Samoans doing the ‘Siva Tau’ pre-game

Rugby is a sport that, apart from the odd tri-nation tournaments, comes to the fore once in four years. Unlike football, cricket, tennis, F1, golf or even American football, the world’s interest in this sport peaks rarely (other than the major rugby nations, of course)- but when it does, it rivals any other World Championship in any other sport. Like with every sporting world, there are always the ‘major’ teams along with a sprinkling of minor teams that make up the numbers in a tournament.

World Cup 2011 is upon us, mirroring the 4-year cycle of the ICC Cricket World Cups- and has cruised through the group stages without much of the rest of the world noticing. The reason? The same as cricket world cups, with almost the same format dictating levels of interest.
With 20 teams participating in Rugby’s most awaited spectacle down under in New Zealand, the home of the All-Blacks (national sport, no less), there are four World Groups that- as expected- contain two major teams each. The other 3 in each group are ‘minnows’, as we call them, but stand a fair chance to upset some of the big boys over the month-long group stages. Four games per team is more than enough to lay down an early claim as tournament favorites or complete washouts. If one is NOT aware of who the 8 MAJOR Rugby nations are, always take a look at the knockout stages (also known to us cricket enthusiasts as the Quarter-finals) here.
The World Cup has gone as planned so far, with no massive long-term upsets taking place. The top 8 are through to the quarters, some not very safely, but nevertheless- we are now down to England, France, Ireland, Wales, defending champions South Africa (Invictus, if you’re a film buff), Australia, New Zealand and Argentina. The Usual Suspects, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing for most of them.

Even the ‘Cibi’ isn’t enough for Fiji

Here’s a lowdown on the recently-concluded Group Stages:

-Pool A consisted of New Zealand, France, Tonga, Canada and Japan. The All-Blacks steamed through with no problem, also creating a new Cup record with an 83-7 defeat of Japan. France were expected to finish second, as they did- but just about. Only bonus points separated them from Tonga, with both of them scoring two wins out of their four games. The major upset and the unprecedented shock of the tournament involved Tonga beating Les Bleus in the penultimate match of the group, giving a lackluster French team a major scare ahead of the knockouts. Much like their overrated football team, you say?

-Pool B was known as the Group of Death, with England and Argentina expected to go through amidst a group that involved Georgia, Romania and Scotland. Now, Scotland, on their day, can beat the best in their business and they aren’t exactly a minnow. They started on a high, winning their first two games without a problem, before having to face Argentina and England. It all came down to the match against the Pumas (Argentina)- easily the most heartbreaking loss of the tournament. Ahead with 12-6 and only six minutes to go, Scotland may have been forgiven for dreaming of the ultimate knockout glory. Argentina, though, are a gritty defensive side that have earned their scars. A 13-12 loss almost sealed Scotland’s fate, and they had to win big against England to qualify. They went on to lose after a gallant fight, 16-12, and were not disgraced in any way whatsoever in the Pool’s toughest group. The Pumas survived by the skin of their teeth, and went ahead with Group favorites England through to the quarters.

The All Blacks 2011?

-Group C involved the might and pre-tournament favorites Australia (again) and the doggedness of Ireland. As expected, the Wallabies (Australia) steamrolled their rest of the teams- Italy, USA and Russia. Italy are, by no means, a minnow- and it was reflected in the final standings. But surprisingly, a massive wake-up call was lent to the free-flowing Aussie team in their game against Ireland at Eden Park. An offensive line-up that scored a minimum of 50 points in each other game managed a meager 6 points against a ruthless Irish backline. Even fullback Kurtley Beale failed to find a way through the ‘home’ team, and a 15-6 defeat relegated Australia to second place and an immediate extinguishment of realistic World Cup hopes. The young Aussie frontline will need to step up and not crumble in the face of considerable opposition. This loss may have doomed them, though, with them having to face World Champions South Africa in the quarters. The pick of the Quarters, yes, but Australia will need to do much more to live upto their pre-World Cup billing.

-Lastly, Group D was expected to be a major test for stumbling World Champs South Africa. The pressure seemed to be getting to them over the last year or so, and the match against Wales was expected to be a back-breaker that would define their hopes. Fiji, Namibia and Samoa were cast aside in style, with Wales even inflicting a 66-0 defeat on Fiji. Disappointment for a proud Fiji team that was expected to finish first amongst the rest in the group- finally finishing behind Samoa. The second game of the group at Wellington lived upto its billing, a match-up between two giants of Rugby. Finally, it was replacement player Francois Hougaard who was the new Springbok hero, with a heroic try in the 65th minute of the tense game against Wales. Wales were 16-10 up at one stage, and the Boks had to dig deep to prove that they belong once again. At stake was not only pride, but the advantage of finishing first and facing a stumbling team from group C. That is it now Australia that they face, must not make South Africa very happy campers, but on current form, they are clear favorites.

The Real World Cup begins now. The final 8 lineup reads: Ireland v/s Wales in an all-European clash that will officially bring to fore the best backlines in the world, England v/s France in a mouth-watering football-familiar clash that will begin with England as firm favorites, the mother of all knockouts South Africa v/s Australia, and finally will end with favorites and perennial bridesmaids New Zealand v/s Argentina.
The fixtures will take place over the weekend. Can Argentina repeat their breakthrough semi-final reaching 2007 campaign? Could New Zealand finally claim what is rightfully theirs? Or could Australia spring a surprise on the boks- a slick little sleight of hand that could lay down the gauntlet as far as the final 4 are concerned.

The image of 2003, England’s Johnny Wilkinson 

A prediction will do no good- because every single game will be a cutthroat battle that will not exceed a winning margin of more than 10 points. No more one-sided dominant performances, flukes or luck-induced wins. It is all down to skill, speed, strength, pressure and the sheer NEED for glory.
This Cup must be earned.

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