What can the 18 test matches, plus the Portugal v Australia A match and Spain plus Argentina, tell us about the state of the teams going into the Rugby World Cup? It’s important to remember that not all the sides in the World Cup played, they certainly didn’t all have an equal number of games (the range is 0-4) and they did different things with their games. For example, Wales put out three pretty different teams as Gatland searched for his best squad members while Scotland put out their strongest team almost every time as Townsend gave them time to work together. Australia only had the one game but it was probably close to their strongest team.
In order to try and organise this, I’m going to go through pool by pool and comment on each team in their seeded order. Then I’ll give a summary of the pool. At the end I’ll have some really tentative predictions for the knockout stages. I have very low confidence in these simply because suspensions and injuries, and we’ve seen both during these warmups, could really easily have a huge impact on the knockout stages and I really can’t predict how they’ll work through the four pool matches.
The All Blacks played one game and got ripped to bits by a rampant Bokke side. Keep in mind five weeks ago NZ stuffed SA 35-20 so we shouldn’t read too much into this one result. In addition, it’s always hard to judge the balance between how well one side played and forced errors and how badly the other side played and invited excellence. South Africa were excellent but New Zealand were awful. I don’t think I’ve seen any Kiwi side drop as many passes as they did on Friday. I can’t see that happening again. Not much to learn, except possibly be afraid if you’re French. There will be a reaction, will it be enough?
Scott Barrett wasn’t suspended, his hit on Marx was ruled only worth a YC, and the RC for two yellows was deemed sufficient. This is, assuming he keeps his temper, definitely a plus for the ABs, he’s been arguably one of the best locks of the year, at least prior to Friday. You can argue that Whitelock and Retallick is a better locking pair, but Retallick is still injured, Whitelock and Barrett have been good. Looking deeper, even at their worst, the AB are not going to lose any of the other pool matches, so they will get out of the pool.
Les Bleus have played four games, and their team has been rather mixed. Game one saw a lot of youngsters against Scotland, away, who didn’t quite close it out. The second game saw the senior players and a fairly comfortable win but injuries to Baille and Ntamack. Baille made the 33, Ntamack didn’t. Game three was against Fiji with a kind of patchwork team, senior pack, others, or subs, in the backs. The final game saw the senior side, that will almost certainly start against New Zealand play against Australia and run out comfortable winners.
They have a strength in depth that we normally associate with New Zealand plus whoever wins Bill. Most teams would struggle if they lost their first choice flyhalf and loosehead prop. France went on to beat Australia by 24 points after that loss.
The game against New Zealand is going to decide which of the pair ends up on top but, like New Zealand they’re going to beat everyone else.
Italy played three matches. An understrength Italy played an understrength Ireland and lost. Then a full strength Italy played Romania in a match where Romania lost a player to a Red Card in the first few minutes and were never in it. Finally an equally full strength Italy played Japan and dominated them. Italy’s senior side are good, but they really need them all on the pitch, they lack strength in depth. And look at who else they have in their pool. Poor Italy.
Italy are on a comfortable upwards trajectory, if that continues for the next four years and they get a more favourable draw, a quarterfinal place in 2027 is not an unreasonable target.
Uruguay And Namibia.
Neither of these teams got a match in the main warmup series. Their match against each other is likely to decide who finishes fourth and fifth. While world rankings aren’t everything, Uruguay are far enough above Namibia they ought to win, and they’re both far enough below Italy they ought to lose that one.
Summary of Pool A
The opening match of the World Cup is France v New Zealand and, barring a flurry of cards in a single match, that will also decide who comes out on top. I can make a case for either team winning it, but France at home with all the passion of the opening ceremony and the home crowd to edge it for me. I won’t be at all surprised if it goes the other way though. Italy are comfortably better than their other challengers. I don’t know enough to pick between Uruguay and Namibia really.
- New Zealand
South Africa only played one game in the warmups, that demolition of New Zealand. While a lot of people are focussed on the attack, and that certainly clicked, what I noticed was something in the defence. Against Wales and NZ the Bokke intercepted a lot of passes and offloads. Ok, maybe it was only two or three in each match, but if you consider you can go multiple matches without seeing any – I only remember one in the eight games of the Rugby Championship for example (there may have been more, but I only remember one) – so 2/3 in consecutive matches suggests it’s a definite defensive ploy. It’s something to keep an eye on; presumably a tactic to stop the Irish.
Libbok and Esterhuizen look like they’re doing the job at 10 and 12, although Libbok is young and this might just be one good game, he’s certainly been more scattergun from the tee over his relatively few starts. It’s hard to judge Moodie from one start where the whole team went so well and the ABs played with 13 for ten minutes and then 14 for a half. But he certainly did everything he could to say “I can play 13 too.”
Ireland are, of course, the current world number 1. They’ve played their warmups without Sexton and I think that’s more of an issue than some other people do. There’s an appreciable fall off in standard to their next number 10. However, Ireland have looked poor, except against England, and that’s not just that one position. The pack has looked out of sorts as well, the lineout has been below par, breakdown work has been decent but with Ireland we’re used to excellent and so on. They look like a team that’s out of sorts and not quite clicking, that was exemplified by having to come from behind to beat Samoa in their last match. I commented in this post a few weeks ago that Leinster, who have looked all conquering for a while, looked mentally frail in the URC and Heineken Cup knockout stages. The strongest Irish team is not wholly drawn from Leinster, but it is heavily based on that provincial side. Ireland have been, along with France, the best side between world cups.
To me, France appear to be building still, peaking at the right time, whereas there are hints that either Ireland have peaked and are dropping off or that the best teams have started to work out how to beat their system. Sexton will be returning but Healy is out after the the Samoa game. He might be fit sometime during the knockout phases, the doctors say 5-10 weeks.
Scotland played four matches in this series beating Italy, the French B-team and Georgia, while losing to the French A-team in the game that cost France Ntamack and Baille. They always played something really close to their strongest side and pushed the French senior team really close which is good. Then they misfired against Georgia for all of the first half, going in 6-0 down, before running in five unanswered tries in the second half to win 33-6. If they play 80 minutes like that first 40 against Georgia they can lose against everyone. If they play like the second half they can beat anyone.
Tonga didn’t play any of the warmup matches. They placed last in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup. They’re not going to challenge the teams above them.
Romania played one warmup game and were smashed 57-7 by Italy after a player was shown a red card early in the match. It’s really hard to judge fairly from the short time it was 15-a-side but Italy looked totally in control.
A year ago this group was easy. Ireland tops it, then South Africa, unlucky Scotland. Now though, Ireland might be lucky having two games with Sexton back to knock the rust off before playing South Africa then Scotland. It’s worth remembering he hasn’t played any rugby since March, so match fitness will be an issue. I’m going to be bold, pick Ireland to choke and/or suffer key injuries – with Healy out they’re looking thin at tighthead too.
- South Africa
Thanks to Covid and the decision to base the seedings on early rankings after 2019, plus the decline of Australia, England and Wales, Pools A and B have a cluster of all the top five sides, Pools C and D look ragged. Pool C is unexpectedly interesting as we have the current world 7, 9, 10, 11 and 16 teams scrapping it out, much closer than any other pool.
Wales switched coaches with less than a year to go, not necessarily a disaster but only really working for one team so far. Then the WRU renegotiated contracts and a load of mid-experience players retired from international rugby. Gatland had been scrabbling to find his others. There’s a XV that’s recognisable, good even, although they haven’t played together yet, but the rest are really, really young. Can they escape the pool? Time will tell.
It’s really hard to say much about Wales, the XV I expect to start has literally had no game time together since Gatland came back to Wales, probably none under Pivac either. Gatland’s great strength as a coach is that he always had plans that the players understood and could execute. In the warmups, even in the heavy defeat against South Africa, you could see that plan, see the players working for each other, even as the kiddies were being smashed by a team that’s a serious contender to win it all. If that best XV can click together and remember their combinations, and stay healthy they can get out of the pool. That’s a lot of ifs though. Gatland won one from his first five, two from his first eight, without fielding his best side once. That includes playing France, Ireland and South Africa, clearly soft matches…
Stop me when this sounds familiar. Australia switched coaches with less than a year to go, not necessarily a disaster but only really working for one team so far. Then the head coach left a reasonably sizeable of experienced players at home. Some injured or out of form, others more confusing choices. There’s a XV that’s recognisable, good even, although they have only really played together once, but the rest are really, really young. Can they escape the pool? Time will tell.
Australia only played one warmup game, against France and the final result was a 24 point spanking.
It’s fair to say some of the old issues really raised their hands – there was a short period that went PK France, 1 phase, PK France, 3 points, kickoff, PK France for example. Talk about discipline problems! However, the scrum looked good and, while it didn’t fire super often, when it did the attack looked good too. Australia are currently 0-5 under Jones and, ok, with the exception of Argentina it’s all top 4 opponents but he’s always picked close to the strongest team he can, allowing for injuries.
Stop me when this sounds familiar. Fiji switched coaches with less than a year to go, not necessarily a disaster but only really working for one team so far, and that would be this one. Fiji won the PNC, defeating all comers. Then they lost to France, but made them work for it, and beat England at Twickenham, first time they’ve done that. Although I don’t place much faith in the precise rankings, Fiji are currently the mostly highly ranked of the five teams in Pool C. Their coach, although he hasn’t had much time, has given them a defensive structure that they understand. It’s imperfect but works, and they can cope with it breaking and bounce back.
The Drua playing in Super Rugby Pacific has given them a core of players used to playing together, the others sprinkle some stardust. Like the Fijians need any of that. And, in attack, they seem to have two modes, that they move smoothly between when they have the ball, which no other side really has, plus that Sevens background gives them devastating counter-attack capability. They beat England while being beaten at set piece according to the stats, just not smashed, because their breakdown work and work on both sides of the ball in the open field is great. They’re a real threat to top this group.
Georgia have, traditionally, been a big pack and “oh yes, there’s these other guys too.” As they showed last November, and against Scotland where they were desperately unlucky not to score a couple of tries, they have some backs now too. If you follow French domestic rugby in particular, English to a lesser extent, you’ll recognise a lot of these names. Georgia have the advantage over Wales, Australia and Fiji of consistency, but they do lack that stardust. I joked with someone that Fiji and Georgia would emerge from Pool C. I don’t think that’s the likeliest outcome, but it’s not impossible.
Portugal don’t get to the World Cup often. This group of players were inspired to start watching the team that got to the 2007 World Cup. Although they’re only five places on the ladder, they’re just under eight points behind Georgia, which is quite a deficit. They played Australia A in a warmup and were soundly beaten, although it stayed close for longer than Australia A would like to have seen. They’re probably good enough to beat any of these sides if Os Lobos play a good game and the other side have a bad day, but not otherwise.
Honestly, I can construct an argument for any combination of the top four sides and make it work. This could even be a really nail-biting pool with A beats B beats C beats D beats A, which I don’t think we’ve had before, and where bonus points become critical. I’m tempted to bottle it and not give an order for this pool but I’m going to go with this one:
As with Pool C, this pool is bad, but not as tightly clustered. They range from world number 6-22, although there are a couple of clusters with 6, 8, 12, 14 and 22.
England played four games this summer, home and away to Wales, where the home team won each, then away to Ireland and home to Fiji, England lost both of those.
It’s worth pointing out that, combining the scores, England lost the two Wales games 37-28, and that they put out what everyone assumed was their strongest team for their home game, scraping home by two points. Wales put out different experimental teams for both games.
It’s also worth pointing out that Farrell saw red in the second game against Wales, Vunipola in the game against Ireland, both will miss some pool games, including the opener against Argentina.
England had also never lost to a tier two nation, before Saturday and their defeat by Fiji.
It would be fair to say that England look like they have an inferior implementation of the attack plan that South Africa took to the World Cup in 2019 plus players that don’t understand it. They also don’t really have a defensive plan. Oh and, stop me if this sounds familiar: they changed their coach less than a year out from the World Cup. For them it’s definitely not working. In Wales, the fans understand the problems Gatland has had, not of his own making, and are behind him. With Australia, the fans are divided, but certainly some support Jones and his vision. However, for England, even the most ardent fans are not behind the plan, not showing up to the game and don’t care.
Oh how the mighty have fallen. Just about every rugby fan in the world who is old enough remembers Japan beating South Africa in Brighton. They remember Japan reaching the quarterfinals at home, the respect and the bowing before leaving the pitch. Many also remember other things, like the typhoon, but they remember the Brave Blossoms with great fondness. They may not be many people’s second team, but in a neutral game, for example Japan v Argentina for me, I’m going to cheer for Japan because of those memories.
Then they came third in the PNC this year. Got beaten by a not great New Zealand A. Then, in the warmups, got smashed by Italy. Talk about the passing of the flame. Japan might be seeded second, but they are not going to live up to that.
When Cheika left Australia I think many people, certainly many people here at G&GR, thought his career as an international head coach was over. They may have had more expletive-laden versions of “goodbye and good riddance” on the lips or keyboards. Then things in Argentina, where he was forwards coach, shifted and out he strolled as head coach.
There is a theory, with some pretty good evidence, that Cheika has his best results as head coach in his first 18-24 months, and the final will be played 20 months after he took over. In that time, Los Pumas have beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand, England at Twickenham (maybe not such an achievement any more) and Australia in Parramatta. They’ve shown resilience to come from behind late and the ability to make smart choices and run from in front and maintain a lead. Players like Lavanini, who used to be a card magnet, have matured into good, test-quality locks. He’s not near the discussion of “best in the world” but if you had a fantasy team, and you had to pick three locks, he might sneak in to a lot of people’s third lock position, I think the same is true for a lot of test teams. He’s totally solid, even if he’s not necessarily a superstar. Boffeilli can also kick the goals from anywhere. Officially they didn’t play in the series of warmup games, but they did play, and soundly beat Spain over the weekend.
Samoa beat Japan in the PNC this year and are a couple of places above them in the world rankings. They also gave Ireland a hell of a fright on Saturday, they were leading 13-10 quite late in the game, but the Irish have that winning habit and scored a late try. Samoa had chances to win at the end and couldn’t quite convert them. The big question really is are Samoa good enough to beat England?
Chile are the lowest ranked team in this year’s World Cup and while I wish them all the best, I think the gulf between them and the rest is too big. No official warmup games to comment on and not much other knowledge I’m afraid.
This pool is almost certainly going to be topped by Argentina, unless Borthwick has been faking everyone out for months. The real question is Samoa or England in second place?
I have fairly low confidence in my predictions for the lineups here. My pick to win France v New Zealand was really a toss of a coin. The decisive matches in Pool B are really in the last two rounds when injuries and cards will have had the maximum chance to have effect. I’ve guessed at Ireland being worse off but Scotland could be messed up too. Pool C I will freely admit to being mischievous in my picks for the top two. Pool D I’m possibly the most confident about. Any mistakes change the teams here, and cards in any of these could be critical. Even for France, South Africa and New Zealand I have no clue what the teams will look like and how they’ll be affected by injuries after four games.
- France v Scotland. I can’t see Scotland winning this, unless injuries, suspensions or cards get in the way. France to go through.
- New Zealand v South Africa. Looking at their last two matches, I don’t think this one will be close. Honestly, I’d rather not call it, but I think revenge for New Zealand.
- Georgia v Argentina. This is an interesting. I don’t think they’ve played in years, but I think Argentina probably have the firepower.
- Fiji v Samoa. Fiji were clearly better in the PNC, Fiji again.
This would give us France v Fiji and New Zealand v Argentina as the semis, and a France v New Zealand rematch as the last game.