JON CARDINELLI looks at the teams and players who will make an impact at the World Cup.
The 2015 World Cup promises to challenge the perception that global tournaments only spark to life in the knockout stages. The reason for such interest in this year's preliminaries is down to the draw in Pool A, or as it has been inevitably and fittingly dubbed, 'The Pool of Death’.
The World Cup hopes of a major rugby nation will die before the play-offs. The big question is: Which team will be going home in the proverbial body bag? The games between Australia, England and Wales will be fiercely contested, as will the fixtures involving Fiji, a small Pacific nation that has been known to slay giants at this tournament.
Not much should be read into Australia's recent success in the truncated 2015 Rugby Championship. They don't boast a great record in the northern hemisphere, and have lost two Tests to England in London over the past four years. The Wallabies will come into this tournament with more hope than conviction that they can add a third world title to their tally.
England, the host nation, are expected to top Pool A. While they've struggled against New Zealand and South Africa over the past four years (England have lost nine, won one and drawn one in the 11 matches against these teams), they have made steady progress in terms of their game plan. Of course, with expectation comes pressure, and how England manages that pressure over the pool stage will determine whether they lead the group, or crash out of the tournament.
KEY CLASH: ENGLAND vs AUSTRALIA, TWICKENHAM, 3 OCTOBER
Australia will struggle at the scrums, and this could cost them penalties and points. That said, the Wallabies boast a number of breakdown experts, as well as a some gifted backs who are capable of converting those ruck turnovers into tries. For England to win this clash, and ultimately top the group, they will have to pressurise the Wallabies at the breakdowns as well as the scrums.
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David Pocock has fought his way back to full fitness, and will have a key role to play for Australia at this World Cup. Wallabies coach Michael Cheika may opt to play a surprisingly strong ball-carrier (for his size, anyway) in Michael Hooper at No 7. And yet, opponents will be more wary of Pocock, who may slot in at blindside flank. Pocock's influence at the breakdowns in the recent Rugby Championship went a long way towards securing the title for the Wallabies.
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Bath played an enterprising brand of rugby in the 2014/2015 English Premiership. Their flyhalf George Ford was subsequently named Player of the Tournament. Ford's performances for England over the past two years have been just as game-shaping. The 22-year-old made a big statement in the 55-35 victory against France in the 2015 Six Nations, a match that saw England scoring seven tries and Ford finishing with an individual tally of 25 points. England coach Stuart Lancaster will hope that the gifted yet inexperienced Ford does not succumb to the increased pressure at the tournament.
South Africa are favourites to top this group and progress to the quarter-finals. They have never lost a Test to Samoa, Japan or the USA, and are unlikely to come undone against a Scotland side that lost all five of its Six Nations games earlier this season. Even one defeat for the Springboks during the preliminary stage would be regarded as a shock.
There has been talk of the tier-two nations fielding second-string teams against the Boks, and saving their best combinations for the remaining fixtures. Samoa and even the weaker teams like Japan and USA will be targeting their respective fixture against Scotland. A win here will improve the minnows' chances of progressing to the next round. It's been 20 years since Samoa reached the play-offs, while Japan and USA are yet to qualify for the quarter-finals.
South Africa will be keeping a close eye on the results in Pool A. If the Boks lead Pool B, they will play the runner-up of Pool A in the quarter-finals. Whether the Boks face Australia, England or Wales, it's safe to say that play-off will represent South Africa's first real challenge at this World Cup.
Indeed, it's concerning to note that the Boks have lost to both Australia and Wales over the past 12 months, and it will be difficult to put away the host nation (England) in front of a capacity crowd at Twickenham.
KEY CLASH: SAMOA vs SOUTH AFRICA, VILLA PARK, 26 SEPTEMBER
While Samoa have never beaten the Boks, they have made a few telling physical statements. The teams met during the pool stage of the 2011 World Cup, and the final score of 13-5 flattered South Africa.
Samoa provoked the Boks, and the contest deteriorated into a dogfight. The Boks will be looking for a more disciplined and accurate display in the coming fixture in Birmingham. If they can replicate their most recent performance against Samoa (an aggressive yet controlled showing that culminated in a 56-23 victory in Pretoria back in 2013), they will win by a comfortable margin. Bok coach Heyneke Meyer will also be praying and hoping that none of his senior players sustain serious injuries in what will be a brutal contest. They can't afford to go into the play-offs without the bulk of their key players.
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The Springboks are a more dangerous side when Bismarck du Plessis is fit and firing. Widely recognised as the best hooker in the world, Du Plessis doesn't have many weaknesses. His scrummaging and lineout play is world-class, while his power and decision-making at the breakdown is up there with the finest fetchers on the planet. Du Plessis came off the bench in the 2007 World Cup final, a match the Boks went on to win. He was used as a substitute for most of the 2011 tournament. At this year's World Cup, Du Plessis will be backed to exert his game-breaking influence from the outset.
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Alesana Tuilagi is a big man at 1.85m and 120kg, and Samoa will need him to make a big impact at this World Cup. Tuilagi made a statement of intent at the 2011 tournament when he scored a hat-trick against Namibia in Samoa’s opening match. Since then, he has represented the NTT Shining Arcs in Japan, and more recently the Newcastle Falcons in England. While Tuilagi may be on the wrong end of the age spectrum at 34, the colossus of a winger still has what it takes to lend his team impetus in the wider channels.
New Zealand have grown even stronger since winning the 2011 World Cup. Indeed, when one examines their record over the past four years, it’s easy to understand why this team is described by many as the greatest of the professional era.
The All Blacks won the 2012, 2013 and 2014 Rugby Championship tournaments. While they surrendered the 2015 title to Australia, their record in the tournament over a period of four years reads: played 21, won 18, drawn one and lost two.
During the same four-year period, Steve Hansen’s side has won all but one Test against northern hemisphere opposition. English fans will remember that rare victory against the All Blacks in 2012. They may, however, want to forget the five consecutive defeats that England subsequently suffered at the hands of the New Zealanders.
The All Blacks are deserving of the world’s No 1 ranking, and are in a great position to add to their legacy. Another World Cup title would take their tally to an unprecedented three (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have all won the Webb Ellis Cup twice). New Zealand could also become the first side to win back-to-back world titles.
Argentina have a relatively good record at World Cups, and have taken down big teams like France at recent tournaments. There’s little chance of Argentina ambushing the All Blacks on this occasion, though. The teams compete against each other on a regular basis in the Rugby Championship. One would expect New Zealand to win all of their pool matches and top the group. Argentina should do enough to beat Georgia, Namibia and Tonga to secure second spot and ultimately a place in the play-offs.
KEY CLASH: ARGENTINA vs NEW ZEALAND, WEMBLEY STADIUM, 20 SEPTEMBER
Conditions in the northern hemisphere are not conducive to the high-paced rugby that characterises the tournaments in the south. Set pieces are more important, and it is here where the Pumas may feel they have a slight chance against the All Blacks. Argentina’s scrum, or the 'Bajada’ as it is better known, will make an impact. Sadly, the Pumas don’t have the backs to make the most of that set-piece platform. They will also struggle to match the All Blacks for fitness and intensity in the last 20 minutes of the contest.
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Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe is no stranger to northern hemisphere conditions, having played 96 games for French giants Toulon. The openside flanker featured prominently in all three of Toulon’s European Cup title triumphs, and is regarded by some experts in the region as one of the greats of this era. Argentina will need their talisman to fire at this World Cup if they’re going to outplay the better teams at the breakdown.
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Julian Savea has been regularly compared to the iconic New Zealand wing Jonah Lomu over the past four years. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has weighed in on the debate by suggesting that Savea may have already surpassed the great man that captured the world’s imagination at the 1995 World Cup. Lomu or not, ‘The Bus’ will make his mark on the fields of England later this year.
Ireland go into this tournament on the back of two successful Six Nations campaigns. They have also recorded significant victories against southern-hemisphere opposition, such as the resounding 29-15 triumph against South Africa as well as the 26-23 win against Australia in 2014. Ireland have come a long way, and are expected to go far at the 2015 World Cup.
Ireland will be favourites to top Pool D. While they’ve been grouped with two other Six Nations regulars, they have not lost to France or Italy over the past two years. If Ireland maintain that record, they will clinch top spot and secure an easier path to the semi-finals.
Of course, there are no guarantees where the mercurial French are concerned. In 2007, France knocked out the pre-tournament favourites, the All Blacks, in the quarter-final at Cardiff. A week later, they were outplayed by a lack-lustre England side in Paris.
Nobody gave France a chance in the buildup to the 2011 tournament, and for good reason. The players were at war with then coach Marc Lievremont. Their on-field offerings were erratic and uninspired. They suffered a humiliating loss to Tonga during the group stages, but did enough to progress to the play-offs.
France barely managed to beat a 14-man Wales side in the 2011 semi-final, but rallied to push the All Blacks all the way in a final that was decided by a single point. Nobody should be taking France lightly at this year’s tournament.
KEY CLASH: FRANCE vs IRELAND, MILLENNIUM STADIUM, 11 OCTOBER
The game will be played on the final day of the group stages. By this point, France and Ireland would have completed their other group matches against Canada, Italy and Romania. With so much at stake, this promises to be one of the best clashes of the first round. The winner is likely to top Pool D. The loser is likely to face the All Blacks in the quarter-finals.
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Prior to the emergence of Kieran Read and Duane Vermeulen, Sergio Parisse was the best No 8 in Test rugby. While the Italy loose forward has been surpassed by the New Zealander and South African in recent years, he remains an influential player at both club and international level. Parisse is an imposing physical specimen at 1.96m and 112kg, and yet, it’s his acceleration and handling skills in the tackle that sets him apart. Italy may battle to make an impact at this World Cup in terms of results, but Parisse will give fans a reason to cheer.
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Johnny Sexton was the starting flyhalf for the British & Irish Lions on the 2013 tour to Australia and played an influential role in the 2-1 Test-series win against the Wallabies. Since then, he's helped Ireland secure back-to-back Six Nations titles, and also featured in the big wins against South Africa and Australia in 2014. Ireland will count on Sexton’s game management and tactical kicking in the big matches at this tournament.
Photo: Duif du Toit/Gallo Images