This is the second instalment of an examination of each nation in each pool at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Australia will make the Quarter finals, Russia and the United States will not.
I'm picking this team to be a real danger at this World Cup. And it's not because I live here. My heart is with the All Blacks. Always has. Always will be. Australia hasn't got it right yet. The scrum is a nightmare but oh those backs. They carved the French up like a hot knife through butter. This is still a young side lacking some real leadership in the backs and grunt up front. They need players like Al Baxter and Sterling Mortlock just to shore things up, provide a solid scrum and guide the backline, especially in defence.
Australia's defeat of New Zealand in Hong Kong served as a warning and just prior to that they let the All Blacks get away with a one point victory in Sydney after leading for most of the match. If Australia can play consistently for 80 minutes and string those efforts over several games they will be a real threat. Just like they were against France in November. I can see them going through this pool undefeated.
The first thing Australia has to do is for their Super 15 sides to do well in the new competition.This will give those younger players more confidence in one of the toughest rugby competitions around. Next they have to brush aside Samoa in July and either win the Tri Nations or come a close second. That will set them up nicely. Even if they don't do well in all the above areas I wouldn't right them off. New Zealand beware!
It is fantastic to have new blood in a Rugby World Cup. It can get a little boring seeing the same old teams at this event. The newcomers can stir up a fair bit of interest. Russia is doing that right now getting acquainted with heartland New Zealand in the middle of the New Zealand summer, where they are in training and holding training matches. They won their first one last week 33-13 against a Taranaki Invitation XV. So they are doing all the right things but I'm picking they will win hearts but not matches come the World Cup.
Russia competes in the European Nations Cup first division, or Division A, which is the tier below the Six Nations Championship. They reached the Rugby World Cup finals by coming second in this competition over its two-season duration. Georgia won the competition and also qualified. The Russians pushed the Romanians into third place and forced them to go through a tough repechage process to qualify . But Russia got their on their 2008-09 performances not their 2009-10 ones. In the last season they drew with Romania 21-21 and lost 8-36 to Georgia on neutral ground in Turkey. During the summer of 2010 Russia went to the Churchill Cup in the United States. They lost to the United States 22-36, England Saxons 17-49 but defeated Uruguay 38-19 in the playoff. Not really startling results. They lost a two-test series against Argentina Jaguars (B team) at home in October and Then ended 2010 on a disastrous note by losing 3-75 to Japan in Tokyo in November. Not what the Russians were looking for!
So what does Russia have to do between now and September 2011? Firstly they have to lead the ENC Division A first round being played in February and March. That means defeating Spain away, Portugal at home, Romania in Bucharest, Ukraine away and then Georgia at home (although I'm sure this will be played on neutral soil again). I don't know what warm-up matches the Russians have got planned for August but they'll need to win those as well. If Russia can manage all that they have a slight but realistic chance of defeating the USA. Anything less and solid showings against the others in this pool is the best Russia can expect.
The Americans will be targeting Russia of course as a win. And they should win. They have qualified for every Rugby World Cup since 1991 without ever causing more than the odd ripple. They defeated Japan 24-18 in 1987, again 39-26 in 2003 but that has been it. They'll be looking to push the Irish to a close game at best. They might even catch the Italians napping if the Azurri have a horror match. So they will be targeting the Italians as well. Realistically, a win over Russia is probably as much as The USA will do.
The USA came a long way towards recovery in 2010 after some ordinary years going back to 2003. From 2003 to 2009 the Americans only won a handful of games and constantly played second fiddle to their northern cousins the Canadians. They have always been billed as the nation with so much rugby potential. But this has not eventuated until perhaps 2010. In the Churchill Cup the USA began with a good 36-22 win over Russia and then played well against the England Saxons before losing 9-32. In the plate final they found France 'A' too much in the end losing 10-24. But throughout they performed with credit. In November they toured Europe. They defeated Portugal 22-17, lost 0-21 to Scotland 'A' with virtually their B side and then pushed the Georgians 17-19 in Tblissi. The Georgians fielded their strongest side and so this was a good showing by the USA.
Where to from here with the United States of America? It looks like the Churchill Cup is getting axed after this year. It will be held in England so the USA will be off to Europe probably in June to play test rugby. I'd be expecting them to play some other test matches as well. My man in Japan Ian McDonnell, tells me that a test match between USA and Japan pre World Cup is on the cards. The USA will need to get into the 2011 Churchill Cup final and win any other Pre World Cup games to be taken seriously beyond defeating Russia at the 2011 Rugby World Cup
Ireland only need to play to form and they should comfortable account for Russia and the United States, with Italy being their main hurdle to get to the quarter finals. Ireland has an ageing team and like England in 2003, will be relying on their old hands to get them anywhere near a Rugby World Cup final. I just can't see that happening. Getting past the quarter finals is something Ireland has never done and in 2007 they took a step backwards by not getting past the pool stages for the first time since 1987.
Ireland has a number of younger players who are beginning to blend into this experienced side. Players like Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Jonathan Sexton, Cian Healy, Devin Toner and Sean Cronin are Ireland's players of the future. But for this campaign its going to be the O'Driscolls, the O'Garas. the O'Callaghans, the Hayes, the Stringers and the Wallaces who will be this sides strength.
The heady days of Ireland's 2009 6 Nations Grand Slam appear over. In the 2010 6 Nations Championship a repeat of 2009 ended with a 10-33 drubbing by France, but then Ireland won well against England and Wales before falling to Scotland at home. Oh the disgrace! Over summer Ireland dropped their test matches to New Zealand and Australia, but picked up a good 29-9 win over Argentina at the end of a fairly ordinary November test series. Losses to New Zealand and South Africa in Dublin are not the results the Irish fans want and it appears their 2011 Rugby World Cup chances are slipping away.
Ireland will need to do extremely well in this years 6 Nations Championship for Ireland to keep faith with some of their old hands. This is not the time to be blooding new players but unless Ireland can lift its game in this competition new players will have to be taken to the World Cup. Ireland has a four-match warm-up programme in July and August. They will need to perform well for the fans to give the Irish much hope of getting past the quarter finals stage.
For the Italians the Rugby World Cup has never been a happy hunting ground. They have never got passed the pool stages and in 2011 they will need to defeat Ireland to get there. Is that possible? It could happen. But Italy will need to pull a game from heaven out of the hat to do that.
Italy has a pack that is often second to none on the world international rugby scene. This is the strength of their game. But this strength is in the set pieces, the scrum. With ball in hand they are not that lethal. They just make life extremely unpleasant for the opposing forwards in the tight. Around the paddock they have probably the world's best number eight in Sergio Parisse but apart from him this is not an area of strength. The backline is Italy's weakness. Their isn't anybody who really stands out. All that possession won and nobody knows what to do with it and they have a brittle defence system. That I'm afraid is Italy at the moment.
Italy's performances in 2010 reflect the weaknesses. Wins against Scotland and Fiji is all Italy has to show for the last twelve months. Somehow they are going to have to improve their 6 Nations performances in 2010 and defeat Scotland and either Ireland or Wales for them to have any hope of threatening the Irish at the 2011 Rugby World Cup. They will need to win their warm-up matches and go into the World Cup with form and confidence if they are to make history. At this stage I can't see it happening.
Tomorrow I'll look at Pool B