IT WOULD be wise to expect South Africa to mount more of a challenge in the World Cup than they managed when finishing bottom in the recent Rugby Championship, losing the final game to Argentina by the eye-popping margin of 25-37 in Durban.
They will lick their wounds and at least coach Heyneke Meyer won’t have complacency creeping into his squad of players that is full of experience. Nine players start with 50 or more caps, with the squad strengthened by the return to fitness of several big beasts including the evergreen Victor Matfield and the burly flanker Willem Alberts but not, according to one small political party, enough non-white players. The nine already in Meyer’s squad were deemed too few by the Agency for New Agenda which attempted to persuade a judge to prevent the Boks from even attending the party before withdrawing the petition.
Samoa are the second seeds and, a little like Fiji, they can hurt anyone on their day. They recently held a very decent All Blacks team to a 25-16 loss in Apia and they finished the stronger of the two teams. In Bristol’s flanker Jack Lam (Pat’s cousin) they have someone who will make a name for himself in this competition and in fullback Tim Nanai-Williams and the Pisi brothers, Ken and Tusi, Samoa boast three talented backs who already have.
But a little like the Springboks, politics and Samoan rugby go together like tonic and gin. Only last November the players were threatening strike action shortly before they were due to play England at Twickenham over gross mismanagement at the SRU… the Samoan Rugby Union, of course.
If the seeding holds good and the Springboks top the group, and they have both the strength and the depth in their squad to do just that, then the second placed side should come down to the Samoa/Scotland game on 10 October in Newcastle.
Scotland put in an aggressive and highly physical performance against France recently and if they can reproduce that level of intensity then Samoa should not prove an insurmountable hurdle. Against that, the tiny island nation, most of whose recruits play in New Zealand, face relatively easy opposition in the shape of Japan one week before the Scotland match, while Vern Cotter’s team will be knocked about by the ever-physical Springboks on the same day. Too many injuries may undermine the Scots’ campaign since they have precious little cover in some key areas.
The others will insist they are not there to make up numbers, although that looks suspiciously like their designated role. Japan are hosting the 2019 World Cup, provided they find a venue for the final, and they have made a goal of being in the top eight of World Rugby’s rankings by that time. This is coach Eddie Jones’s swansong before he returns to Super Rugby and both he and his sidekick Steve Borthwick won’t leave anything on the table as they look for what would be only Japan’s second ever win at the World Cup after beating Zimbabwe in 1991. The Cherry Blossoms [or the Brave Blossoms] have a high tempo game and they scored two good tries the last time they pitched up at BT Murrayfield but still lost 42-17.
The USA Eagles are probably the weakest in the group although steadily improving. They have work to do on the tight five forwards since much of their development is led by sevens, where they won the London leg of the international series. Their time will come but not quickly enough to make a dent in this tournament.