Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Chip On Everyone’s Shoulder

by Ciarán Duffy

Plenty of incentives on offer for all teams involved


There’s no real need to glorify the World Cup, it’s the World Cup.  It’s a tournament designed to decide which team is the best, not just in their hemisphere, but in the world.  All teams will dream of winning it, and all teams will at least want to achieve their expectations.  Those expectations may range from going all the way for some countries, to simply not being bonus pointed four times for others.  

But it doesn’t simply end there.  This isn’t a situation where each nations goals will be “do fairly well”.  There is extra-motivation for all involved.  World Cups come around once every four years, that’s a long time to be carrying a monkey on your back.  

Let’s start with the host nation.  England are the official hosts (with Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium also set to host 8 games), and all eyes are on them as the home country, as is a lot of the pressure.  In the four World Cups where there has been one official host they’ve all fared well, with New Zealand and South Africa winning in 2011 and 1995 respectively.  

Australia were runners up in 2003 and France came 4th in 2007.  And in 1987 New Zealand went on to win with Australia coming in 4th, in a tournament they both hosted.  The 1991 and 1999 editions are somewhat harder to judge because they were scattered throughout Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England, and France.  Aside from Wales being eliminated in the pool stage in 1991, they all had reasonable tournaments, with England and France as runners up in either tournament and Scotland coming in 4th in 1991.  The host nation is typically looked upon to perform well and England will have the same high expectations to live up to.  Anything short of a semi-final appearance would be a failure and really they’ll be looking beyond that.  Regardless of the difficulty of their group, playing on home soil represents their best chance of winning their second World Cup and matching the Southern Hemisphere heavyweight’s World Cup tally.  With the likelihood of a quarter final against either Scotland or Samoa if they top their group, and a chance to play the other favourites at home where they have been so good recently, there is a reasonable argument to be made for the hosts to hoist the Webb Ellis cup this year.

Speaking of hosts, what about the 2019 hosts Japan?  Eyebrows were raised when the Cherry Blossoms were announced as the first non-top tier team to host a World Cup.  It’s surely a good move for the globalisation of the game.  However whether they will host it has become a doubt with stadium issues, they have until the end of September to confirm they will be ready, with South Africa looking likely to replace them if they can’t.  It would be a shame if they found themselves having to surrender the tournament, and it may make World Rugby think twice about giving other tier 2 nations the chance to host a World Cup.  The stadium issues will have to be addressed off field but in terms of performance, stepping it up would certainly help justify their selection as hosts.  So far they have only ever recorded 4 victories over tier 1 sides, most recently against Italy in 2014.  

They have not gone well in World Cups either, with only one win (against Zimbabwe in 1991) and two draws (both against Canada in 2007 and 2011).  That doesn’t make for good reading with 21 losses in 24 games, and as I outlined above, the hosts have to perform.  They face a United States of America side, who they were narrowly beaten by in the Pacific nations cup, as well Samoa, Scotland, and South Africa.  They overcame a tough Georgia side in a warm-up and need to target that USA game to avoid finishing bottom of their pool.  A solid performance here and they may be able to develop into a team that can advance in four years time.  

When talking about globalisation of the game we should note that international rugby is really centred around Europe, Oceania, and South Africa and Argentina.  That’s a big enough continent in North America who could use some putting on the map.  

The USA and Canada are both high-performance nations according to world rugby, but Canada’s run to the Quarter Finals in 1991 marks the only time either of them have avoided finishing in the bottom two of their pools.  The United States have won three of their twenty-one games, with Canada winning seven of twenty-five with two draws.  Both had poor Pacific Nations Cup’s, finishing as the two bottom teams.  

The United States have a better chance of getting something from their pool against Japan, with Canada to likely be outdone by a more physical Romanian side.  One of these teams could use a good result or two both for their own sake and for the sake of the North American Caribbean Rugby Association.  

While we’re on the Pacific nations cup, what do we do with teams like Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.  The trio who always look as though they could cause an upset.  Great rugby nations, just not great international sides.  Samoa and Fiji have made it out of their pools three times each (twice to the quarterfinals and once to a play off), with Tonga finishing third in their pool twice.  There have been a few big wins in the last two World Cups.  Tonga beat France in 2011, and Fiji beat Wales in 2007.  They are consistently a good test but continue to fail against the bigger sides.  Fiji had the best Pacific Nations Cup, but are in the toughest pool.  However, this presents them with an opportunity.  They should be able to comfortably beat Uruguay, and if they could score an upset over England, Australia, or Wales they will put everyone on notice.  

Wales only scraped past Fiji in last year’s autumn international, and with Leigh Halfpenny out, that game represents their best chance.  In a tight group, two wins, one with four or more tries should be enough to secure third and automatic qualification for 2019.  They play England first, which presents them with an opportunity to put it up to the hosts on the opening day.  If they can stay in touching distance and prevent a bonus point, while possibly gaining one themselves, this could be the start of a memorable World Cup for Fiji.  Tonga are the weakest of the three and have once again been drawn against New Zealand.  With the world champions and Argentina almost certain to take the top two places, Tonga will have realistic expectations of finishing third.  Georgia and Namibia stand in their way, and they are two teams who have been improving so it is no given that they will win here.  Third place, putting it up to Argentina, and not letting New Zealand in for too many would represent a good World Cup for them.  

It’s Samoa who have the best chance of reaching the quarterfinals.  They face a South Africa in the pool stages for the fourth World Cup in succession, as well as Scotland, Japan and the USA.  They beat both the United States and Japan in the Pacific Nations cup so will be looking for two wins, and as far as Scotland go, they are beatable.  Samoa should aim to be the ones to stand in the way of the winners of group A and a semi-final place.  Personally, I would love to see one of these teams do well.  One of the problems for the pacific islands has been constantly losing players who choose to declare for other nations.  A good World Cup will make playing for them more appealing.  

Two other islands in Oceania who have had a much better time in World Cups are New Zealand and Australia.  New Zealand will be looking to handily top their pool while the Wallabies have a much tougher ask.  They are playing both England and Wales in their respective home stadiums in what is the toughest pool they have been drawn in at the World Cup.  Having won the Rugby Championship over the summer, they have the chance to pull off an historic double.  They beat New Zealand on the last day of the Rugby Championship, only to be hammered by them the following week, once again slumping into their shadow.  The Wallabies have a chance to put one over on their neighbours by taking their trophy and the record for most World Cups won.  So often New Zealand have been viewed above them as the best team in the world, in fact, the Aussies have never officially been the number 1 ranked side in the world.  A win for Australia will propel them to new heights.  

The All Blacks are also chasing their third World Cup with another record in sight, one that only they can achieve this year.  No team has ever retained the World Cup, which is something the best team in the world should be looking to achieve.  Considering how often they’ve been favourites, and how dominant they have been on the international stage, it’s a bit of surprise that they have only claimed two World Cups.  

Both Australia and South Africa claimed two World Cups in the tournaments between New Zealand’s first and second wins.  It’s not as if I’m trying to say they’ve “Only” won two World Cups in a way that diminishes that fact.  It’s just worth mentioning that the two times they’ve won it have both been in New Zealand.  Their failure to win a World Cup on foreign soil, only making it to one final away from home is something of a blip in their plans for world rugby dominance.  Winning the World Cup in the Northern Hemisphere would add another achievement to what is already a lengthy list, and establish this current squad as arguably the best of all time.  

South Africa are the other side looking to win their third World Cup.  They are the only team to win a World Cup hosted in both hemispheres.  They crashed out at the quarterfinal stage in 2011 against Australia, despite having so many chances and outrageous amounts of territory throughout the game.  How they didn’t score a try is something that’s still puzzling looking back.  That’s a match that will likely have been eating away at the squad as a missed opportunity, and they could well end up facing Australia again at the quarter final stage.  They finished last in a reduced Rugby Championship, which is something else they’ll have to attempt rectify.  There has been a lot of distractions off the pitch with the racial quotas controversy.  The Agency for New Agenda had originally called for the Springboks to withdraw from the World Cup due to the low number of non-white players in the squad.  On the one hand, there’s the argument that players should be picked on their ability regardless of the racial percentages it leads to.  There’s also the argument that equal representation at this tournament will lead to a more opportunities for players of all races and a more even racial ratio in the future of South African sport which should be the priority.  

This is not an issue I am going to go into in this article because it is not simply a World Cup talking point; it is a broader societal issue that has a bigger impact than match results.  In terms of the rugby, South Africa will be looking to recover from a poor Rugby Championship by having a good World Cup, having only beaten Argentina in their most recent games.  

And on Argentina, they seem to be the only top tier Southern Hemisphere side that nobody has any major fears about facing.  They have improved in the Rugby Championship, beating Australia and South Africa in the last two tournaments.  They are favourites to get to the quarterfinal as pool runner-up.  France or Ireland in the quarterfinal would be quite a scalp, but their ambitions should lie on a bigger scalp slightly earlier.  In their first pool game, Argentina face the All Blacks.  Like many, they’ve never beaten New Zealand.  In fact, New Zealand have never lost a pool game in the World Cup.  That would be some achievement, the first team to make New Zealand go into a quarter final as pool runners-up.  That would really turn it around for Argentina, they are going to have to beat New Zealand eventually, there’s no better place.  For the Pumas to insert themselves into a World Cup contender conversation for future tournaments they’ll need a performance here, they’ll need to start achieving to become a real Southern Hemisphere powerhouse.  

Namibia are in the pool with Argentina and New Zealand, they are the only side in the World Cup not classed as ‘high-performance’, and are currently the lowest ranked side in the competition.  World cups haven’t been kind to Namibia.  They haven’t managed to pick up any points in the four previous World Cups they took part in.  As well as this they conceded 142 points against Australia in 2003 without scoring any themselves.  They have also never scored more than two tries in a game.  The Welwitschias will be looking to gain some kind of good experience on the world stage.  Tonga and Georgia are the games they will look to get at least a losing bonus point, and possibly more.  Aside from South Africa, no African has won a match at the World Cup (Zimbabwe and Cote d’Ivoire being the other two), which is something Namibia could change this time around, they are coming in with momentum after storming their way to the 2015 Africa Cup.  They’ve never played New Zealand in a test before, they will learn what that feels like on September 24th.  

Uruguay are the second lowest ranked side in the competition, one place above Namibia in the world rankings.  In Pool A, the Pool of Death, they are pretty much already cremated.  They have managed to win a game in the other two World Cups they have played in so far, but that win total is unlikely to increase this time.  They qualified the long way through the repechage, beating Hong Kong and Russia after losing out in their regional qualification.  

Uruguay’s reasonable expectations will be about damage limitation.  They did well to qualify over Russia, and now it’s about not exiting the World Cup as a punch line.  It is important that they keep the scoreboard down.  They conceded 111 against England in 2003, and they will need to avoid the same faith this year.  Australia and Wales are also going to be looking to pile on the scores.  Keeping everyone under 80-points, while scoring in each game would be reasonable.  They are unlucky in the pool they’ve been handed, but they’ll have to play the role of plucky underdogs who don’t make it easy.

Wales are Uruguay’s opponents in their first game.  As I mentioned above some games will be in Cardiff.  Wales play three of their pool games at home, with England away.  This provides them with a lifeline in the pool of death (has it lost its impact yet?  Has ‘pool of death’ become less dramatic?).  Wales need to beat Australia.  Since the beginning of the 21st century, they’ve only managed two wins and a draw against the Wallabies, with Australia currently on a run of ten consecutive victories against the Welsh.  Australia have become an obstacle Wales have been unable to overcome, and it seems a lot of it is mental now.  If they can pull it off against Australia and beat England and a tricky Fiji side, they will suddenly be one of the favourites for the tournament.  Leigh Halfpenny is a big loss for them in terms of placekicking, getting out of their pool is a bigger ask than achieving semi-final status last time around was.  

They lost out in the semi-final to France in that tournament.  France hold two World Cup records.  In 2011, they became the only team to reach the final after losing two earlier games.  They have also finished as runner-up more times than any other country, with three losses in the final.  This is an unwanted record that they will look to change.  Though many seem to think Ireland beating France is a given, this is not necessarily the case.  The French have no reason to protest on the pitch anymore, they are getting a new coach.  Consistency is key for the French.  They were dreadful in every game in the last World Cup before the final, aside from the first half against England.  And then of course, they should have beaten New Zealand in the final.  They were poor throughout the six nations, until England had a chance of winning.  In that game, they were able to turn it on every time England looked like they would get the points difference they required.  They lost their biggest chance in 2007, when losing out to Argentina and England, despite beating New Zealand.  They just seem to have a habit of losing interest when the going gets rough.  

Having failed to beat Ireland in the last four meetings between the sides, and not wanting an upset against Italy, they should have enough motivation to win the pool.  Whether they play Argentina, and attempt revenge for 2007, or New Zealand, and attempt revenge for 2011, they should again be fully motivated.  The French are most dangerous when they take the game personally, and winning a World Cup final for the first time at the home of their biggest rival nation will surely be personal enough.  It’s time for the French to become that great team they used to be, rather than that Jekyll and Hyde team they are now.  

As far as the other European sides go, Italy and Scotland have been the Six Nations pushovers for some time now.  Italy, while scoring victories over France and Ireland in recent seasons, have consistently been 5th and 6th.  Though they are a top tier team, they are everyone’s favourite top tier team to play against.  With France being so inconsistent, they did seem to have a slim chance of making the quarterfinals.  But now, with Parisse out for that game things look bleak.  Italy are usually decent performance-wise in the first game of the six nations, and that may give them some hope going in.  The real key for the Italians is not losing out to Romania or Canada.  They should be capable of bonus pointing a weak Canadian side, but need to be careful against a physical Romanian side.  Realistically they should be able to run France close, keep Ireland from running rampant, and finish third.  

When it comes to Scotland, it’s hard to know what to say.  Every year it seems like they are going to threaten in some way, but most of the time they fall flat.  They nearly beat England, France, Italy and Wales in the six nations, which highlights their problem.  They are constantly suffering from near misses.  They are the most frustrating team to support, they look like they can win, and they show that they can win, but then they don’t.  They failed to get out of their pool in 2011 when they really should have beaten Argentina, and they had a scare against Romania.  Qualifying is crucial.  The Samoa game is the all-important one, in a pool likely to be won by South Africa.  That is the game Samoa will focus on and the Scots cannot afford to be the victim of an upset having had such a poor Six Nations.  Closing out tight games has to be the goal for Scotland.  

While Italy and Scotland have been the lowest ranked Six Nations sides, Georgia and Romania have been the top ranked European sides outside of the top tier.  There has long been a discussion about introducing relegation and promotion between the six nations and European Nations Cup.  The only way to really bring this into serious consideration is if Georgia and Romania perform against teams ranked above them.  Georgia in particular should target third place, this is the best chance they’ll have with Namibia and Tonga.  Being one of the teams to automatically qualify for 2019 is necessary for Georgia, who finished top of the 2015 stage of the Nations Cup, if they want to be taken seriously as Six Nations candidates.  

Romania have a more direct opportunity, as they face half of the Six Nations in their pool.  Italy in particular has to be the game they focus on.  If they can beat the team that would likely be relegated, than they have a very good argument for promotion.  Three good performances against teams in a competition they are trying to get into, and Romania could just have what is looked back on their most important World Cup yet.  

And so, we come to Ireland.  Do you like that I left them to last?  Really built up the anticipation didn’t it?  Let me just do a quick count to make sure I remembered everyone... yeah we’re good.  Ireland under Joe Schmidt have suddenly become world beaters.  Joe has beaten every top tier side except his homeland.  Which gives us two goals for Ireland.  One is of course beating New Zealand.  Whether it be in the Quarter Final, the Bronze Final, or the Final, now is the time.  If we are to win a World Cup, which should really be the aim for this group of players, we will likely have to beat New Zealand.  And even if they are knocked out before we get the chance, it has to be done eventually.  If Ireland play New Zealand, a win is crucial, finally beating the world’s best team is a vital step if we are to truly become world beaters.  The other goal we can definitely achieve this year is getting to a World Cup semi-final.  

Ireland are the best team to never get past the last 8th, which is a record we need to pass on to a Fiji or Samoa by now.  2007 Was supposedly the best chance we would ever have and... well... I don’t want to talk about it.  In 2011, after beating Australia Ireland were presented with a very winnable quarter final against Wales, again... we won’t go back there.  This time there has to be no mistake.  A lot of supporters have come back down to Earth after some poor performances in the warm-ups, which is good because we can’t afford to get carried away.  Staying focused is vital this time around.  There’s no room for “we would have deserved to win” performances.  

Getting ten points from Canada and Romania are necessary, a comfortable win against Italy is a must, and a win against France is key.  Not just because we will likely avoid the All-Blacks until later, but because we will top the pool with all the momentum in the world.  And then as soon as we do that, it needs to be straight back down to Earth for the Quarter Final.  

Anything short of a semi-final is a failure this time.  The French game is key, 3 losses from 3 World Cup meetings so far doesn’t make for great reading, but two wins from the last two against Les Bleus provides us with some confidence.  Ireland’s tournament will be defined by the result on October 11th.  

Plenty of subplots and side notes ahead of what is sure to be an entertaining World Cup.  Now if it would just hurry up and start already we’ll be set.

Ciarán Duffy (@VoiceQuakeDuffy) is a Leinster supporter who would watch any game of rugby while undoubtedly taking it too seriously.  He enjoys over analysing and taking a pessimistic look at the bright side while talking about Irish, European, and World Rugby issues on and off the field.  

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