At the time of writing the Rugby World Cup is 23 days and 8 hours away, and closing fast. Of course, you knew that, despite being momentarily distracted by the Hayne Plane roaring towards a fat NFL contract in San Francisco.
What is also 23 days and 8 hours away is the first of four key match-ups over the course of the eight-match opening weekend, which could completely change the look and feel of the cup through the quarter-finals and beyond.
There are some common features across the games in question:
Each match features a top-two pool team, in one case, it is one versus two in the pool. In all cases, the lower sides have giant-killing, or at least giant-rattling, form. And importantly, an upset result in these particular games would significantly change the likely quarter-final match-ups, including potentially putting world champs New Zealand on the ‘wrong’ side of the semis for Australia.
Of course, they’re unlikely, but that’s what makes upsets exciting. And believe me, while they’re longish odds, they’re nowhere near as long as your pub mates think.
Lets get to it…
England versus Fiji
Pool A, Match 1
Twickenham – Friday, September 18
Most purists would scoff at the thought of anything but a crushing England win in this match.
The opening game of the tournament, at Twickenham, England with a massive home ground advantage, and the weight of expectation of a nation behind them.
However, the weight of expectation in World Cups has not always been friendly to the Red Roses. With the exception of the brilliant winning team of 2003, England has often been erratic in tournament play.
From inexplicably trying to run the ball in the 1991 final against Australia, to their 36-0 pool loss to South Africa in 2007, before making a dour run all the way to the final, and an inexplicable display of off-field-weirdness in New Zealand in 2011, it’s fair to say that England haven’t exactly been predictable in World Cup rugby.
Their squad is yet to be named, but the likely inclusion of Sam Burgess against a perceived second-tier team could also count against them. Burgess’ inexperience in defence could be exploited by the hard-running, fluid Fijians.
For their part Fiji will also remember the 2007 Cup, when they almost overhauled eventual champions South Africa in a madcap three-minute period with only 14 men on the field. The score was a delicate 20-20 until South Africa snapped out of it and pulled away to win.
Fiji are not without backers, including the great George Smith, who this week told WalesOnline, “Anybody who underestimates Fiji will be in trouble. I have known their coach John McKee for a number of years and have been impressed in how he brings players together and manages them.
“With Fiji that is the key because when they are happy they perform. John is very good at that, as you can see from the results because they have performed well and improved in the last couple of years.”
If Fiji were to win, the pressure on the home team would be incredible, with England having no choice but to beat both Wales and Australia to progress from the pool.
Fiji, on the other hand, may then only have to beat Wales (who have underperformed of late), and dispose of lowly Uruguay to go through with three wins.
France versus Italy
Pool D, Match 5
Twickenham – Saturday, September 19
Take a pinch of Gallic flair, a teaspoon of football showmanship, a large dollop of Mediterranean emotion, several tins of unpredictability, and you have this game.
Lets get real here – absolutely anything could happen. Which French team will show up? Twickenham could be an asset or a liability. The very Englishness of it all might send the French into a try-scoring frenzy, or it could have them turning up their noses and playing like escargot.
France are the mug punter’s friend, and the pro’s nightmare. They have their own reputation as giant-killers, being one of only two teams to knock New Zealand out of a World Cup before a final. But they have their off days too, most recently being jumped by a surprised Tonga in Rugby World Cup 2011.
Italy have beaten France four times, a couple of times in the 1990s, and also in 2011 and 2013. Unfortunately the wins were tight, and the losses outside of them comprehensive. Against anyone else but France and you’d be saying the Italians are no chance.
But if it happens, then all of a sudden France and Italy are fighting it out on points for and against to go through with three wins, assuming both are beaten by world No. 2 Ireland in their pool.
At least if the Italians manage to find their way through, New Zealand will breathe a little easier.
Samoa versus USA
Pool B, Match 6
Brighton Community Stadium – Sunday, September 20
Following up from the harum-scarum which is almost guaranteed between the French and Italians, this match will be the polar opposite, a bruising encounter of Islander intimidation and NFL-style head-tackles.
Samoa are ranked 12 in the world and the USA 16, but this is not a true reflection of the strength of the side that the Samoans will bring to the Cup, having all of their best players on board from the European scene.
However, the USA shouldn’t be underestimated. They will be fresh from a trial against Australia at Soldier Field, which will fine-tune their set piece, and if they get close to the Aussies they will go into the Samoa game with some confidence.
There is also the Rio factor, which sees USA Rugby pushing hard for a medal performance at next year’s Olympics. The Eagles Sevens will supply plenty of experience to the cup squad, with the likes of Danny Barrett, Andrew Durutalo, Folau Niua, Zach Test, and Brett Thompson all featuring.
The USA have never beaten Samoa, but they’ve never lost by more than seven points either. In their last outing just a month ago, they lost narrowly to Samoa 16-21.
If the USA win this match, then it could open the door for Scotland to slip into the quarter-finals. If Australia was to top pool A, they would look back on this result as a turning point, giving them a moderate Test against Scotland at quarter-final time, instead of a bruisefest against Samoa.
New Zealand versus Argentina
Pool D, Match 8
Wembley Stadium – Sunday, September 20
Argentina have never beaten New Zealand, so why would they start now? Any way you cut it, this game is one-way traffic. But speculation on matters rugby is no fun without a certain amount of dreamery, so let’s indulge ourselves shall we?
A bit of domino theory says that during the Rugby Championship, New Zealand only beat South Africa by 7, whereas Argentina beat the Springboks by 12, so they should compete. Of course, the fly in the ointment is the 39-18 drubbing the Pumas got from the All Blacks in NZ. But hey, even the Wallabies got flogged over there, and by more points.
The point is simply this, the Argentineans are in the mix, and they will beat New Zealand one day. Just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it isn’t inevitable at some point.
Could New Zealand stumble in their first game? Unlikely. They have never lost a pool game at the cup after all. But again, watchers who saw Los Pumas bludgeon their way to a strong win against South Africa in Durban a few weeks ago will be optimistic.
If the Argies pull it off, they would probably do England and South Africa a massive favour by shunting New Zealand to the other side of the draw. Australia though may not be so happy, having to play New Zealand in the quarters if they win their pool.
So there are the key match-ups of opening weekend. Even if a couple of them happened, the tournament will be laid wide open.
England will suddenly be loaded with a huge weight of criticism and tabloid pressure. Already being looked at carefully, coach Stuart Lancaster could implode.
Australia would be cheering Fiji on to repeat the feat against Wales. Wales for their part (minus 210 caps in James Hook, Richard Hibbard and Mike Phillips) would suddenly be fighting for their lives.
If Italy win, then Ireland likely escape to the other side of the draw from New Zealand (unless Argentina shake up the world).
If the USA win, they set up a huge showdown with Scotland for a potential quarters berth, but only assuming no-one beats South Africa.
Did you get all that? Neither did I really. But that’s the fun of the cup, the permutations are endless and the conversations are long and passionate.
What we do know for sure is that there is always an upset in the Rugby World Cup. In 2015, it’s likely to happen early.
So strap yourselves in – we’re almost cleared for takeoff.
(And I don’t mean the Hayne Plane.)