None of the pools are picnics. To emerge from Pool A, the two Celtic favourites will need to navigate beefy Slavs, riproaring Samoans and avatars of the fired-up home nation, who have already proven they can shock a heavyweight on the global stage. But emerge they will.
Pool B doesn’t have the depth of the others, but the opening match might very well set the course for the knockout rounds because a New Zealand vs Ireland quarter-final sounds so much different than an All Black match against the Scots.
Pool C is a horror show. Tonga will dent the French, the Yanks will bruise France and the top three may very well all drop a match against each other. Nobody will want to tip France over Argentina or the Pumas over the French, at least at the moment.
Wales looks to have the heavy armour to take Pool D, with Australia projected to qualify in almost every pundit’s bracket, but does anyone really fancy a one-off tilt against Fiji or a scrum fest with Georgia?
But let’s assume a few things. Injuries will happen to every squad and depth will be king. Midfielders are the least settled combinations in all the teams. An experienced and nasty pack will not be enough but will be required. The games will be played on fast pitches. Referees will make five or six errors per match.
Now imagine: Who will be the starting No.12s in the knockout Round of 8?
Australia will overcome an early loss to Fiji and play in the first quarter-final against Michael Cheika’s nemesis and his sweet chariot. The clash of midfielders will be the mighty Aphrodite, Owen Farrell, versus the misunderstood James ‘Dean’ O’Connor. England will win that with a controversial late decision involving these two fine rugby players and their tackle techniques.
Scotland’s Pete Horne will wear the No.12. He is visually unremarkable, neither an imposing figure nor especially fast-looking. He does a lot of things kind of well and he avoids many mistakes as he runs lines, feeds Huw Jones and occasionally puts in a little kick. He did well against South Africa’s incumbent No.12, Damian de Allende, but seemed to struggle a bit when South Africa attacked in an unstructured way. If he faces the All Blacks, he will be tackling the bigger Sonny Bill Williams or berserker Ma’a Nonu or perhaps steamroller Ngani Laumape.
But I say it is Boks versus Jocks (with Jockboks) in the second quarter-final because the All Blacks will be upset in the first pool match. Rassie Erasmus has signaled he still sees Montpellier’s Jan Serfontein as viable and finishes many games with Handre Pollard at No.12, but to start, we are stuck with de Allende. The building Boks will play a mouthwatering semi-final against England in Yokohama.
In the third quarter-final, at Oita Stadium, it’ll be Geoff Parkes’s distant cousin Hadleigh, who plays a variant of Jamie Warren-ball, running into the skilled Jeronimo de la Fuente. On paper the No.3 should have an easy time of disposing of the No.10, but the Pumas will lift for the tournament, dispatch France in the pool and give Wales all they want – until the superior organisation of the Dragons pays off.
In the final quarter-final poor Ireland will run into a vengeance-minded Kiwi team, and it won’t even be close. Part of that will be the identity of the inside centres. Laumape is a wrecking ball and durable at that, while the Irish-Kiwi centre Bundee Aki is not either of those things. The All Blacks by 15 or more.
And so a north-south set of semi-finals in Yokohama, with Farrell finally being carded for his armlessness in a late tackle on Pollard – playing at No.12 in the second half – and Parkes missing a lot of Laumape tackles, setting up a Springboks vs All Black final for the ages, which comes down to the last sequence, as it has in the last three tests between the old foes.
Any of that sound plausible?