IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 Tournament Preview

Written by Damien Kayat for @Hollywoodbets.

The indomitable All Blacks look to defend their well-earned Webb Ellis trophy while host nation England are at the vanguard of a possible Northern Hemisphere resurgence on the world stage. The sixteen team tournament also offers the minnows ample opportunity to be hilariously outmatched, shattering egos and budding dreams of professionalism in an instant. The Springboks and Ireland seem to have hit blips in their respective form while tournament specialists Australia loom menacingly outside of the pre-tournament radar. Below is a quick summation of the four pools along with some predictions for their respective outcomes.

To Win Outright
New Zealand  13/10
England  7/2
South Africa  5/1

Australia  8/1
Ireland  9/1

Pool A

Stuart Lancaster’s squad features an exciting blend of ebullient youth and arch-pragmatism, lending extra credence to the notion that this could be a good tournament for the host nation. They are however in a frankly ridiculous pool of death that will pose some real obstacles. George Ford has brought some added dynamism to the backline while Owen Farrell waits patiently in the wings for his opportunity to steady the ship. The decision to axe bad-boys Manu Tuilagi and Dylan Hartley speaks volumes for the intense focus of the squad, with perennial glamour boy Danny Cipriani unable to crack the nod. They should be slightly disturbed by their forward performance against France where they were outmuscled at the breakdown and outmaneuvered in the set-pieces. But they have a wealth of options and should be buoyed by their adoring fans.

Player to Watch: Sam Burgess
The exciting centre has looked imperious since his debut and offers something akin to Sonny Bill Williams in the middle of the park.

Predicted Finish: Losing Finalist

Michael Cheika’s side have made considerable gains in the last few months, despite that slightly skewed scoreline against the All Blacks in the last Rugby Championship game. Quade Cooper once again demonstrated his inability to play pivot when it counts, which could see Toomua start in the fly-half berth. What is impressive about this Australian side is the manner in which they have fronted up in the physical stakes, with their scrum undergoing something of a revolution. They also have devastating loose forwards, with the combination of Michael Hooper and David Pocock sure to disrupt opposition ball while testing the nerves of more delicate referees. I think that this is a tournament savvy Australian side that will defy expectations. Even if they were to finish second in their group and set up an epic quarter-final clash with South Africa, I feel that they may have the ring-craft to cause a major upset.

Player to Watch: Israel Folau
The dynamic full-back is an enterprising player with incredible maturity.

Predicted Finish: Semi-Finalists

Warren Gatland’s charges had a terrific victory over a much-vaunted Irish side at the weekend, and they enter the tournament with a very experienced team full of talent. The ongoing injury concerns surrounding captain Sam Warburton are somewhat concerning; one feels that his leadership and sheer work rate will be needed in the crunch games. Wales are blessed with an ace goal kicker in Leigh Halfpenny, which may prove decisive in separating the three powerful unions competing in this group. I do however feel that they may not have quite enough to get through, as their penchant for disappointing somewhat on the big stage is likely to recur here.

Player to Watch: George North
The versatile backline player is blessed with scary pace and he links up brilliantly with Halfpenny.

Predicted Finish: Third place in the group.

Fiji’s enduring presence at the forefront of Sevens Rugby has perhaps been detrimental to their growth in the fifteen man game (an interesting parallel could be drawn with the West Indies’ success in T20 cricket impinging on their success in the test format). They have been in a state of decline since that remarkable victory over Wales in 2007, with political issues and a lack of funding proving crucial in their demise. They will no doubt leave a few souvenirs out there in their distinctive fashion, but victory over Uruguay will be all that Fiji can hope for.

Player to Watch: Nemani Nadolo
Over nineteen stone, this goal-kicking wing had a huge impact in Super Rugby.

Predicted Finish: Fourth in the group.                            

I would be lying if I said I possessed any extensive knowledge of Uruguayan rugby, suffice it to say that this is their first appearance since 2003 and I can’t foresee too much in the way of surprises coming out of this camp. They are comprised of mostly semi-professionals while some of their players ply their trade in the European leagues.            

Player to Watch: Agustin Ormachea
The son of stalwart number eight Diego, this skillful scrumhalf brings honed Sevens skills to the table behind your typically robust South American pack.

Predicted Finish: Last in the group, with a points difference that threatens the record books.                

Pool B

South Africa
In stark contrast to the pyrotechnic ramifications of Pool A, Pool B may hinge on that one game between Samoa and Scotland. Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks have been beset by multiple injury concerns in the lead up to the showpiece which has consequently seen a sharp dip in form. The Springboks will always be a huge threat in tournament rugby, especially having won the Webb Ellis Trophy the last time it was staged in the Northern Hemisphere, but there are some alarming areas of concern for Meyer. The experienced nucleus of the side consisting of Matfield, De Villiers and Habana all seem somewhat jaded by father time. There is a feeling of wanton nostalgia that clashes with the hipster cool agenda of integrating the likes of Damian De Allende and Jesse Kriel into the side. It seems as if there is no cohesion between these fragmented elements while Meyer’s insistence on bolstering the squad with utility players - whilst pragmatic given the rigours of a World Cup - may be their downfall come quarter-final time. Wouldn’t it be useful to have specialist fetcher Heinrich Brussow up against Pocock and company in a likely quarter-final?

Player to Watch: Duane Vermeulen
Although he has had some injury setbacks, if fully fit there is no loosie better at creating relentless momentum with those marauding runs.          

Predicted Finish: Quarter-Finalists
There is something a bit naïve about this side; I can’t quite put my finger on it. The disparate elements are terrific but the unit is deficient as a whole.

Samoa are the most consistent of the Pacific Islanders, with many of their players plying their trade in Europe. Northampton’s trio of Fotuali’i and the Pisi brothers are among the most electrifying players competing in the Aviva Premiership, while the omission of full-back Paul Williams was something of a shock. The crunch game of the group - which will almost certainly be dominated by South Africa - will be Samoa’s clash with Scotland. While Scotland were excellent against a bedraggled Italian side at the weekend, the dynamic backline alone could be enough for Samoa to hustle into the quarter-finals.

Player to Watch: Kahn Fotuali’i
The elusive scrumhalf may be able to penetrate against more cumbersome loosies.

Predicted Finish: Quarter-Finalists
I predict a sneaky second place here, setting up a potentially bruising encounter with England.

USA have failed to develop from what was once quite a promising side. Rugby has battled to generate a similar resurgence in the States that football has experienced, alienating the sport somewhat and diminishing them as a power. They had a poor Pacific Nations Cup in 2014, losing to Japan and more disturbingly drawing with Uruguay. They have the likes of Saracens winger Chris Wyles to call on, but I expect them to finish with the wooden spoon firmly in hand. News of a partnership with Harlequins rugby indicates that the future of this untapped pool is possibly brighter, but I expect this to be a proper struggle.

Player to Watch: Toulon-bound number eight Samu Manoa

Predicted Finish: Last in group.  

Japan have consolidated their position in world rugby by basically beating weaker sides around them. The Cherry Blossoms have however failed to make an impact on the big stage, despite the benefits of a successful domestic competition. Off the field drama surrounding their proposed Super Rugby franchise has not been ideal for the Japanese side, while Eddie Jones’ decision to announce his resignation at the conclusion of the tournament was also somewhat ill timed. Their final warm-up victory was a thumping 40-0 statement of intent against         Uruguay, with Goromaru and Fukuoka talismanic in engineering the win. Jones’ vast experience will come in good stead avoiding huge defeats, but only a tightly fought win over USA will give them any solace.

Player to Watch: Inspirational captain Michael Leitch

Predicted Finish: Second bottom of group.  

Vern Cotter’s Scotland have picked up some excellent momentum in recent weeks, with a brilliant victory over a hapless Italian team at the weekend further proof of the growing self-belief in this Scottish side. Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg have helped to change the identity of Scottish rugby to some degree, with their powerful forwards now supplemented by some creativity in the backline. Their scrum has been working brilliantly through Dickinson while Greig Laidlaw’s goal-kicking could prove vital if rain becomes a factor. I do however have a sneaking suspicion that Samoa’s trademark surprise performance may put pay to Scottish hopes, especially if the weather is half decent.

Player to Watch: Finn Russell
Finally a Scottish fly-half with more in his locker than good tactical kicking.

Predicted Finish: A disappointing third, despite Northern Hemisphere familiarity.

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Pool C

New Zealand
The defending champions have only lost two of their last 42 matches, a record that distills New Zealand’s imperious control of world rugby perfectly. New Zealand have pushed the boundaries of the game, seemingly striking a perfect harmony between physical prowess and technical proficiency, with the ability to improvise intuitively when the situation calls. Nonu and Smith are sensational in the centre of the park, while the iconic figures of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw make their final appearances for the All Blacks in England. Aaron Smith provides outstanding cohesion between fronts and backs while Woodcock, Franks and Co. provide solidity come scrum time. Having shaken the World Cup hoodoo in 2011, fans of the All Blacks the world over can feel fairly assured that they can replicate their success.

Player to Watch: Waisake Naholo
The blistering top try scorer in Super Rugby this year has recovered from a broken leg to be selected for New Zealand’s 31-man squad.

Expected Finish: World Cup Champions. 

The lowest ranked side in the entire competition, Namibia’s total points for and against tally stands at a whopping 144 to 974 in World Cup rugby. They hold the current record for biggest margin of defeat with a 142-0 loss to Australia in 2003. That stat could be severely tested when this side meets New Zealand. They also have an incredibly grueling schedule, playing four games in seventeen days, while their warm-up matches against Zimbabwe, Russia and Kenya are hardly what one would call challenging.

Player to Watch: Jacques Burger

Predicted Finish: Rock bottom of group.   

Tonga’s ageing squad will find it hard to replicate their unbelievable victory over eventual finalists France in the 2011 edition. One game that could offer some purely pugilistic value will be their game against Georgia, with both teams embracing a roughly hewn notion of physicality. They have picked up impressive wins over both USA and Japan recently, which will give them added confidence. They have winning records against both Namibia and Georgia, and third place is about the best they can hope for.

Player to Watch: Nili Latu
The Tongan captain is bowing out of international rugby after the World Cup, having established a reputation for being one of the most devastating tacklers in world rugby.

Predicted Finish: Third in the group with an easy victory over Namibia and a hard fought one over Georgia.          
It is one of the most worn out clichés in rugby; Argentina’s battle hardened forwards, plying their trade so assiduously in Europe, are the driving force behind the entire Pumas side. The fact is, rugby has evolved since their meteoric rise in 2007 when they finished third at the World Cup and Argentina have battled to change with the times. They will be pleased with a return to the familiar Northern Hemisphere, but their involvement with the Rugby Championship has coincided with a sharp dip in form. An astonishing away win over a poor Springbok team went some way to reassuring the Argentine public that they may be able to recapture former glories. Agustin Creevy’s men should power through the group, with their forwards dominating the lesser ranked sides.

Player to Watch: Juan Martin Hernandez
The 32 year-old utility back has been one of the most consistent backline players in world rugby for several years now, and it’s through him that Argentina are able to express themselves creatively.

Predicted Finish: Quarter-Finalists

Georgia’s sheer physicality sees them comfortably dispatch those teams ranked around and below them. They will have won one game at their last two World Cups, and I expect that trend to continue with a victory over Namibia. Mamuka Gorgodze, the Toulon back-rower, will be devastating in the loose and at set-pieces. He was one of the stand out players in 2011, with man of the match performances against England and Romania. He epitomises the bullish Georgian mentality perfectly, and I expect Georgia to offer credible resistance in all games bar New Zealand.

Player to Watch: Merab Sharikadze
This young centre explodes the notion that Georgia are only capable of producing bruising forwards. His ability to go on the inside gives direction and impetus to their backline play.

Predicted Finish: Fourth in the group. 

Pool D

France have a reputation as being the mavericks of world rugby. Impossible to predict, they flaunt their obvious natural talents with gleefully self-conscious disdain, spitting in the face of expectation every step of the way. Philippe Saint-Andre’s side seem to lack that enigmatic quality, unable to conjure up the same romantic ambience. They picked up a hard-fought victory over England in their last warm-up game, with their forwards dominating at the breakdown while Freddie Michalak kicked accurately for goal. The possible centre-pairing of Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud should have the perfect combination of strength and subtlety, but France could stumble to Ireland.

Player to Watch: Thierry Dusautoir
A true leader by example type, Dusautoir’s relentless displays invoke gladiatorial iconography on a Russel Crowe level.

Predicted Finish: Quarter-Finalists
They should finish second in the group, necessitating a quarter-final with New Zealand, which - despite the temptation to believe in history repeating itself - they should lose.

It is a long time since Canada’s crazy run to the quarter-finals in 1991 and very little evolution has really occurred in the Canadian ranks. They have a reputation as the proverbial playground bully, seemingly utilising rugby as a socially acceptable outlet for feelings of repressed envy at their American neighbors. Psychobabble nonsense aside, they have various players scattered throughout Europe, so there is a sense of familiarity rippling through the team in regards to conditions. They will however be unable to sustain pressure for long enough periods and may actually prop up the group in last place, despite some strong performances amongst the forwards. Creativity will be a major problem for the Canadians.

Player to Watch: Tyron Ardron
The blindside flanker has emerged as a leading figure in the Canadian side, with Welsh giants Ospreys securing the industrious player.

Predicted Finish: Last place in the group.  

Romania are another side I cannot confess to knowing too much of. They have some forwards - don’t they all - milling around European leagues, but they will basically be battling it out to avoid finishing last. I have tipped them to actually avoid that unwanted distinction on the fairly loose premise that they will be slightly more familiar with the European conditions.

Player to Watch: Andrei Ilie
The talented centre made his international debut in 2014 and will be looking to cement his place in the side.

Predicted Finish: I feel that they may beat Canada and secure fourth place in the group.  

The Azzurri have steadily improved over the last few years, with an emphasis on exactly the type of rugby that many people are championing as winning rugby in the likely conditions the players will face. They build a platform through their forwards and utilise tactical kicking to manipulate space. Their rather resounding defeat at the hands of Scotland at the weekend was troubling, especially on the eve of the Rugby World Cup. They will be hoping to spring a surprise against either France or Ireland, but it looks as though they will have to settle for third place.

Player to Watch: Sergio Parisse
The first Italian to be nominated for IRB World Player of the Year, the versatile back-rower would be able to grace any world team with aplomb. His ability to offload in the tackle separates him from your garden variety Italian forward.          

Predicted Finish: Third in the group.

Joe Schmidt’s side have probably been the second most consistent side after New Zealand over the past two years, registering a psychologically vital win over the Springboks in the process, whilst navigating the potentially precarious issue of Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement. They did however experience a crushing defeat to Wales at the weekend in Paul O’Connell’s final game on Irish soil.  But Ireland will no doubt be relishing a fairly favorable draw and the chance to end their run of World Cup disappointment, having never reached the semifinal in the tournament’s history. Tommy Bowe’s finishing is tremendous while Heaslip and Best are immense figures in the Irish pack. There is an excellent balance in this squad between power and flair, with the two-time defending Six Nations champions in perhaps their best ever pre-tournament space.

Player to Watch: Jonathan Sexton
The Racing Metro pivot is just a beast in that number ten jersey, combining first-class defense with the ability to scythe through defensive systems. Add that to his goal kicking and you are probably looking at the prototypical modern fly-half.

Predicted Finish: Losing Semi-Finalists

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