Whilst Pool A rightly holds the pool of death title, Pool D should also get an honourable mention. On paper the group seems simple enough to call but you can never write off the French when it comes to upset results.
To Win Outright
Best Result at a World Cup: Quarter-Finalists 1987, 1991, 1995, 2003, 2011
World Ranking: 3rd
Three years ago, the Irish public were dreading the 2015 World Cup due to the retirement of Irish rugby’s poster boy, Brian O’Driscoll. Fast forward three years after the talismanic centre hung up his boots and Irish rugby has never been healthier. They’ve got a well-balanced squad that is more than capable of becoming Europe’s second ever world champions. Josef Schmidt will be continually reminding his charges just how important it will be to top the group as a second-place finish will see them almost certainly play the All Blacks.
The men in green come into this World Cup off a hugely impressive 2015 that has seen them rise to third in the world rankings and retain the Six Nations trophy. They have a blend of youth and experience, which is so vital at these showpiece events. Much has been made of the Irish backs in recent years, but in my opinion it’s their forward pack that’s seen them climb the world rankings. A powerful front row, some physical locks and a loose trio that loves to cause havoc at the breakdown makes their backs’ lives easy.
The Munster man may not possess the pace and power of an Israel Folau, but what he does offer is an assured if somewhat conservative fullback option for the Irish. His astute positioning and educated boot contributed greatly to the Irish claiming back-to-back Six Nations trophies. Whilst his favoured position is the fifteen role, Zebo is also capable of playing on both the left and right wing.
The Ulster front-rower epitomises the modern day hooker; he is capable of mixing it up in contact as well as being blessed with good pace for a big man. He fulfils his hooking duties with aplomb and is one of the world’s best scrummaging number twos - his lineout throwing isn’t shabby either.
Best Bet: To Reach the Semi-Final (13/20)
Best Result at a World Cup: Finalist 1987, 1999, 2011
World Ranking: 7th
Les Bleus may turn up to the Millennium Stadium needing a result due to a poor performance against Italy that sees them lose by five points. They could then run Ireland ragged and advance as group winners due to picking up more bonus points than their European counterparts. It may sound absurd but anything’s possible when it comes to le Tricolores.
Les Bleus are notorious for suffering from bridesmaid syndrome when it comes to World Cups. They have reached the final on three occasions, only to stumble at the last hurdle. Famed for their inconsistent form, the French are world beaters on their day, but when it’s not, they can pretty much be beaten by most teams in the world. Whilst Philippe St-Andre will have a plethora of talent at his disposal for the tournament, how he gets this talented bunch of blokes to turn up in every game will be the real challenge for the man at the French helm.
There is much debate centred around who will don the number ten jersey for France at the World cup. Whilst the veteran ten is well into the autumn of his playing career, he has never managed to cement a spot in the national team. In an ironic twist the well-travelled veteran’s performance against England, in late August, is likely to have put him at the forefront of the coach’s selection plans. If Philippe Saint-Andre is to go with Michalak as his first choice pivot, he would have one of the most skilful and deft flyhalves ever to grace a rugby field directing his backline.
The Ivory Coast born flanker had huge boots to fill when he originally came into the national team. His predecessor, Serge Bentsen, was an absolute beast and a stalwart of French rugby for over a decade. The biggest compliment that could be paid to Dusautoir is how seamlessly he transitioned into Bentsen’s role. Thierry possess great athleticism and is a solid line-out option, as well as a great leader. This is likely to be the 33-year-old’s final World Cup and he will want to make it one to remember.
Best Bet: To Reach the Semi-Final (27/20)
Best Result at a World Cup: Pool 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011
World Ranking: 15th
The third-highest ranked European representative in the pool is Italy. Whilst the Italians may possess one of the most powerful scrums in world rugby, they are yet to truly develop the other aspects of their game. This lack of evolution may come down to the current management team. Whereas during Nick Mallet’s tenure there was an emphasis on promoting young exciting backs, current coach Jacques Brunel has gone with a more conservative approach. They do have some highly talented players in the form of Sergio Parisse and Marco Bergamasco, but the squad is just not packed with players who can really turn a game on its head.
Whilst Jacques Brunel has some fantastic veterans to call upon, his squad selection seems unbalanced and to be completely honest, boring. Most Italian rugby fans will view ending the year off with a fifth-place finish in the Six Nations Championship and wins over Romania and Canada as improvement, but they should really be viewing it as stagnation. It looks like 2015 will see the Italians add another World Cup pool stage knockout to their ever-growing tally.
The most gifted Italian rugby player of his generation, the big number eight has ball handling skills that most backs in world rugby would be jealous of. The Italian skipper was one of the nominees for the IRB World Player of the Year in 2008 alongside the likes of Dan Carter and Shane Williams. The Stade Francais man will be vital to Italian hopes of pulling off a minor miracle by qualifying for the quarter-finals.
One of the strongest scrummagers in world rugby today; Castrogiovanni has enjoyed an illustrious career which has seen him leave numerous loose-heads with recurring night terrors involving a large, angry, long-haired Italian man. This is likely to be the big man’s final World Cup and he’ll want to add to that fearsome reputation that he’s built for himself over the years
Best Bet: To Reach the Quarter-Final - No (1/12)
Best Result at a World Cup: Quarter-Finalists 1991
World Ranking: 18th
Away from the colonisers and onto a country that was once a French Colony, Canada. The men from the great white north have participated in some epic RWC matches, and even qualified for a quarter-final in 1991. However, they will be best remembered by South Africans for the epic punch up in 1995 that was subsequently given the title of “The Battle of Boet Erasmus”. Although the Canadians are still a very physical bunch, they are a lot less likely to imitate their ice hockey playing countrymen nowadays.
The Canadians had a fantastic World Cup qualifying campaign winning sixteen of their nineteen matches, and in the process kept their unblemished record of Finals appearances intact. They have become a lot more disciplined and well drilled under the tuition of head coach and former All Black Kieran Cowley. Cowley will fancy his side’s chances of pulling off an upset win when they meet the Italians.
The Canadian winger has been a hit for Ospreys since his move to the Welsh club in 2013. Hassler was even named in the Pro12 Team of the Year in 2014. He’s a stocky lad who knows how to break a tackle as well as break an opponent in a tackle.
Another man who plies his trade at Ospreys, the well-built number eight was handed the national captaincy reins midway through last year. Ardron is a strong ball carrier who is also capable of slotting into the second row but there are questions over his leadership capabilities.
Best Bet: Canada +38.5 vs Ireland (9/10)
Best Result at a World Cup: Group Stage 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011
World Ranking: 17th
Romania makes up the quartet of European nations in the pool. The Romanians have been an ever-present since the World Cup was established in 1987. The Romanians - or the Oaks as they have been affectionately dubbed by their supporters - have a great rugby tradition which I have to admit I knew nothing about until recently. In the early 1980s they managed to beat France, Wales and Scotland as well as run the All Blacks close in an encounter that ended 14-6 in favour of the New Zealanders.
The Romanians have managed to win a pool game in all but two tournaments. They were the only side in the European World Cup qualifying group to defeat the mighty Georgians, although it must be stated that they did end up as group runners-up to their fellow Eastern Europeans. With such a proud history the Romanians will be looking to atone for their 2011 World Cup campaign, which saw them bow out of the tournament winless.
Capable of playing every position in the back row, Macovei is one of the few Romanians contracted to a professional club. The rangy forward is likely to skipper the side from his preferred position of openside flank at this year’s tournament. He is said to be a fearless and physical player, who can be a real annoyance at the breakdown.
Best Bet: To keep within a 30.5 handicap vs Italy