This year’s autumn international series had greater significance than normal, with ranking points up for grabs and the opportunity to gain a better seeding for the draw.
The home nations generally struggled, England’s thrashing of New Zealand aside, and had to leave their fate in the hands of those selected to draw out the teams at the Tate Modern in London on Monday afternoon.
Although the groups are yet to be fully finalised with play-offs still taking place to confirm the line-up, it is expected that the successful teams will provide nothing more than cannon fodder for the bigger nations in three years’ time.
This is possibly the toughest World Cup group in recent memory, and with Fiji expected to take the Oceanic slot, it will only get harder. Both England and Wales will be expecting to play their games at their home grounds as Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium has been earmarked as one of the sixteen other stadiums to join Twickenham in hosting the event. Australia, as the top seed, must be seething that they have essentially been handed two away games in order to progress from the group, and as all three teams are closely matched, that could prove vital. England have flattered to deceive in the years since their 2003 triumph and will be hoping their comprehensive victory over world champions New Zealand is a springboard for World Cup success in 2015. Although Wales had a shocking end to 2012, they now have three years to regroup and with world-class talent such as Sam Warburton, George North and Leigh Halfpenny, they will be looking to prove their semi-final run at the last World Cup was not a one off. It is a shame that one of these teams will be exiting the tournament so early but it shows how competitive elite level rugby has become.
South Africa will probably be the happiest top seed after this draw. Neither Samoa nor Scotland should give them too much trouble but there is a danger that they will go into the quarter-finals untested and not battle hardened. While some may rubbish that argument, complacency is a danger if you breeze through the opening four games. For Samoa and Scotland, there is a possibility of a quarter-final slot and their match will probably decide who joins the Springboks in the last eight. Scotland are at a cross roads after a poor 2012 culminated in a 21-15 defeat by Tonga and Andy Robinson resigning as head coach. However, with the likes of Richie Gray, David Denton, Tim Visser and Joe Ansbro, they have genuine quality and if they can work on the basics they may have enough to edge past Samoa. While the Pacific Islanders are fast and physical, they sometimes suffer from a lack of preparation and Scotland will look to use that to their advantage. Although some argue that the draw takes place too early, it has resulted in this group being wide open and Scotland will relish that.
New Zealand will be pleased with their group so far, as both Argentina and Tonga are familiar opposition. With Argentina’s inclusion in the Rugby Championship tournament, New Zealand will be used to the way they play and should negotiate this group fairly easily. Tonga will be buoyed by their victory over Scotland but know they have a lot of work to do in order to secure second place in this group. Argentina have blown hot and cold in recent years, a stellar showing in the 2007 World Cup was followed up with a disappointing quarter-final exit at the hands of New Zealand. However, their players will improve due to their participation in the Rugby Championship and a few more years of solid experience against the best teams in the world should stand them in good stead. With a last-eight slot against the winner of Pool D on offer for the runner-up, Argentina will feel they have a good chance at a run to the semi-final at the very least as on their day they can beat anyone.
France will be pleased with this draw, having avoided both England and Wales, and will feel confident that they can secure top spot. They were unlucky not to win the last World Cup having outplayed New Zealand, but in their home country, the All Blacks would not be denied. France have never lost to Ireland at the World Cup and with exciting talents such as centre Gael Fickou beginning to emerge they will look to extend that streak. Ireland have had a mini revival in the past few weeks, with victories over Fiji and Argentina and with head coach Declan Kidney belatedly giving youth a chance. They will hope the likes of Jonathan Sexton, Craig Gilroy and Darren Cave will have replaced the older generation led by Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan Gara. Italy have become a better Test side in recent years and will probably run France and Ireland close but do not have enough world-class talent to make the difference. Captain and inspirational No8 Sergio Parisse will be 32 by the time the World Cup starts and will need the unlikely emergence of some new talent in order to compete in 2015.