Over the next four days I will examine each pool at the 2011 Rugby World Cup and examine how each team stands at present and what might happen with that team between now and the Rugby World Cup, plus a possible outcome of results.
On the face of it there can be two certainties. Firstly, South Africa will qualify for the quarter finals, and secondly, Namibia won't. Which leaves a mouth-watering situation in which Wales, Fiji and Samoa will slug it out for that quarter final spot.
South Africa has lurched from Tri Nations winner in 2009 to Tri Nations wooden spoon in 2010. On their November European tour last year they went from losing to Scotland ( a week after New Zealand buried the Scots 49-3) to defeating England 21-11 squashing somewhat England's surge in form and optimism. Given the huge injury toll which meant a number of rookies made the tour, the tour record wasn't bad. But oh that game against Scotland.
On top of that South Africa has a coach equally unpredictable. Not popular amongst Springbox fans, De Villers retained his job after an investigation and position review by South Africa rugby. He will take the team to the Rugby World Cup. The fans will be counting on the return of some old hands to shore up the cracks and take the team to Rugby World Cup glory.
South Africa has a shortened Tri Nations tournament and some warm-up games to blend back in the old hands with some promising new rookies just in time to take on the world in New Zealand.
Although they won't get past the pool stage of the tournament, Namibia may well cause a worry or two against Wales, Fiji and Samoa. In the past they've been cannon fodder for higher classed sides but they displayed some improvement at the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
Recent form has been up and down. Up, when they took out the IRB Nations Cup in Bucharest putting Romania and a below-strength Georgia to the sword. Down, when on their November tour they lost to Portugal and Spain who are below then on IRB and GWC rankings. There were excuses for the Namibian players as the tour was not a certainty until the last minute for financial reasons and not all top players were available.
Add to that the IRB are investigating the Namibian organisational structure after an internal spat which has sapped the moral of this fiercely proud rugby nation. With the organisation of Namibian rugby settled soon the players and administrators can focus on a huge task ahead. They won't win a game but I'm hoping they can continue to gain respect from the rugby community.
Namibia will be hoping that the 2011 Africa Cup wont be the disaster it was in 2010 in which both Namibia's pool stage was cancelled along with the finals. Namibia will need those tests along with some warm-up games to pull the team together. And lets hope the administration gets sorted.
Wales will need to defeat South Africa if they are to have a solid chance of making the quarter finals. I can't see that happening so Welsh fans will have to hope that history wont repeat itself. Wales has a habit of dropping crucial matches in the Pool stages, setbacks that has cost dearly.
In 2007 Fiji dumped the Welsh in a magnificent game of rugby that I use to show non believers just what this game is about. The result cost Wales a quarter final spot. In 1999 it was Samoa who bounced the Welsh, and in Cardiff mind you, but Wales made the quarters. Samoa also crunched the Welsh in 1991 (Cardiff again). Food for thought.
Wales displayed enough strength up front and skill in the backs to give New Zealand a bit of a fright in their November clash in Cardiff. This was promising as Wales has been on the brink of becoming a very good side despite some ups and downs during 2009-2010. In New Zealand their flowing back play will win fans but that style may come unstuck against both Fiji and Samoa who simply live to crunch darting, swerving fancy backs. I can't wait!
Wales will have the Six Nations as their first preparations. A better than good showing will be expected if they'll be taken seriously in New Zealand.
If/when Fiji is able to put its strongest combination together they can play like they did against Wales in 2007. They can be a very difficult side to play against at their best because of the natural unorthodox way they play. The Rugby World Cup is about the only time the Pacific Island nations get all their top players together because European clubs, who most of the Islanders play for, simply must release players. In addition, its at Rugby World Cup time that the likes of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga have their top players for a decent length of time to build combinations.
So Fiji does well at Rugby World Cups. Or do they? Sadly the Pacific Island nations just do not have the depth to last a full Rugby World Cup tournament in which you are as good as your second side. This is where it becomes unravelled for the teams below the top ranked. Still, Fiji has made the quarter finals before (2007 and 1999) and could well do so again in New Zealand.
Fiji's record for 2010 was up and down. Up when they defeated Japan with virtually their second side at the Pacific Nations Cup and then down when Samoa defeated them convincingly at the same tournament. Up again when they drew with a dreadful Welsh effort in Cardiff ('Here we go again", I though I heard the Welsh crowd singing at Cardiff) and then down when they dropped the game against Italy.
Fiji will need to be convincing winners of the 2011 Pacific Nations Cup to go into the World Cup Finals confident of making the Quarter finals again, and put both Wales and Samoa to the sword.
One might as well repeat the first two paragraphs of what I wrote about Fiji and just insert 'Samoa'. Because the Samoans are in exactly the same situation.
Samoa's record in 2010 was reasonably good. They took out the Pacific Nations Cup for the first time defeating both Japan and Fiji. They toured Europe in November with a strong side somewhat short of training time. They pushed Ireland, England and Scotland enough to suggest that at the Rugby World Cup they will be a threat to Fiji and Wales and will push both for that quarter final spot.
South Africa plus any one of Wales, Fiji or Samoa to make the quarter finals. I'll go for Samoa.