The pool’s opening clash between South Africa and New Zealand will go a long way to determining the nature of this World Cup, let alone this pool. Whilst defeat in the first match need not necessarily derail a sides’ World Cup prospects (think South Africa’s hammering of England in 2007, and their eventual reunion in the final) these two favourites will be looking to make a statement victory and secure an easier route through the knockouts.
Remarkably, over their last three encounters, the aggregate score is 82-82, with one win each and a draw. Their meeting on the 21st of September is, therefore, loaded with significance. The winner is likely to avoid Ireland in the quarter final, before potentially setting up a meeting with either England, Australia or Wales in the semi-final.
As all players say when asked about permutations and predictions, however, to win the World Cup you’re going to have to beat the best, so it is unlikely either the All Blacks or South Africa will be looking beyond their clash next Saturday.
If you were to choose one, South Africa appear to have the momentum and coherence New Zealand have been grappling for this last year. At half back Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard are the form pair in the world, and Rassie Erasmus has returned the team to the South African tradition of physical dominance up front. They are also the Rugby Championship winners (although this counts for little in a World Cup year) and have their inspirational, indomitable captain Siya Kolesi back from injury.
Pressure appeared to be mounting on the All Blacks after being beaten by Australia, two resounding victories since have put to bed rumours they are a spent force. As ever, the All Blacks are favourites, but one cannot escape the feeling this squad lacks the individual quality and established combinations of the 2011 and 2015 champions.
For instance, although in the back row Ardie Savea and Sam Cane will form a dynamic partnership. The combination of the two specialist opensides and captain Kieran Read cannot hold a candle to the Kaino, Read, McCaw backrow of yesteryear. There is a similar story to tell in the centres. Nevertheless, perhaps it is a mistake to compare any side to the 2015 World Cup winning team, which has strong claim to being the best ever.
Italy will be disappointed if they fail to beat Canada and Namibia, yet although Conor O’Shea’s side are capable of putting together a spirited performance, the likelihood of them upsetting one of the big two seems slim. The Namibians are always confrontational and hard, but nobody expects the world’s 23rd ranked side to make much of a dent this time around.
Winners: South Africa
Player to Watch: Cheslin Kolbe
Potential Upset: All Blacks vs Italy
Written by Joe Ronan