Out of all four pools of teams at this years Rugby World Cup, Pool C was as predicted “the Lukewarm Pool”. Weighted heavily in the reigning World Champions favour, it could not compete against the fully-loaded “pool of Death” so we made good with the Latin flair, Polynesian power, Baltic pride and the African wildcard.
Yes, the games and atmosphere were just as exciting as any other, don’t get me wrong. Tonga, Namibia and Georgia were all worthy opponents, but the two major sides that eventually advanced to the quarterfinals were predictably Argentina and the title contenders, the New Zealand All Blacks.
Other pools had similar appearances, see Pool B but once Japan took their ‘window of opportunity’ to upset South Africa, it certainly set in motion some outstanding encounters throughout. From Georgia surprising Tonga, Wales defeating England at the home of rugby union and then Australia amazingly pushed the hosts out all together so thankfully, no such huge upsets on this side of the draw.
Pool C grouping: Georgia, Tonga, Argentina, New Zealand and Namibia.
As the tournament kicked off, with the hosts putting on a sparkling opening ceremony and Game One: England v Fiji, the Pool C matches began with Georgia working extremely hard and looking the sharper team in matching Tonga in all areas. An superb match, it was our first surprise result when Georgia 10 Tonga 17.
That saved the most tantalizing contest of them all–between current World Champions New Zealand meeting Argentina at Twickenham,
Their hardest challenge to be honest, the All Blacks are now very familiar with their South American foes. Only four months removed since Los Pumas had traveled to Christchurch, losing that Rugby Championship clash so coach Daniel Hourcade needed his men to come out swinging, and they did.
Resisting an early charge from the All Blacks, they replied well and made several tests of their much fancied opponents, with their lock Petti Pagadizabal crossing, it was looking ominous for a fidgeting All Blacks side to show some rust. Players looked flustered and on this day, Richie McCaw made a novice error (hard to fathom from a 140 cap player) and his foot-trip meant he was sin binned.
To make matters worse, Conrad Smith mis-interpreted a ruck and was given his marching orders for ten minutes too, and Argentina had a choice to make with New Zealander only having 13 men on the field: do they kick the Penalty? or take a risk and go for a try?
Sadly, they chose to kick and then went off the boil losing any advantage and the All Blacks soon enough imposed themselves yet again. Several late tries to finally win New Zealand 26 Argentina 16.
Those two clashes opened this groups next rounds of matches:
New Zealand 58 Namibia 14 – In their first ever test match, many expected a try-fest but it was a messy All Black team that fumbled and to a degree, let the Namibians into the match even conceeding a try to Johan Deysel. That did not detract from the two tries scored by Man of the Match Nehe Milner-Skudder, who shone in a side that seemed stuck in third gear.
Argentina 54 Georgia 9 – A bright note in the second round of clashes, the seven try demolition was delightful for the passionate Los Pumas fans, who certainly added the magic that large tournaments need. The fans enjoyed the Kingsholm theatre and when the Georgian captain was sin binned, his side melt under the constant attacking from Argentina.
Two of the less fancied teams, Tonga now met Namibia in a wonderful match-up, the teams piling on over 50 points to leave the crowd entertained. Tonga 35 Namibia 21, the Pacific Islanders would be happy to walk away with the points, especially when inspirational Namibian captain Jacques Burger scored twice to make it a real match. The Tongans countered that barrage and showed their better team culture in holding out the less organized Namibians, but each took away some respectability for the African teams participation.
Within the Pool C games, some had been predicted pre-tournament to produce potential ‘new World records’. Pundits had huge expectations of the New Zealander’s and were needing to see an impeccable display when they faced Georgia – what they saw was a mere reflection of the All Blacks potential. A side who seemed bent on over complex-formulas that soon made their task seem too difficult.
The two sides were very mis-matched, and inside 90 seconds of the kick-off the returning winger Waisake Naholo scored an outstanding try – but unlike the regular displays from this world leading side, the All Blacks seemed to ‘fumble their words’ when called to stage.
New Zealand 43 Georgia 10 was the final score but it was underwhelming, with many plaudits going to a spirited team like Georgia (so much so, their captain was awarded Man of the Match)
Alarm bells had sounded for the favourites; especially as Australia had been in commanding form and the Springboks now rebounded from that early loss, to be set to qualify top of their pools.
Tonga now eyed the possibility of meeting Argentina (and possibly finishing second qualifier position) They began that game with all the gusto that we admire from the Warriors of the Pacific but all too characteristically, they lost the momentum over the game. Argentina were able to see off the impassioned Tongan attack; Argentina 45 Tonga 15.
The Pumas put on a clinical fightback, with tries for Joaquin Tuculet and Juan Imhoff that brought normal transmission, and late points put a gloss on the score. They played more naturally, with their hearts were-as the All Blacks were too mechanical
In the most unknown clash of this entire Pool play, Georgia played Namibia at Sandy Park in Exeter. Many just wanted to be present, as the unknown quality of this semi-professional rugby side brought a bigger than expected challenge for the Oaks from Georgia. A case of ‘who winks first’ and the more dominant European team did most things right.
Brilliantly lead by their captain and tryscorer Mamuka Gorgodze, he willed his players on in the same way his opposite does and even when Georgia felt comfortable, Namibia scored late to test the support base but the final score was Georgia 17 Namibia 16.
That brought New Zealand to play their final round-robin match against Tonga, and the rugby public demanded an improved performance. In the whole, they did but it was still not a totally convincing game to open with. A couple of early tries, it all fell flat when Tonga started to utlilize their English based players abilities; pushing the ball through the hands, playing close and smart but they could not stick with the leading points scoring team in all of Rugby World Cup history.
Growing in confidence, they ended up scoring some polished tries –New Zealand 47 Tonga 9. Milner-Skudder again showing that he will play a part in the next stages, Ma’a Nonu celebrating 100 test caps with a well received try and Daniel Carter having a much improved kicking game. With that win, it was an explanation point that all other teams noticed.
In contrast, Argentina ended their Pool play in a more commanding position, Argentina 64 Namibia 19, to give an example of what they are likely to offer in the quarterfinal match-up against the top-seeded Pool D side [Ireland]
Overall Pool C prognosis
They each contributed in their own ways in creating another eventful Rugby World Cup. Most of all, their fans all showed how passion is more valuable than marketing or high technology training facilities. The biggest support always comes from the ‘minnows’ so every team takes their own memories from this event.
The Namibian team have given themselves a huge push and along with other developing nations in Africa, it will lead to more exposure to World Rugby and to International competition. Well done: 7/10
Georgia are built in the same model as most Northern Hemisphere sides, forward based and they take their chances with quick reaction to small opportunities, but even with inspirational leadership, the realities of four tough encounters in a row meant they achieved an amazing result in winning two matches. Brilliant 8/10
The Tongan players will always bring some individual flair to every test match, it is just how they mould together as a side that can be difference in the end. Moments of excitement must be supported by good structure, so at times they could not use any clear foundations and will not be happy with just a single victory. Needs work 5/10
As many had forecast, Argentina have been an impressive form team. they won against South Africa in July, so will have motivation to go far in this tournament. The opening clashes have shown they are tracking well: average score per Pool game 44.75 (higher than New Zealand) With the ability to score tries, as much as they must rely on Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, they must retain hard driving Agustin Creevy and Nicolas Sanchez all fit, if they are wanting to reach the final four or their first ever Final. Classy 8/10
Not every game can be a record-breaker, so it was unrealistic for All Blacks fans to hope for 100 point wins, but in saying that they made their job too hard for themselves. Over analyzing such opposition like Namibia is something that All Blacks management took full responsibility for. They put too much information on the players, instead of saying “go out there and enjoy the event”. From now on, practice is over and they fittest players must begin every game. Ben Smith has had plenty of gametime, so with Julian Savea and Milner-Skudder to work with, that fullback will show his credentials, as will Kieran Read and Dane Coles. Plenty of room for improvement 7/10
In comparison to the other 15 teams, this would not be the most scintillating group of matches, entertaining but less extravagant than the Pool B games, the Pool D battles and in Pool A, it was sudden-death from the get go. The members of Pool C were not given easy victories, that is not fair. The All Blacks went in as World Champions, so deserved to be ranked at number one and over the last four years have the most outstanding record of any side in the Professional era.
And having been in the ‘paddling pool’ along with some lightweights was not ideal preparation for them, if you are brutally honest. A lukewarm pool was not really ideal. Will they now be under-cooked for the knock-out stages?
In my mind, Yes they will. It does not mean they cannot get up to full speed against their opposition France. it is also the undeniable history of these knock-out games: 1999 in Paris, 2003 in Sydney and then in a cruel twist, the exact same 2007 ground that will host this game on Saturday, the Millennium Stadium. It almost reads like a piece of fiction.
For my mind, Argentina can counter their opponent Ireland. I would love to see the upset, but Irish ‘home support’ has to carry them home (and possibly Scotland against Australia) New Zealand surely has the wood over France–their last encounter was a 24-9 at home, so recent history is now more on the All Blacks side, even if you imagine the Franco flair gelling together for one epic match. No, that is fairy tale stuff, and the odds are in New Zealand’s favour on Saturday in the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarterfinals.