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, and Group C yesterday, we’re left finally with Group D, just in time for the tournament to begin tomorrow:
World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “The citizens of South Africa fall victim to a serious crime every 17 seconds – a statistic that is nearly impossible to verify, as everyone in the country has his or her watch stolen every 12 seconds.”
Capitals: Pretoria (executive), Bloemfontein (judicial) & Cape Town (legislative)
Population: 50,586,757 (2011 estimate)
IRB World Ranking: 3rd
Random Fact(s): South Africa is home to 11 official languages, including English, Afrikaans, and Zulu.
The Story: The Springboks go to New Zealand as the reigning World Champions, hoping to repeat their feats from four years ago. Many influential players from the 2007 campaign remain, including John Smit, Victor Matfield, Butch James and Bryan Habana.
Player to Watch: This could be lock Victor Matfield’s swansong. His near constant presence in South Africa’s engine room (107 appearances in a Springbok sweater and counting) has guided them through rough patches and up to the top of the world. With captain John Smit not necessarily a guaranteed starter (due to the challenge of Bismarck du Plessis), it may be upto vice-captain Matfield to be the de facto leader of the Springboks in this tournament, a burden that he is more than apt to carry on his 6 foot 7 shoulders.
X-Factor: Selections. The Springboks, more than any other side in the tournament, and certainly more than any contender for the title, have serious options at many key positions, leaving the possibility that their success may be dependent upon coach Peter de Villiers choosing the right mix. Does he drop squad captain John Smit in favour of Bismarck du Plessis, who is widely regarded as the best hooker in the world? Does he compromise his front row scrummaging power in favour of a configuration that fits both Smit and du Plessis in (at the expense of a specialist prop)? What about at fly-half? Will it be Butch James or Morne Steyn? Does he keep them both in the lineup, with one covering at fullback, coming at the expense of the promising Patrick Lambie or the skilled Francois Steyn? It’s an abundance of riches on paper, but sure to be keeping de Villiers up at night.
RWC 2011 Prediction: 1st place in Group D; Semi-Finalists.
World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “Wales in the birthplace of the Welsh language – the oldest, longest, and least-pronounceable language in the world. When spoken, it sounds like a beautiful song, but when written, it looks like the alphabet just vomited.”
Population: 3,006,400 (2010 estimate)
IRB World Ranking: 6th
Random Fact(s): Wales is largely known for its contributions to world rugby and music.
The Story: The Welsh go to New Zealand on the back of some impressive wins over England and Argentina and a rise in the IRB Rankings to 6th, making them dark horse contenders for the William Webb Ellis Trophy. If Warren Gatland is able to keep his players honest and stick to their game plans, they might have enough to make a bit of noise. They will, however, be in tough against Samoa for the second seed in Group D, making every game crucial.
Player to Watch: It’s hard to be Shane Williams. The little man has long been known as the most exciting player for Wales, and despite being 34 years old, is in no danger of losing that title. He’s a once-in-a-generation winger, and Warren Gatland’s team must be thankful that whatever generation Williams considers himself includes them. Almost certainly at his last World Cup, it would be wonderful for the Welsh to send him off with a championship. At the very least, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him tally a few more international tries to add to his already impressive 54 (in 81 appearances for Wales).
X-Factor: Name confusion. Looking at the squad list, it appears there are more than a few Davies (Bradley and Jonathan) Williams (Shane, Scott and Lloyd) and Jones (Stephen, Ryan, Adam and Alun Wyn) in the lineup. How might that confuse the poor television commentators who have to call these games? Not to mention how hard it is for their teammates to come up with nicknames. You can only have one Jonesie.
RWC 2011 Prediction: 2nd place in Group D; Quarterfinalists.
World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “With almost every tectonic plate in the region smashed to pieces by the colossal-boned Samoans, the country puts a severe strain on the earth’s crust. Samoa also suffers regular earthquakes every day during lunch hour, school recess, and whenever more than two people sit down.”
Population: 179,000 (2009 estimate)
IRB World Ranking: 10th
Random Fact(s): The Independent State of Samoa, is actually the western half of an archipelago, shared with the unincorporated territory of American Samoa.
The Story: This is as close to a home tournament as the Samoans will ever experience. Their squad is filled with players with close-connections to New Zealand, either through birth, lineage, or current residency. Furthermore, for many of the fellas in the team, this is their last chance in a World Cup. Playing in front of a friendly crowd (and you can be sure that every match that Samoa plays in will have the crowd behind them) will be a special advantage that they will be hoping translates into a spot in the Quarters.
Player to Watch: If the name Tuilagi sounds familiar, that is because it is. Alesana (or Alex) is one of seven brothers, six of whom have played club rugby for Leicester Tigers (including England international Manu). The middle brother, Alesana is 260 lbs and plays on the wing (he might be considered skinny by Samoan standards – I don’t know).
X-Factor: Sydney. July 17, 2011 in Sydney, to be exact. It was on that day that Samoa shocked everyone and beat World No. 2 Australia 32-23. How much of that can be attributed to a poor performance by the Wallabies? How much could be the hunger of Samoa? I would be willing to bet a few dollars that South Africa and Wales have watched that game tape over and over.
RWC 2011 Prediction: They’ll scare the top sides, but may unfortunately end up with 3rd place in Group D.
World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): Fiji amazingly enough doesn’t appear in Our Dumb World. I guess it’s not really a country after all. RWC 2011 tournament organizers should be made aware of this immediately so the situation can be rectified.
Population: 849,000 (2009 estimate)
IRB World Ranking: 15th
Random Fact(s): The name for the country of Fiji actually comes from what Captain James Cook heard their neighbours the Tongans calling it. Fijians had called their main island “Viti”, while the Tongans called it “Fisi”.
The Story: Wildly unpredictable to fans, opponents and teammates alike, Fiji is one of the most entertaining sides to watch at a World Cup, using Rugby Sevens-style play in a fifteens environment, often to unexpected results. On the best of days, they are able to cut open defences and rack up a bunch of tries. On the worst of days, their ill-discipline and recklessness costs them winnable matches. In 2011, as world rugby has become even more competitive, will raw creativity be enough?
Player to Watch: Deacon Manu is actually a relative late-comer to international rugby, having only made his test debut in 2009 at the age of 30. The reason why Fiji waited so long to select the prop is that they didn’t really know he was available. Manu is actually from New Zealand and played Super Rugby, but had never represented the country beyond the U-21 level and also playing for the New Zealand Maori. After playing the past five years in Wales, Deacon Manu, also now the captain of Fiji, will have quite a homecoming in the World Cup, even getting to play Fiji’s last group match in his former home stadium in Hamilton.
X-Factor: Waisea Luveniyali may be the first choice fly-half for Fiji, but you only need to look to the bench to see Fiji’s all-time points leader in Nicky Little. It wouldn’t be much of a shock to see Little and Luveniyali on the field at the same time when the stakes are up. Sure, he will be 35 years old by the second week of the tournament, but the man knows how to get things done.
RWC 2011 Prediction: 4th place in Group D.
World Atlas Reference (According to the Onion’s Our Dumb World): “From the Sossusvlei dunes where Brad Pitt once wiped his brow, to the incredible scenery in that city Angelina Jolie has mentioned a few times, Namibia is home to breathtaking coastlines, endless skies, and – for a brief, magical spell – the most stunning celebrity couple of our generation.”
Population: 2,108,665 (2009 estimate)
IRB World Ranking: 20th
Random Fact(s): The Kalahari desert is one of Namibia’s best known geographical features, attracting tourists from around the world.
The Story: Namibia arrives at the World Cup as the lowest ranking team in the tournament and stuck in what many have called the “Group of Death”. Suffice to say that expectations are quite minimal.
Player to Watch: Jacques Burger is a stud. The loose forward made a name for himself playing Super Rugby for the Bulls and now earns pounds sterling at Saracens. On a squad where 17 of 30 players don’t even have Wikipedia entries, it really highlights how much a player of Burger’s calibre is worth.
X-Factor: Jobs. The Namibians can take the four games they are guaranteed to play in the tournament and turn them into auditions. There is a reason 17 of these fellas don’t have Wikipedia entries and that is because most of them are playing for local clubs back home. If all goes well, there is no reason a stand out performance can’t turn them into the next Jacques Burger and find a job playing Super Rugby or in Europe.
RWC 2011 Prediction: 5th place in Group D.
That’s it for the previews, now on to the action. The Rugby World Cup kicks off tomorrow! (Check your local listings)!