IF POOL C looks like a one-horse race then this pool at least has two thoroughbreds, either of whom could finish first and neither of them is Italy despite their heroics at the Millennium… sorry, the Principality Stadium last weekend.
Neither of the leading contenders can feel completely confident going into the final round of matches.
Ireland have not lost to France in the last four outings, with two wins and two draws, but Joe Schmidt’s men were a little underwhelming in the warm-up matches, going Awol in the first half at Twickenham and losing to Wales in Dublin, which caused a few people to sit up and take notice for all the wrong reasons.
Ireland will argue, and they may have a point, that they don’t play France until 11 October and that peaking now for a game that is one month hence would be dumb. That game will be crucial because the pool winner should play Argentina, the pool runner-up should face the All Blacks.
Let’s hope they have got their timing right because no one is convinced that they have their selection off pat. Schmidt picked only two scrum-halfs, one less than par, and immediately paid the price when Connor Murray took a head knock early against England.
Reserve stand-off Ian Madigan is evidently training at nine but don’t you need a specialist player in such a specialised position?
France have power across the field but especially in a big pack of forwards who chewed up and spat out England in that Paris warm-up.
They should have been much further ahead than they were and you could say something similar about the Scotland match, which the home side dominated without making it stick on the score board.
If Freddie Michalak was a little flaky 12 years ago in Australia there is little to suggest he has since become a world beater and Remi Tales may yet start against Ireland.
Incidentally, France boast the second biggest pool of players on the planet, after England, but thanks to the pulling power of the Top 14, Philippe Saint-Andre has whistled up a Kiwi prop, three South Africans and a Fijian-born winger. Just saying.
Italy are sweating on the fitness of skipper Sergio Parisse for their opening match against Les Blues although he alone can’t magic gummy bears into gold or the Azzurri into World Cup contenders.
Even a win against France, which the Azzurri have managed in two of their last five meetings, doesn’t guarantee Italy a first visit to the World Cup quarter-finals since France could still beat Ireland.
The others are also-rans. Canada are a pale shadow of the side that stood toe-to-toe with South Africa in 1995, the first time in history three players were sent off in one match.
However they do have John Moonlight, an excellent flanker with a movie star name and movie star good looks.
He is backed up by two brilliant finishers on the flanks, former Glasgow favourite DTH van der Merwe and the Ospreys’ Jeff Hassler and, of course, one-time Stirling County reserve scrum-half in the shape of Gordon McRorie.
The Canucks have more than enough fire power to see off the poor Romanians, who have nine players from the French leagues and one, Catalin Fercu, from Saracens. A full-back by trade, Fercu was a late withdrawal from RWC’11 because of a fear of flying all the way to New Zealand… he must have had the middle seat.
Canada should have a good crack at Italy but they won’t trouble the big two in Pool D who are in a separate race altogether.