There is a huge movement in the United States based on the idea of predicting the results of the college top 64 down to the final 4.
Here I’m going to try to do a similar thing by predicting the outcome of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Below I discuss each of the pools separately and then move on to the knockout phases of the competition.
Please excuse me taking liberty of filling the final qualifying places.
Oceania 1 (Fiji)
Pool A consists of three talented up and coming teams (England, Australia and Wales), a team characterised by unpredictability and flair (Fiji) and finally a team who will be the whipping boys of the group (Uruguay). Here is how I think the main four teams will fair:
Under the leadership of coach Stuart Lancaster, England are starting to build a very competitive and skillful rugby team.They have a number of talented backline players together with a very solid, powerful pack of forwards.
Crucial to their hopes in this tournament I believe will be their star fullback Mike Brown. He has been a revelation both in positional play and counter attack for his country ever since he single-handedly beat the Wallabies last year at Twickenham.
I think that this English side is similar to the squad of 1999 in that they are building progressively and positively but at the moment they are still not quite up to the standard of the top three teams. They will hope that they can keep the core of their squad together for the duration of the competition and that the “x-factor” players such as Brown can display their magic touches in the high-pressure cauldron of a World Cup.
England will be pleased to be able to get past the unpredictability of Fiji early in the competition as the undercooked islanders should improve as the tournament progresses. This first match should provide them with a good for and against score early on in the competition.
They will have the massive advantage of being able to play in front of their home supporters which should give them added momentum and energy during their matches. Wales and Australia will be massive tests for them but I think England will have enough in the tank to progress beyond the group stage of the competition and into the knockout phases.
Wales fell apart during the most recent Six Nations tournament which was played on the back of a Lions tour to Australia in which the majority of the players were selected from the Welsh national team. In addressing the issue of fatigue, Welsh national coach Warren Gatland has limited the number of matches Wales will play during the June 2014 Test window to two and has stated that he will look to take a younger group of players on the tour this year. This time off should serve the more senior members of the squad well as they prepare for next year’s World Cup.
A well-rested Wales should be a big threat in next year’s showpiece. Critical for them will be beating England in their second game. If they lose that game, I think they will have a battle in trying to beat Fiji in their following match.
The game against the Wallabies could also prove to be a major obstacle, particularly because it will be played at Twickenham rather than Cardiff. Although Twickenham will be a sea of red on that day, it will still not be the same for the Welsh. One wonders if they will be permitted to use the palatial England changeroom?
Wales definitely have it in them to progress to the next round, but I think England and Australia may just prove to be too strong for them and will knock them out of the tournament at the group stage.
The current Wallaby rugby team is packed with talent, speed and skill. Though still very youthful, they have all the ingredients in their team to pose a real threat at next year’s World Cup.
Australia would be wise not to overlook their first game against Fiji, who would have already been toughened up having already played their first match against England. My feeling is that Fiji will be a real danger after having played their first game, and they will target their games against Australia and Wales as opportunities to cause an upset.
Presuming the Wallabies get past Fiji, their biggest game will be against England. Should they win this, I believe they will top their group and progress to the knockout phase. If they don’t, I think that they will still be able to overcome the Welsh because of the belief they have in their own game and skills.
Australia will be tested by the English and the Welsh and possibly the Fijians, but they will defeat at least two of these opponents and qualify second in their group.
A deciding factor of the makeup of this group could be whether or not Fiji are able to get themselves organised and motivated for the tournament. They have had a distinct lack of game time together and so are likely to be underprepared when they begin the tournament. It makes you wonder how they would go if they had 10-12 tests a year with the same team together.
Another question for them will be who do they put their best team up against. In 2007 they selected a second team to play against Australia and then were able to beat Wales in the next game. Fiji have shown in the past that they are definitely capable of springing a surprise or two on the big stage so they could play a major role in influencing which teams progress to the next round of the competition.
Pool B could well be one of the closest pools of the competition. Apart from South Africa,. The other teams involved are all capable of beating the others on their day. This group could well come down to for and against to decide who will join the Springboks in the next round.
South Africa (Japan/Samoa/Scotland/USA)
South Africa only need to play about 60 minutes in second gear to progress from Pool B into the knockout phase of the competition. However, the South Africans will have one or two headaches to consider during this phase of the tournament.
Finding an adequate substitute for star scrumhalf Fourie du Preez will be important. For me, when du Preez left the Boks to go to Japan, the South Africans lacked the sharpness and accuracy which he brought to their game. Finding an adequate substitute that can maintain the same sharpness that he brings will be crucial in my opinion.
Secondly, the match against Scotland could prove to be a test for the Springboks who have found the Scots to be a tough opposition to crack in the recent past. Following the Scotland game, the Boks have a mere four days to prepare for their clash with the USA.
By this stage, they may well have already qualified but this short turnaround time could prove to be a challenge for the South Africans if they still need to get something out of the USA game to qualify.
The Boks will be boosted by the fact that Victor Matfield is likely to be available for selection for the tournament. His experience and lineout expertise will be vital to the South Africans securing possession in the right areas of the field and being able to play to their strengths.
I see no problem for South Africa in the group stage of the tournament. Although Scotland may challenge them for periods of their game, the Boks should win all of their matches and comfortably top Pool B.
Samoa (USA/South Africa/Japan/Scotland)
Every World Cup seems to have one Pacific island nation that fails to show up and another that stuns the world with breathtaking performances. Sometimes, it can be the same team that during one tournament finishes last in their group and the next qualifies for the knockout stage. Samoa are a team that has the potential to finish second in Pool B but also to bomb out completely and not feature at all in the competition.
For Samoa, a lot will depend on the type of build-up and preparation that they have prior to the tournament as well as the availability of their key players. Looking at their fixture list, they should be able to beat the USA and Japan which should set up a deciding match against Scotland at Murrayfield to determine who will join South Africa in the quarter-finals from Pool B.
Scotland (Japan/USA/South Africa/Samoa)
Scotland have endured another torrid Six Nations tournament and will be eager to look for opportunities to turn their poor form around. Part of the challenge for them is that their rugby infrastructure below the national team is currently being held up by Glasgow. Edinburgh, under the directorship of Alan Solomons, appear to have become an extension of the Stormers and Western Province.
The Scots will be pleased to find themselves in Pool B where, if they play to their potential, they shouldn’t have a problem beating Samoa, Japan and the USA and progressing to the quarter-finals with South Africa. Samoa will pose a tough, physical challenge but I predict that Scotland will overcome it and will finish second in this group.
USA and Japan
The two underdogs in this group have shown tremendous improvement in recent times. I think Japan in particular could spring a surprise or two during the tournament. Their coach, Eddie Jones, has created a style of play that is suited to the type of players that come from Japan.
Don’t expect as many high scoring whitewashes involving these two teams as we have seen in the past. It’s possible that we may even see Japan causing an upset or two like they did when they defeated a disjointed Welsh team in 2013.
1. South Africa
Africa 1 (Namibia)
Pool C, much like Pool B, appears to have a clear outright winner – New Zealand. The All Blacks have dominated world rugby for a considerable period of time now and should have no trouble in topping this group.
The test will come for the remaining four teams to see who can grab the second qualifying spot. The crucial match will be between Argentina and Tonga, but both of these teams will have to be careful that their key players do not get injured by bone-crunching Georgian tackles as this could hamper their progress in the tournament.
New Zealand (Argentina/Namibia/Georgia/Tonga)
New Zealand are a power-packed team that should be clear favourites heading into the World Cup next year. However, one of their major weaknesses I think is that they have had trouble saying no to players such as Carter and McCaw. A World Cup is about deciding who you want to play in the tournament three years before the time and then keeping that group healthy and playing together until the tournament starts. The issue is that the All Blacks are selecting these players but not allowing them to play together often enough as a team.
A key player for New Zealand going into the next World Cup is Aaron Cruden. When Daniel Carter is out of the All Black team, they are noticeably worse. Cruden needs to play at least another 20 more Test matches before the next showpiece as he will find it difficult stepping into Carter’s shoes if the New Zealand maestro is injured during the tournament.
My feeling is that the New Zealand Rugby Union should have taken a stand and asked Carter and McCaw to step down, blooded players such as Cruden to allow them to get through some short-term pain in order to build long-term combinations for the World Cup.
In terms of filling McCaw’s shoes, just put Cane, Luatua, Messam and Whitelock in a padded room and see who comes out walking. The policy employed by the New Zealand Rugby Union may well work but it is a massive risk.
New Zealand will be expected to win their games comfortably and canter through to the next round. Argentina and Georgia will provide physical tests for them and the match against Tonga, particularly the three minutes between the anthems and kick off, should be extremely entertaining but all of them should end up in easy victories for the men from New Zealand which will result in them finishing on top of their pool.
Tonga (Georgia/Namibia/Argentina/New Zealand)
A physical team with a lot of ball skill and talent, Tonga are a team whose major problem is that their players are not released early enough from their European clubs to give them sufficient time to prepare for major tournaments. For Tonga to be competitive, I think they will require at least ten extra games in the lead up to the World Cup.
The Tongans will target the match against Argentina as one which they could cause an upset and possibly force their way into the quarter-finals. Georgia will pose their usual physical threat but the natural ball skills of the Tongans should get them through that match. By the time they face New Zealand, they should have a very clear idea of whether or not they will be progressing to the knockout stage of the competition.
Argentina (New Zealand/Georgia/Tonga/Namibia)
Argentina will find the going much more difficult in this World Cup as their rugby is currently going through a transition phase with a lot of focus being put on bringing through a younger generation of players.
Key to the success of Argentinian rugby in the future will be getting this side together in some form of club rugby and enabling them to play lots of matches together so that they can form combinations and an overall team unity. Until that happens, they will remain a Spanish-speaking Barbarians side.
I think Tonga are the only team that are likely to pose a threat to Argentina finishing second in this group. However, with their experience of playing in the Rugby Championship recently and competing with the top three teams in the world, they should have enough to get through this match and progress to the quarter-finals.
Their match against the All Blacks will be physical but the New Zealanders will have too much skill and class for the Pumas.
1. New Zealand
The European flavour that exists in Pool D should give the top three teams playing in this group (France, Ireland and Italy) a little bit of extra motivation to perform. I think that this group is going to come down to the last game and it will be more about the order of the teams rather than who is going to qualify.
France are always a team that seem to pop up and perform in World Cups, no matter how difficult the lead up to the tournament may have been. A team characterised by exuberance and flair, they are capable of beating anybody on their day.
The French, however, are plagued by the success of their own domestic competition which seems to have fewer French players each year. It will be interesting to see whether this dynamic affects their performances during the World Cup.
Luckily for France, they should not have much difficulty in getting through their group. Italy should pose a few questions in the early stages of their match but France should have too much skill and flair for the Italians over the course of 80 minutes. The real challenge will come in the match against Ireland, which should decide who tops the group and who finishes second.
Ireland are the perennial underachievers in World Cups, but this time they appear to be very well set up with an extremely experienced and unified group of players. This is built off the back of the European successes of Munster, Leinster and Ulster and has created a core group of players that are extremely skilful and battle-hardened.
Given this fact, I am predicting that Ireland will have very few problems getting through their group and that they will edge France to claim top spot in the pool.
QF 1: Winner Pool C (New Zealand) versus Runner Up Pool D (France) – Millennium Stadium.
Now where have I seen this game before? Surely New Zealand can’t have the same type of refereeing as the last time these two teams played can they? This game will definitely be right up France’s alley and it should be a cracking contest.
Prediction – New Zealand to win – just.
QF 2: Winner Pool B (South Africa) versus Runner Up Pool A (Australia) – Twickenham
This is pretty much a home game for South Africa given the makeup of the local population. By this point, I think Australia will have gotten past South Africa in terms of ability. But I am not biased.
Prediction – Australia to win
QF 3: Winner Pool D (Ireland) versus Runner Up Pool C (Argentina)
Ireland should have too much in the tank for Argentina, who will be brave as usual but will come up short. A relatively easy path for Ireland to get through to the semi-finals.
Prediction – Ireland to win
QF 4: Winner Pool A (England) versus Runner-Up Pool B (Scotland) – Twickenham
It pains me to type England by 10 or more as Scotland are my second team, but they should have way too much for the Scots in this game.
Prediction: England to win
SF 1: Winner QF 3 (Ireland) versus Winner QF 4 (England) – Twickenham
Ireland were extremely unlucky not to beat England last year. I think they are a better, more complete side than England with more big game experience. I predict they will defeat England and progress to the final.
Prediction: Ireland to win
SF 2: Winner QF 1 (New Zealand) versus Winner QF 2 (Australia)
I think Daniel Carter is key to this game. If he is off form, I predict Australia will win, but otherwise I will go with rankings and therefore New Zealand will progress to the final.
Prediction: New Zealand to win
Final: New Zealand versus Ireland
New Zealand should beat Ireland and win the World Cup.
Other scenarios: If France can beat New Zealand as they have done in the past, then Ireland would be a great chance of beating Australia in London.
Please feel free to give your own responses and permutations