Everybody has heard the phrase ‘lose the battle but win the war’, and many rugby fans are wondering if this tactic will be employed at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
That is, will certain countries hold back their A team, field a mix-and-match side against less talented opponents, and not care if they lose because they’ll be keeping their powder dry for the big matches later on?
Remembering Japan’s jaw-dropping win over the Springboks in the last RWC, let’s take a look at this year’s pools and expected winners. World rankings are shown in brackets.
In Pool A, Ireland (3) will field their strongest side against Scotland (7) but will get some relief against Japan (11), Russia (20) and Samoa (17).
In Pool B, New Zealand (1) have only South Africa (5) to worry about. The All Blacks will not be concerned about Italy (14), Namibia (23) or Canada (21).
This means that if they want to, NZ can shelter some of their stars and field a strong second-string team for the contests against the three lowly ranked countries.
In Pool C, England (4) will want to shoot their best shot against unpredictable France (8) and the Pumas (10). They can rest some players against the US (15) and Tonga (13).
The Wallabies’ Pool D is the group that demands the smartest tactics.
Australia (6) face Fiji (9) then Wales (2), Uruguay (16) and Georgia (12).
The Wallabies will have to play their A side against Fiji. If they win that game, they should be able to count on defeating Uruguay and Georgia with a mix of A and B players.
Once fairly strong, Uruguay is now a tier-two rugby nation and is not expected to offer much resistance.
Georgia, another tier-two outfit, have had some mixed recent results, beating Tonga by 11 points and Samoa by 8 but losing to Italy by 11, Japan by 28 and Fiji by 22.
So here is the question: should the Wallabies select their strongest team against Wales in the hope of a win, and thus fire a warning shot at the more favoured countries?
Or should they bank a win over Fiji then field a mix-and-match team against Wales?
Conservatives will go for the first option. The more adventurous will say, “Why break your bones against the tough, supremely confident Six Nation champs? Field a less-than-best side against them and shoot the lights out against Fiji.”
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: I am not suggesting or advocating that any country should throw a game.
That would be unsporting and totally immoral.
But there is nothing wrong with protecting your key players while managing your way to the quarter-finals.
Here are my predictions for the quarters.
Winner Pool A vs runner-up Pool B: Ireland vs South Africa
Winner Pool B vs runner-up Pool A: New Zealand vs Scotland
Winner Pool C vs runner-up Pool D: England vs Australia
Winner Pool D vs runner-up Pool C: Wales vs France/Argentina
Go ahead, Roarers, tear me to shreds.