Note: NBC is making its first Rugby World Cup broadcast September 11 at 1:00 PM. The featured game will be a re-broadcast of the United States vs. Ireland.
WASHINGTON, September 10, 2011—Pool C of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, currently taking place in New Zealand, is lined up as the weakest pool in the competition. Australia, the defending Tri Nations champion, should have an easy ride to a sweep and a quarterfinal berth. The second spot is where things start to get interesting. Ireland is sliding, Italy has long been the bottom Tier One rugby nation, and Russia and the United States are mediocre. The one sure thing, it seems, is that whichever team emerges at the top of Pool D, the “pool of death”, will be able to see clear through to the semifinals.
Australia (World Ranking – 2); Coach: Robbie Deans; Captain: RL (Right Lock) James Horwill
Australia comes into the World Cup as the clear favorite over host New Zealand. The Wallabies dominated the Tri Nations and scored a key win against New Zealand in the final test. That match, a 25-20 win for Australia decided by Kurtley Beale’s late try, was a preview, in terms of the starting sides, of the final the South Pacific is dreaming of. The chance of Australia facing New Zealand in the title game for the first time since the All-Blacks edged out their rivals in 1987 is a major possibility.
As usual, the entire Australia team comes from state and provincial sides. The player names don’t dazzle right off the bat like New Zealand, but that’s an awfully small thing to hold against a team. No nation can match the name recognition of the All-Blacks, except perhaps England. But Australia’s talent sure is there. Center Adam Ashley-Cooper and wing Drew Mitchell are two of the best backs in the world, with the added bonus of extensive fullback experience. The Wallabies also strike the right age balance. Just three are over 30, and two of those are highly-capped veteran locks Nathan Sharpe and Dan Vickerman. The remainder of the team is split between rising players under-24 and experienced players under 30. The first group includes players like Beale, 22, top scrum-half Will Genia, 23, and all-purpose back James O’Connor, 21. An impressive veteran and cohesive scrum, boasting among others, 26-year-old captain James Horwill, hooker Stephen Moore, 28, and number eight Wycliff Palu, 29, anchors the second group of players. The Wallabies have a perfect balance, a solid core, and a scrum capable of pushing South Africa and Argentina around. That’s more than enough to win two Pool C’s.
Ireland (World Ranking – 8); Coach: Declan Kidney; Captain OC (Outside Center) Brian O’Driscoll
Unlike Australia, which has set a tone of success coming into the World Cup, Ireland is mired in a deep slide dating back to this year’s Six Nations, where, despite an impressive closing win against rival England, they only avoided a losing record thanks to a last-minute drop goal by fly-half Ronan O’Gara that gave his team a 13-11 victory over bottom-dwelling Italy. Now, winless in their warm-up tests, Ireland and captain Brian O’Driscoll are luckily blessed with a soft opening game against the United States. Ireland has plenty of talent on their side, at one point rising to fourth in the world during the summer, but their starters have yet to begin performing coherently for a full game. Some of that lack of success can be blamed on injury variance, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a severe problem.
The Irish have fielded a relatively young, but experienced squad. O’Driscoll is one of the oldest players at 32, and has been capped over 100 times, fitting for a man acknowledged as one of the best players in the world. One statement should be enough: he captained the British and Irish Lions as a back when he was 26. If that doesn’t convince one of his talents, it’s doubtful that anything will. But Ireland won’t succeed with a one-man show. Even with the ultra-talented O’Driscoll and the veteran O’Gara leading the way, they’ll need more to advance to the next round. Enter a logjam of back-liners including Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble, Jonathan Sexton, and Gordon D’Arcy. Coach Declan Kidney will have to find the right assortment to work together in support of O’Driscoll and O’Gara. At the moment, D’Arcy would appear the favorite to start at inside center, with Trimble and Earls leading the race for the wings. If coherence doesn’t kick in, Ireland will be clinging by the slimmest of margins, or worse, drifting below Italy.
Italy (World Ranking – 11); Coach: Nick Mallett; Captain: N8 (Number Eight) Sergio Parisse
The luck of the Irish doesn’t appear to be returning from its long hiatus in time for this World Cup, but in terms of the draw, Italy’s good fortune looks like it will continue. In 2003, Italy won two games after being drawn into a pool with Canada and a very weak Tongan side. Four years later they were gifted a pool with Romania and Portugal, and came a missed penalty away from the quarterfinals. Now, the Italians, like the Australians and the Irish, must try to take advantage of the presence of the weak pairing of Russia and the United States. The real opening available for Italy is tied up in the fate of Ireland. If the Azzurri can overcome Ireland, it’s almost certain that they will advance.
Does Italy finally have the tools to break through at the World Cup? Leading the charge will be the Bergamasco brothers, Mirco, and Mauro. Mauro, the elder of the pair, is considered one of the world’s premier flankers, while Mirco, generally a center, wing, or fullback, has started to handle the vital kicking duties for Italy. Veteran wing Andrea Masi, the Player of the Championship during the most recent Six Nations also returns to the back line. The forward corps is one of the more experienced out there, with seven players over 70 caps, and nine over 50. Still, the real difference-maker will be how a talented team comes together against Ireland in the pool’s closing match on October 2. Whichever team puts it together will take the second berth behind Australia.
Russia (World Ranking – 19); Coach: Nikolai Nerush; Captain: HK (Hooker) Vladislav Korshunov
If nothing else, Russia is a welcome breath of fresh air as the only team making a World Cup debut this year. Coach Nikolai Nerush chose an aging side for this competition perhaps in order to let some of the team’s longtime players experience the honor of playing in their first, and for most of them, probably only, World Cup. No one expects Russia to do much of anything in the win column. They will have a shot at a win when they play the United States on September 15, but it’s nothing short of a dream to expect more.
United States (World Ranking – 18); Coach: Eddie O’Sullivan; Captain: OF (Openside Flanker) Todd Clever
Rugby union is sadly one of the few sports where the United States really doesn’t have even the smallest chance at success. Sevens is a different matter, but that’s not the discipline of the World Cup. The USA may actually emerge with a win this time around, but as with Russia, that’s probably the ceiling of the possibilities. Star fly-half Mike Hercus retired at 31 after recurring injuries, leaving a gaping hole in the American back line. Valenese Malifa has stepped into Hercus’ role, but has been plagued by inconsistency. The Americans have some world-class players on their roster, most notably Biarritz wing Takudzwa Ngwenya, scrum-half Mike Petri, formerly of the Newport Gwent Dragons, and former Ulster center Paul Emerick. That should be enough to see them past Russia, but anything more is doubtful.
1. Australia – there’s simply no one else in this pool capable of challenging the Wallabies.
2. Italy – it’s time for the Azzurri to make their World Cup breakthrough, prevailing over Ireland.
3. Ireland – stumbles to third place again, costing Declan Kidney his job.
4. United States – beats Russia, then fades back into oblivion.
5. Russia – makes an entrance into the world of the RWC, but goes home winless.
NBC is making its first Rugby World Cup broadcast September 1, at 1:00 PM. The featured game will be a re-broadcast of the United States vs. Ireland.
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