2015 Rugby World Cup Draw Analysis: No Easy Road
In early December, the pool draw for the 2015 Rugby World Cup took place in London, following the IRB's November international test window. The results of those November matches helped determine which of rugby's elite nations would win a place in one of the top two bands of the draw by virtue of their standing in the IRB world rankings.
Positions such as these are historically coveted, because they offer a smoother perceived pathway to the tournament's quarterfinal stages.
But is that really the case?
In this exclusive Bleacher Report analysis, we break down the results of the 2015 Rugby World Cup draw, to see which, if any, of the world's rugby nations gained an edge from their pool allocation and which may have reason to worry.
We begin with Pool A and a nervous host nation.
Pool A: Nervous Times For The Hosts
Just ask Richie McCaw and his New Zealand All Blacks how hard it is to win a World Cup on home soil. For England, few sights could have been more stressful then to see themselves drawn into a pool alongside Australia and their ancient enemies, Wales.
It has been the habit of the top-tier nations to rest their starters against Tier 2 opponents at previous world cups; however, the Pool A draw leaves little room for rest and recovery. The only weak opposition any of these teams are likely to face will come in the form of the eventual playoff qualifier—likely to take the shape of Uruguay, Romania or another similarly ranked nation.
From there it gets unpredictable. The qualifier from the Oceania region, also drawn into Pool A, is all but guaranteed to Fiji, a nation that knocked out Wales at the 2007 competition in France.
England, Australia and Wales will obviously head into Pool A as favourites, but only two can advance to the quarterfinals. All three of these nations might fancy their chances of reaching the tournament's semifinals or even the final, but first they will have to survive a pool stage that contains little room for error.
In the end, only one of these nations will be playing in front on a home crowd made up of the most knowledgeable rugby fans on the planet, a fanbase that will brook no excuses. The weight of these expectations would crush all but the hardest of hard men. Only time will tell if English rugby can find 15 men with shoulders big enough to carry them.
Pool B: The Whole Of Samoa Is Ready
When the then-divided island of Western Samoa completed a shocking 16-13 defeat of Wales at the 1991 World Cup, a beleaguered Welsh announcer later remarked, "Thank heavens Wales weren't playing the whole of Samoa."
Over a decade later and the reunified island has made even more gigantic strides. Thanks to intensive strategic funding allocated from the International Rugby Board, Samoa have developed a crop of players that now stands alongside the world's best. In Pool B at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, they will have their chance to show the sport's elite that they have finally joined the club.
Samoa are accompanied in Pool B by 2007 world champions South Africa and Scotland, and two yet-to-be-determined teams that are likely to be Japan, along with either Canada or the United States.
Samoa defeated both Scotland and Canada decisively on their most recent tour last November and very nearly defeated a strong French side that had the advantage of playing at home.
If Samoa's development continues apace and barring a catastrophic string of injuries which could threaten the depth of small nation, the likelihood is that they will join South Africa in the quarterfinal stages. That result would leave Scotland, Japan and the North American qualifier to battle it out for third place in Pool B—perhaps the only pool where the two quarterfinalists seem relatively easy to predict.
Pool C: What Becomes Of The Defending Champions?
Now that 2013 has finally arrived, New Zealand All Black captain and legend Richie McCaw can finally relax. McCaw has been granted an extended sabbatical from his contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union to rest his body and heal the multitude of injuries accumulated in his many years of service to his country.
The unspoken goal of all this is to make sure the world's greatest open-side flanker remains available to New Zealand for the 2015 World Cup, a competition that New Zealand will be eyeing more closely now that the tournament's pool draw has been completed.
Joining the defending champion All Blacks in Pool C will be their new South American rivals from Argentina. That matchup cannot be pleasing to New Zealand's management, who would surely have been hoping to avoid a clash with one of their fellow Southern Hemisphere nations in the pool stages.
Since joining the Rugby Championship in 2012, Argentina have looked like one of the few teams capable of beating the All Blacks. Given the number of times the two teams meet annually, the Pumas will have close to three years to ready themselves with ample amounts of practice against the New Zealanders.
Despite the never-ending and passionate hopes of all Tier 2 nations, one feels comfortable in setting aside any threat from whichever Pool C qualifiers emerge from Europe and Africa. It would appear that both New Zealand and Argentina might enjoy fairly smooth paths to the quarterfinals were it not for another nation from the Pacific Islands that will stand resolutely in their way.
After losing to Canada at the 2011 World Cup, expectations for Tongan rugby seemed weak, until they provided that tournament with its only massive upset by beating the eventual runners-up from France and securing their ticket to London in 2015 by claiming third place in their pool.
Following that famous win, neither the All Blacks or the Pumas will be taking Tonga lightly, nor for that matter, should anyone else.
Pool D: The Pool Of Death
Every rugby tournament has one Pool of Death, and for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Pool D is every nation's nightmare.
2011 World Cup finalists France are joined by fellow RBS Six Nations competitors Ireland and Italy in a pool that is also likely to feature strong qualifying teams from North America and Europe. The French will be keen to put the haunting memories of their 2011 performances to rest, but one wonders where their respite is likely to come from. In Pool D, every match is likely to be a fight to the finish.
The French will know their Irish and Italian opponents well by the time 2015 rolls around (not that it will make those matches any easier), but they will also be challenged by two yet-to-be-determined qualifiers who will be looking to make waves of their own.
Possible opponents for the three presumed "favourites" include Canada, America, Russia, Romania or the brutally physical Georgians. All of these Tier 2 nations will have had years to make use of the same IRB strategic investment dollars that have helped Samoa reach their current heights in world rugby, and all will arrive with high ambitions.
Just ask the French side who took on Canada at the 1991 World Cup about underestimating a lesser-known opponent. That pool match elevated Canada in the eyes of the rugby world, as the Canadians went through to their only quarterfinal appearance in Rugby World Cup history.
In such a pool as this, there is no factor too small to consider. What role will injuries play in the pool's round-robin matches? Who will hold the advantage in the number of rest days? Perhaps most importantly, can any nation, let alone two, emerge from such a pool strong enough to take on even more powerful opposition in the quarterfinal stages?
The rugby gods seem to have conspired against the occupants of Pool D at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but for the pure rugby fan, there is no greater joy. Upsets are everywhere to be had and the age-old notion of an established hierarchy in world rugby is likely to be finally turned on its head.
The only drawback is that we all must wait so long for the action to begin!
2015 Rugby World Cup Analysis: Conclusion
For years rugby fans have watched as their sport's main international showcase has grown ever more lavish and popular. Lost somewhere in the glamour, pomp and ceremony was a basic principal of sport—meaningful competition.
For years now, ever since the rise of professionalism, it has been bordering on the impossible for Tier 2 nations to rise to the challenge of their fully professional World Cup adversaries form Europe and the Southern Hemisphere, but no longer.
Thanks to the strategic decision by the International Rugby Board to invest in the global game, rugby fans can look forward to the most competitive Rugby World Cup of the modern era in 2015.
In London, teams like Samoa, Tonga, Canada and America will be fancying their chances to advance from the pool stages, while teams like England, France and Italy will soon begin to feel the pressure upon them build.
2015 will be a great year for international sport, and for the passionate rugby fan there remains no better show.