By Olly Santini
Every Rugby World Cup has an underdog story: Japan beating the Springboks in 2015, Fiji knocking Wales out in 2007, France’s quarter- and semi-final upsets of New Zealand in 2007 and 1999.
France are the perennial World Cup surprise packages, they’ve played in two finals, and often seem to turn up for the World Cup, especially in the knockout stages, although getting there will be tough this time round.
The French team is young, inexperienced, but fearless and full of potential. Just look at the half back combination of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. Both play their rugby together at Toulouse and set the Top 14 alight last year in Toulouse’s winning season.
Other young talents include Damian Penaud and Grégory Alldritt. These players are all fiercely talented and could walk into almost all tier one teams. With a heavy pack and fast and powerful back line, this team won’t fear anyone in the knockout stages, provided they can get through the group.
A win against England, whilst possible, looks a step too far for France, but the Argentina fixture on opening weekend will likely decide if they’ll be playing knockout rugby in Japan.
Argentina are in an identical situation to France and make up the ‘group of death’ alongside them and England.
Like France, Argentina’s record against England is woeful, having lost their last nine encounters so, without jumping the gun, England should win the pool, and Argentina will need to beat France in their opening match to qualify.
Argentina’s team is the opposite to France: experienced.
Experience is of huge value in a World Cup and is something they’ll have to take advantage of. Where they lack in France or England’s talent and power, the Argentinians will have to rely on the experience of the likes of Agustín Creevy, Nicolás Sánchezand Juan Manuel Leguizamón to keep cool heads and try to control games and stifle their more talented opponents.
That said, Argentina do possess their own star players, especially in the back three, with lethal finisher and long range kicker Emiliano Boffelli, coupled with rapid wingers Bautista Delguy and Ramiro Moyano.
Argentina reached the semi-finals last time, before playing a howler, and in 2007 they came third. Despite a terrible record of late, they only lost 16-20 to New Zealand in July and had chances to win in this year’s Rugby Championship. This team has the potential to shock anyone.
Scotland similarly have the talent to scare anyone on their day but have had a desperately disappointing year. The only reason there hasn’t been more concern over their poor form leading up to the World Cup is their stunning second half performance against England to draw the Calcutta Cup match in March.
Apart from that, they have been very underwhelming compared to what people thought they were capable of a year ago. Nevertheless, at the last World Cup they missed out on a semi-final due to a dubious refereeing decision, and they would have fancied their chances against Argentina in that semi-final.
With players like John Barclay, Jonny Gray, Hamish Watson, Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell in their squad the Scots can challenge anyone on their day, but you have to think reaching their second semi-final is highly unlikely.
Japan and Italy both would have been hoping for kind draws, and Japan have received one. Of all the top eight sides they could have chosen to have a shootout with for a quarter-final spot, Scotland would have almost certainly been their first choice.
Although they’ll still be massive underdogs in that clash, they’ll fancy their chances in front of a raucous home crowd if they can get off to a good start.
Italy received a rotten draw and will have to beat either New Zealand or South Africa if they want to reach the knockout stages for the first time.
Both are in very good form, and despite the good work done by Connor O’Shea to develop young talent in Italy, it seems like this World Cup has come too soon for the Azzurri, although this draw would be beyond them whenever the tournaments took place.
Fiji and Samoa as always possess many dangerous players yet lack the regular game time and funding from their unions to perform on the international stage, especially Samoa.
Samoa will fancy a crack at Scotland and hosts Japan to claim a shock quarter-final berth, whilst Fiji will have to beat Australia or Wales to do the same. Both seem to be equally long shots, but write off the South Sea Islanders at your peril.
Image courtesy of Marc via Flickr and Creative Commons