This article, the third, continues the examination of the rugby nations who will attend the 2011 Rugby World Cup; their performances in 2010 and how they might do in their pool.
There is only one. England will make the quarter final stage. The other position is up for grabs.
The only certain thing is that England will win this pool and progress. Even at their poorest they are probably too good for the others. The real excitement for England will begin after the pool stages.
On recent displays England look to be coming right. It's been a long time since that fantastic day in 2003 when England won the Web Ellis Cup for the first time. England have been mainly ordinary from that time onwards and sometimes just dreadful. They have been guilty of squandering hard-won possession. They have always had a pack of forwards who have been able to out-muscle most of the opposition. But once the ball is out England has been predictable and unimaginative behind the scrum. Even the likes of the great Jonny Wilkinson has not been able to ignite the backline.
But in November 2010 they began to play better rugby and winning rugby. Some new blood in that backline has done wonders. Players like Benjamin Foden and Ben Youngs have suddenly sparked the England back line into life. Tobias Flood is beginning to play with authority. The forward pack has been formidable. It is an ageing pack but what did they call England's side in 2003? Dads army. Well, Dad's army is back.
In the November tests of 2010 England lost to both New Zealand and South Africa at Twickenham but against Australia they dominated and won through the back line. It is all starting to look good for England and for once Martin Johnson can smile.
England will have to either win the 6 Nations Championship or come close for all the good work to continue. They will also need to clean out the opposition in the warm-up tests before the World Cup and then the fun begins. Argentina will be back to their best in time for this tournament and England will have to work hard to defeat them. Scotland will have something special just for England and don't write off Georgia and Romania either. But England should come through this pool undefeated.
Argentina were the dream team at the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France. They defeated France in the opening game and again at the end to take third place. What a wonderful tournament they had. But since then things have not gone well for the Pumas. They have won only six test matches out of the eighteen played since 2007. They defeated England at Salta in 2009 and France again in Buenos Aires last June. That has been all.
Their three tests last November in Europe were not memorable. Their 9-29 loss to Ireland in Dublin was most alarming. This Argentine side simply is not firing. The team lacks authority and direction from behind the scrum whilst the forwards are dominating like they used to.
So where to from here. The Pumas get better the more time they can spend together. They will get this time leading up to the World Cup and with their leading players mostly playing at the top level in both France and England, the standard of play should be up there with the best. It's just a worry that the personal are not the quality of that wonderful 2007 team. We shall see.
Argentina at their best could defeat England but next September I don't think they will. Argentina will have a real battle to overcome Scotland as well but they could do it. Both Georgia and Romania could upset Argentina but only if Argentina run into a bad trot. I can't see that happening. The crucial game will be Argentina v Scotland.
Scotland has a proud rugby history. The results may not always indicate a team at the top level of world rugby, but Scotland can produce surprises. They lost narrowly to England 6-9 in the 1991 Rugby World Cup semi-final but that is as close as they have got in the finals. They just don't seem to win the crucial game in their pool. And they have a number of crucial games to win if they want to proceed.
Since the 2007 Rugby World Cup in which they easily defeated Romania but lost to Argentina in the quarter finals, Scotland has, up to 2010, performed poorly. A new coach in 2009 saw them win against Australia but then lose to Argentina. 2010 was a much better season, 6 Nations Championship apart. Scotland became the first team to win a test series in Argentina for some time, last June. They were slaughtered by New Zealand in the opening November game, but then bounced back to defeat South Africa and win narrowly over Samoa. The new Zealand game apart, Scotland has begun to look like a good side.
Leading up the the Rugby World Cup in September next year Scotland has to do well in the 6 Nations Championship. A good win over England, a win over Italy and a win over either Wales or Scotland will give Scotland much needed confidence. This they must do. Then they need to defeat Ireland and Italy in their warm-up games in August and they should be ready to fire come September. They will need to be at their best to defeat Argentina and overcome the aspiring Georgians and Romanians.
This country has a very rare feature as a European Nation. It is one of the only ones in which rugby is the number one football code. Nowhere else in Europe is the game of rugby so dominant. The Georgians love their rugby. They are also excellent wrestlers. So it comes as no surprise to learn that the Georgian scrum, with all their best France-based players available, is a formidable force to deal with. The record books show that the Georgian forwards score more tries than their backs. They are masters at scrum time and master at the rolling mauls. Their backs are better defenders than attackers although recently the Georgian back line is looking more skilful.
After a quiet entry into the Rugby World Cup in 2003, Georgia nearly caused a major upset in 2007 when they pushed Ireland hard before losing by only four points. That game woke the world up to these Georgians. It will go down as one of their greatest games in their short rugby history. In other competition they won the European Nations Cup in 2009 which gained then entry into the 2011 finals. They lost to Romania 10-22 last March which saw the Romanians take out the 2010 ENC although the Georgians defeated Russia 36-8 shortly afterwards. In November last year the Georgians defeated Canada 22-15 and the USA 19-17 at home and with their best team.
Like the Romanians and the Pacific Island teams, most of Georgia's top players play in French club rugby. This means not all of their top players are together long enough for combinations to work properly and for team spirit to develop. But being together for a month before the finals will bind these Georgians into a formidable team. They wont defeat England, they'll struggle against Scotland and probably lose to Argentina. They will firstly target Romania and then I think they will give Scotland one heck of a fright. Just what the World Cup needs
At the 2007 Rugby World Cup the Romanians were expected to do well. Instead they flopped. With a large number of the France-based players available this disappointment was hard to fathom. In 2008 a new coach basically sacked most of those France-based players are tried to build a team on local talent. That didn't work. In fact the Romanians played so poorly they came a disastrous third behind Georgia and Russia in the 2009 European Nations Cup..It was good news for the Russians but bad news for the Romanians. They would have to spend 2010 battling their way through playoffs to make the Rugby World Cup.
This they managed to do. Another new coach and back came a number of those experienced France-based players and Romania began to win games again. In fact they had to play a record thirteen test matches in 2010, losing only to Namibia who took the IRB Nations cup in Bucharest.They had to defeat Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Tunisia and finally Uruguay to become the last team to qualify for the Rugby World Cup finals. What a journey.
Romania must do well in the 2011 European Nations Cup, defeating both Georgia and Russia, to establish a good confidence base to take on the other teams in this pool. They must defeat Georgia and they have the potential to defeat Scotland. They will certainly be looking to do better than their efforts in 2007.
Tomorrow I'll examine Pool A