England to emerge at peak of Pool A, while Wales may miss out
POOL A HAS been highly anticipated since the World Cup draw was first made and fully deserves the obvious moniker it’s been given.
England beat the Wallabies at Twickenham in 2014. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
England have the clear advantage in being the tournament hosts, but Australia have been an improving force under Michael Cheika and Wales’ credentials are well established under Warren Gatland.
With Fiji also involved, four of World Rugby’s top 10 ranked sides are involved in the one group. It would be a major achievement for any team to advance unbeaten and it might be that the Fijians hold the key to the pool.
The Twickenham factor is a undoubtedly a huge one for Stuart Lancaster’s side, while on the pitch the fitness and form of out-half George Ford is pivotal to their hopes.
He’s just 22, but the Bath playmaker has been tasked with directing England’s game plan as they look to ensure their attack is lethal. Lancaster’s men look more and more like Bath with each game, as Ford’s preferred rugby league shapes influence heavily.
George Ford is the main man for England. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Defensively, Andy Farrell has built a formidable and ferocious unit that takes advantage of this England squad’s physical quality.
Like Ireland, the English will benefit from an ideal spacing of their games in the pool stages, the hope being that the job is essentially done before the final group stage fixture against Uruguay, which could offer the prospect of resting key men.
There aren’t many obvious weaknesses in this group and with Lancaster’s intent focus on building an unbreakable culture since taking over in 2012, there is no doubt they will run themselves into the ground in pursuit of a home triumph.
The ever-improving Anthony Watson and Jonny May are attacking weapons, as well as outside centre Jonathan Joseph, but they must be clinical with scoring chances. The excellent Chris Robshaw will continue to offer his work rate, subtle passing skills and leadership.
If Lancaster has built England on a foundation of culture, then former Leinster boss Michael Cheika has done something similar in a much shorter space of time. A no-bullshit character, ‘Cheiks’ has turned the Wallaby ship around for the World Cup.
Getting Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell back into the group, with all their experience and the midfielder’s playmaking capabilities, has been important, while the addition of the intelligent Stephen Larkham was a masterstroke.
Stephen Moore has grown into an exceptional captain. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO
David Pocock’s return to full health has seen him simultaneously rediscover his compelling breakdown genius and it looks like himself and Michael Hooper will both be part of a hugely threatening back row.
There are still selection calls for Cheika to make in regards to his first-choice XV, though a congested start to the tournament has necessitated the splitting of his squad initially.
Two hookers and two scrum-halves involves risks but whatever about that, the Wallabies’ Rugby Championship success during the summer underlined that they arrive at the tournament with the tools to force their way to the latter stages and genuinely challenge.
Israel Folau has every chance of being the star of the tournament
The injuries to Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb, such key men for Warren Gatland, have taken an edge off Welsh optimism. In a pool as difficult as this one, the fitness of on-pitch leaders like that pair was always likely to be decisive.
Jonathan Davies will be missed in the centre too, although Scott Williams is similarly powerful.
Jones is a world-class second row.
Even without those totems, Wales are not short of focal points to play around. Jamie Roberts is a gainline merchant, Alun Wyn Jones one of the best locks in the world and Toby Faletau hugely effective in all departments of the game.
Gatland would love to see George North powering in for tries early in the tournament as his confidence continues to grow after his concussion scare last season. Two home games in the Millennium Stadium are a plus, though Wales would have loved to face Australia in Cardiff rather than the Fijians and Uruguay.
It’s fairly obvious what’s coming at teams when they face the Welsh, but halting them and then breaking down their incredible defence is a different story.
One expects that the Fijians are going to be many neutrals’ favourites, particularly judging by the style of rugby they have played in the build-up to this tournament. Expect one-on-one wins, bursts of acceleration and offloads aplenty.
Head coach John McKee is a former assistant to Michael Bradley at Connacht and has some exceptional rugby talent to pick from. The sensational Leone Nakarawa and his octopus-like limbs is an obvious one, while Niko Matawalu is a joy to watch at times.
Metuisela Talebula is a huge threat from fullback or the wing. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images
Metuisela Talebula of Bordeaux has been ripping up the Top 14 in recent years, while the place-kicking wing/centre Nemani Nadolo has dominated defences in Super Rugby with the Crusaders. Peceli Yato of Clermont in the back row is one of our players to watch out for in the tournament as a whole.
Despite all the flair and individual talent, Fiji will have to be a cohesive unit to upset England or Australia in their two opening games. Both of those teams will ruthlessly punish turnovers, so the offloading game must come with accuracy.
McKee’s men may hold the key to deciding the outcome of this group by causing an upset against one of the big three.
Of the teams competing in this World Cup, only Namibia are ranked lower than the 19th-placed Uruguayans and it’s difficult to be optimistic that they can get close to any of the other four teams in Pool A.
Former Bristol and Stade Français prop Pablo Lemoine is the head coach, and has seen his side lose to Japan twice over the summer, though there were morale-boosting wins over an Argentina XV and a Basque Selection during the summer months too.
Former international prop Pablo Lemoine is now head coach. Source: EMPICS Sport
The fact that Rodrigo Capó Ortega, easily Uruguay’s most renowned player, is missing due to personal reasons is a massive blow, with the vast majority of the squad made up of amateur domestic-based players.
Carcassone out-half Felipe Berchesi is one of the small professional contingent and a key figure, while scrum-half Agustín Ormaechea also plays in the French Pro D2 with Mont-de-Marsan. Experienced prop Mario Sagario is with Massy and fullback Gastón Mieres plays in Italy.
The rest of the squad have jobs outside of rugby, struggling to balance those commitments with the preparations the World Cup has demanded. Uruguay beat Russia over two legs to get here, and they’ll need more of the same spirit to to withstand Pool A.
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England v Fiji, Twickenham
(Friday 18 September, 8pm)
Wales v Uruguay, Millennium Stadium
(Sunday 20 September, 2.30pm)
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