Let’s be honest, New Zealand probably couldn’t have wished for much more when it came to the World Cup pool draw for 2015, but the idea of possibly meeting the French in the quarter-finals definitely sent a shiver around the two small islands at the bottom of the world.
When I first laid eyes on the draw I immediately looked to see where England had landed. Not based solely on their performances against us the weekend before, although that certainly made their stocks rise.
But England are definitely the best team from the second tier of seeds, so their group would inevitably be considered the toughest.
But a split second after I had ascertained that we’d avoided the Poms I wanted, in fact desperately needed, to know where the French had ended up.
Group D, which features the French, the Irish and the Italians, is an interesting one. Ireland will feel they’re a good chance to beat the French and win the group, but Italy, particularly after a brave showing against the All Blacks and the narrowest of losses to the Wallabies, will feel they’ve got a decent shot at beating at least one of their 6-nations colleagues and sneaking through to the next round.
So much will hinge on that game between France and Ireland. If we assume Italy won’t cause an upset, the loser of that game is destined to be the All Blacks’ opponent in the quarter-final, and while Ireland in the UK will be a tough proposition, the thought of meeting the French so early in the knock-out phase has already got Kiwis biting their finger nails!
Of course, that’s assuming we win our group. But of all the groups, ours is probably the most clear-cut. Argentina have improved vastly and benefitted hugely from their first season in the Rugby Championship, and it’s inevitable that one day in the not-too-distant future they will topple the All Blacks.
But I don’t think that will happen in the World Cup, when the men in black will be focused and prepared, particularly for that clash against the Pumas, which will be by far the most important game of the Group phase for them.
To many sides Tonga could prove a stumbling block, with their fierce physicality a shock to the system, particularly for the Northern Hemisphere sides. But the All Blacks play against Polynesian players week in, week out, and are used to that level of intensity in the tackle, and the flair they bring on attack. So there’s no chance the Tongans will cause an upset, and we should, barring a massive upset, win the group relatively comfortably.
The top half of the pool, which will produce the All Blacks’ Semi-Final opponents, is much more open. In Group B the South Africans should prevail, and the Samoans should come through in second. But in Group A, immediately deemed the ‘Group of Death’, things are up for grabs.
Wales have been terrible of late, but a sound showing at the 2011 World Cup, positive performances during their tour of Australia, and a Six Nations title this year all showed how much talent this relatively young Welsh side boasts, and it wouldn’t take much of a change in fortunes for them to be competitive.
But the other two marquee sides, the English and the Aussies, will be huge hurdles for the Red Dragons. I believe those two sides will be two of the top three in the world by that stage, Australia having benefitted immensely from a challenging season this year which gave them the opportunity to blood new players, expose them to international rugby, and create some much needed depth, and the English simply because they looked so damn good against the All Blacks last week.
Anything could happen there, and I’ve got the feeling Wales might throw a spanner in the works by upsetting one of those two, which will make the match between England and Australia an absolute bumper event.
Regardless of what happens on that side of the pool though, let’s hope, from a one-eyed All Blacks’ supporter’s point of view, that all their games are torrid, physically demanding affairs! For New Zealand, it’s hard to complain about the draw, but we will forever be wary of our World Cup nemesis, the French.