“Risk taker” and Warren Gatland” are not words usually associated with each other, but picking George North at 13 against one of the most potent back lines in world rugby is certainly a huge risk. North’s footwork in defence has never been the best and since his long concussion related layoff he’s understandably looked more than a little gun shy when it comes to effecting big collisions instead going for the arm tackle around the shoulders which won’t stop Kuridrani or Folau if they pop up in his channel (Kudrani’s footwork in defence is often questionable too so Wales will be hoping that North gets his hands on the ball early and often).
I’m a big fan of what Gatland has done for this game though, the phrase “cut loose” has been bandied about all week and in Dan Biggar Wales have got one of the best 10’s in International rugby when it comes to playing head’s up rugby and if Gareth Anscombe can be involved as first receiver in attack then Wales could really challenge the Australian defence. Obviously how effective Wales’ attacking play will largely be influenced by the success of the forward pack ahead of them and with the omission if Gethin Jenkins and Dan Lydiate the ability of the forwards to turnover ball maybe slightly impeded, but with Samson Lee & Luke Charteris starting Wales will be looking at attacking Australia’s set piece play.
The one potential problem with relying on set piece ball as a mainstay of a game plan is that referee’s decisions can be vital in any teams set piece success and in Craig Joubert both teams may find themselves battling against some strange interpretations come scrum time in particular. Australia seem to be carrying their Rugby Championship form into this World Cup and in Michael Cheika they have a certified genius for a head coach (he’s a self made millionaire, speaks 4 languages fluently. Aside from the fact that he’s collected trophies for fun wherever he’s coached). The one thing Wales do have in their favour is that they appear to be as well conditioned as the Aussie’s, if not more so, so they should be able to stick with them for the full 80 minutes and not face away as badly as England seemed to last week.
Kainotophobia is the fear if change (not the fear of being munched by an All Black blind side) and there certainly seems to have been more than a fair share of that in the English press since Stuart Lancaster announced that he was changing England’s backline around for Wales’ visit to Twickenham. There certainly seems to have been a mass panic about Lancaster’s decision with Lancaster himself having to deny that he hit the panic button (irony seems lost on some of these journalists) but in all honesty Jonathan Joseph’s injury left him little choice. He could have replaced Joseph with Henry Slade but a backline with the 13 and a half stone Slade and the even lighter George Ford would have been a gamble when Wales’ Centre’s weigh in at a combined 33 stone. Replacing Joseph with Sam Burgess is even more of a no brainer when you realise that he will be the heaviest back on the pitch. The decision to replace Ford with Farrell caused even more consternation, but once again when you take into consideration Farrell stands 3 inches taller than Ford and weighs over a stone more than Ford (Wales outside half Dan Biggar is 6 feet 2 and weighs just over 14 stone, so Farrell is bigger than him) it’s hardly that surprising particularly when allied to the physical attributes you remember how Ford’s game suffers when there’s no creative influence outside him.
Anyway, this apparent controversy is all rather irrelevant when considering who will win the game, here’s where the game will be decided –
• Mostly in the front rows AND more importantly in how the all French officiating team will interpret who is dominant at scrum time(against Fiji Joe Marler was driving at some rather questionable angles and not always being penalised)
• Health is going to have a rather important role to play in deciding the victors, Wales’ injury problems have been greatly documented but England don’t have any real Wing cover on their bench, so nobody can afford early injuries
• The line out has been a particular worry for England since Dylan Hartley’s exclusion and for Wales for an even longer period of time and with driving maul’s becoming impossible to referee or stop a solid 5 metre line out results in either a try or penalty try 99% of the time.
• The first 20 minutes of the game will be crucial. Wales didn’t take the lead against Uruguay until the 16th minute of the game while England have started their last 3 games at Twickenham a lot stronger than they have finished them.
• Continuity will suit Wales, all their conditioning work should benefit them in multi phase play, if Jerome Garces allows play to play to flow (he refereed the 66 point thriller between South Africa and Japan, so that could be an omen for Wales) *takes tongue out of cheek*
• Turnover ball may well be the thing that allows either side to score tries and the inclusion of an 18 stone outside back could well help England at the breakdown. Alternatively if Wales can use turnover ball quickly England’s scramble defence may be their weak point. (I’m expecting Barritt to defend in the 12 channel since he is England’s defensive Captain and it would be difficult for him to orchestrate out in the 13 channel)
• Finally, back to fear again, the team who can get over the fear of failure will be the victor. The fear of making mistakes on the field and the ramifications that a loss would have for either team’s prospects of qualifying for the knock out stages of the tournament are huge.
I’m not one for sitting on the fence (nobody wants splinters in their bum an all that) but it’s difficult to pick a clear favourite here, England are always difficult to beat at Twickenham so I suspect they’ll take the victory, however both teams have made changes from their last run outs so they could both take a while to find any fluency and as I said the opening 20 minutes could well decide the outcome.
“You only get one chance to make a first impression” may or may not be a quote from the lips of Oscar Wilde before it was appropriated by any number of career advisor’s but it is definitely applicable to England as they look to impress in the Rugby World Cup opener at Twickenham on Friday night.
Fast starts are something that England have excelled at during their warm up games at home having scored 12 points in the first 14 minutes versus Ireland last time out and 12 in the first 18 minutes against France previously. The middle section of those games has been frankly alarming from an English point of view though, against France they failed to score between the 18th and the 45th minute and when they played Ireland they score between the 14th and the 47th minute. If Fiji can weather the early storm they are sure to face, or score some points of their own in the first 20 minutes, which neither France or Ireland could, they could well make a packed Twickenham a very nervy place and any unrest in the crowd may add to the pressure that young George Ford will be right to feel.
Ford’s last competitive game at Twickenham was a 16-28 point defeat at the hands of his rival for England’s 10 shirt Owen Farrell’s Saracens side. In that game Ford recorded a perfect kicking record slotting home 3 penalties and a conversion but his Bath team lacked “big game nous” (according to Sir Ian McGeechan) and couldn’t cope with the intensity that Saracens played with. Now Fiji may not exactly fit the bill when it comes to “big game nous” but they won’t want for intensity. Certainly in recent seasons at Bath Ford has struggled to show his trademark flair when faced with a defence that blitzes from out to in and with Leicester’s Vereniki Goneva lining up at Outside Centre for Fiji don’t be surprised to see a few penalties conceded in the middle of the pitch early on as their line speed is sure to test Jaco Peyper’s offside line. George Ford’s kicking from hand will have to almost perfect too or his England teammates face the prospect of having to stop Fiji’s sizeable back 3 (Nadolo 6ft 4 and weighs well over 19 stone, his wing partner Nayacalevu is 6ft 4 and 16+ stone and fullback Talebulamaijaina is a positively 6ft tall and 15 stone 6 lbs) after they’ve had a decent chance to build up some momentum.
There is more than a chance that the outcome of the game (and that of most of the close matchups at the tournament) will be dependent on the official’s interpretation at scrum time and this may well be a problem for Fiji, not because they will necessarily have an inferior scrimmage, but because perception is often 9 tenths of the law when it comes to referee’s decision making. England’s scrum will be far from full strength with the omission of Dylan Hartley and Alex Corbisiero who you could argue would start for any International side if they were 100% fit (a mischievous person may suggest they leave bigger hole’s in the home team’s first XV than Halfpenny and Webb do in Wales’). A trend that seems to be prevalent amongst officials (naming no names but particulalrly ones whose name starts with “R” and ends with “oman Poite”) recently is an almost willingness to penalise Loose Head props at scrum time and with Fiji’s starting number 1 Campese Ma’afu playing all of his recent rugby with Nottingham (after a rather lacklustre spell with Cardiff Blues) in the second tier of rugby in England Peyper may well decide that he’s a weak spot and any pressure coming through the Fijian front row may well result in Ma’afu being the unlucky man to get penalised (although England Tight Head Dan Cole is no stranger to a good talking to from a referee lately as officials seem to have wised up to his particular quirks). Overall discipline is a problem that has blighted Fiji on occasion although with just 1 loss in their last 7 games (which has seen them move up to 8th in the World Rugby rankings <if you believe in that sort of thing, it should be pointed out that they haven’t played any of the teams above them in the last 7 games>) they may be finding a way to channel their passion into the sort of intensity that may worry England.
I can only really see 2 possible outcomes in this game, either England will maintain their tradition of strong starts at Twickenham and blow Fiji away early doors or Fiji will provide an obstinate opponent in the first 20 minutes and we could be in for a nail biter. Incidentally if the game goes is closer than Stuart Lancaster would like going into the last 25 minutes the players available to him from the bench may not be much help because with the exception of Richard Wigglesworth there’s very little creativity available to him since he appears to have picked players who can defend better than the starting players (Farrell for Ford and Burgess for Joseph). Fiji on the other hand can call on the Ospreys’ Josh Matavesi, the powerful Asaeli Tikoiriotuma and back rower Peceli Yato who wouldn’t look out of place in Fiji’s backline, he can seriously shift for someone who is 6ft 5 tall so they may well score some tries late on in proceedings.
Pragmatism seems to be in short supply in Wales since that fateful Saturday afternoon just past in the Millennium Stadium. A coaching team who would keep someone who struggled with injuries at the start of the season and who had enough strapping to stock a small pharmacy on his right leg was still on the pitch at all 70 minutes into a meaningless warm up game but as they say hindsight is a wonderful thing and as Sophocles (he of Oedipus Rex fame) said “I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect”. The reaction to both Leigh Halfpenny’s and Rhys Webb’s injuries has been slightly hyperbolic to say the least, Shane Williams said Wales is “in mourning” which rather exaggerates the fact that 2 people will be back up and walking in a week or two although it does tie in nicely with Wales battling to progress from the “Group of Death” at the Rugby World Cup (I’m still predicting very little, if any actual death occurring in Pool A during October). Dan Biggar described Saturday afternoon as “disastrous” and while that may a little extreme as Biggar has known Leigh Halfpenny for a considerable time (they both played youth rugby for Gorseinon) and he’s been Rhys Webb’s Ospreys teammate since 2007 so his emotion is justifiable. Empathy for 2 people who must be ridiculously frustrated at missing the chance to play in World Cup games in the Millennium Stadium is understandable but “mourning” when both players are 26 years old and have the chance to play in 2 more World Cup tournaments (lest we not forget Halfpenny appeared in the 2011 World Cup).
The severity of both injuries serve to remind just how precarious how the career of a professional rugby player is and while both players should resume their playing career’s there are some who are not so fortunate. This shines a rather dim light on the introduction of “Gatland’s Law” which would preclude any player who plays outside Wales from being selected for the national side (although players who moved away from the principality before the rule was announced are apparently exempt) because players who do move outside Wales to ply their trade will be earning vast sums whereas those who sign “centralised contracts” with the WRU simply won’t because the WRU don’t generate enough revenue. Halfpenny himself is rumoured to be earning around £600,000 a year playing for Rugby Club Toulonnais (and he won the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup) compared to the £270,000 a year that Sam Warburton receives from the WRU after signing a centralised contract which runs to 2017. When injuries can occur as a result of wear and tear like Halfpenny’s did on Saturday planning for the future may well become more important to players than representing their country.
Finally, whilst seeing your friends and somebody who you’ve spent the majority of your time with since July must be traumatic for all involved it should prove to unite the squad and remind them of their common goal and how fortunate they are to be in a position to attempt to be the first Welsh team to won a Rugby World Cup. As Sam Warburton pointed out in his post match comments on Saturday Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny both missed the second Test in South Africa last summer and barring a last second mistake that game was one of the best performances any team in a red shirt has given in recent memory. Whoever is called up to replace both Webb and Halfpenny in the squad will know they have big boots to fill and that motivation alone will mean they can’t fail to make a positive impact. If Liam Williams is fit enough to play in any of the Pool matches he will bring more dynamism and attacking flair than Halfpenny traditionally displays and bringing in the Pro 12’s top scorer in 3 of the last 5 seasons as a goal kicker Dan Biggar isn’t a luxury many nations have. If Liam Williams isn’t available early in the tournament then Wales will have choose between Matthew Morgan and Hallam Amos who are both exciting young talents and will be largely unseen by most opponents whereas Halfpenny is revered around the world so the art of surprise may well work in Wales’ favour.
If I was Warren Gatland I’d be asking not just Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny to be involved with the squad during the World Cup (obviously not on match days) but I’d also ask Jonathan Davies who was injured before the training camp even started if he’d like to talk to the squad. You can coach conditioning and drum game plans into players as often as you like, but camaraderie and team spirit are something that only a group of players can engender between themselves.
Mat Luamanu became the 7th new signing Harlequins have made in preparation for the 2015-16 Aviva Premiership season, the strong ball carrying back rower from New Zealand joins British Lions and Welsh Grand Slam winners Adam Jones (who was involved in Wales’ last 3 Grand Slams) and Dr. Jamie Roberts (who was involved in the 2 most recent successes). They follow Scottish man mountain and winger Tim Visser (all 6 feet 4 inches and 17 plus stone of him), former Samoan International Centre (and Tim Cahill’s cousin) Winston Stanley and 26 year old Welsh prop Owen Evans who has followed Adam Jones East along the M4. 58 times capped Wallaby lock James Horwill combined with 24 year old tight-head prop Matt Shields and the permanent signing of Fly Half Tim Swiel from Super Rugby franchise Natal Sharks after his loan spell last season complete the influx of fresh blood in West London.
In terms of sprucing up a team whose league position slipped 4 places to 8th in 2014-15 from 4th the previous season Harlequins look to have a rather decent job and they’ve certainly bought in players of experience and class but it’s the positions of the players that they have acquired which leaves more questions than answers.
Individually, 7 (or 8 if Tim Swiel is going to appear regularly at Fullback) of these signings make perfect sense as they all fill gaps left by players leaving the club at the end of last season, however they have signed 3 props and only lost 2. However when one considers they have lost 3 backs to retirement (Ugo Monye, Tom Williams and Jordan Turner Hall) and another 7 players have moved on to greener pastures even the most basic arithmetic suggests only signing 9 new players (one of who is an extra prop remember) leave them a player short. Players leaving has not been the only issue that Harlequins have had to confront, they’ve also become victims of their own success and following 3 recent appearances in the end of season playoffs (following a rather lowly 7th placed finish in the 2010/11 season) England came calling with 6 players of their squad becoming England regulars and Chris Robshaw becoming the International captain, a further 5 have been unavailable for their club side at various times as a result of Saxons (England ‘A’) call ups. Allied to this issue Jamie Roberts will not arrive until after the Varsity match in December and in light of the fact that Tim Visser should be a leading protagonist in Scotland’s Rugby World Cup campaign Harlequins face a potentially sticky start to the Premiership season (although if Scotland fail to reach the knockout stages he could be available quite early on). Such a problematic start could be avoided if they were either willing or able to call upon a strong academy system to bolster their ranks but according to their own website Harlequins leading academy players are 4 front rowers, 3 wingers, 2 locks, 2 back rowers and a scrum half none of which are areas where Harlequins are particularly shorthanded. Combine this with the fact Harlequins, at times seem loathed to promote talented youngsters and it’s difficult to see Harlequins recording victories in their first 3 games of the season against Wasps, Leicester and Bath who they play in the first 3 weeks of the season, although Bath maybe without a lot of key players during the Rugby World Cup.
Away from the obvious logistical problem of signing players who will be playing in the RWC when the season starts Harlequins face a more pressing concern, their inspirational play maker Nick Evans (who has 16 caps and 103 points for the All Blacks) isn’t getting any younger and his injuries are starting to take a toll not just on his ability to perform but also on the team’s results. Since 2011 he has scored fewer and fewer points (from 348 to 221) and with the exception of 2012-13 the number of minutes he’s played on the pitch has also declined over that period of time. Harlequins have understandably failed to find a suitable replacement (All Black number 10’s don’t become available very often after all) and while they have signed Tim Swiel he’s just 22 years old and a player who they will hope can develop under Evans’ tutelage, not come in and replace him immediately. Ben Botica is Harlequins third Fly Half and for the last 3 seasons he’s been in the position that they appear to have now placed Swiel in (one in which Rory Clegg found himself between 2009 and 2013), the young pretender to the throne who is thrown in at the deep end with increasing regularity when Evans’ 35 year old body is failing, but last season Botica himself was injured and that was how Swiel originally came to be signed as an emergency loan.
If Harlequins are going to at least attempt to afford Evans some extra longevity and avoid the possibility of their season being placed in the hands of 2 young and comparatively inexperienced number 10’s then they may have to take a drastic step and adapt their playing style from the attractive and open brand of rugby which their Director of Rugby Conor O’Shea prides himself on. The signing of so many hard running ball carriers maybe a sign that they are prepared to become more structured and direct when in possession and if Jamie Roberts and Stanley can crash over the midfield gain line with the help of Visser and Luamanu then the tight 5 forwards like Horwill and Adam Jones will be in their element. Incidentally Harlequins are not alone in currently facing a dilemma regarding their team ethos, many teams in Rugby Union (the Welsh and Argentinean national sides and Bristol Rugby to name just 3) these days are facing an almost ethical crisis. Wales may need to disregard the fact they have outside backs like George North and Lee Halfpenny and attack England, Australia and in particular Fiji through the forwards, Argentina need to play a much tighter game than they have in recent months if they are to progress in the Rugby World Cup and Bristol need to start kicking points come the playoff final if they want to win promotion to the Premiership. All of these moves would contrast with their respective coaching team’s personal ideals and doctrines. When Evans arrived in West London in 2008 he was 29 and having played 4 seasons of Super Rugby well suited to the brand of rugby that Harlequins have historically favoured, fast paced with a lot an emphasis on promoting the ball and offloading out of contact, however the rules at the breakdown have changed a lot over the last 7 years too and with the new interpretations the rolling maul has become an increasingly potent offensive weapon. So a more direct Harlequins may well be a more successful Harlequins, but any transition will take time which could be in their favour as they may well just be hitting their straps come the end of the season when the trophies are up for grabs.
Obviously at the highest profile event in World Rugby there won’t be many players that are completely unknown and without a single warm up game being played or any coaches naming their final squads for the tournament selecting any sort of team from the players who may feature would be lunacy, so here goes –
1. Keita Inagaki – the Japanese loose head is a Melbourne Rebels player and is very mobile for a man tipping the scales at over 18 stone, he may well bag a few tries in Pool B
2. Nicholas Klappenbach – Uruguay’s Captain is a qualified doctor and while they may struggle as a collective he should be a stand out player, he might be wearing 2 but he plays like a 7
3. Titi Lamositele – A former High School Football star the 20 year old from Samoan heritage plays for Saracens and is the youngest player to be capped by the Eagles.
4. Nico Esterhuyse – Namibia’s veteran lock forward stands 6 feet 9 inches tall, the stuff of nightmares for New Zealand, Georgia, Argentina and Tonga’s hookers who will have to avoid him at lineout time
5. Leone Nakarawa – Everybody who’s seen Glasgow Warriors play knows in the last 2 seasons knows what he can do but that doesn’t make his 7’s handling any less spectacular or stoppable, expect no look passes and confused defenders
6. John Moonlight – the Canadian 7’s Captain has scored 3 tries in just 13 starts for the 15 a side team, expect dynamism and pace to frighten most opposing forwards
7. Renaldo Bothma – he’s played 5 games for Namibia and scored 5 tries. The South African born has scored 22 tries in 90 games for the Steval Pumas, he’s a try machine.
8. Danny Barrett – He’s the USA 7’s Captain and he’s relentless, prominent in the Eagles win at World Rugby 7’s series in Twickenham this year he’s got speed to go with the stamina.
9. Sam Hidalgo-Clyne – This one’s in more in hope than belief, he’s been the best scrum half in Scotland all year but Greig Laidlaw is the current number 9 and as skipper he’ll be hard to depose.
10. Ben Volavola – The Waratahs player might not play at 10 for Fiji but his pace and dancing feet will open up space or the destructive outside backs they’ve got wherever they fit him in.
11. Zack Test – The Loughborough University student and USA 7’s specialist will be tricky for defenders to stop as he is 6 feet 3 inches tall and he’s fast enough to have scored 108 tries in 46 7’s appearances
12. Kotaro Matsushima – Born in South Africa he was the first player to join the Sharks academy before moving to Suntory Goliath and then onto the Waratahs. The diminutive 22 year old has got plenty of air miles in the bank.
13. JC Greyling – Namibia’s 24 year old tackles like a 6 and runs like an 8, there’ll be a few bruised bodies in Pool C when the former Valke Currie Cup player is finished with them.
14. Tamaz Mtchedlidze – There’s nothing original about a 6 foot 5 inch, 17 stone Georgian, unless he’s playing on the wing. He plays in Pro D2 in France for SU Agen and everyone in Pool C has been warned.
15. Catalin Fercu – Romania’s Captain has been a crucial member of Saracen’s LV Cup team and their ‘A’ team Saracens Storm this season, he missed the last RWC in New Zealand because he didn’t fancy the long flight to New Zealand (yes, really) so he’s got plenty to make up for and his 143 points in 78 matches suggest he’s more than capable of doing that.
An honourable mention should go to Scottish flanker John Hardie, the 27 year old is so surreptitious that nobody in Scotland has actually seen him play regional rugby, having left the Super Rugby Champions the Highlanders to pursue his dream of playing for Scotland (no laughing at the back) and as yet the S.R.U haven’t decided whether he’ll be an Edinburgh player or a Glasgow Warrior in the coming season.
Japan and Samoa begin the defence of their respective World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup conference titles (snappy name, eh?) in a week’s time and while this is probably the most confusing competition in professional sports (it changes format on a seemingly annual basis and occasionally the teams competing in it differ too) the fact that three of the main protagonists will clash to qualify from Rugby World Cup Pool B in about 10 weeks makes this a fascinating tournament. Without trying to explain how the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup will be won or lost, or trying to decipher why last season teams competed in intra-conference fixtures while this year all fixtures are inter-conference (did I mention it was confusing?) now would be an apt time to consider how the USA, Japan and Samoa may fare at the RWC in September and hopefully into mid October if they progress to the RWC knock out stages.
Pool A at the RWC has been awarded the hyperbolic moniker “Pool of death” by those who claim to know these things because there is a real chance that one of the team’s who appeared in the 3rd and 4th place play off at 2011’s RWC will fail to progress to the Quarter Final stages as a result this Pool will be scrutinised in microscopic detail over the coming months, however Pool B is far more intriguing. Samoa, Japan and the USA not only all finished in the top 2 of their PNC conference’s (a tournament where an average of 6.17 tries were scored each game) last year but all 3 sides are separated by just 7 places and just 8 ranking points in the current World Rugby rankings (fellow Pool B competitors Scotland are also ranked between Samoa and the USA but I have a bad feeling about their chances of progressing to the Quarter Finals given their 2015 6 Nations embarrassment).
USA are able to call on players who have been more than catching the eye in the Aviva Premiership in recent seasons not least Samu Manoa (who has just left Northampton to join Toulon and win a boat load of trophies) and Saracens utility back Chris Wyles (who has won his fair share of trophies during his time playing for the North London club). Manoa was called “perhaps the finest number 8 playing the game in the northern hemisphere” by ESPN Scrum and he amassed 130 points in his 122 games for the Saints, the rather unfortunate thing about ESPN’s description is he’s more likely to feature at Lock for the USA with the hirsute USA 7’s star Danny Barrett battling it out for a starting spot at 8 with Cardiff Blues new signing Cameron Dolan. Barrett is not the only member of the 7’s side represented in the Eagles squad, Fijian born Andrew Duratolo, former Saracens (now London Welsh) Centre Thretton Palamo and Zach Test who is uncapped by the 15’s side were all part of the USA team who recorded their first tournament victory on the World Rugby 7’s circuit in May, at Twickenham where the Eagles will hope to feature in the Quarter Finals (probably against the hosts England). The success of the 7’s side illustrates how dangerous the Eagles will be with ball in hand (Takudzwa Ngwenya didn’t feature for the 7’s side but he’s been one of the most electric wingers in European rugby for 8 years and Blaine Scully was the top try scorer in last year’s PNC with an impressive 5 in 2 games) so their progression through the tournament will largely depend on how successful they are at securing possession with which to launch their open field runners, the back row will be vital in this endeavour and when Samu Manoa has to play in the tight five to allow Barrett or Dolan be joined in the back row by talismanic captain Todd Clever and the 29 times capped Scott Lavalla who plays in Paris for Stade Francais you know the Eagles will compete effectively at the breakdown. The main area for concern for the Eagles will be the front row at scrum time, but with so many differing interpretations available to officials and different officials looking for different offences at the scrum that will be an area of concern for everybody come September.
Samoa are ranked by World Rugby and last season won the Pacific Island conference of the Pacific Nations Cup by virtue of their first win over Fiji in 16 years. However Samoa’s players are amongst those who have been subject to pressure from their clubs regarding International availability. In May this year Daniel Leo retired from International rugby and claimed that up to 13 of his fellow Samoan teammate’s may be feeling similar pressure to place their club career ahead of their International aspirations in order to receive new contract’s. Stade Toulousain’s Fabien Pelous expressed “surprise” that their 34 year old prop Census Johnston played for Samoa against the All Blacks in the historic Test match this week as they understood that Johnston had retired from International rugby in April, so off the field things have not been simple for Samoa which is a shame when they potentially have so much talent from which to select their RWC squad. Against New Zealand they started a front row who were just 7lbs away from a collective mass of 60 stone, Johnston alone accounted for over 20 of those stones so his inclusion would solidify their scrum. Samoa’s 2 main areas of weakness are at Fly Half where they have traditionally struggled for an accurate kicker from hand and team discipline, they lost the Test against the All Blacks having scored the same number of tries as them, with New Zealand converting 6 penalty kicks compared to the 3 by Samoa.
Japan won the Asia/Pacific conference of the 2014 World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup and are ranked 3 places higher than the USA in World Rugby’s current rankings and whilst they will probably have the most experienced squad of the so called minnows in Pool B they have only ever won 1 RWC game and that was back in 1991. It’s obviously difficult to write off the reigning PNC champions but the emergence of Japan’s “Top League” as a go to destination for foreign rugby players who are attracted by the relatively short season and the inflated salaries which are on offer must be a detrimental factor for rugby union’s development in the land of the rising sun. Just 6 of Eddie Jones’ 37 man RWC squad currently play outside Japan and not all of them regularly feature for their respective Super Rugby franchises. Again a lack of a quality Fly Half will surely be a problem for Japan but their biggest stumbling block may be their style of play, they like to play high tempo attacking rugby but so do the other teams in Pool B and 4 of them may just do it better.