By Charlie Morgan
The confirmation of kick-off times last Wednesday reaffirmed it before Saturday’s Millennium Stadium ding-dong drove the point home. Pool A at Rugby World Cup 2015 is going to be phenomenally tight and utterly compelling – not to mention deadly.
First things first, there are still two more spaces to fill, officially termed ‘Oceania 1’ and ‘Play-off winner.’ Fiji are likely to fill the former, and should bring a cocktail of shuddering hits, erratic attacking brilliance and ill-discipline if their performances over the past month are anything to go by.
There is still a long way to go for the final spot to be decided via a complicated repechage, but the likes of Russia, Spain and Sri Lanka remain in contention. Whoever makes it has a seriously tough task. A trio of big fish will thrash furiously to escape this claustrophobic pool into the last eight.
The high-stakes round robin between Australia, England and Wales heads to Twickenham on three consecutive weekends from Friday September 26, 2015. Crucially, Warren Gatland and co. are only in Cardiff for the two more straightforward assignments. Each fixture takes place under floodlights, so while later starts are sure to cause carnage on post-match public transport, the encounters will get the electric atmosphere they merit.
Boxing sages often say contrasting styles make fights. This is no different. You only have to glance at the meetings between these sides in 2013 to establish that. Back in March, Stuart Lancaster’s charges capitulated under a tsunami of passion, power and Justin Tipuric’s energy. Six months later, England ground Australia down in a stuttering performance salvaged by Mike Brown’s spark and the pack’s strong scrummaging. Then Wales got beaten by the Wallabies’ best on Saturday.
Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate were out-worked at the breakdown by Michael Hooper and Scott Fardy, Will Genia fizzed and Quade Cooper wreaked havoc by releasing his wrecking-ball, Israel Folau. Worryingly for Gatland, the game could still have been won but for crippling lineout inaccuracies and concentration lapses. An 18-game losing streak against southern hemisphere opposition clearly creates psychological snags.
Were these results to repeat themselves in two years’ time, it would be England heading for the exit (under the assumption that Wales’ 2007 loss to Fiji does not repeat itself). As hosts of the tournament, that is simply unthinkable.
Much has been made about the dearth of creativity behind Graham Rowntree’s world-beating pack, and rightly so. Long-term injuries to Marland Yarde, Christian Wade and Manu Tuilagi now mean England’s three game-turning talents won’t play together until at least the June tour of New Zealand. Stunted by indecision and inadequate skills, the midfield presents more problems. But the same could be said of Wales there.
Lions Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies have been conspicuous by their absence this month. Davies broke the South African line twice with two carries during a 12-minute cameo before he damaged a pectoral muscle and although Scott and Owen Williams have had their moments, they cannot offer the same incision. Likewise, fly-half is an issue. Rhys Priestland is calling odd shots – evidenced by his last-gasp grubber on Saturday – and Gatland doesn’t appear to trust James Hook. Like Owen Farrell, Dan Biggar churns out the basics in an unfussy manner without ever threatening to rule the match.
Compare that with Australia’s three-quarters. Handed extra responsibility by former Reds mentor Ewen McKenzie, Cooper is being managed expertly and consequently hitting the very heights of his considerable powers. Outside him, Christian Leali’ifano and exceptional 91-capper Adam Ashley-Cooper have all bases covered. With Fardy and Hooper hugely effective at manufacturing quick ball – don’t forget David Pocock is still to return as well – they thrive in fast-paced clashes. But despite undeniable momentum on the back of a year that did seem doomed, weaknesses remain.
Richard Hibbard spent last week insisting that the Australian scrum is not an Achilles heel any more. Frankly, I don’t buy that. Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole made it look very flimsy, while Wales were extraordinarily denied a chance to attack the set-piece before 46 minutes had elapsed. Had he been fit, Adam Jones would have certainly fancied his chances of forcing a couple of early penalties out of James Slipper.
Busting over the gain-line on numerous occasions, Billy Vunipola also exposed a lack of brawn that may hinder the Wallabies. Former captain James Horwill cannot find form and though Ben Mowen is a canny tactician, he is not an intimidating specimen. Interestingly, in each of their tour matches except the 50-20 thrashing of Italy, Australia missed more tackles than their opponents. Now, if only the northern hemisphere boys were more clinical…oh, we’re back to the start.
These three teams have patent flaws, which will make Pool A an even more fascinating place. With some 21 months to run until Rugby World Cup 2015’s opening ceremony, there is plenty of scope to iron them out through wise selection and coaching, but predictions this far out are impossible. One absolute certainty is that the quarter-final qualifiers will deserve their prize. For the runner-up, that is probably a tie against South Africa, too. It doesn’t get easier.