The Rugby World Cup is finally underway. It is set to be the best, and most open World Cup yet. New Zealand aren’t the runaway favourites they were once thought to be, after a run of patchy form. South Africa have gone from outsiders to serious contenders following a strong resurgence over the last year which saw them claim the Rugby Championship. England lead the Northern Hemisphere charge, but Ireland and Wales will both fancy their chances, while France should never be ruled out. It would take something special for the French to win the whole thing, but they have been known to turn on the style to upset the big teams when least expected too. Also, Australia’s past record has to keep them in the running.
The opening weekend is one of the most highly anticipated to kick-off a World Cup. There are plenty of crunch clashes from the off. Australia have a tough challenge against Fiji. Ireland Vs Scotland could see one side get off to a flier and leave the other in a struggle to qualify from the pool. It is always interesting to follow the hosts, and Japan should get off to the start they will be looking for, at the expense of Russia. France take on Argentina, which may well decide who joins England in progressing from Pool C.
The standout of them all is the heavyweight showdown on Saturday between 2-time defending champions New Zealand, and 1995 and 2007 champions South Africa. Looking at the other teams in the group, this will surely decide the winners and the possible easier route in the knockouts (if this match has a winner). It will also lay down an early marker and let everyone know who is the team to beat.
In a strange twist, I am going for the loser of this match to go on and win the tournament!
With Italy, Namibia and Canada to play in Pool B, it would be a major shock if they still didn’t qualify for the quarter-finals. They can use these matches to play their way back into form. They wouldn’t be able to afford any slip-ups, so would be on their toes and fully focused. They should then be raring to go for the knockout phase. As group runners-up, they would get a more difficult quarter-final (most likely Ireland) and would have no choice but to be firing on all cylinders. They’ll be good enough to get through this round, and by the time they are in the semi-final, they’ll be battle-hardened and very difficult to stop. Even if the final is a New Zealand V South Africa repeat, the loser of the pool game would be the team with the greater momentum and could turn the tables in the finale.
On the other hand, the winners of the opening game will have the hard work already done in qualifying. They will stroll through their remaining pool matches, may have a comfortable quarter-final, and could find themselves in the semis without having to get out of second gear. The level of opposition at this stage is likely to be a big step up and this could require a huge rise in performance.
Think back to 2007. England were battered 36-0 by South Africa in their opening game. They then changed their tactics and fought their way through to the final. They still succumbed to the Springboks again, but, this time, only 15-6 which showed how form can change, up and down, throughout a World Cup campaign.
Of course, the All Blacks and Springboks do have enough class and power to win seven matches back to back, but as mentioned, this is a tough World Cup to call a winner.
The best advice is probably to sit back and enjoy the action unfold over the next 6 weeks!
Written by Matthew Drew
Picture and Video from Neil Donaghy