A rough deal and crystal ball gazing
After a week featuring some one sided games, we are headed for a cracking last weekend of pool play with not much certainty about the playoff picture, which is exactly how it should be at a Rugby World Cup.
The lop sided scores owe much to three factors.
One is the rough deal the “little” guys get from the hierarchy when it comes to the schedule. It has been the case in at least the last two tournaments, and it is not fair.
While the likes of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England have the comfort of turnaround between six and eight days, the likes of Canada, Namibia, the USA and even Samoa have had as little as four days between games.
Surely it’s the big guns who have the squad depth to be able to handle a short turnaround....for example if the All Blacks played France on Saturday, they would be able to put out a strong enough team to play Japan four days later, without asking too many players to back up.
The second factor is the IRB's decision to grant automatic qualification for the next World Cup to teams finishing in the top three in their group.
So in the past week, the USA had out their second string against Australia in order to have a crack at Italy with their best players in good shape four days later, and last week Japan did the same thing against the All Blacks in order to try and get a reasonably fresh team on the park against Tonga after a five days turnaround.
Guaranteed qualification for the World Cup would obviously take a lot of pressure off these teams, but on the other hand surely the more games they have to play between tournaments the better.
Even Argentina have had only 18 matches in the last four years, compared to the 40 plus of teams like the Springboks and All Blacks.
And finally some of the teams have hardly been getting a fair crack from the officials.
On Saturday in Dunedin the brave Romanians were hot on attack against England, when England hooker Steve Thompson blatantly waded into the side of a ruck to kill the move. He was penalised, but I wouldn’t mind betting if it had been the other way around it would have been a yellow card.
The IRB have done a pretty good job growing the game globally. The game is being played in more and more countries, and that will be helped no end by the entry of Sevens to the Olympics. I have seen the list of countries that will have television coverage of this tournament, and it is quite staggering. We have had no 100 point blowouts yet, and that adds to the feeling that the “minnows” are getting better by degrees, but the IRB have to work out a way to give them a better deal, or at least even things up by giving every team one short turnaround during the tournament.
As we head into the final round of pool games there is only one team right now absolutely guaranteed a quarterfinal spot, and that is the All Blacks, following their clinical performance against France.
There was some real rubbish written about this game last week. A British writer wrote a withering article in the New Zealand Herald claiming the French selection was a B team and an insult to people who had paid good money to see the game. This was then reported around the world as being the view of the New Zealand media in general, which simply wasn’t true.
With the exception of the rather strange decision to play scrumhalf Morgan Parra at flyhalf, it was a strong French team, with a strong bench, and they made a very promising start.
In fact they didn’t play badly at all, it’s just that the All Black attack was so lethal at turning opportunities into points. It was a confidence boosting result.
France should also qualify from group A, unless something goes horribly wrong against Tonga.
In pool B it is still wide open after Argentina's rather dramatic win over a Scotland team that had played well enough to get into a winning position, but lacked the killer instinct (like Wales against the Springboks) to finish the job off.
What is fascinating about this group is that if Argentina can put a jaded Georgia away with a bonus point, and Scotland can topple England without allowing them a bonus point, England would miss out. Scotland would need a performance reminiscent of Robert the Bruce or William Wallace to achieve that, but stranger things have happened.
And South Africa will face a desperate Samoan side at Albany. Samoa need to win that game, otherwise they’ll be reliant on a losers bonus point and Fiji toppling Wales for the second tournament running, and on form I can’t see that happening.
After their rather patchy effort against Wales first up the Boks have looked very good, but they will need to be on their guard against a Samoan side that is capable of playing much better rugby than we have seen from them so far.
I think South Africa will win OK, and they’ll have massive support in the Albany crowd, which is situated in an area with many South African expats. But they might have a few bruises to show for it!
Just for fun I’ll do some crystal ball gazing and see how close I can get to predicting the quarterfinal lineup.
New Zealand to play Argentina, and South Africa to play Australia in one half of the draw, and England to play France and Ireland to play Wales on the other.
Sounds straightforward enough....the reality may yet prove to be different.