THOSE BACKING SOUTH Africa at this World Cup have identified Pool B as the ideal build-up to the knock-out stages for Heyneke Meyer and his men.
Willie le Roux is South Africa’s key playmaker. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland
Clear favourites to top the pool, the Springboks will look to open with a big win against Japan on Saturday to get their challenge underway. The rest of the pool is more difficult to call.
Scotland Samoa will both see this as an ideal opportunity to claim a quarter-final slot, while Japan and an Irish-influenced USA will be confident of racking up at least one win. Both of those sides have stated ambitions of progressing beyond the pool stages too.
It might not draw all the headlines, but Pool B is an exciting proposition.
Meyer’s men didn’t have the most enjoyable build-up in terms of results, but there is no doubt that their muscular, combative qualities make them contenders to win this competition outright.
Two of their three losses in the shortened Rugby Championship highlighted possible shortcomings in closing out games from winning positions, but the Springboks are confident that an intense block of conditioning will have remedied that issue.
21-year-old Jesse Kriel is the real deal. Source: AP/Press Association Images
Their options up front are frightening, with lineout genius Victor Matfield, the destructively effective Eben Etzebeth (currently nursing a calf problem) and breakdown limpet Bismarck du Plessis leading the charge, while the likes of Willem Alberts and Tendai Mtawarira follow close behind.
Several key figures such as world-class number eight Duane Vermeulen and veteran centre Jean de Villiers have had severe injury problems coming into the World Cup, but if Meyer has a fully-fit squad then stopping the Boks will be difficult.
Willie le Roux is the key playmaker from fullback with his counter-attacking vision, long passing game, clever chip kicks and ability to insert himself into the line at first receiver at the ideal time.
The call at out-half between the prodigious Handré Pollard, experienced Morné Steyn and rounded Pat Lambie is important for Meyer, and there are strong options in most positions for South Africa.
21-year-old Jesse Kriel is on a trajectory of improvement that suggests he will be a star in England. If the Boks top their pool as expected, everyone will be keen to avoid them in the knock-out stages.
Meyer’s men will believe in their quality no matter who they face.
That moment towards the end of the recent warm-up clash between Vern Cotter’s side and France in Paris once again underlined what has been perhaps the biggest problem for Scotland over recent years.
With less than five minutes left on the clock, the Scots burst through the French defence and gave themselves a four-on-two within metres of the home team’s tryline. A chance to win the game… try, surely?
Jonny Gray is already a force at international level. Source: AP/Press Association Images
Instead, the outcome was a relieving lineout for France, the ball floating wildly over the heads of Matt Scott’s teammates.
Overall, it had been a positive performance from a team that appears to be moving in the right direction under Cotter, the Gray brothers Richie and Jonny leading a determined effort up front and the likes of Mark Bennett and Finn Russell creating in the backline.
Scotland play the game at pace, they offload, look for chances to beat men one-on-one and generally take risks in search of five-points rewards. That style suits the profile of the group, but Scotland simply must be clinical to claim the quarter-final berth that beckons.
They face Japan and the US first up, before the third round of fixtures pits them against the Boks. It is likely to all come down to the meeting with Samoa on 10 October in Newcastle. What an occasion that promises to be at St. James’ Park.
Stephen Betham’s men were runners-up in the Pacific Nations Cup during the summer, losing twice to Fiji, and also impressed during the defeat to New Zealand in the historic Test match in Apia.
Nothing comes easy against Stephen Betham’s side, who will lean on the experience of 34-year-old wing Alesana Tuilagi, Sale centre Johnny Leota and London Irish back row Ofisa Treviranus, their captain.
Fotuali’i has responsibility on his shoulders. Source: David Davies
If Samoa can get 33-year-old scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i firing at the levels he is capable of, their game will move to another level at the World Cup. The recently-qualified Tim Nanai-Williams is an intriguing prospect in the backline too.
Hooker Ole Avei is as intelligent and skillful as front rows come, while units like Joe Tekori, Census Johnston and excellent openside Jack Lam provide grunt and a degree of guile.
Crosshaven RFC legend Jake Grey is part of the Samoan squad, so that part of Cork will be keeping a close eye on their second team. Betham’s men certainly pack a dynamic punch and have a sumptuous ability to offload out of the tackle, but they must be disciplined.
Big shots in defence are eye catching, but are they always the most ideal reaction to the attacking side’s intention? Sometimes keeping to the system, with and without the ball, is the more sensible solution. Set-piece is an important piece of the jigsaw too.
Thankfully, Samoa don’t always play by the rules other teams do. They will be fascinating to track in this pool.
There’s further Irish interest in Pool B in the shape of the US, who include Dublin native Aj MacGinty and Cork-born John Quill in their squad, both men likely to play important roles in the Americans’ goal of progressing beyond the group.
Former Ireland and Ulster prop Justin Fitzpatrick is forwards coach and one-time Blackrock wing Brett Thompson is also involved.
John Quill is one of the Irishmen in this USA group. Source: AP/Press Association Images
Mike Tolkin’s Eagles come into the tournament with the recent experience of being on the receiving end of the Wallabies’ clinical attack. For the US, ensuring their high error count in that game is greatly reduced is vital over the coming weeks.
No matter what their potential is, a lack of ball security would see them struggle at the World Cup. Toulon lock/back row Samu Manoa is the obvious star of the team, while Takudzwa Ngwenya’s pace remains an attacking weapon.
Centre Thretton Palamo, who played at the 2007 World Cup at the age of 19 before switching to college American football and then back to rugby last year, is an imposing specimen.
The US have ambitions of progressing from this pool, but will need everything to come together ideally for that to turn into reality.
The last hurrah for Eddie Jones as head coach of Japan and an opportunity for the Brave Blossoms to show the world that they have grown under the Australia since 2012.
With their hosting of the 2019 World Cup having hit a stadium-related complication and the Japanese team scheduled to be included in Super Rugby having encountered alarming issues in contracting players, the rugby nations needs a strong dose of positivity.
Yoshikazu Fujita is a lethal finisher for Japan. Source: Lee Jin-man
A victory over Canada in the PNC was a boost during summer, but Jones would love to be coming into the World Cup on the sort of winning streak that saw his men move into the world’s top 10 last year.
Japan have won just one game in their World Cup history, so doubling that figure is a minimum performance requirement for this year. They start against the Springboks on Saturday evening in Brighton, as good a place as any to get up to speed.
Expect Japan to play the game at speed, with their ever-improving lineout and scrum hoping to provide a firm foundation. Players like back row Michael Leitch, scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka and the incredibly prolific wing Yoshikazu Fujita are more than capable of excelling individually, but Jones’ concerns will be for the collective.
Living with the physical strengths of South Africa won’t be easy on the opening weekend, but this is a major opportunity for Japan to bring the sport to the fore in their nation.
1. South Africa
South Africa v Japan, Brighton Community Stadium
(Saturday 18 September, 4.45pm)
Samoa v USA, Brighton Community Stadium
Sunday 20 September, 12pm)
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