Forget who we think will win the thing, let's enjoy the uncertainty of the pool stages, writes Will Macpherson
Just a week to wait, then. We’re into kid-at-Christmas territory; it’s time to stock the house with reachable snacks, to clear the decks on your television’s record function, and to scratch all but rugby-based engagements from your social calendar.
Now the rigmarole and general awfulness of actually getting a ticket for the thing is done, the squads have been named and the wait is all but up, what’s exciting you most about the World Cup? I mean, we’re even past the stage of the absurdities now, such as England’s “farewell send-off” at the O2 Arena, for a competition that they start in the same city. Give me strength, marketers.
If you were to say you were most looking forward to seeing Nehe Milner-Skudder or Israel Folau, I’d get that. France would be understandable too, because they always lift their game for these big events. A very reasonable answer would be a trip to Twickenham or the Millennium or even the Amex, just to soak up the atmosphere and feel a part of something so vast and important.
For me, though, the answer of what I’m looking forward to most about the World Cup rather caught me by surprise. Indeed it was something that had actively angered me for ages and only occurred to me as a result of a chance chat with a friend who has nothing more than a passing interest in the game.
It’s the pools. A colleague who works with me in cricket – and with whom I covered the Cricket World Cup down under earlier this year – asked me, “how many of the quarter-finalists are actually nailed on? Surely it’s going to be more exciting than the Cricket World Cup was.”
The statement that followed the question is undoubtedly true: the Cricket World Cup group stages are a monstrosity, an elongated mess specifically designed to usher the biggest and best eight teams in the world into the quarter-finals. England’s premature exit was the seven-week tournament’s only surprise and only upset. Frankly the awful great thing needed it.
That brings me to my colleague’s question. After another look at the pools, I’d say the only guaranteed quarter-finalists are New Zealand and South Africa, with Ireland and Argentina a good chance to join them, but far from guaranteed. The other four slots are utterly up in the air.
The draw had rankled for some time. It was done far too early – any sane rugby fan will agree with that – and had produced some lop-sided pools. Indeed three of the world’s top five (four of the world’s top nine, actually) sharing a pool is outrageous, and Pool A shapes up as the deadliest of all the deadly groups of death, ever. This, though, is exactly what the tournament needs.
The pool stages have thrown up some belting do or die games, and early in the piece too. If Pool A is the group of death, then Pool C is the deadest group, although Tonga-Argentina (that’s 11th plays 8th in the rankings) in Leicester on 4 October shapes up as an unlikely brute. Likewise Scotland’s Pool B clash with Samoa in Newcastle on the 10 October to see who follows South Africa into the quarters. That’s tenth plays 12th, and it’s easy to forget that Japan (13) and USA (15) lurk as potential banana skins for either.
Pool D throws up all sorts of European intrigue. Sadly, Italy are nursing war wounds already, the French will up their game, while Ireland suddenly look beatable. It really wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Italians beat the French, the Irish beat the Italians and the French beat the Irish.
Finally to die Todesgruppe. Every tournament needs one, they say. But this is something else. Fiji beating England feels unthinkable, but is it? A spot of hubris – I’m looking at you, O2 arena, some suspect selections and a dose of stage fright – could yet prove their undoing. Then there’s Australia, who are raw, and Wales, who look stretched. Each looks there for the taking, and just two can advance, so expect Uruguay to take some series hidings; there are bonus points to be seized, after all.
That, right there, is why these funky, maddening, lop-sided pools are the best thing about this World Cup: there’s plenty to play for every single time.