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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 and Group B last week, today we’ll cover the teams in Group C:

Australia

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “Once home to some of the most diverse and undisturbed wildlife in the world, the nation of Australia has fallen prey to a deadly scourge of nature shows, with dozens of endemic species being poked, prodded, and bothered to the brink of extinction.”

Capital: Canberra (but you’d be forgiven for thinking Sydney)

Population: 22,694,331 (2011 estimate)

IRB World Ranking: 2nd

Random Fact(s): Australia has produced many notable film actors including Geoffrey Rush, Heath Ledger, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. 

The less mentioned about Mel Gibson, the better.

The Story: Australia is Hot Hot Hot. The World’s Second Best Rugby Team (TM) just beat New Zealand to win the Tri-Nations for the first time in ten years, following a successful club season that saw the Queensland Reds win the Super Rugby title. It’s no surprise then that the core of the Wallabies line-up looks an awful lot like the Reds. Coach Robbie Deans is hoping that success can translate at the World Cup, which is partially why he made the shock of handing the captaincy over to Queensland’s skipper James Horwill.

"It's not you, Rocky Elsom, it's just that I've met somebody else."

Player to Watch: Quade Cooper is audacious. That is the word for what he is. He makes ridiculous high risk decisions that have the slimmest hope of working – and then they do. They just do. The New Zealand-born, Australian fly-half is absurdly creative with the ball and when he pulls it off it makes everyone else look foolish. He’d be my X-Factor if it weren’t for the fact that he is as essential to the Wallabies success as anyone else could be.

Also, he seems to be the only person on the planet not afraid of Richie McCaw

X-Factor: Punch-ups. All the young guns on the Wallabies seem real chummy and best of friends – the perfect environment for a championship winning team. Then you hear about several different incidents where Cooper, Kurtley Beale, and James O’Connor have had enough with each other and punches have been allegedly thrown. That sort of thing wouldn’t be tolerated in most squads (and would likely result in a few lads being dropped from the squad) but this isn’t a normal squad and they aren’t normal players. Those are three of the seven starting backs and they are each insanely talented individuals. O’Connor had to serve a one-game ban for missing a team photo shoot, but he’ll be back in the lineup come the World Cup, something that is bound to rub some of the other players the wrong way. Adam Ashley-Cooper has already voiced his displeasure at the double standard that the Golden Boys get. I wonder if that sort of resentment can fester too long and disrupt Australia’s effort at capturing the World Cup.

It's all love taps for now.

RWC 2011 Prediction: 1st place in Group C; Semi-Finalists.

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Ireland

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “After centuries of subjugation by the English and years of chronic poverty, the Emerald Isle enjoyed an incredible economic turnaround in the 1990s, and has at last managed to beat the stereotype of the poor, drunken, fighting Irishman into a bloody pulp.”

Capital: Dublin

Population: 6,197,100 (2008)

IRB World Ranking: 8th

Random Fact(s): Michael Flatley (AKA The Lord of the Dance) was actually born and raised in Chicago’s south side and became the first American to win the World Irish Dance Championships.

He made one of his Irish immigrant parents proud.

The Story: Of all the places to find themselves, Ireland end up in a group with red hot Australia, their complete antithesis. While the Aussies have been getting real good, the Irish have spent the summer losing rugby games in the build up to the World Cup, dropping in the world rankings from 5th to 8th in that span. If they don’t get off to a good start in the tournament, their supposed spot in the Quarterfinals is up for the taking by a competitive Italy squad.

"Gosh, I hope we don't play like that in New Zealand."

Player to Watch: Paul O’Connell (pictured above) is one of the world’s premier lock forwards and will have to lead the charge up front. As one of the most experienced players in the squad (and vice-captain), O’Connell can be expected to get things done in the set pieces and provide stability for the more mobile outside players to plan their attack. Having the Irish pack neutralise their opponents will be key to moving forward in the tournament. If O’Connell’s pack let’s things get too loose it will play into a quick striking team (like Australia)’s hands.

The last thing you want to do is give the game over to the ridiculous hands of Quade Cooper

X-Factor: IRB Rankings. Are they really the 8th best team in the world? Is that too low? Is 5th too optimistic? On paper, Ireland still looks to be a strong squad built around peak-aged players with the added experience of a few in key positions who might be playing in their final World Cup (e.g., Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara) and are ready to leave it all out on the field. If they can shake their poor recent performances, there is no reason not to still think of this team as a potential semi-finalist.

B.O.D. would prefer not to leave these things up to chance

RWC 2011 Prediction: 2nd in Group C; Quarterfinalists.

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Italy

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “Italy is often said to be shaped like a boot in a desperate attempt to make geography sound interesting.”

Capital: Rome

Population: 60,642,308 (2010 estimate)

IRB World Ranking: 11th

Random Fact(s): In Italy it is quite common for older gentlemen to carouse with young ladies, sometimes, though not exclusively at what are called “bunga bunga” parties.

Silvio Berlusconi: every Italian's first boyfriend.

The Story: Always a bridesmaid, never a bride: Italy arrive at the World Cup as perennial also-rans. They’ve never made it out of the group stage and despite joining the northern hemisphere’s premier international tournament (now the Six Nations), they’ve never managed to win more than a couple of games each year. It almost makes you wonder how much better they actually are than tier two teams Georgia or Romania. Almost. The fact is, Italy has produced several world class players in more than a few positions, but have rarely been able to translate that into a first-class squad on the whole.

Unless Mr and Mrs Bergamasco produce 13 more Italian national team members, they can consider themselves failures as parents

Player to Watch: Sergio Parisse is a really, really good No. 8. How good? Hmm, well, depending on who you ask, he is either one of the best, if not the best (so ask around). When he is on the field, he is a forwards’ general, leading them in cohesion. When he is off the field, it is noticeable, so great is the void that he fills for Italy and for his club, Stade Francais. The man does it all and can do even more than people expect.

What is more impressive: an 8 man scoring a drop goal or an Argentinian-Italian rugby player marrying Miss Europe 2006?

Well done, Sergio. Well done.

X-Factor: With France electing not to include Sebastian Chebal, the task of being the hairiest man in the World Cup falls on the broad shoulders of Martin Castrogiovanni. We don’t know what kind of effect this might actually have on the fortunes of Italy, but like Samson’s enemies, we will always suspect some connection between success and hair.

Looks like everything is coming up Martin these days.

RWC 2011 Prediction: True to form, Italy will finish 3rd in Group C.

**

United States

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “The United States was founded in 1776 on the principles of life, liberty, and the reckless pursuit of happiness at any cost – even life and liberty.”

Capital: Washington, D.C.

Population: 312,112,000 (2011 estimate)

IRB World Ranking: 18th

Random Fact(s): The statement that something is “as American as Apple Pie” is actually misunderstand greatly, even by Americans. Apple pie, of course, origated outside of America (like most things American).

The lesser-used phrase "As American as pulled pork" is factually more accurate.

The Story: The USA Eagles arrive at the World Cup coming off a poor summer of results, losing warm-up matches to Canada and failing to impress at the Churchill Cup. Being slotted into the same pool as powerhouse Australia and two other tier one countries (Ireland and Italy) makes challenging for one of the two qualifying births more than a pipe dream. In fact, the Eagles will have to work hard to avoid leaving the tournament winless.

The bet over which world power finishes last in Group C is possibly the lamest contest ever.

Player to Watch: Takudzwa Ngwenya, the Zimbabwean-born winger, who plays his club rugby for French power Biarritz is fast. How fast? I’m glad you asked. He was clocked in a 100m dash with a 10.5. That’s really, really fast. He’s used that pace to score 8 tries in 19 matches for the Eagles.

He'd score even more tries if the other runners stayed out of his lane.

X-Factor: That Irish connection. Eagles coach Eddie O’Sullivan is not only (very) Irish, but he is also the former head coach of the Irish national team, which he led in the 2007 World Cup. Getting grouped with Ireland won’t do the United States any favours, unless, of course, if O’Sullivan uses these close quarters as an opportunity to speak to San Diego-born fly-half Ronan O’Gara (111 caps for Ireland) and convince him to switch allegiances.

"Psst. I'm not really Irish..."

RWC 2011 Prediction: 4th place in Group C.

**

Russia

World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “A vast, sprawling, ramshackle nation where the decaying infrastructure is marred by tank-sized holes, and the entire navy has been capsized since 2002, Russia is struggling to figure out how it fits into a post-Soviet world, and exactly where half its nuclear arsenal went.”

Capital: Moscow

Population: 142,905,208 (2010 census)

IRB World Ranking: 19th

Random Fact(s): Russia is the largest country on earth in terms of land mass.

And in his prime ministerial duties, Vladimir Putin is forced to ride every square mile of it

The Story: Russia is the only country making their Rugby World Cup debut in 2011. Based on their lowly rankings (and recent play) and on the past experiences of similar minnows, it is not expected that the Bears will manage to leave New Zealand with a win.

Er, not so fast.

Player to Watch: Vasily Artemiev is the guy to watch. He’s shifty, creative and built for speed on the outside. After the World Cup, he’s off to start his Premiership career for Northampton Saints, where he’ll join a back three already stocked with Ben Foden and Chris Ashton (reflecting the quality that scouts see in Artemiev).

Sure, you're all smiles now, Vasily, but ask Chris how much fun it is to get punched by a Tuilagi. That's what is required to make it as a Saints winger.

X-Factor: The Koala Bear. Adam Byrnes is an Australian-born lock who qualifies for Russia through his maternal grandparents. Unlike many players who switch allegiances for opportunistic reasons, Byrnes says he is very proud to have the chance to represent half of his family and that because there is no financial incentive in Russian rugby, it is really just for the love of the game. Byrnes isn’t the flashiest of players, but he brings a wealth of experience from Super Rugby that will calm an inexperienced squad on the field, and he might know of a few good places to eat in New Zealand.

But don't bother asking him about where to get a trim.

RWC 2011 Prediction: 5th place in Group C.

**

And last, but not least, Group D to come tomorrow (Sept 8)!

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