Nations to bear on a World Cup.  They have never been in the quarter finals before.

Players to watch: Italy’s hopes tend to rest on the impressive shoulders of one extraordinary man.  Sergio Parisse is the world’s premier Number 8; the phenomenal combination of glue-like hands, ferocious physicality and insatiable desire to win mke him the sort of player it is just a pleasure to watch.  He is helped out in the backrow by the excellent lieutenant Alessandro Zanni.  Italy need a bunch of backs to capitalise on the forward power, and they will be hoping that Tomasso Benvenuti and Andrea Masi will provide a spark of creativity to turn pressure into tries, and hopefully Fabio Semenzato follows through on an excellent 6 Nations.
Good tournament: They need to beat Ireland and make the quarter finals.

Bad tournament: If they go out in the group stages it will be a disappointment.

Prospects: Italy are in the best shape they have ever been in, and they have a reasonable chance of achieving their aim.  The days of the 60-minute Italian performance have been banished, and the Italian players are now fit and able for the full 80. Indeed, they staged late rallies this year to defeat France and scare Ireland. Gone, also, is the awful first-up tackling that allowed opponents to rack up scores with minimal creativity.  They won’t go down easily.

This is Nick Mallet’s last tournament in charge, and the players will surely want to do their marvellous coach justice. They need a couple of things to go in their favour.  They need Australia to beat Ireland, preferably handsomely, thereby making the final game in Dunedin a winner-takes-all shootout, the very type of occasion that will make Ireland edgy.  Then they need a rainy day in Dunedin (not a whole lot to ask for, by all accounts) and as many scrums as possible.  Then all bets are off.

Where they lack is at fly-half and in remaining composed in clutch situations.  They should have beaten Ireland in the Six Nations (Wales too), but when the pressure was on, they fudged a restart and allowed Ireland into drop goal territory.  Meanwhile, the search for the next Diego Dominguez goes on. Following Craig Gower’s injury (and subsequent code switch), and Kyle Burton being banished, Luciano Orquera will be the man responsibe for guiding Italy from the pivot role.  He will need to shape up and fast if Italy are to finally make an impact at a World Cup.

Verdict: Almost certain to come down to a nailbiting finish, but we suspect they’ll probably come up just short. 3rd in group.