The Drawing Board – Rugby World Cup 2011 Preview (7/9/11)
Welcome to the Drawing Board, Who’s Playing Who?’s one stop rugby shop. The World Cup starts this Friday, with excitement reaching fever pitch. I’ll be doing a bit of a different Drawing Board this week and during the world cup. No News this week, but I will still do a brief ITM/Currie Cup wrap here. During the World Cup however, I will be doing a blog post almost every day to provide up to date and awesome analysis. Canterbury and Hawke’s Bay won the ITM Premiership and Championship finals respectively. This is Canterbury’s fourth consecutive title, whilst for Hawke’s Bay they earn promotion to the Premiership. The Lions, Sharks, Cheetahs and Western Provence all enjoyed victories in the Currie Cup.
World Cup Analysis
Hosts New Zealand were favourites to win the last World Cup in France four years ago and at home, have a better shot at lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy than they did in 2007. The logic being that being every host, or at least one of the joint-hosts, had made the final before France bowed out to England in the Stade de France at the semi-final stage and it is clear the All Blacks can use home advantage to go a long way. They have a proud record at home, which is one of, if not the best going round.
In terms of results over the last couple of years, the All Blacks are heads and shoulders above the opposition. Their ability to turnover ball and then score tries through the resulting counter attack is unparalleled throughout the other competitors. Vital to this success will be their two stars, Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. Interesting stat – of the 17 matches that the All Blacks have lost going back to the start of 2003, McCaw and Carter featured together in only seven of these. This shows how crucial they are when they operate in tandem.
Despite the All Blacks overwhelming superiority, however, there are grounds for thinking that they are beatable. Whereas in 2007 the All Blacks came into the tournament with a near-flawless record, this time around they have shown that they can be beaten. Before the World Cup in France, the All Blacks had not lost a home fixture since England beat them in Wellington in 2003, and had lost just five matches since losing to Australia in the 2003 tournament. However since sensationally losing in the quarter-finals last time, the All Blacks have played 48 matches and have lost nine. Crucially, they have foundered at home, to France and South Africa, both of whom they are slated to play this time around.If the All Blacks manage to beat France and top their group they then face the runner-up of Pool B, which looks like it will be Argentina, before a scheduled meeting against the Springboks in the semi-final. It is hardly a charmed passage to the final, and one much harder than that enjoyed by South Africa four years ago. South Africa avoided both of their Tri-Nations counterparts to secure their second World Cup success.
France face the hosts on September 24 for their Pool A clash in Auckland and look like one of the better northern hemisphere teams. They are known to be unpredictable and seem to rise to the occasion. They have a decent RWC record, and have many attacking threats around the park. Watch out if they fire up for a game, passion is what usually gets the French through games at the World Cup.
England looks to be the best of the northern hemisphere teams, coming back into form with a long overdue Six Nation’s crown. They have beaten Australia twice recently, and look to be developing a decent back line to go with their usually good pack. Having their confidence back is a big thing for the English, and they will be well supported in New Zealand. They should qualify as top of their pool to set up a quarter final against France.
If Australia stick to the path laid out for them by the draw they are set to face either South Africa or New Zealand only in the final. For much of the last four years, Robbie Deans’ side have seemed to lack the necessary ability away from home to win a World Cup, but since their demolition of France in Paris during the autumn internationals they have looked far more likely candidates. Although they faced a Springbok side that was short of game time in round four of this year’s Tri-Nations, to inflict defeat on South Africa in Durban was a significant achievement. Coupled with the recent victories over the All Blacks, this was a major step forward for this young side. Those victories contributed significantly to the Wallabies’ first Tri-Nations success for a decade but the nagging feeling is that in James O’Connor and Quade Cooper they have goal-kickers that fall short of the required level.
Grant Fox in 1987, Michael Lynagh in 1991, Joel Stransky in 1995, Matt Burke in 1999, Jonny Wilkinson in 2003 and Percy Montgomery in 2007 all kicked their teams out of tricky situations during successful campaigns. If O’Connor and Cooper lack the dead-eyed accuracy to propel Australia to their first World Cup win out of Europe, the top honours could elude them. They still look like a good bet to do well in this tournament though.
Should they qualify top of their group as expected, Australia will meet the runner-up of Pool D, known as the ‘Pool of Death’ because it features Wales, Fiji, South Africa and Samoa. Samoa defied a 17-point handicap start to comprehensively defeat Australia in Stadium Australia in July. It was one of the rare occasions they had assembled their best side. Many of Samoa’s star players were in a training camp during their disappointing Pacific Nations Cup defeats to Fiji and Tonga and their record of knocking Wales out of World Cups is impressive if 1991 and 1999 is anything to go by. Fiji is in a similar position and should be dangerous, as Wales found out at the last World Cup. If Samoa is buoyed by extensive support and have players who feel as if they are at home, and the same goes for Fiji, who knocked Wales out in 2007 and drew with them in November in Cardiff, they can go far in this tournament.
Warren Gatland may have a strong squad at his disposal and they are the fittest they have ever been after two trips to boot camp in Poland. Wales were impressive at home against England and Argentina, but the fact remains that since they won their Grand Slam in 2008 the only teams they have beaten away from the Millennium Stadium are Italy, Scotland, Canada and the USA, teams which would not hold a candle to the ones ready to send them packing once again.
The Springboks started the current four year cycle in the best possible way with a victory over the British and Irish Lions and a Tri Nations victory to boot. However, many have suggested that they have peaked too early and have a team that is old and passed it. They should not be underestimated though, and will be able to draw on the confidence gained by their victory over the All Blacks earlier this year and the fact that they have won in New Zealand in the recent past. The big question will be whether they can pose any threat in attack and unleash the talented backs that they have. They are expected to get out of the ‘Pool of Death’ and qualify top, possibly setting up a quarter final against the Irish.
Ireland look like something of a dark horse here, as they have had a less then ideal build up to this tournament. However, this may be a blessing in disguise as they have flown under the radar almost unnoticed and will have slightly less pressure on them than last tournament. With a talented squad they should make it to the quarter finals, but probably lack a bit of speed and creativity in the halves. Will be dangerous.
Argentina managed to finish third in a magic ride in France, not only because they had an excellent group of players who felt they had something to prove to the rugby world, but also because many of them turned out for French sides and were well supported. They may not be as good this time due to retirements, but still should be good enough to make it to the quarter finals over Scotland. This will be tough for them as they may have to face the All Blacks.
Quarter finalist predictions
This is who I am expecting to get into the quarter finals. I know I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, but here we go anyway.
Australia v Samoa
South Africa v Ireland
England v France
New Zealand V Argentina
Well, that’s it for another week, so until next time, it’s back to the Drawing Board.