The final pool seems much more open that in it did at the turn of the year, when Wales were in the midst of a record breaking winning streak. It is probably the most even pool. Having seen their run come to an end, the suspicion is Wales could have peaked too soon. Ireland (of Pool A), bizarrely the number one ranked side in the world, were monstered by England in their opening warm up game but went on to beat Wales in Dublin. Still, Australia and Wales remain favourites to progress, with this writer tipping Australia to surprise the doubters and top the pool.
Wales’ form has been patchy. One loss and one victory against England seems an encouraging indicator, but they have fallen from their status as Grand Slam champions. Form, confidence and momentum all seem to have ebbed away since the spring. Injuries have contributed to a creeping sense of stalled promise; the calamitous, season ending knee problems of Gareth Anscombe in particular.
Nevertheless, Warren Gatland is one of the more astute coaches, and whilst selecting Dan Biggar may curb Wales attacking instincts, a game plan of concerted pressure and a tight defence could see them strangle sides.
In many ways Wales are the anti-Australia. They have been enjoying an unprecedented run of success in the last year, based on incredible consistency and clarity. However, this summer has seen a few cracks emerge, and Welsh supporters must be hoping preparations have not been derailed. Did Wales peak too soon?
Contrastingly, Australia have endured a torrid last eighteen months. Disrupted by the Israel Folau debacle, seemingly unsure of their best XV and devoid of confidence, they were written off in most quarters. However, a spirited win over the Pumas, followed by a victory over the All Blacks, revived hopes, only for a 36 – 0 reverse against New Zealand to quickly temper expectations once more.
Where Australia are is hard to gauge. The hope is the return of Pocock, O’Connor and Beale, married to a more reliable set piece and half back partnership in White and Lealiifano will trigger something of a revival.
Cheika has suggested he may pursue a ‘horses for courses’ selection policy, playing with two opensides when necessary, and an orthodox six if a more physical encounter is expected. Likewise, White and Lealiifano and Genia and Foley can form two, distinct, interchangeable half back pairings, depending on the opposition. Although flexibility and options are desirable, a lack of a settled first XV could undo the Wallabies.
Georgia pushed Scotland close recently and are the best of the tier two nations. With props galore and a plethora of talented individuals, mainly plying their trade in France, they will not be dismissed easily, but are unlikely to qualify.
As ever the list of Fijian talent is intimidating, Leone Nakawara, Semi Radradra, Josua Tuisova and Viliame Mata are probably the pick of the bunch. All are world class. Their success will be dependent on how they are able to piece together these individuals. Georgia versus Fiji will be an intriguing clash, a collision of contrasting styles, and if either of Wales or Australia fail to perform expect these two to push them hard. Uruguay, given the strength of the opposition, look like nailed on as fifth place finishers.
Player to Watch: Leone Nakawara
Potential Upset: Wales vs Fiji (ghosts of 2007)
Written by Joe Ronan