New Zealand takes centre stage for World Cup

Biggest obstacle organisers faced was the quake in February

Many New Zealanders can scarcely believe they are hosting the Rugby World Cup as one of the planet’s largest sporting events prepares to kick-off in what promises to be a defining moment for the country.

An influx of about 95,000 international visitors will descend on the fomer British colony of four million for the September 9-October 23 tournament, stretching hotel accommodation in major cities to the limit.

“It seems funny, little old New Zealand holding this big event with all the world watching,” Wellington resident Kylie Goodman said ahead of the tournament’s opening game in Auckland on Friday.

“I still think we’ll do a great job though.”

It is the largest event ever staged here, a nation where sheep outnumber people eight-to-one and best known in recent years for the mountain vistas that provided a backdrop to Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies.

The tournament comes after a horror start to the year with the Christchurch earthquake in February killing 181 people and severely damaging the main rugby stadium in New Zealand’s second largest city.

World Cup chief executive Martin Snedden has said the biggest obstacle organisers faced was the quake.

All seven matches scheduled for Christchurch, including two quarter-finals, had to be moved, although seismologists do not expect any major tremors during the six-week tournament.

New Zealand was a surprise winner over Japan and South Africa when the 2011 host nation was announced six years ago, lacking the large stadiums of its rivals and situated in a time zone unsuited to the European television market.

It is also geographically isolated - even Snedden describes the country as “stuck away at the end of the world”.

Travel any further south and you end up in Antartica, which was dramatically illustrated recently when an emperor penguin took a wrong turn in the Southern Ocean and eventually washed up on a beach near Wellington.

One attribute New Zealand has in abundance, however, is an all-pervasive passion for rugby union, which easily outranks other codes, including even football, as the nation’s most popular sport.

The national team, the All Blacks, is world rugby’s most successful side, winning 75 per cent of all its Test matches - even though it has a history of underperformance at the World Cup that it will be keen to end on home soil.

When framing the winning bid, New Zealand rugby chiefs promised to use the nation’s obsession with the game to transform the country into “a stadium of four million”, providing a hothouse atmosphere for the sporting showcase.

They have stayed true to their word in allocating matches for the 20 participating teams to 12 venues around the country, including small towns such as Whangarei and Nelson, with populations of 50,000 and 60,000 respectively.

International Rugby Board (IRB) president Bernard Lapasset this week described the fervour with which New Zealanders have embraced the tournament as extraordinary and said he expected a “wonderful” World Cup.

“Those who bought tickets will not be bored,” he said.

The Reserve Bank of New Zealand estimates that the influx of tourists will inject NZ$700 million ($578 million) into the economy, which is stil largely reliant on rural exports, lifting growth by 0.33 percentage points.

 

Stars to watch out for

 


Some of the likely lads to star are as follows (Top L-R) France's scrum-half Morgan Parra, Japan's flanker Takashi Kikutani, New Zealand's prop Owen Franks, compatriot and full-back Israel Dagg, Argentina's prop Juan Figallo, England's centre Manu Tuilagi, (Centre L-R) Georgia's prop Davit Kubriashvili, Scotland's lock Richie Gray, Australia's full back Kurtley Beale, Ireland's fly-half Jonathan Sexton, compatriot and flanker Sean O'Brien, Italy's scrum-half Fabio Semenzato, (Lower L-R) Samoa's back row Taiasina Tu'ifua, Fiji's full-back Kini Murimurivalu, South Africa's utility back Patrick Lambie, compatriot and prop Tendai Mtawarira, Wales flanker Dan Lydiate and compatriot and wing George North. (AFP)


2011 Rugby World Cup schedule

Match schedule for the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand from September 9 to October 23.

(Times are local, which currently is GMT + 12)

September 9

Pool A: New Zealand v Tonga in Auckland (2030)

September 10
Pool B: Scotland v Romania in Invercargill (1300)
Pool D: Fiji v Namibia in Rotorua (1530)
Pool A: France v Japan in Auckland (1800)
Pool B: Argentina v England in Dunedin (2030)

September 11
Pool C: Australia v Italy in Auckland (1530)
Pool C: Ireland v USA in New Plymouth (1800)
Pool D: South Africa v Wales in Wellington (2030)

September 14
Pool D: Samoa v Namibia in Rotorua (1430)
Pool A: Tonga v Canada in Whangarei (1700)
Pool B: Scotland v Georgia in Invercargill (1930)

September 15
Pool C: Russia v USA in New Plymouth (1930)

September 16
Pool A: New Zealand v Japan in Hamilton (2000)

September 17
Pool B: Argentina v Romania in Invercargill (1530)
Pool D: South Africa v Fiji in Wellington (1800)
Pool C: Australia v Ireland in Auckland (2030)

September 18
Pool D: Wales v Samoa in Hamilton (1530)
Pool B: England v Georgia in Dunedin (1800)
Pool A: France v Canada in Napier (2030)

September 20
Pool C: Italy v Russia in Nelson (1930)

September 21
Pool A: Tonga v Japan in Whangarei (1930)

September 22
Pool D: South Africa v Namibia in Auckland (2000)

September 23
Pool C: Australia v USA in Wellington (2030)

September 24
Pool B: England v Romania in Dunedin (1800)
Pool A: New Zealand v France in Auckland (2030)

September 25
Pool D: Fiji v Samoa in Auckland (1530)
Pool C: Ireland v Russia in Rotorua (1800)
Pool B: Argentina v Scotland in Wellington (2030)

September 26
Pool D: Wales v Namibia in New Plymouth (1930)

September 27
Pool A: Canada v Japan in Napier (1700)
Pool C: Italy v USA in Nelson (1930)

September 28
Pool B: Georgia v Romania in Palmerston North (1930)

September 30
Pool D: South Africa v Samoa in Auckland (2030)

October 1
Pool C: Australia v Russia in Nelson (1530)
Pool A: France v Tonga in Wellington (1800)
Pool B: England v Scotland in Auckland (2030)

October 2
Pool B: Argentina v Georgia in Palmerston North (1300)
Pool A: New Zealand v Canada in Wellington (1530)
Pool D: Wales v Fiji in Hamilton (1800)
Pool C: Ireland v Italy in Dunedin (2030)

October 8
Quarter-final 1: 1st Pool C v 2nd Pool D in Wellington (1800)
Quarter-final 2: 1st Pool B v 2nd Pool A in Auckland (2030)

October 9
Quarter-final 3: 1st Pool D v 2nd Pool C in Wellington (1800)
Quarter-final 4: 1st Pool A v 2nd Pool B in Auckland (2030)

October 15
Semi-final 1: Winner QF1 v Winner QF2 in Auckland (2100)

October 16
Semi-final 2: Winner QF3 v Winner QF4 in Auckland (2100)

October 21
3rd place play-off at Eden Park, Auckland (2030)

October 23
Final at Eden Park, Auckland (2100)

Benchmarks

Six previous World Cups
Most overall wins: Australia 2 (1991, 1999), South Africa 2 (1995, 2007)
Other winners: New Zealand (1987), England (2003)

Players
Most matches: Jason Leonard (ENG) 22 (1991-2003)
Most points: Jonny Wilkinson (ENG) 249 (1999-2007)
Most tries: Jonah Lomu (NZL) 15 (1995-1999)
Most conversions: Gavin Hastings (SCO) 39 (1987-1995)
Most penalties: Jonny Wilkinson (ENG) 53 (1999-2007)
Most drop-goals: Jonny Wilkinson (ENG) 13 (1999-2007)

For one single World Cup
Most points: Grant Fox (NZL) 126 in 1987
Most tries: Jonah Lomu (NZL) 8 in 1999, Bryan Habana (RSA) 8 in 2007
Most conversions: Grant Fox (NZL) 30 in 1987
Most penalties: Gonzalo Quesada (ARG) 31 in 1999
Most drop-goals: Jonny Wilkinson (ENG) 8 in 2003

For one match
Most team points: 145 by New Zealand against Japan (145-17) in 1995
Record margin of victory: 142 by Australia against Namibia (142-0) in 2003
Most individual points: 45 by Simon Culhane (NZL) against Japan in 1995
Team tries: 22 by Australia against Namibia in 2003
Individual tries: 6 by Mark Ellis (NZL) against Japan in 1995
Most team penalties: 8 by Scotland and France in 1995 and by Australia and Argentina in 1999.
Most individual penalties: 8 by Thierry Lacroix (FRA) and Gavin Hastings (SCO) in 1995 and by Gonzalo Quesada (ARG) and Matt Burke (AUS) in 1999
Most team conversions: 20 by New Zealand against Japan in 1995
Most individual conversions: 20 by Simon Culhane (NZL) against Japan in 1995
Most team drop-goals: 5 by South Africa against England in 1999.
Most individual drop-goals: 5 by Jannie de Beer (RSA) against England in 1999.
 

FLASHBACK

A look back at the six previous rugby union World Cup finals:

1987 - Australia and New Zealand

The first World Cup was held in the southern hemisphere with Australia and New Zealand co-hosting. Seven of the 16 places were filled by the traditional world powers while invitations went out to nine others. The group stages were predictably one-sided.

Australia were the favourites with New Zealand and France expected to provide the stiffest opposition, and so it proved. The semifinal between the Australians and the French was the match of the tournament and is still regarded as a classic with Serge Blanco’s late wonder try ensuring a northern hemisphere representation in the final.

The French were no match for Brian Lochore’s All Blacks, however, going down 9-29 as the Kiwis won the World Cup for the first and until this day only time.
Winners - New Zealand

1991 - England (with games also in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France)

The quarter-finalists from 1987 were joined by eight teams who made it through regional qualifying. This time the All Blacks started favourites, but they were to be upstaged by the Australians.

In the group stages there was a major upset with Western Samoa’s 16-13 win over Wales in Cardiff which sent the Pacific Islanders into the last eight along with Canada, who ousted Fiji.

The David Campese-inspired Wallabies nearly fell to Ireland in Dublin in the quarter-finals, but they survived and comfortably defeated the All Blacks in the semifinals.

England ousted Scotland at the same stage, but they were out-thought and outplayed by the Australians 6-12 in a disappointing final at Twickenham.
Winners - Australia

1995 - South Africa

With apartheid at an end, South Africa was back in the fold of international sport and what became known as the Rainbow World Cup was a powerful political statement. Again 16 teams were involved and again Wales failed to make it to the quarter-finals after a heart-breaking 24-23 loss to Ireland.

There was no question who was the star of the tournament. Giant All Black winger Jonah Lomu was an attacking force like nothing seen before in rugby union. His four tries against shell-shocked England in the semifinals remains one of the most outstanding individual accomplishments in the history of the World Cup.

But even Lomu could not turn back the Springboks’ tide in the final as Francois Pienaar’s side won 15-12 in extra-time in front of a rapturous crowd in Johannesburg. The skipper received the Webb Ellis Cup from the hands of President Nelson Mandela clad in Springbok green. There were bitter accusations later that the Kiwis had been subject to a food-poisoning plot in their hotel on the eve of the final.
Winners - South Africa

1999 - Wales (with games also in England, France, Scotland and Ireland)

The tournament was expanded from 16 to 20 teams split into five groups of four countries, which necessitated a play-off format involving the five runners-up and best third-placed side to make up the quarter-finals.

With centre Tim Horan to the fore, Australia went from strength to strength extinguishing the Welsh fire in front of a charged-up Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

But the All Blacks were still the hot favourites until they came to grief in a classic semifinal at Twickenham against France. The French had looked below par in their previous games, but from the start they took the game to the Kiwis, showing great flair and invention as they turned around a 10-24 deficit to win 43-31.

Sadly for Pierre Berbizier’s men, they were unable to reproduce the fireworks against the cool and calculating Australians in the final. Skippered by incomparable lock John Eales, the Wallabies won 35-12 to lift the World Cup for the second time.
Winners - Australia

2003 - Australia

This edition of the World Cup was originally awarded jointly to Australia and New Zealand, but a dispute over stadium advertising left the Australians to organise the tournament alone. The 20-team format was maintained, but this time the teams were split into four groups of five with the top two reaching the quarter-finals.

The group stages saw the usual lop-sided results with Australia racking up a record margin 142-0 victory over Namibia. Predictably the quarter-finals involved the old Five Nations plus New Zealand, Australia and South Africa from the south.

Both semifinals were knife-edge affairs, England edging ill-disciplined France in a Sydney downpour and Australia outsmarting the hugely fancied All Blacks thanks to Stirling Mortlock’s interception try.

The final was a thriller with Jonny Wilkinson’s dramatic drop goal in extra-time clinching the first World Cup win for England and the northern hemisphere.
Winners - England

2007 - France (with games also in Scotland and Wales)

The latest edition retained the 20-team, four-pool format and produced enough surprises to suggest a slight reshuffle in the old world order. They began in the opening game when Argentina turned over the hosts, going on to beat the fancied Irish and finish top of their group. They later bested France again in the third-place play-off.

Georgia came within a whisker of beating Ireland, losing 12-14, while Fiji eliminated Wales. Perennial favourites New Zealand and Australia both cruised through the group stages - the All Blacks racking up a century against Portugal, the only amateur side - before stumbling in the quarter-finals to France and England respectively.

France had beaten the English for the tournament’s hosting rights, but the boot was on the other foot in the semis as England won 14-9.

In the final at Stade de France in Paris the holders met South Africa, who had humiliated them 36-0 in the group stages. England’s Mark Cueto had a try ruled out - debate still rages about whether his toe scuffed the touchline or not - and the boots of Francois Steyn and Percy Montgomery gave the Springboks their second World Cup triumph.
Winners - South Africa

Teams at a glance

Pool A

Canada
IRB ranking (as of Aug 15): 15
World Cup appearances (inc 2011): 7
World Cup best: Quarter-finals 1991
The Canadians have been playing rugby since the 1860s but still have not quite been able to close the gap on the big guns. They came close 20 years ago when a team which included Gareth Rees, Glen Ennis, Julian Wyatt and Norm Hadley pushed France to the limit before losing to New Zealand in a cracking quarter-final. Sadly, it was the end of an era rather than the start and the Canadians have failed to escape the pools since then. They are still churning out top-class players though - keep a close eye on Clermont lock Jamie Cudmore, a textbook case of power, strength and volatility.

France
IRB ranking: 6
World Cup appearances: 7
World Cup best: Runners-up 1987, 1999
France have long had the reputation, not always fairly, of being unpredictable - perpretators of brilliant running rugby when on song, but plodding, ill-disciplined and faction-ridden when not. The World Cup though has regularly brought out the best in them - witness the thrilling wins over New Zealand in the 1999 semi-finals and the quarter-finals last time out. Under coach Marc Lievremont, the French have again blown hot and cold in recent times, pulling off a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2010 only to slump to a first ever defeat to Italy this year. There is no doubt that with top-class players like Thierry Dusautoir, Morgan Parra, Aurelien Rougerie and Imanol Harinordoquy, France have the players to once again pose a major threat in New Zealand, but there are doubts over exactly what formation, and subsequently which tactics, coach Marc Lievremont will choose.

Japan
IRB ranking: 12
World Cup appearances: 7
World Cup best: Pool stage
Exciting times off the field for Japanese rugby, principally because planning is already underway for the Brave Blossoms to host the 2019 edition of the RWC. On it there has been some progress - like winning the Asia Five Nations for a fourth year running and stunning Fiji in the final of this year’s Pacific Nations Cup - but Japan still look short of depth. With former All Black John Kirwan in charge they will certainly have some guile and they will look to winger Hirotoki Onozawa to lend some bite to the attack. However they will miss international record try-scorer Daisuke Ohata (67) who retired with a knee injury in January while a suspect hair tonic containing a banned substance - apparently aimed at helping his moustache grow - has ruled out fly-half Ryohei Yamanaka.

New Zealand

Fourie du Preez


IRB ranking: 1
World Cup appearances: 7
World Cup best: Winners 1987
If the Mandela-inspired South Africa win in 1995 was an obvious gift to Hollywood, so too perhaps would an All Black victory in 2011. In spite of being widely regarded as being the best team in the world for much of the time since the World Cup started, New Zealand hasn’t held the trophy aloft since the inaugural event in 1987. The terrible earthquakes that shattered Christchurch earlier this year have also lent this year’s edition a real poignancy. As always the All Blacks are the team to beat. Coach Graham Henry is a man on a mission and few would deny Dan Carter, probably the finest player in the world today, the chance to cap his career with a World Cup medal. After thrashing South Africa in the Tri-Nations, it will take an extraordinary implosion or a massive performance from someone else to deny them.  

Tonga
IRB ranking: 13
World Cup appearances: 6
World Cup best: Pool stage
With France and New Zealand in the pool, Ikale Tahi - otherwise known as the Sea Eagles - are going to have their work cut out to reach the knockout stages for the first time. They came close four years ago when they gave South Africa a decent run but it looks as though the perennial lack of depth could undermine their often skillful and always feisty play. They showed well in the Churchill Cup before losing to England Saxons and beat Fiji and Samoa in the Pacific Nations Cup, losing to winners Japan by a single point. Melbourne Rebels winger, Cooper Vuna, and New South Wales Waratahs lock, Sitaleki Timani are two of the key players but keep an eye out for Brumbies’ wing Viliami Iongi who is a star in the making.

Pool B

Argentina
IRB ranking (as of Aug 15): 8
World Cup appearances (inc 2011): 7
World Cup best: Third-place 2007
One of the stand-out performances in 2007 came from Argentina who broke through as a real contender in the world game, beating France twice on home soil as well as Ireland and Scotland on their way to third place. The Pumas had truly arrived, combining their traditionally powerful scrummaging with some canny back play, led by the outstanding Felipe Contepomi. The problem for Argentina remains a lack of international competition - no tests between their November 2010 tour when they lost to France and Ireland and their first World Cup warm-up match against Wales in August. The upside is that their squad is largely Europe-based and players like Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Patricio Abacete, Mario Ledesma and Contepomi have all been playing at a high standard.

England
IRB ranking: 5 
World Cup appearances: 7
World Cup best: Winners 2003
For all the bluff from the southern hemisphere countries that European rugby is second-rate, there is no doubt that New Zealand, Australia and South Africa will be keeping a very wary eye on England. At their best, Martin Johnson’s team is a powerful, destructive unit as the Wallabies found out twice in 2010. But the side is still under construction and the World Cup may be coming a year too soon. England’s capitulation in Dublin when a Grand Slam was in the offing was testament to their inexperience when a team plays in their face. For all their faults, the Six Nations champions have pedigree as a tournament team, winning in 2003 and then coming back from a 36-0 thrashing by South Africa to reach the final in 2007. Only a fool would rule them out.

Georgia
IRB ranking: 15
World Cup appearances: 3
World Cup best: Pool stages
The rise of rugby in Georgia should be a template for all budding nations. In 20 years, they have climbed from being a crumbling corner of the Soviet Union to the 15th best side in the world and the best in Europe outside the Six Nations, winning the European Nations Cup first division for a fourth time in March. Georgia lost every game in 2003 but in the last edition they beat Namibia and were unlucky to lose 14-10 to Ireland. The Georgians are particularly strong up front with several players featuring in France’s Top 14, notably their lock/number eight Mamuka Gorgodze, nicknamed Godzilla by the French press. Their coach Richie Dixon will particularly look forward to the meeting with his native Scotland.

Romania
IRB ranking: 18
World Cup appearances: 7
World Cup best: Pool stages
Once upon a time Romania were considered possible contenders for an enlarged Five Nations championship. Then communism collapsed, the game turned professional and with rugby on the slide, Italy got the nod instead. Romania is still struggling to return to the heights of the 1980s but they will certainly not roll over at the World Cup. They have been ever-present since 1987 and, apart from 1995, they have won a game at every tournament. Coach Romeo Gontineac has called on former All Black Steve McDowell to energise the forwards among whom resides the formidable Perpignan hooker Marius Tincu. Their key game will be against Georgia who have usurped them as number one European team outside the Six Nations.

Scotland
IRB ranking: 9
World Cup appearances: 7
World Cup best: Semi-finals 1991
Scotland will go into the pool stages with some confidence, having beaten Argentina twice on tour in 2010 and knowing they still have the power - away from Twickenham - to put the hex on England. Andy Robinson’s side have a veneer of talent with the 2.08m lock Richie Gray emerging as a major find this year, while older hands such as full-back Chris Paterson and centre Joe Ansbro will also be important figures. But the depth is not as it was 20 years ago when they came within a wobbly Gavin Hastings penalty of reaching the final - only a victory over Italy in their final game saw them escape the wooden spoon in this year’s Six Nations. Even so, a result against either Argentina or England, should be enough to see them into the last eight.

Pool C

Australia

Quade Cooper

IRB ranking (as of Aug 15): 2
World Cup appearances (inc 2011): 7
World Cup best: Winners 1991, 1999
Anyone doubting Australia’s credentials needs only to look back at one night in Paris last November when the Wallabies carved up France’s best with one of the finest second half displays of rugby that anyone will ever see. Running from deep and at all angles, it was merry mayhem as Drew Mitchell ran in a hat-trick and the Aussies posted 46 points after the break. A slip-up at home to Samoa in July may have been the reminder they needed that they cannot take anyone for granted. On their day, the two-time winners can be awesome and they will rightly go into the tournament as one of the hot favourites with skipper Rocky Elsom looking to emulate the deeds of Nick Farr-Jones and John Eales in lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.

Ireland

Brian O'Driscoll


IRB ranking: 4
World Cup appearances (inc 2011): 7
World Cup best: Quarter-finals 1987, 1991, 1995, 2003
Perennial underachievers at the World Cup, Ireland’s finest moment came in 1991 when Gordon Hamilton’s late try almost - but not quite - knocked out Australia, the eventual winners. Since then anxiety seems to have got the better of them, never more so than in 2007 when a side which had just won the Triple Crown struggled to beat Georgia and Namibia and then lost heavily to France and Argentina. They have grown up since then, winning their first Grand Slam in 61 years in 2009 and showing in performances like the 24-8 drilling of England in Dublin in March that they can still play a passionate, high intensity game. Brian O’Driscoll remains the flag bearer for Irish rugby but it is hard see him planting it atop the World Cup summit come October 23.

Italy
IRB ranking: 11
World Cup appearances: 7
World Cup best: Pool stages
The Italians, who have yet to get past the pool stages in seven previous World Cups, have had an odd buildup to New Zealand. They secure the services of one of the most successful coaches in the history of the game who then provides them with an historic first win in the Six Nations over France. The Azzuri still end up with the wooden spoon prompting the federation to axe the coach. Fortunately, Nick Mallett’s departure will come after the World Cup and there is no doubt that they are greedily eyeing a first appearance in the last eight. “Our game against Ireland is the last match of the group. Even if we lose to Australia we have the potential to qualify if we beat Ireland,” said captain Sergio Parisse. Italy have real talent and they have a canny coach. They could indeed be a surprise quarter-finalist.

Russia
IRB ranking: 19
World Cup appearances: 1
World Cup best: Qualifying 2011
Before writing off Russia as the whipping boys of Group C, it is important to remember that they have already notched up a victory over mighty Australia. Admittedly it was in a sevens tournament in 2006 but it shows that the potential is there in years to come. A 75-3 defeat by Japan last November hardly bodes well but they travelled to England in June for the Churchill Cup where an understrength side was only narrowly beaten by Canada and Italy A. The seeds are certainly being planted. Full-back Vasili Artemiev - an Ireland Under-19 international - has joined Northampton and lock Andrei Ostrikov will be at Sale, the former home of their Welsh team director Kingsley Jones. The potential is there but don’t expect too much from Russia’s debut on the biggest stage.

USA
IRB ranking: 17
World Cup appearances: 6
World Cup best: Pool stages
Painful to say but the Eagles are in New Zealand to make up the numbers. They will fancy their chances against the Russians but they have done little to suggest over recent years that they will give Australia, Ireland or Italy a real run for their money. Coach Eddie O’Sullivan, who was in charge of Ireland’s disastrous 2007 campaign will enjoy locking horns with his former charges and people will pay good money to watch Takudzwa Ngwenya stretching his legs on the wing - the Biarritz flyer produced the try of the 2007 World Cup when he skinned South African speedster Bryan Habana. But the Eagles will struggle once more to escape the shadow of the country’s other code of football which will be opening for the new season at the same time as the rugby starts.

Pool D

Fiji

Seremaia Bai

IRB ranking (as of Aug 15): 14
World Cup appearances (inc 2011): 6
World Cup best: Quarter-finals 1987, 2007
In perhaps the tightest pool of all, Fiji will be competing all the way with Samoa and Wales for second place behind likely group winners South Africa. The Fijians, like their hosts, live and breathe rugby, the game dating back on the island to 1884. Their pace and daring has seen them become a byword for the sevens game and they now will have the chance to win Olympic gold in Rio in 2016, but they have never quite broken through in 15s. Four years ago, however, they stunned Wales to reach the last eight where they gave South Africa a decent show. Suprisingly beaten by Japan in the final of the Pacific Nations Cup in July. In Sireli Bobo and Raupeni Caucaunibuca they have two of the best backs in the world but they will miss Jone Qovu and Isa Nacewa. Their selection process was also hit when the NZ government refused to sanction entry visas for any members of the military, protesting against the coup in December 2006.

Namibia
IRB ranking: 20
World Cup appearances: 4
World Cup best: Pool stages
Qualified for their fourth World Cup with victory over Ivory Coast and won the IRB Nations Cup in 2010 but will have ambitions no greater than chalking up a first ever win at the finals. And even that is going to be tough in this tightly-contested pool where every point scored against the Namibians, who have yet to record a win against any of their four opponents, could be crucial. The spectre of their 142-0 defeat by Australia eight years ago could come back to haunt them. The Welwitschias, whose greatest players Jan Ellis and Percy Montgomery, both played for South Africa will relish the prospect of taking on the Springboks.

Samoa
IRB ranking: 10
World Cup appearances: 6
World Cup best: Quarter-finals 1991, 1995
Watching Samoa is not for the faint-hearted. In between some dazzling running which has earned them plenty of success in the sevens arena, they are renowned as the hardest tacklers on the planet. Wales were the first high profile victims when they were tackled into submission in (Western) Samoa’s World Cup entry in 1991. They beat the Welsh again in 1999 and ran England close in 2007. In July, they chalked up a major first by blowing away a sub-par Australia in Sydney. The squad is fully professional and battle-worn with guys like Census Johnson, Ti’i Paulo Joe Tekori and the Tuilagi brothers. Playing on what is effectively home soil, the Samoans may even start as favourites ahead of Wales to take second spot in the pool.

South Africa
IRB ranking: 3
World Cup appearances: 5
World Cup best: Winners 1995, 2007
Obvious favourites to qualify as pool winners, the Springboks will be aim to do what no team has yet managed - and that is to retain their World Cup crown. Champions under Francois Pienaar on home soil in 1995 and current skipper John Smit four years ago, the South Africans head down under with a stable squad and with class oozing from every department - from Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger up front to the likes of Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen and Francois Steyn in the backs. The Boks have never lost to Fiji, Samoa or Namibia and only once in 25 meetings against Wales. On the flip side, they have never been too happy travelling to New Zealand and if the seedings are followed then they are due to meet the hosts in the semi-finals at Eden Park, Auckland - a ground where they haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 1937.

Wales

Sam Warburton


IRB ranking: 7
World Cup appearances: 7
World Cup best: Third place 1987
Ask a Welshman about his team’s chances and he will invariable say: “I’ll tell you after Samoa”. If there is a quiver of trepidation in his voice as he says it, then it is justified as the Samoans have twice dumped Wales out of the World Cup. Get through that one and the Welsh can breathe a little easier although they still have to negotiate Fiji, the side that dumped them out four years ago. In November they lost narrowly to South Africa before being held to a draw by the Fijians. That was followed by three wins in the Six Nations with defeats by England and France. Thirty-four year old wing Shane Williams, with 55 tries for Wales, is the only truly world class player in the Warren Gatland’s squad although this may be the occasion for a number of those bubbling just under - such as flanker Josh Turnbull and fly-half James Hook - to make the step up.

 

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