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Well, as many of you lovely folks know, I am a bit of a rugby fan and I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the upcoming World Cup (starts September 9th) in New Zealand. Taking a cursory look through the groups I realised there are some countries that I’ve barely heard of, so I grabbed the nearest atlas on hand for more info.

I’ll try to provide a bit of an overview for each team heading into the World Cup. Today we’ll cover the teams in Group A:

New Zealand

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “From rugged prairies to rugged mountains to rugged extras, New Zealand has all the locations and personnel required for a major Hollywood blockbuster, and if they do not have it, they will simply create it in post.”

Capital: Wellington (though we could have sworn it was Auckland)

Population: 4,393,500 (2010 estimate)

IRB World Ranking: 1st

Random Fact(s): Wellington exports, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie (the Flight of the Conchords), are the “fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a cappella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo in New Zealand”.

A reputation that surprisingly earns a guest spot on North American television

The Story: The All Blacks have a long history of being one of the best teams in world rugby. The All Blacks are indisputably the best team in the world right now. They are playing in their own country. The only Rugby World Cup they have ever won was the inaugural edition in 1987 (also hosted by New Zealand). They need to win this tournament. End. Of. Story.

David Kirk’s fantastic Hasselhoff looks aside; the All Blacks would like to update this picture

Player to Watch: I could just simply say “any of the fellas wearing the black jersey” and that might suffice when it comes to this tournament. There are several players who are not only world-class, but set the standard at their position. When all is said and done, though, this team is built around fly-half Daniel Carter. They will go as far as he will take them. His ability to read a play is a notch above just about every Number 10 out there and his goal-kicking is probably top three (with England’s Jonny Wilkinson and South Africa’s Morne Steyn – neither one a lock to start for their countries), which is why many consider him to not only be the best fly-half right now, but his name keeps popping up as best ever.

His pre-kick look sadly only ranks 7th on the “confused/constipated” list

X-Factor: Sonny Bill Williams. Everything about him is an X-Factor. In a very short time (after switching over from rugby league), Sonny Bill has made himself an exciting player to watch on and off the pitch. When he is on the pitch, he is making huge hits (ensuring few opponents like to run down his inside centre lane) and creating offense (it usually takes three or four guys to take him down, and even then he might still manage to offload a pass). When he is off the pitch, he’s downhill skiing when he’s got an injured knee or heavyweight boxing on a free Saturday. It’s a question mark whether the All Black midfield has space for him and Ma’a Nonu, but if he gets a chance to play significant minutes, Sonny Bill could be the breakout star of the tournament.

If not, he’ll find a way to keep busy

RWC 2011 Prediction: 1st Place in Group A, World Cup Winners.

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France

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “Located directly in the center of the universe, around which everything else revolves, the nation of France is the sole beacon of life and civilization in an otherwise black and empty void. Stretching from the globe’s southernmost point in Marseille to its northern tip in Paris, and extending all the way to the Far East, or Dijon, France is known throughout France for its streets, buildings, wine, and food – things that simply don’t exist anywhere else.”

Capital: Paris

Population: 65,821,885 (2011 estimate)

IRB World Ranking: 4th

Random Fact(s): The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, is required to wear a yellow jersey every day that he leads the country [citation needed].

I believe this is a cabinet meeting

The Story: France is a consistently inconsistent rugby team, daring to beat the world’s best teams on any given day, but ultimately having the capacity to implode just as easily. They’ve been finalists twice (1987, 1999) and semi-finalists thrice (1995, 2003, 2007). After winning the Grand Slam (going undefeated) in the 2010 Six Nations tournament and finishing second in the 2011 Six Nations, France certainly have the talent in this crop of players to compete.

They should look for Denny’s locations in New Zealand so they can have their 2010 championship meals

Player to Watch: Imanol Harinordoquy (“Dorkie” to his friends) has been a long-standing member of France, playing at Number 8 and on the flank. What he brings to the game is a bucket load of “win” or as the French say, “pamplemousse”. He’s been part of winning squads in both the Top 14 club championships and Six Nations tournaments. He knows what it takes to win and his experience will be leaned on heavily by a team that occasionally forgets that they are ranked among the best in the world.

He is also rumoured to be some sort of vigilante in the Pyrenees

X-Factor: What is that certain “je ne sais qoui” for France this year? How about being grouped with host New Zealand? In the last three tournaments, they’ve met in the knockout stages (France beat the ABs in the 1999 Semis, lost to the ABs in the 2003 3rd place game, and knocked the ABs out in the 2007 Quarters), so there is more than a bit of history between the squads, making that group stage match on September 24th a possible preview of a later encounter on top of likely being the decider for who gets top spot in the group.

Pictured: Kiwi embarrassment

RWC 2011 Prediction: Second place in Group A, eliminated in Quarterfinals.

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Canada

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “While a remarkable nation in its own right, Canada stubbornly maintains overly restrictive gun-control laws, leaving the country roughly 6,000 annual murders short of the American ideal. On par with the U.S. in almost every other way, Canada’s budget, however, remains woefully balanced, same-sex marriage is a sad reality in all 10 of its provinces, and the theory of creationism is denied to thousands of students attending its public schools each year.”

Capital: Ottawa

Population: 34,549,000 (2011 estimate)

IRB World Ranking: 14th

Random Fact(s): Canada is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, a hotbed of economic, scientific and cultural contributions to the world. It is also the birthplace of Don Cherry; a loud Alpha male who wears awful suits and barks at a Beta male every Saturday night.

His lack of knowledge of rugby is only exceeded by his lack of knowledge of hockey

The Story: The Canadian national rugby team has competed in every single World Cup, though with the exception of an appearance in the 1991 quarterfinals, have found success difficult, usually winning one match per tournament. Expectations can’t be much more than that this time around, but with Tonga and Japan, both realistic targets, ranked around Canada in the world standings, it will be a tough slog on the North Island not to finish last in Group A.

This grainy photo of Gareth Rees demonstrates how long it’s been since Canada won two games at a World Cup

Player to Watch: Chauncey O’Toole had a breakout appearance for Canada at this summer’s Churchill Cup, earning himself recognition as man of the match and player of the tournament laurels as well as landing himself a contract at Welsh club Ospreys in the process. An explosive runner in the loose, the flanker will be counted on to provide a spark, something that his reportedly exuberant personality shouldn’t have any issue with.

This is O’Toole’s “calm” look

X-Factor: Kieran Crowley, the Canadian coach might regret the number of Anglophones in the lineup in the group match against France, as whatever sparse knowledge of French will be necessary to decipher setplay calls, assuming, of course, that the French have included numerous lineout calls that use “poutine” and “toque”.

"Watch out for the second jumper!"

RWC 2011 Prediction: Squeaking out 3rd Place in Group A.

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Japan

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “The people of Japan can be divided into two distinct groups: Japanese women, and those who purchase their old and used underwear from vending machines.”

Capital: Tokyo

Population: 127,960,000 (2011 estimate)

IRB World Ranking: 13th

Random Fact(s): The traditional nickname for the Japanese rugby team is “Cherry Blossoms”, which in recent years has become the far more threatening “Brave Blossoms”.

Look out world!

The Story: The Japanese team has been in decent form heading into the tournament, winning the 2011 Pacific Nations Cup (with wins over Fiji and Tonga).  Kiwi-born coach John Kirwan has set a goal of finishing third in their group, which would automatically qualify Japan for the 2015 tournament and open up a slot for another Asian country to compete.

South Korea’s team is looking to be early favourites

Player to Watch: Growing up, there was nothing Luke Thompson, James Arlidge, Ryan Nicholas, or Murray Williams wanted more than to represent their country in a World Cup. As a consolation, they will represent Japan.

In a strange twist, Japanese captain Takashi Kikutani appears to have always dreamed of representing Samoa

X-Factor: With so many foreign-born players (many from New Zealand) and All Blacks legend Kirwan as the coach, the Brave Blossoms might mistake themselves as being the hometeam, possibly translating into a win or two.

Requires less translation than John Kirwan

RWC 2011 Prediction: 4th Place in Group A.

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Tonga

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “The island of Tonga is a small archipelago located in the southern Pacific Ocean formed largely by fossilized coral and – all right, you caught us. There’s no such place as Tonga.”

Capital: Nuku’alofa

Population: 104,000 (2009 estimate)

IRB World Ranking: 12th

Random Fact(s): Like the other Pacific Island nations, Tonga has its own war dance (the Sipi Tau) it performs prior to matches. The very first match of the 2011 World Cup will allow the Tongans to respond to the All Black Haka in what could be a chilling repeat of 2003.

The Story: Playing near home, Tonga will be sentimental favourites to play spoiler during the group stages, hoping to make life difficult for each of their opponents, but it’s a lot to expect of them to knock off one of the two world powers in Group A and the other tier two countries enter the tournament in fine form, leaving the Tongans with the possibility of leaving the tournament winless.

They’ll always have the lasting memory of being the first team New Zealand beats in the World Cup

Player to Watch: Viliami Iongi, the Wikipedia-less winger/fullback (as of writing), is probably the most exciting Tongan nobody knows. Not that there are many Tongans people do know. In any case, Iongi made a statement on his debut in this summer’s Churchill Cup, scoring four tries against the USA through some quick breaks, sharp lines, and possibly the power of a rat’s tail haircut. He’ll be counted on to provide the same if Tonga has any chance at a respectable finish (i.e. third in Group A).

No word yet on whether he’ll go full mullet for the World Cup

X-Factor:  I sound like I’ve counted the Tongans out already, but one only needs to look at the 2007 World Cup to see that they won two of their group matches and were only narrowly beaten by eventual Cup Winners South Africa. Keep in mind that tournament took place in the Northern Hemisphere, where Pacific nations teams are notoriously poor travelers. Could a World Cup in nearby New Zealand provide the right setting?

The King of Tonga hopes so: this is his optimistic face

RWC 2011 Prediction: 5th Place in Group A.

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Group B to come tomorrow (Friday Sept 2)!

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