Rugby World Cup: US starts play Sunday, as part of pool stage action

The Pool Stage is the initial round of competition in the Rugby World Cup. At the conclusion of this round, two teams (a winner and a runner-up) will advance to the next stage, or "quarter-finals." There are four pools - A, B, C and D, and it is widely anticipated that the top seeds in those pools: New Zealand, England, Australia and South Africa respectively, will move to the next round.

Bogdan Cristel/Reuters
Louis Stanfill of the U.S. tries to offload the ball from a maul during their Rugby World Cup Pool C match against Ireland at Stadium Taranaki in New Zealand.

The Rugby World Cup, starting Friday, September 9th , is comprised of twenty teams organized into four pools (A, B, C & D) of five teams each. The International Rugby Board has authority over pool assignments, and attempts to make them as evenly matched as possible. Only the winners and runners-up of each pool will advance to the “quarter-finals” round.

Pool A consists of New Zealand, Canada, France, Japan and Tonga. New Zealand comes into the tournament as the favorite overall – they currently are first in the International Rugby Board (IRB) rankings, and, at this writing, have already defeated Tonga, 41-10 in the RWC’s initial match made possible largely by the outstanding play of the All Blacks’ fullback Israel Dagg. The real battle here will be for pool runner-up among Canada (IRB ranking #14), Japan (13) and France (4). Of those, Japan poses the only real major test for France, and the latter should win convincingly. France placed a respectable 3rd in a grueling Six Nations tournament this past year and when taking history into account, Japan hasn’t won one RWC match in 14 tries. New Zealand and France sail into the quarter-finals.

Pool B comprises Argentina (IRB ranking #9), England (5), Georgia (16), Romania (17), and Scotland (7). Scotland finished a disappointing 5th of six teams in the Six Nations tournament, but comes into New Zealand with consecutive victories over Ireland and the Azurri (Italy’s Rugby Union, also known as the Blues). Their head coach, Andy Robinson, has “demanded” nothing less than victory over Romania in their first contest, and veteran fullback Chris Paterson (the first Scottish player to play in four World Cups) will attempt to deliver in the first round. England, a comparatively young squad coached by past English star player Martin Johnson and team captain Lewis Moody, will have to get through a strong Argentina squad that finished third at the 2007 Cup. With a relatively weak remainder of the pool, look for England to place first, with Argentina overcoming a weathered Scottish squad to grab the runner-up spot.

Pool C pits powerhouse Australia (IRB ranking #2) against Ireland (8), Italy (11), Russia (18) and the United States (19). This is Russia’s first visit ever to the RWC, and it is the key match the Americans, led by captain Todd Clever, are looking to win. This Sunday, in their first contest, the Eagles face an uphill battle against Ireland, who fought to a third-place finish earlier in the year in the Six Nations tournament. Four days later, they will face Russia in their second match. Clever and the rest of the USA Rugby Union are guardedly looking toward two wins in New Zealand – with a possible upset over Italy. But overall, this should be an Australia/Ireland pool to lose. Italy finished poorly at the Six Nations earlier in the year – having finished behind a relatively mediocre Scottish team.

Pool D is headed by the perennially outstanding South African Springboks (ranked 3rd overall by IRB and winner of the 2007 World Cup), who’s greatest competition will likely come from Wales (6). Samoa (10), Fiji (15) and Namibia (20) each have the potential for upsets in them, but the possibility of their getting out of the pool stage will be considerable, Wales, who finished 4th in the Six Nations Tournament, is led by the highly-skilled James Hook and Shane Williams, and appears to be peaking at the right moment, with recent and decidedly convincing victories over Argentina and England. But their match against Samoa, who defeated Australia earlier this year, will be an exciting and ultimately a telling one for the Welshmen.

In general, look for the cream to rise to the surface in this competition. The top seeds Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England should all easily move on to the quarter-finals. From there, start to look for the occasional upset, because they should definitely occur. Wales is playing more strongly at present than at any time in the past year, and France and Argentina could be major spoilers.

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