These two pools both have the proverbial banana skin in them. While it is hard to call which of France or Argentina joining England in the Quarter Finals, I feel that Fiji could potentially knock one of Australia or Wales out of the competition before the knock-out stages.
England, France, Argentina, Tonga, USA
England will win this Pool, they have been building nicely throughout the Summer matches. Also having Eddie Jones, the wily Australian in charge, you can’t rule them out of being at least finalists. Jones, has always said that he should be judged at the end of the World Cup cycle, and he seems to have been building to this competition. They have developed potentially the most dynamic, powerful set of players that will match both New Zealand and South Africa. Their pack should be able to poke holes into the defence that will allow the Ford-Farrell axis to release the back three. The only issue that I have is whether they are able to play this game plan successfully over a series of games. They have lost a 15 point lead against New Zealand and 31 points against Scotland, and these were both at Twickenham. If they can rectify this, and against the less physical sides they will be in with a shout. They start against Tonga, then play USA. This may be a thorn in their quest. Their matches against France and Argentina, which could be pivotal, and they will be back to back, so for England to win they will have five massive games in successive weeks, the last two pool matches then the QF, SF and Final. With France and Argentina opening their campaign against each other, they will be more likely to be able to rotate their squad prior to facing England. As for the two teams, Argentina, seem to have stagnated of late, but as per the RWC cycle, they have got their players back playing in Argentina, so will be at full strength. France, are their usual enigma, and very much like Scotland, can beat anybody on their day, and have a pedigree in the RWC. They are the only team to have played in the final, and haven’t won it. France will be a dark horse, as if they manage to win the pool, they could face New Zealand in the semi-final, and the game in 1999, will always be my favourite RWC game, with France coming from 24-10 down, to win 43-31. I expect both France and England to progress.
Australia, Wales, Fiji, Georgia, Uruguay
Now, this is the pool that I think will have the tightest finish, and I will put my neck on the line and say, that I think that Fiji, will progress, with one of Wales and Australia missing out. When you through in Georgia, who will be a handful for these three, especially if they don’t field their strongest team. While Ireland have I felt fallen out of the favourites group, even though they are now World No.1, I feel that Wales have dropped more dramatically since they were No. 1 in the world a matter of weeks ago (how they decide the rankings, especially in the pre-World Cup matches is for a blog on its own). They have lost two of their goto players in Gareth Anscombe and Taulupe Faletula. This will, I fear have a major impact on their chances. Initially, I thought that the freedom that Dan Biggar would have, knowing he would be first choice, would negate the loss of Anscombe. This hasn’t transpired in the three other warm up matches. While they defeated England at the Millennium Stadium, I thought it was a game that could have gone either way, and it was home advantage that was the deciding factor. What was a strength of the Welsh game plan, their set-piece, has been very disappointing in the Summer. This has led to Warren Gatland to choose players that would strengthen these plays rather than more dynamic players with less set-piece expertise. If any of the matches became a close match, I would still fancy Wales to win, but with many pitches expected set to be fast paced, there may not be many of these type of matches. That is why I fancy Fiji to progress. Over the years, they have always been the Harlem Globetrotters of Rugby. In an open game, they can cut open any team, and can quickly build up scores. What in the past they lacked was structure, but that appears to have been improved upon. Also, the team has had an extended period to gel, so I really expect at least one surprise result. When they tour Europe, they often only have one week build up, so this longer period will benefit them. With Australia being up first, I think they will run them very close, and potentially win. As for the Wales-Fiji game, if it is an open game, I think Fiji will win, as the Welsh backs have not shown much expansive form in the Summer. However, if it is a tight game, it will be the Fijian discipline that will be key, if they can control themselves, they might edge it. If not Leigh Halfpenny will kick Wales to victory. This is so hard to call. I am going to go for a complete shock and predict Fiji to win the pool and Australia to finish as runners-up, as Australia always seem to peak at the right time of the RWC cycle.
So, I expect the QF line up from Pool C and D;
England v Australia
Fiji v France
With France and England to progress to join New Zealand and South Africa in the SFs
Then it is all to play for, and I expect the winner of the SF between New Zealand and England to win the Final on Saturday 2ndNovember.