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World Cup Outsiders (Pt. 2)

Getofmeland

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The team above Fiji in the IRB world rankings is Scotland who are currently rated as 100-1 shots for the World Cup. Over the last 2 years it’s fair to say Scotland have had mixed results and they could be the most unpredictable team in this year’s tournament. In November 2009 they scraped a memorable 9-8 victory over Australia in an extremely wet Murrayfield, they also won a difficult test series away in Argentina 2-0 and last November they beat South Africa’s touring team 21-17. However since their famous victory over Australia they have lost to Argentina at Murrayfield, only managed to score 3 points against New Zealand last November and only won 1 game in this year’s 6 Nations.
Scotland’s world Cup schedule looks to be quite a favourable one and their toughest game will be their final group game against the “Auld Enemy” England. Scotland’s first 2 games of the tournament will provide their forwards with a tough challenge as they take on Romania first up and then Georgia 4 days later. They then have an 11 day rest period before their third game against Argentina which should decide who qualifies from Group B. Scotland’s previous 2 games against England have resulted in a close 16-22 loss and a 15-15 draw so it would be naive to write them off in this fixture.
Scotland’s undoubted rising star is Lock forward Richie Gray, the 6 feet 9 tall 21 year old was many people’s player of the 6 Nations and his combination with team captain Alistair Kellock was a very strong area in a team that often struggled. A strong forward pack will be integral to Scotland progressing from what could be one of the tournament’s most physically imposing groups and their front row could be found wanting against stronger sides like England and Argentina. Another promising performer during their 6 Nations campaign was Centre Joe Ansbro, who alongside the re-born Sean Lamont could form one of the most effective pairings at World Cup. The main area of concern is the Fly Half position where they will have to choose between the ageing Dan Parks and the inexperienced 23 year old Ruaridh Jackson.


Argentina are ranked one place above Scotland at 8th in the IRB world rankings and therefore should push them in the race to finish second in Group B. The Argentineans finished 3rd in the last World Cup losing only once, to eventual winners South Africa in a Semi Final so considering them as “outsiders” for the upcoming tournament may seem almost insulting. However they are considered 80-1 shots by the bookmakers (which I find a little strange considering Scotland have been victorious in 3 of their last 4 meetings). Since the 2007 tournament inspirational captain and scrum half Augustin Pichot has retired and coach Marcello Loffreda, who had guided the team to 2 World Cups stepped aside to take up an ill fated role as Leicester Tigers boss. Argentina have never really found anyone to replace Pichot as skipper or in the 9 shirt, Felipe Contepomi has taken over as captain but as the team’s goal kicker and in his role as Fly Half or Inside Centre he is unable (or unwilling) to inject pace into the game with quick taps and get his front 5 moving forward and winning quick ball, preferring instead to kick either for touch or at the posts. The Pumas (or Jaguars, depending on your level of accuracy) have been ranked as high as 3rd in the world (in 2008) but age has played a key role in their recent decline in form. A number of their leading players at this year’s tournament will be in their mid to late 30’s, with the oldest hooker Mario Ledesma being 38 (officially, although he’s looked that old for as long as I can remember).
Argentina begin their 2011 campaign with their toughest game of the group against an England side who they won’t have played for almost 2 years. Both of these factors could work either for or against them, if they can adapt to the conditions better than the English they could cause an upset, however if they struggle and suffer a heavy loss it could severely dent their confidence for the rest of the competition. Their second game is sure to be a battle of forward power as they take on Romania in Invercargill where the weather could prevent any idea of expansive rugby. Argentina’s third fixture in Group B could be make or break for their chances of progressing (depending on previous results obviously) as they meet Scotland in Wellington. If they win their first 3 fixtures then they could have the luxury of resting a few of their older key players in the group’s final game against a tough Georgian team in Palmerston North .
Argentina’s undoubted star is Fly Half and 2007 IRB Player of the year nominee Juan Martin Hernandez but he hasn’t played a Test match since 2009 and a back injury has restricted his appearances for Racing Metro this season, so his selection appears doubtful. The core of the Pumas squad play in France’s Top 14 league and are used to high quality competition but up to 14 of their squad players could be selected from their domestic competition, which is of a much lower standard. Ultimately Argentina’s performance will depend on whether or not they can find an able replacement for Pichot at 9 and how effectively Contepomi (or Hernandez) can use the ball their forwards are guaranteed to provide them.


Italy are ranked 12th in the world by the IRB, just behind Fiji and Samoa and as such would be worthy of the “outsiders” tag, however the draw has not been kind to them and if anything makes them “distant outsiders”. They have been drawn in Group C alongside a team they have never beaten in Australia and a team they haven’t beaten since 1997 in Ireland. Italy’s glimmer of hope is their victory over France in this year’s 6 Nations and the fact that they came within 2 minutes of beating Ireland in the same tournament. Both of these displays were at home and the Azzurri look a totally different side outside the Stadio Flaminio. One thing that could aid the Italian’s forwarded dominated, power game is be the weather but they play their group games at venues famed for inclement weather like Wellington or Dunedin. Italy’s biggest failing in recent years has been their lack of a consistent goal kicker and unless they can fill this gap then all the effort of their strong forward pack will probably be negated against Australia. They will surely feel that they owe Ireland one after the 6 Nations and as Ireland’s current crop of players have stumbled their way through the last 2 World Cups Italy’s forwards could pose them a few problems.
Italy begin the group fixtures with their most difficult game as they play Australia in Auckland on the third day of the tournament. If they can find a positive to their schedule it must be that they have an 8 day rest period before their second game against Russia followed by another week to recover before they play the USA who will have played 3 games by then. The last game of their group campaign will be crucial for both Italy and Ireland (unless either of the 2 sides manage to beat Australia) and could prove to be a very nervy affair with the final Quarter Final spot up for grabs.

By @Buck_Mitchell
 

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