The Rugby World Cup 2011 is only seven months away. This is the fourth article in an examination of the four pools and twenty teams that will contest the 2011 Rugby World Cup, to be held in New Zealand.
Both New Zealand and France will progress to the quarter-finals. Tonga, Canada and Japan wont.
This tournament is probably New Zealand's biggest challenge in their long rugby history. Since they won the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, winning this Trophy has turned into a nightmare for this rugby-mad nation. With each failed attempt captains have vanished, players sacked, management lynched (not really), and coaches given marching orders. The shame and disappointment for the nation. To be the leading rugby nation of the world at to not win the Cup has been more than the average Kiwi fan can bare. So much is hinging on winning this tournament. There really can be no excuses.
After New Zealand were bundled out of the 2007 Rugby World Cup the NZRFU took the unusual step of not sacking either the captain nor the coach. Richie McCaw and Graham Henry were retained to take the team to the 2011 Rugby World Cup. For once the nation took the disappointment calmly with the gritty determination, "wait to you's all come here in 2011!". And so the expectation has grown so that there is just nowhere for the team, the coach and management to go but up-or out. Losing the Cup at home is simply unthinkable. So how has the team being doing and what can we expect September through to November 2011?
The team is going well. They won the Tri Nations tournament in 2010 causing the World Cup Champions South Africa to flounder last. They dropped a Bledisloe Cup in Hong Kong to Australia (blip on radar) but then cruised through their November tour of Europe with relative ease. The All Blacks displayed a ruthless approach to the game, solid on defence, capitalising on opposition errors, cutting through backlines with skill and ease. It all looked so simple and straight forward. And that is how New Zealand is playing its rugby. Ruthless and clinical. At their best simply unstoppable and irresistible. It doesn't seem to matter which combination they use. Their 'B' side can win tests as well. The team has a solid, skilful all round look. Where are the weaknesses?
Without Daniel Carter they slip just under excellent with less control and authority close to the scrum. Without Richie McCaw the forwards are slightly less effective. These two guys are the cement that really binds this team together. If New Zealand were to lose these two through injury, the cracks may well appear. If the opposition can shut both of them down then it may be a different game.
New Zealand will be thankful that France is in their pool. The French will provide a very stern test for the New Zealanders. In past tournaments the Kiwis have brushed opponents aside in the pool stages to stumble in the quarters, the semis or even the final. So NZ will progress even if, heaven forbid, they fall to the French at an early hurdle. After that? We'll have to wait and see.
France has a proud rugby tradition. Known as team unpredictable, they can be awful one test, brilliant the next. Not even the French players know which one it will be prior to a match. I just love watching the French play. At their best they can win against any team. Forwards inter passing the ball from hand-to-hand with the skill and pace of backs, backs who can attack from well inside their half and when they do this together as a team watch out. When they have their heads down or simply can't/wont/don't play with that flair and authority, they can be rolled.
France and New Zealand have a special relationship when it comes to the Rugby World Cup. France lost 9-29 to New Zealand in the first Rugby World Cup final, 1987. The next time they faced each other was at the 1999 Rugby World Cup. New Zealand had bolted away from the other teams in its pool and faced France in the Semi-Final. After building a handy half time lead New Zealand were expected to continue to dominate and roll the French in the second half.Instead France turned on an absolutely magical display to defeat New Zealand 43-31, a result that haunts New Zealanders to this day. In 2003 New Zealand defeated France easily in a 3rd-4th playoff. In 2007 France repeated their 1999 high jinks by knocked the Kiwis out of the tournament, this time at the quarter-final stage. Another nightmare for New Zealand. France went on to lose to England in the semi-final.
Australia showed the world just how to upset the rhythm of a French team. On 27 November 2011 Australia, against the odds, ran all over a French team that lacked ideas, passion and skill. Australia won 59-16! Now what that means is look out the next team that plays France. Rarely do they play poorly twice. When they do have a poor game they are usually all over the next team. That means watch out Scotland come February 5th!
France needs to rebuild their team in 2011 and it has to start in the 6 Nations Championship, beginning February 4th. They need to either win the Championship or come a close second. Then they need to perform well in the warm up games. Hey! What am I saying. France could play poorly in all those games and still do well at the Rugby World Cup. They certainly need to find some body who can direct their backline and a pack of forwards who can win the ball and do something magical with it. We will have to see.
Apart from New Zealand I can't see any other team in this pool worrying the French too much.
In reviewing Pool D I commented on the difficulties that Pacific Island nations have selecting their teams. Only at the time of the Rugby World Cup can these nations have their players long enough to build team work and put the strength and natural skills of these players into a cohesive unit. Tonga fits this scenario just as well as Samoa and Fiji.
Tonga has had its share of successes without ever progressing past the pool stages. In1999 they defeated Italy but then leaked over a hundred points to England in the next game. In 2003 they come within 7 points of Wales in pool play and in 2007 defeated both the USA and island neighbour Samoa but were pushed out of finals contention by England and South Africa.This all points to a gradual maturing of players as they ply their trade in mostly European clubs, better coaching and developing close-knit team spirit so typical of Pacific Island teams.
In 2010 Tonga lost all their Pacific Nation Cup rugby tests against Neighbours Samoa and Fiji, and to Japan. In November they toured Europe playing 'A' sides from 6 Nations countries. That form is not encouraging. Tonga has the 2011 Pacific Nations Cup matches to build towards the Rugby World Cup. It is hoped that they can call upon all the European-based players for that tournament, and then retain them for crucial build up matches before the Cup. If this can happen Tonga could defeat Canada and Japan, and hopefully give New Zealand a fright in the World Cup opening match (what an honour for Tonga who will be supported by a huge Tongan population in Auckland) and shake a few French bones with their typical no-holds-barred island style tackling. It wont be enough however to see the Tongan progress.
Canada qualified for this Rugby World Cup by being the top America's qualifying team. In recent years they have dominated their southern neighbour the United States. Under New Zealand coach Kieran Crowley the Canadians have developed into a team worthy of a place at the World Cup. Whether they can progress further is doubtful.
Canada has participated in every Rugby World Cup since the first in 1987. They won their first ever World Cup match defeating Tonga 37-4. In 1991 they reached the quarter finals, losing honourably to New Zealand 13-29. In 1995 they defeated Romania but did not progress. In 1999 they defeated Namibia and put up a grand fight against the French but again did not go further. In 2003 their only win was over Tonga whilst 2007 was a disappointment as they manage a 12-12 draw with japan and that was it. So traditionally the Canadians have an edge over Tonga and perhaps a slight one over Japan but wins over those two nations will be about as much as can be expected.
Former New Zealand rugby test player and all time great winger John Kirwan has been guiding Japan for the last few years. In 2010 he has established Japan as a most promising rising power in world rugby, certainly totally dominating Asian rugby. After easily accounting for their Asian rivals Japan lost 8-22 to Fiji although defeating eventual cup winner Samoa 31-23. Later in October they crashed 10-13 to a virtual Samoan second XV before walking all over Rugby World Cup newcomers Russia by a crushing 75-3. Unpredictable? Certainly. Capable of upsetting France and New Zealand. Certainly not.
Japan is taking theirr preparations for the World Cup seriously. Whilst its Asia Five Nations Cup rivals wont provide more than training runs, the Japanes have more serious opponents in the World Cp warm up games; playing Italy and then the United States.
At best they could defeated Tonga and Canada but they will hopefully provide some stiff opposition to the French and New Zealanders without being a real threat. Japan still has a long way to go before it can match it with the big teams in world rugby.