Have another glass of chardonnay, my dear, because now we’re getting to the guts of the matter: the pool matches.
You will recall that there are four pools of five teams each during the preliminary stages of the Cup. The top two teams from each pool will progress to the quarter-finals.
In each pool match, teams are awarded 4 points for a win, 2 points for a draw, and 0 points for a loss. They may also be awarded 1 bonus point for scoring four or more tries in a match, and 1 bonus point if they lose by 7 points or less. (Yes, yes, I know that we’re now confusing the match points with the pool table points, but this is rugby so nothing is ever simple. Please do try to keep up.)
The order of how you finish in your pool is important because it dictates who you’ll play in the quarter-final:
- QF1 Winner Pool B vs Runner up Pool A
- QF2 Winner Pool C vs Runner up Pool D
- QF3 Winner Pool D vs Runner up Pool C
- QF4 Winner Pool A vs Runner up Pool B
Various chin-waggers are going to get excited about these permutations and have you believe that coaches might accidentally on purpose lose a pool match in order to get an “easier” quarter-final. This is nonsense on many different levels, the least of them being that there is no such thing as an easy quarter-final. You should smile at anybody who says this, and gently back your way to the door, because they are either deranged or a purse-stealer.
Anyway, yes have another glass, I’ll put the other bottle in the fridge, and let’s get back to the pools.
Each pool has its own character.
Pool A, for example, is known as the Pool of Death because, with all respect to Fiji and Uruguay, the contest for those two quarter-final places is going to be between Australia, England and Wales. Pencil in England because they have home advantage and are playing quite well, and that leaves a shoot out between Australia and Wales (played at Twickenham in London at 4.45am on Sunday 11 October NZ time). A big match.
I call Pool B the Puddle, because it’s very very flat. You can write in South Africa as the winner right now, but after that there are three teams that could plausibly take the runner-up spot: Scotland, Samoa and the United States. (Again, all respect to Japan, but at least you’re the host in 2017.) When you start calculating the permutations, and especially the bonus points in their matches, it quickly becomes a bookies’ nightmare/payday.
Pool C is the Banana Skin. New Zealand and Argentina should proceed without any dramas. Tonga, Georgia and Namibia should be playing their hearts out to get a third place finish so they can have automatic entry to 2017. But but but. And the All Blacks and Pumas will be sweating on unnecessary injuries, as well as trying to take some form into the quarters. So mark it down as an uncomfortable, nervous, irritable first month of the tournament for poor Ned. I’ll get extra chardonnay in for you, my dear.
Pool D is the Wild Card, and the wild card is France. They can be brilliant and they can be appalling, and no one seems to know which one will turn up on the day. (Sometimes they don’t even turn up until the second half, and then there is much gnashing of teeth and renting of garments.)
Ireland will be good, so write them in for one of the top spots. Canada and Romania will be honest toilers, but very long odds. So the last spot comes down to whether Les Bleus are interested in pool play this time. If they’re not, Italy will have the sniff of a chance, even though they have been perennial disappointments. That makes France vs Italy (Twickenham in London, 8.00am on Sunday 20 September NZ time) the first seriously significant match of the tournament.
A final word on the French: I have a theory that they have one really good game in them each tournament. Which is why they have been in three finals, but never won one: they had already played their big game just to get there. But I have another theory (more a burning anxiety really) that 2015 might be when they overcome that history. Their captain, Thierry Dusautoir, is still hurting from that one point loss in 2011, and he’s someone who always leads from the front. The only question is how close behind him the rest of the players will be.
And the final final word on the pools: in seven World Cups, the winner has gone through the entire tournament unbeaten. That’s what the pools are really about for the big guns: getting into a winning habit.