The decisive first 48 hours
WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT: If there is one thing to be grateful for as the countdown to the Rugby World Cup moves from days to hours this week, it’s the fascinating and potentially decisive opening weekend that the schedule has delivered.
As fixture lists go, there are few more appetising than the one offered up by the first three days of the tournament in Japan, with pools capable of being decided right from the first game. There will be no room for error, with all four pools entertaining possibly climactic matches within the first 48 hours of the competition.
In all honesty, you could not have drawn it up any better and it all starts with the hosts, Japan, taking on Russia in Tokyo on Friday.
In terms of on-field considerations, it’s not the most glamorous to ever start a Rugby World Cup, but tournaments, in terms of atmosphere, excitement and national buy-in, can live and die on the form of the host nation. In Russia, Japan has a relatively easy match-up to get their campaign underway with and, on paper, Jamie Joseph’s side should put away Russia with ease, potentially racking up a bit of a score as they go.
No one should begrudge the hosts a favourable contest to start the tournament and if it helps them pick up form and confidence going into their matches with Ireland, Samoa and Scotland, then the Rugby World Cup will be all the better for it, despite not being the ‘headliner’ that some would want for the opener.
The next game on the slate is Fiji versus Australia in Sapporo and this can be circled as a major upset alert. Fiji knows that, along with Japan, they are carrying the flag for tier two nations at this tournament and they will also know that if they want to make the quarter-finals, they will need to knock off one of either Australia or Wales, whilst also avoiding the significant banana skin that is Georgia.
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Fiji’s contests with Wales and Georgia, who both play a much tighter brand of rugby, will be fascinating chess matches in their own right, but in Australia they believe they have an opponent who won’t be afraid to open the game up and adopt an ambitious and attacking approach. Not only does this provide neutrals with at least a shot of seeing an upset, but it also should deliver a compelling and open match, with both teams eager to lay down an early marker.
If Fiji were to win, they suddenly look very much like quarter-finalists, irrespective of how they then go against Wales at the end of the group stage.
From there the action returns to Tokyo, where the potentially decisive meeting between France and Argentina in Pool C is set to unfurl. If we take form over the entire Rugby World Cup cycle into the equation and England’s recent results against both of these nations, Eddie Jones’ side would look to be favourites to top the pool, possibly making this a winner-takes-all clash for qualification.
It’s an underrated rivalry in the English-speaking rugby world, with the two sides taking six wins apiece from their last 12 games against one another and whilst their players have looked good in club jerseys of late, their overall international form has been less than impressive, with France sitting at 8th and Argentina at 11th in World Rugby’s global rankings.
Unless either nation can upset England and keep things tight in the top three spots in the pool, this Tokyo match-up could see Pool C decided less than 24 hours into the tournament.
Action on Saturday is concluded with the stellar contest between New Zealand and South Africa in what is one of, if not rugby’s greatest international rivalry. The two nations have shared scalps in recent years as the Springboks’ resurgence has picked up speed and barring an unlikely upset by Italy, they will be the two teams to qualify from Pool B.
This is simply a match to decide who will finish top of the group and then face the theoretically more appealing quarter-final. Top the group and you’re likely facing Japan or Scotland, come runner up and you’re probably going head-to-head with Ireland. Although Ireland’s pre-Rugby World Cup form wasn’t the most scintillating, they are still a threat to go all the way in this tournament and, with all due respect, most nations would prefer their chances against Japan or Scotland first up in the knockout rounds.
If you’re still down on the chances of the northern hemisphere teams in this tournament, too, then this is a very possible dress rehearsal for a final between these two southern hemisphere heavyweights, with the draw in the knockout rounds set to keep them apart until the final, should both nations make it through the quarter- and semi-finals.
Sunday doesn’t offer quite the same thrills, spills and dramatic consequences as Saturday, with Italy versus Namibia and England versus Tonga either not likely to impact on qualification or are on paper somewhat predictable, but the contest between Ireland and Scotland in Yokohama City is another Test with bona fide colossal repercussions.
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For Ireland, there’s some leeway here, with them facing Japan six days later. It’s not ideal, especially with Japan getting two extra days of rest and training and the build-up to it, but it’s manageable for Joe Schmidt and his side. As for Scotland, their contest with Japan comes at the end of the pool, just four days after they play Russia, in what is likely to be a physical, if not overly competitive, contest. Conversely, Japan gets a full 10 days between their game with Samoa and the Scotland Test.
The Brave Blossoms will have had that game circled on their calendars for a long time now and with Samoa looking short of being consistently competitive at the highest level, this is the prime opportunity for a tier two nation to make the knockouts next month. Japan have a balanced squad and game plan and they have encouraging depth in two or three positions, should injuries come calling.
Of course, if Scotland were to win that opening encounter in Yokohama, then the pressure is immediately flipped on to Ireland, whose Rugby World Cup dreams could be shattered just six days later when they take on Japan in Shizuoka.
From the Pool B contest between the All Blacks and the Springboks that will lay out the knockout scenarios, to the “must-win” matches involving France and Argentina and Ireland and Scotland, and from the hosts looking to put down a marker on Friday night to the potential fireworks of Australia versus Fiji, little more could have been asked of the opening weekend.
As 48-hour periods of rugby go, this is looking set to be the most exciting and compelling that we will see before the semi-finals roll around in October.
By Alex Shaw, RugbyPass