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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. After covering Group A yesterday, it’s now time to move forward through the alphabet and cover Group B.

England

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “For nearly 200 years, England ruled over 500 million people on six continents – a time in which it was commonly said that the sun never set on the British Empire. Today, however, the sun sets on the British Empire at precisely 5:47 p.m. GMT.”

Capital: London

Population: 51,446,000 (2008 estimate)

IRB World Ranking: 5th

Random Fact(s): On several muddy occasions, the England national rugby team has come back onto the field for the second half of a game in a clean change of kit. This may be the real reason they have chosen black as their alternate jerseys for the World Cup, and not as many people so near-sightedly assume because they hope the local fans might mistake them for New Zealand on the field.

That’ll fool ‘em!

The Story: England won the World Cup in 2003 on the Golden Boot of His Golden Locks, the Golden Boy, Future Knight of the Realm, one Jonny Wilkinson. In 2007, England again made the final and it turned into a virtual shoot-out, with Wilkinson’s boot only able to get 6 points on the board to South Africa’s 15. Since then, world rugby has evolved a bit, and free-flow is en vogue. England recently embraced this change and the high-tempo outside back play led by Toby Flood led to an exciting win over Australia last fall and a Six Nations title this spring. Nonetheless, the last few weeks haven’t gone exactly to plan and England looks likely to go back to the tried and true, with Wilkinson having a slight edge over Flood to start the first match against Argentina.

Martin Johnson swears that good looks bear no influence on his selections

Player to Watch: Chris Ashton is a try-scoring machine (78 tries in 81 premiership club matches) who likes to score and score big. His stat line for England reads as follows: 12 games played, 9 tries scored. His favourite way to finish (yes, like in Mortal Kombat, he has a finishing move) is a glorious “swallow” dive into the end zone. If you watch an England match that doesn’t involve a kicking contest and actually spreads the ball around it is almost a certain guarantee that you’ll see Ashton scoring.

Does he put that sort of style into everything he does?

X-Factor: Aside from the black uniform decision, England doesn’t have too many question marks. One glaring exception has been the midfield. Possessing creative playmakers in Toby Flood and Ben Youngs as well as dynamic outside backs in Ashton, Ben Foden and Mark Cueto can all go to waste if the ball gets clogged up in the centres. With all apologies to the newest member of the extended royal family, Mike Tindall (Zara Phillips’ hubby), the ball has got to get out! Could Samoan-born Manu Tuilagi (of the Leicester Tuilagis) be the answer? Maybe. If not, he sure makes for another great battering ram in the English tradition.

Also, Chris Ashton won’t be bothering him too hard if he doesn’t pass the ball out

RWC 2011 Prediction: 1st Place in Group B, World Cup finalists.

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Argentina

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “A supple, hawk-nosed, and tautly muscled blend of European and indigenous ancestry, Argentina is home to nearly 20 million pairs of dancing men and women, as well as countless species of sexually suggestive flowers suitable for clenching in the teeth while gently dipping one’s partner.”

Capital: Buenos Aires

Population: 40,091,359 (2010 census)

IRB World Ranking: 9th

Random Fact(s): There is a widely-held belief that soccer star Carlos Tevez really wanted to play for the team, but ultimately declined due to the lack of quality restaurants in Invercargill.

Is “Sopranos Gourmet Wood Fired Pizzeria” at 33 Tay Street not good enough for you, Carlos?

The Story: There is two ways to look at the Pumas, a squad that is built around an aging generation of players. The optimist will look at them as that same team that finished third at the last World Cup. The pessimist might look at their more recent form and… well, draw conclusions.

That is Mario Ledesma four years ago. He is still on this team.

Player to Watch: Felipe Contepomi, or Dr. Phil as he is known to both fans and patients (he is a practicing surgeon), is the resident expert on slicing up the field and prescribing…blah blah medical jokes blah blah. The fact is, this team rests on Contepomi as the team captain, fly-half and arguably the best player Argentina has ever produced. Back in 2006, then teammate Agustin Pichot described Contepomi as better than New Zealand’s Dan Carter (then IRB Player of the Year), a claim we might actually get to see put to the test head to head in the knockout stages. And who knows, who are we to argue with Pichot? Not only does he have a similar name, but also the man actually looks suspiciously like Balki.

I miss Perfect Strangers

X-Factor: The way the knock-out stages are set up first place in Group A will face second place in Group B and vice versa. If everything bounces Argentina’s way they’ll end up having to play France, a team that Argentina beat twice in the last World Cup, you know, in France. Safe to say that the Pumas feel they’ve got the French’s number.

"Sacre bleu!"

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

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Scotland

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “Throughout its history, Scotland has upheld a long and proud tradition of not being England.”

Capital: Edinburgh

Population: 5,222,100 (2010 estimate)

IRB World Ranking: 7th

Random Fact(s): Scotland’s most famous dish is haggis. Haggis is sheep’s ‘pluck’ (heart, liver and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally simmered in the animal’s stomach for approximately three hours. Oddly enough, haggis is also used in a sport called haggis hurling, which involves throwing a haggis as far as possible – probably to avoid eating it.

I don't know what their problem is.

The Story: Aiming low is probably the best way to follow Scottish rugby. Despite a proud tradition and history, they never seem to have quite enough to win a World Cup. That being said, they toured Argentina last year and beat the Pumas twice and we know that every match between Scotland and England is going to be thorny (get it?! Because of the Thistle v. Rose?!? Just say you get it!). If they can muster their best against the big guys and not suffer any embarrassing losses (say to Georgia), Scotland might have enough to edge themselves into the Quarterfinals, where they would be scheduled to lose, based on almost every tournament past.

"We really should have seen this coming."

Player to Watch: Dan Parks is the architect of pretty much every significant Scottish victory in the past two years, including those wins over Argentina and a shock defeat of reigning World Champions South Africa. Like some life-time mafioso, the 33 year old Parks keeps getting pulled back in, because Scotland haven’t been able to develop another No. 10.

Though, to be fair, Scotland's last two guys at No. 10 were kinda underwhelming

X-Factor: The Calcutta Cup. It is well-known fact that the longest standing international rivalry in rugby history is between Scotland and England (as they played the first ever international match in 1871 and have played more than a few times since). No matter how dominant one team might be relative to the rest of the world at any given time, they have almost always been able to rise to the occasion and make it a tough match. Pooled together in the same group at the World Cup, Scotland are hoping for a bit of magic to spoil England’s ambitions and possibly qualify for the knockout stages.

You know, where they'll get knocked out.

RWC 2011 Prediction: Narrowly missing out on the Quarterfinals and ending up with 3rd Place in Group B (possibly to avoid losing in the Quarterfinals).

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Georgia

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “Even more Christian than the other Georgia.”

Capital: Tbilisi (and NOT Atlanta!)

Population: 4,636,400 (2010 estimate)

IRB World Ranking: 16th

Random Fact(s): Home of the hip hop style known as “Crunk”

Pictured: Typical Georgian peasant.

The Story: Georgia (known as the Lelos) are largely considered a bit of a regional powerhouse, dominating their neighbours in the Caucasus, as well as Europe’s tier three rugby countries like Portugal. However at the global stage they haven’t done so much, only winning one game in their two appearances at the World Cup (against Namibia in 2007). In any case, they are always a tough team to play against and even the world’s top ranking teams have to squeeze out a victory (though squeeze it out, they do). It would be unrealistic to expect to make the knockout stages, but Georgia will be content to work as hard as they can for the combined 320 minutes of playing time they’ll have at this tournament and make it as difficult as possible for Argentina, England and Scotland to move forward. 

Then return home to Tbilisi, to be treated as kings.

Player to Watch: Mamuka Gorgodze is the big fella to watch for Georgia at No. 8. He plays his club rugby in France’s top professional league (the Top 14) for Montpellier, where he was named by L’Equipe as the best foreign player this past season. Known to fans in France as “Gorgodzilla” and in Georgia as “Gulliver”, Gorgodze is more than a handful to his opponents.

He's also one rage episode away from turning green.

X-Factor: The last team that underperformed in Georgia got relocated to Winnipeg, providing plenty of motivation for the lads to work hard. What’s that? I keep confusing this Georgia with the other one? Which one is Ted Turner from?

The New Blue Bombers Stadium would make a great home for the Lelos. It's too bad that artist renditions never include bleak winterscapes.

RWC 2011 Prediction: 4th Place in Group B.

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Romania

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “Travelers in Romania often have no choice but to seek the shelter of a creepy, dark castle for the night, not realizing that their host is likely an other worldly ghoul who seeks to suck their blood, tear them to shreds, or simply twirl his long fingers in a frightening manner.”

Capital: Bucharest

Population: 21,904,551 (2011 estimate)

IRB World Ranking: 17th

Random Fact(s): Romania joined the European Union in 2007, becoming just the third country primarily inhabited by vampires to join (following Luxembourg and Vampiria, of course).

Holding an EU passport has opened up several career opportunities outside of Romania for its citizens

The Story: Romania has participated in every single Rugby World Cup, a fact that seems strange as no one can really remember any games they’ve played in.

This photo has gained a legendary status rivaled only by the Zapruder film

Player to Watch: Marius Tincu, the Romanian captain and hooker, is an experienced character, something that will be leaned on heavily by Romania under the bright lights of a World Cup. Tincu should be fine, as he plies his trade in France’s Top 14 for USA Perpignan, where he won the league championship in 2009. At the last World Cup, he even managed to score three tries (against Italy, Portugal and New Zealand).

The gloves give him superhuman abilities, obviously.

X-Factor:  One has to wonder what the effect will be of the late withdrawal of winger Catalin Fercu (capped 51 times and a veteran of the 2007 World Cup). For those unfamiliar, Fercu did not join the team at the last minute for their flight to New Zealand, citing a terrific fear of long-haul flights (something that he should have foreseen as a potential issue when New Zealand was named host of the tournament). While this is all speculation, an assumption could be made that Fercu had a Marge Simpson-like childhood trauma.

Sources have been unable to confirm if Fercu, Sr. was ever a steward for TAROM.

RWC 2011 Prediction: 5th Place in Group B.

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Group C to come next Wednesday (Sept 7)!

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