From the moment that the groups were announced for next year’s World Cup in Japan, eyes quickly focused on Pool C as the one that would be most difficult to call.
Of course, every World Cup in every sport inevitably ends up with a group of death, and for this event, England are smack bang in the middle of it.
With a tough draw in the most important tournament of them all, England need to be 100 percent focused on the challenge ahead, so the announcement of Steve Brown’s departure could not have come at a worse time.
While the backroom comings and goings take their course, it is important to focus our attention on the middle. Even the professional pundits and tipsters are unclear about which team to back when the event gets underway next September. Let’s take a look at each of the Group C challengers and assess their strengths, weaknesses and prospects.
Yes, it is a tough group, but England look on paper to be the strongest on show, and should at least be capable of reaching the knockout stages. England have not had the best record over the past 12 months following the fairly disastrous tour to South Africa, on which they could only muster a single win after the series was already lost. Still, they have looked like a different outfit in their most recent showings at Twickenham. The team showed genuine resilience to bounce back against the South African onslaught, and should have followed it up with another victory against the All Blacks, ultimately losing out by the narrowest of margins after Sam underhill\s try in the dying minutes was disallowed. If all goes to form and England win Pool C, they will be likely to face their antipodean rivals once again in the first knockout round.
It was almost inevitable that England and their oldest rivals would be drawn in the same group. France is a team that always finds an extra 10 percent against England, and this is one of the things that makes Group C so compelling. England’s preparations might look set to be fraught with distraction, but this is par for the course across the channel. The domestic game is given so much priority that the national team will have limited preparation prior to the big event. Form-wise, the team is still licking its wounds following the 3-0 demolition at the hands of the All Blacks in June. In fact, last week’s victory over Argentina was France’s first win since beating England in the Six Nations back in March.
Like its national football team, Argentina’s rugby stars can go from sublime to ridiculous in the blink of an eye. In recent months, the team has shown poorly against the sub-strength teams that Wales and Scotland turned out. However, they looked competitive in the Rugby Championship, with memorable wins over South Africa and Australia, as well as solid performances in their other games. With Argentina, however, form counts for little, and regardless of form, injuries or even what sport they are playing, they always find a little extra when it comes to a World Cup tournament, so rule them out at your peril.
Rugby is enjoying a growing following in the USA – in fact, it is the fastest growing sport in the country. The nation is pouring more and more investment into the sport, and players are abandoning the lure of the NFL to get involved. The huge popularity and media buzz surrounding the Rugby World Cup Sevens earlier this year shows just how much this sport is hitting the mainstream. In other words, the USA might still be seen as a minor nation in rugby union at the moment, but is it a question of when, not if, they will become a force to be reckoned with. It’s a team that could well produce an upset and might even challenge for a qualifying spot.
Everyone loves a minnow, and while many people might struggle to find Tonga on a map, most know that they are capable of taking on anyone at rugby. The team is certain to enjoy some vociferous support among the neutrals, and has been a contender at every World Cup bar one. The team is not afraid of anyone, and has done some giant killing over the years. Perhaps the most famous example is when they memorably beat France in the 2011 World Cup. A repeat performance next year could throw the group wide open.
Who will go through?
According to the form book, England and France would be expected to progress. However, the thing about this group is that there are no easy matches. For England, each of France, Argentina, USA and Tonga is a potential banana skin. They will need to go into the World Cup with a clear focus, and with the current back office distractions laid to rest.