The Pool of Death

There has to be at least one pool of death.  If we discount Italy, and it’s safe to do so, that leaves nine nations from the two principal global rugby tournaments fighting over eight quarter final places.  Add in the possibility of a wild-card nation like Samoa or Fiji turning up organised and motivated, and there’s scope for another.

In 2011, it was Scotland that found themselves edged out.  Before you start laughing at the notion of Scotland’s early exit being anything other than academic, recall that they lost to Argentina by a solitary point and had England on the rack for much of the match.  In fact, had they only to beat England they may well have done so, but they had to defeat them by seven or more, and as a result had to continue pressing on in a match they were leading.  England ran out lacklustre four-point winners.  In 2007, Ireland got lumped in with, and turfed out by, hosts France and a rampantly fired-up Argentina.

This time around, the quirky ranking system has left us with an absolutely dynamite pool involving Wales, England and Australia.  And as luck would have it, the PNC champions, Fiji, are in there too.  Just to make everything extra hard.  It’s a whopper.

Wales tend to do well in World Cups.  In 2003, they used the tournament to reignite themselves as a premier rugby nation and in 2011 they were brilliant for large parts of the competition and should have made the final.  They’re a steely, tough, physical side; efficient deployment of Warrenball is the name of the game.  They’ve a tendency to come up just short against the Southern Hemisphere big guns, but against their European comrades, they’re up with the best.  There’s little to choose between them, England and Ireland; look at the 2015 Six Nations log for proof.

But my word they are eviscerated by injury.  Already down Jonathan Davies, they have lost their metronomic plake kicker and foundation at the back, Leigh Halfpenny, as well as Rhys Webb, who was rapidly emerging as one of the game’s elite scrum halves.  To top this off, Alun-Wyn Jones – every bit as inspiration for Wales as Paul O’Connell is for Ireland – is struggling.  Assuming Jones pulls through in some shape or form, Webb looks the biggest loss.  Scott Williams is an able deputy for Davies.  Halfpenny can be replaced by Liam Williams (himself returning from – guess what? – injury) and they will lose little in attack, with Williams perhaps the more dangerous open-field runner.  And the place-kicking issue may not be as bad as feared, because Dan Biggar at fly-half is pretty accurate off the ground.

Scrum half will now be particularly interesting.  Don’t rule out the strange scenario where Mike Phillips returns from the dead as first choice, having been bumped entirely off the squad a few weeks back.  Given the size of his personality and influence around the squad, he’s hardy the kind of pick a coach would bring along to hold tackle pads, and it is reasonable to assume that in Webb’s absence, Gatland plays the experience card.  Phillips looked out of sorts against Ireland and is generally past his best, but the same issues didn’t stop Gatland picking him to start all three Lions tests two years ago.

England are the hosts, are in good health and have ambitions of overall victory.  Being hosts counts for a lot – Barnesy had it about right at the recent Sunday Times shindig in Lansdowne Road where he described it as being worth nine points a match. It’s hard to see the host nation bowing out in the group stages; the rule of thumb is that the hosts generally contest the final.  Anything less simply wouldn’t do.

The other big fish in the pond is Australia, current holders of the Rugby Championship.  Australian rugby hasn’t had it too good in recent years, and they reached something of a low ebb in losing a dire series against the Lions two years ago.  But since then, things have taken a turn for the better and they appear to have the right man in charge of them.  Irish fans, especially those from the blue bit, are familiar with Michael ‘Bull in a China Shop’ Cheika, and going by previous indiscretion levels around the squad, his ironclad style is just the requirement to get his best out of this group of players. .  The early signifiers are promising, not least a scrum that actually bossed New Zealand around in a big win, followed by a dismantling of a good Argentina side in the recent Championship.  And while Cheika is best known as a disciplinarian and all-round hard-nut, he is also a highly intelligent and universally respected rugby brain.

Here in WOC Towers, we were struggling to come to an agreement about how this one would pan out, but cursed injury to two of Wales’ best players has intervened, and now we’re aligned in thinking it’s hard to see Wales manufacturing the victory they need over either of the two heavyweights.  Palla had visions of the big three all beating each other and bonus points and cricket score-counts over Uruguay being required to settle the dispute.  And should that come to pass, England are well placed, because they go into their final game against Uruguay knowing just how many runs they have to score in the chase. But now we’re going for England and Australia to beat Wales and qualify.  But in what order?

England typically have Australia’s number, especially in Twickenham, but we’re going out on a limb and we’re tipping a Cheika-inspired Australia, having finally discovered a stable scrum, to wreak breakdown havoc and beat England. We are less than inspired by Lancaster’s use of the bench (Exhibit A – substitutions by numbers in the 2014 loss to France), and bringing on Wigglesworth, Farrell and Slammin’ Sam just seems wooden to us; why aren’t we seeing Care, Slade and Goode? Or Cipriani? Cheika might not have huge depth, but he knows how to use it better, and Genia, Cooper and Beale is a game-changing bench.

England have plenty going for them, not least a creative and explosive backline and a front-five that is typically English, but they lack one thing, and that’s a breakdown specialist on the flanks.  In this pool, they’re about to come up against no less than four of the world’s best ball-poaching opensides.  They’ve a hell of a job on getting the quick ball they need to get Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson running at space. They should do enough to beat Wales and Mike Philips the auxiliary blindside, but may come up short against the Wobs.  Matt Williams is concerned about the Aussies’ lack of any depth whatsoever – Kane Douglas is a squad member – but if their best players stay fit they have a side high on talent.  Think Stephen Moore, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Matt Giteau and Israel Folau.

The big winner here is the humble punter.  The group stages often lack intensity.  The outcome in two pools is a foregone conclusion, and in the other (our pool) it is only the order of the qualifiers that needs to be resolved.  But here, we will see the World Cup hit boiling point early.  As early as the 26th September, when Wales take on England.  A week later England play Australia.  It’s knockout rugby come early.  And better yet, it’s a match with Anthony Watson and Israel Folau on the same pitch.

And what of Fiji? The PNC champions are here to upset the applecart and are apparently targeting Wales in their second game – it will be interesting to see how the Fijians approach the games. They are likely to contribute hugely to the opening game in a losing effort, but that might leave them vulnerable to a Wobbly bashing just 5 days later – a bonus point opportunity for Australia that Cheika is sure to gobble up. After that, it’s Wales, who were memorably beaten in 2007. However, less memorable was the 2011 tournament, were Wales beat them 66-0. Wales are vulnerable for sure, but if they are coming off a defeat to England, as we expect, this will be a virtual knockout for them – we think Fiji will come up short.

Just coming second in this pool is hard enough, but the carrot for winning it is huge.  The winners almost certainly face Scotland in the quarter-final and one of France, Ireland and Argentina in the semi-final.  Whoever gets the job done here has a great chance of going right to the end. We’re picking that team to be Australia.

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24 Comments

  1. Extrapolating from this piece I take it you’re backing England to get turfed out by SA in the quarters, causing a worldwide schadenfreude outbreak of epidemic proportions?

    • I wouldn’t be so sure of that. South Africa have their own issues. That’s a game that could swing either way, as is the England v Australia match. I wouldn’t say we’ve higher than 55%n conviction in either outcome.

      • South Africa will have had the benefit of a pool that suits them to the ground. Nice and physical, woshkabomy all the way. I think they’ll have settled into a nice rhythm by the time they reach the quarters, and there’ll be fireworks no matter who they player in the knockouts.

      • McShane

         /  September 16, 2015

        Don’t forget: South Africa haven’t lost in Twickenham since 2006 (or thereabouts)

  2. I’ve been of the opinion for a long time now that Wales wouldn’t make it out of the pool, and it would likely cost Gats his job. Injuries may give him enough breathing room but on the flip side it could just be papering over the cracks.

    Wales have developed into a great team under Gats, no doubt. But I find it hard to see where they can go from here, especially for Gats’ big Achilles which is getting a win over a SH side. While they finally broke that duck against SA last year, this last year has probably been the lowest ebb the Boks have been in. Every other time, nearly without fail, they’ve gone out all guns blazing for about 50-60 minutes and then BNZ/Wobblies/Boks have switched on the pressure and gone on to win.

    Couple that with the squad: With the nature of the pool (it being a creation really of Gat’s own making, despite what you think of the seeding process the 2013 Autumn series was truly awful for Wales), Gats can only really afford to rest players against Uruguay, which is his opener. Consider the fact that Bad Boy Williams (not even going to get into the fact that as great as an attacker as he is, he’s just as liable to lose you a game as win it) and Samson Lee and AWJ are all returning from injury, you’re going to have to have at least one or two combinations coming in cold against opposition who are going to be chomping at the bit.

    Finally, the one person who will probably have the greatest impact in the pool will be Mario Ledesma, who I’m sure is grooming the Aussie TH’s to absolutely murder Jenkins and James at the scrum.

    As for who’ll top the pool, it’s hard to look past England. Even without a traditional fetcher they blasted Ireland away at the breakdown with brute force pretty effectively, so I don’t see them having too many problems.

    • The WRU bear as much blame – the game the put them over the edge of the top 8 was the fourth game against the Wobs, which they dutifully lost, like the eight previous ones

    • SportingBench

       /  September 16, 2015

      Didn’t Williams cost Wales a win against SA last year by conceding a last minute penalty try for a no arms tackle/cheap shot when he could have comfortably made a tackle into touch and won Wales the game?

      • I don’t get this thing about Liam Williams folks I gotta say. He don’t strike me as dirty, but he must have done something I’ve missed because everyone says it! That South Africa one as far as I remember was just a panicked last gasp effort and ended up being a penalty try-he would have been better letting South Africa score and leave a touch line conversion! I just felt embarrassed for his stupidity and thought he looked out of his depth at that intensity and his thought process just disappeared more than thinking he was thuggish. Have I missed something prior to that though?

        On a seperate note halpenny’s loss might not be that bad. It’s not that Williams is a better attacker – I’d argue he isn’t – it’s just that the welsh gameplan wraps halpenny in cotton wool he nearly just acts like their field goal kicker on offense. He makes his tackles (seldom misses) and kicks his goals. Sin é. It may be that having that bit of an extra body in attack is what they need to finally get up against qantas and might create space for their wings a little more. Not that north needs space, he can just carry folau up the field.

        The battle of the back rows in wales -Australia will be something to behold and then the contrast with England’s backrow…… I can’t wait. I wouldn’t write wales off just yet with their injuries, although they need AWJ back pronto, but if they got any more injuries it will probably be too much. Whichever team gets out of this group first, hopefully they’re knackered.

        • He also threw a late hit on Paddy Jackson in the 2014 6 Nations as well.

          • Ah yes, thanks Ross. Watched that game on a stag do. The last 10 mins are a bit of a blur, but I remember that alright now.

        • Yossarian

           /  September 17, 2015

          you under estimatethe loss of halfpenny if you think he is just a boot. super defender and great under a high ball.
          Doesn’t hit the line particularly well compared to williams so gaining a little there.

          • Yep agree with you pretty much there. He didn’t miss a tackle in at least 2 successive 6nation campaigns and I would add to that he is very good positionally in the backfield-very often he will catch a ball before the first bounce, which was intended to hit grass. I remember him as a good attacking threat too (didn’t he start as a wing?), but wales never use him in that way! Or hardly ever.

            There was an exchange between sharipova and the British meeja along the lines of: “you keep losing to Williams – do you think it’s time to think about doing something different.” I think she was a bit put out about it, i think she just said “no, next question” or something like that. Although the question may have been put more bluntly than that, it is a blunt question which wales kinda need to ask themselves about Australia. Einstein and doing things the same way and wot not. They’d rather have ha’penny, no doubt, but this might make them more likely to use the full back in the line, or kick to the corner from very difficult positions that they would previously have just went for the 3. Biggar will still kick goals well, although maybe not as well from 50yards and on the touchline!
            It might force a positive change to the welsh attacking game maybe? Warrenball with a little bit more. The big problem they have is that Australia have got better than the team that has kept beating them.

  3. Red Wolf

     /  September 16, 2015

    With Fiji being together in camp for so long, and also having a “winning mentality” at the moment, I wouldn’t be surprised if they stop England getting the BP win. That might be massive when it comes down to the business end of the pool stage and chuck the chariot off course.

    • Lop12

       /  September 16, 2015

      Agreed. And regardless of what points they may deny the opposition the collateral damage could be significant. Cannot wait to see how they fare out Friday night.

  4. Daithi Eilie

     /  September 16, 2015

    Minor correction: Ben Youngs started the second Lions test against Australia.

  5. toro toro

     /  September 16, 2015

    I think Wales probably even still may have the best XV in the group, but it’s the injuries that will kill them. With Eli Walker injured and replaced by a flanker, they now have just four outside backs in the squad, and their centres don’t look particularly suited to transferring. In other spots, the depth chart has quality, but not much experience. Tom Francis has had a great season for Chiefs, but only the one cap. And due to how recently Webb took over the role, and the need to get him plenty of gametime, the non-Phillips scrummies haven’t had very much at all.

    Add in the fact that, while Biggar is an elite kicker (and the only one I can think of in top-level rugby natural enough to simply retreat to where he’s going to kick the ball from, rather than standing over it in kicking position, and taking a set amount of steps back and to the side, like a beginning golfer lining up putts by crouching behind the ball, placing the face square to the hole, and then gingerly stepping around the club) he doesn’t have Halfpenny’s *aura* of unerring accuracy, which undoubtedly forces teams to behave themselves a lot better at rucks against Wales; it’s not just the kicks, it’s going to disrupt Wales’ possession.

    So I think Wales could be the unlucky ones here. I also think Fiji are a profound randomising element; they won’t get through, but they can beat any of the big three, and I think they’ll take at least one of them.

  6. WAGS alarm!!!!! Hassle in the castle, that is the Charioteers camp:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3236644/Rugby-captain-Chris-Robshaw-Camilla-Kerslake-enjoy-walk-amid-Chloe-Madeley-feud.html.

    Stuart Lancaster will be doing his nut! Keep it up, gals!!!!!!!!

  7. I agree with the likely outcome for this group.
    I don’t agree with an element of the last blog.
    I see France beating us in the group stage.
    I then -in all honesty -think we can turn over NZ in a quarter final.
    Despite the all that JS has done for our side, emotion remains our most valuable battle commodity. It is so deeply ingrained in our psyche. Comfortably assured of underdog status, written off by the press after getting beat by France and with the painful memory of last time- I would expect mad dogs and pitchforks.
    However I agree this will be our lot…we’ll crawl back into our shells with smug satisfaction and get a royal thumping from Australia.

    • Roundy

       /  September 17, 2015

      I agree with Australia topping pool A. In fact I think they will win the whole kit and kaboodle. I also feel we will loose to France, beat the Blacks and lose to the Boks. A third place finish after beating the French in the rubber final!

  8. Kelly

     /  September 18, 2015

    Normally the group stages of the RWC leave me fairly bored save for the Irish games but this Group has me salivating. As much as I’ve grown to hate the Welsh in recent years I’m disappointed they’ve been so affected by injury. There’d be something magic about seeing the English chariot coming a cropper in the group stages. They’ve lost 3 genuine world class players and they’ll struggle to overcome that. That said I think they’ll push England close. The Wallabies should top the group.

    As an aside the Fiji team is giving me a serious rugby hipster hard on. Nadolo’s getting all the headlines but that whole backline is exciting. Talebula at fullback is great to watch with ball in hand and Volavola the 10 was getting some serious hype when I was living in Sydney a few years back. My name to watch though is Peceli Yato the sub back row. Saw him for Clermont on Setanta a few times and he’s a serious athlete.

  9. The National Bookmaker had an enhanced special, 9/4 on
    England, Australia, South Africa, Scotland, New Zealand, Argentina, Ireland, France to be the quarter finalists…
    I bit their hand off, so obviously one of Wales, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Italy are gonna blow that for me

  10. osheaf01

     /  September 21, 2015

    Japan’s win means their Pool is now, also, a Pool of Death?

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