Pool A has rightly been dubbed the pool of death. The group features two former World Cup champions in the form of Australia and England as well as 2011 semi-finalists, Wales.
While all eyes will be firmly focused on the Anglo-Australian showdown, it may be a group of men from just across the English border that have a hand in deciding who emerges top of Pool A. Warren Gatland’s charges had an impressive showing at the last staging of the World Cup and will be looking to emulate those exploits. A win for the Welsh Dragons over either the Wallabies or the hosts will certainly throw the cat amongst the pigeons. Whilst the aforementioned big guns will be looking to advance to the knockout rounds, the final two teams who make up Pool A will just be hoping to walk away from the pool of death with their pride intact. The Fijians have been taking backward steps since their fantastic RWC campaign in 2007, where they beat the Welsh in a pool game and gave the ’Boks a scare in their quarter-final. It is a massive shame that the Pacific Islanders haven’t been able to build on that historic campaign, mainly due to the Fijian Rugby Union’s infighting and lack of funding. The lowest ranked seeds in Pool A are the semi-professionals from Uruguay. This will be the Uruguayans third appearance in the World cup Finals. Affectionately known as the Teros, the Uruguayans will have a great deal of colourful support both from their expats residing in England as well as the general public. Although they’re essentially on a hiding to nothing, just making it to England is an achievement in itself for the South Americans.
Pool A Winner
Best result at a World Cup: Champions 1991, 1999
World Ranking: 5th
Having lifted the William Webb Ellis cup twice on British shores, the Wallabies will be looking to make it another successful jaunt in the homeland of their colonial cousins. They will also be looking to claim their second piece of silverware for 2015, having already won the Rugby Championship.
In my opinion, the skipper was Australia’s best player during the Rugby Championship. While Moore is regarded as one of the better all-round hookers in world rugby, it is his captaincy skills that are so integral to this Wallabies setup. The Brumbies front-rower knows how to get on the right side of a referee, which is crucial to World Cup success, as Richie McCaw and his motor mouth illustrated in 2011.
The Waratahs fetcher seemed to be engaged in a titanic battle with Brumbies flanker David Pocock for the right to don the number seven jersey at the start of the year. However Michael Cheika’s stroke of genius of shifting Pocock to eighthman for the Rugby Championship decider against New Zealand and playing the two fetchers simultaneously has changed that scenario. It now looks certain that the duo will line up in the same loose trio for the majority of the World Cup campaign. Hooper’s mastery of when to stick his hands into a ruck will go a long way in negating the extra heat that will be on him from both players and referees alike.
Best Bet: Pool A Winner (7/4)
Best result at a World Cup: Champions 2003
World Ranking: 4th
The hosts for this year’s tournament are the only Northern Hemisphere side to have basked in the glow of a Rugby World Cup final victory. Like most English national sides playing at home, there’s likely to be a bucket load of media hype around the men in red and white. Whether this will be a hindrance or act as motivation is yet to be seen, but there’s always added pressure on the tournament hosts to produce the goods in their own backyard. The Poms will also be out for redemption having failed to win the 2015 Six Nations, despite being favourites to do so.
The talented utility back had an outstanding 2014, which saw him named Player of the Tournament for both the Six Nations and the Aviva Premiership. Although he faces stiff competition for the number fifteen jersey from Alex Goode and Anthony Watson, his ability to play on the left wing as well as fullback means he’s likely to be on the field for most of England’s campaign. A fit again Brown offers a counter-attacking threat that not many in the English squad do and Stuart Lancaster would be a fool not to use him in his preferred position.
The Saracens number eight is an explosive ball carrier with an eye for the try line. He made his debut against Argentina in 2013, coming off the bench and almost immediately getting his name on the try scorers list. He added another two tries to his personal record in the Six Nations earlier this year and is likely to add a few more to his tally at the World Cup. Vunipola does face stiff competition from Ben Morgan for the jersey, but even if he only comes off the bench, the big man will still be able to make an impact.
Best Bet: To Reach Semi-Finals - No (5/4)
Best result at a World Cup: Semi-Finalists 1987, 2011
World Ranking: 6th
With talismanic centre Jonathan Davies ruled out of the tournament through injury and skipper Sam Warburton seemingly unable to play for an extend period of time without incurring an injury, the Welsh are unlikely to repeat their 2011 exploits. 2015 hasn’t been kind to Warren Gatland either, with his side failing to launch in the Six Nations.
A skipper who’s not afraid to lead from the front, Warburton may have endured an injury plagued career but he still ranks among the best loose forwards of his era. Wales are a much tougher proposition when he’s on the field, not only because of his physical presence but also his ability to rally his troops.
Halfpenny is one of the most underrated players in world rugby. Although he doesn’t possess the mercurial flair of a Willie Le Roux, he does have a knack for entering the attacking line at the perfect time. On top of this, he has one of the biggest kicking boots both out of hand and off the tee of any player at the tournament.
Best Bet: To Reach Quarter-Finals - No (8/10)
Best result at a World Cup: Quarter-Finalists 1987, 1999, 2007
World Ranking: 10th
The hard-hitting Pacific Islanders have been known to produce an upset or two at World Cups. Their ability to play off the cuff running rugby as well as their physicality makes them a nightmare to play against. Whilst they may not manage another historic win over the big guns ala 2007, they will ensure their opponents know they’ve been in a high tempo, physically absorbing game of rugby. A few of their personnel had some impressive Super Rugby campaigns this year and will want to replicate that form at international level.
The Crusaders flying winger will be key to any hopes of the Fijians pulling off any shock victories at this year’s tournament. Unbeknownst to the majority of rugby fans outside of Fiji, and myself until early this week, Nadolo is quite a prolific goal kicker and is likely to assume the kicking duties for the Pacific Islanders.
Best Bet: Fiji +28.5 (9/10) vs England
Best result at a World Cup: Group Stage
World Ranking: 19th
At the risk of repeating myself, I have to reiterate how much of an achievement it is for these lads to make it to what is essentially the ‘Promised Land’ of World Rugby. With the world watching these boys will feel they’re playing for contract offers and, this is probably the only motivation they need. Expect one or two of the Los Teros squad to show some moments of magic against the big boys. Although they’re probably not going to win a game, they’re almost certain to be entertaining.
The nuggety number nine is one of four Uruguayans plying their trade in France. His exploits for French second division side Stade Montois have not gone unnoticed and there is talk of him moving to one of the more stable top division sides. His experience in France will prove vital particularly against the Northern Hemisphere duo of England and Wales.
Best Bet: Uruguay +68.5 vs Wales (9/10)