Pool B: England favourites in tough group

(Rugby News Service) Sunday 28 August 2011
 
Pool B: England favourites in tough group
Centre Manu Tuilagi is creating excitement among England fans

AUCKLAND, 28 Aug. -  England, Scotland and Argentina will battle with Georgia and Romania for two quarter-final places from Pool B in arguably the most fiercely contested group at Rugby World Cup 2011.

While England are ranked No.5 in the world, they have one of the best RWC pedigrees. The 2003 champions have only failed twice to make the semi-finals (1987 and 1999) and with Australia have contested the most finals (three). 

This know-how was perhaps best illustrated four years ago in France, when Brian Ashton's unfancied team defeated hosts France in the last four to reach the final, where they lost to South Africa.

This year's squad face an immediate test of their mettle, with an opening match against the physically powerful Argentines on 10 September in Dunedin. With this in mind, England fans will be warmed by the sight of veteran second row Simon Shaw - all 123kg and 203cm of him - in the squad.

Shaw will be joined in the pack by fellow veterans Nick Easter and Steve Thompson, plus young guns Courtney Lawes and Alex Corbisiero, while loose forwards Tom Croft, James Haskell, Tom Wood and captain Lewis Moody bring more power.

The fresh excitement around England comes from Samoa-born 20-year-old centre Manu Tuilagi, whose partnership with Mike Tindall was the highlight of Saturday's 20-9 warm-up victory over Ireland in Dublin. That result gives England momentum after a disappointing loss to Wales in Cardiff, having earlier beaten them at Twickenham to launch their RWC warm-up campaign.

Scrum half Danny Care’s absence through injury means 23-year-old Joe Simpson could earn his first cap at RWC 2011, although Richard Wigglesworth offers the prime challenge to Ben Youngs for the No.9 jersey.

England’s 2003 World Cup-winning hero Jonny Wilkinson will be at his fourth World Cup, while the hero of England's Six Nations triumph, Chris Ashton, can scare any opponent from the wing.

Scotland, ranked No.8 in the world, have reached the quarter-finals in all six Rugby World Cups, but have progressed to the last four only once. They had the misfortune of meeting the mighty All Blacks in 1987, 1995, 1999, while in 1991 they fell agonisingly short of making the final, losing 9-6 to England in the semi-finals. 

Led by former England coach Andy Robinson, the Scots have had a strong build-up, beating Italy and Ireland. Those boosts were needed after a disappointing Six Nations campaign which saw Scotland defeated by France, Wales, Ireland and England before they gained a solitary win over Italy

Scotland achieved their most significant result of the last decade when they beat world champions South Africa 21-17 last November, coming a week after a 49-3 humbling by New Zealand at Murrayfield.

Chris Paterson will become the first Scot to play in four Rugby World Cups when he runs out in New Zealand. Scotland’s most-capped player with 105 Tests, Paterson is one of the game's best goal kickers and booted 36 consecutive goals during RWC 2007 and the 2008 Six Nations Championship.

Glasgow Warriors second row Alastair Kellock, who was overlooked for RWC 2007, will continue to captain the side after his Six Nations leadership.

The squad averages 35 caps per player and the backs boast plenty of experience, with Paterson plus four others - Mike Blair, Chris Cusiter, Sean Lamont and Dan Parks - winning more than 50 caps. With 236 Test points, Parks can share kicking duties with Paterson.

Two forwards have more than 50 caps, with Nathan Hines (73) and Allan Jacobsen (56) appearing in their third RWCs, while 205cm second row Richie Gray offers some star value.

Argentina, ranked No.9, will arrive in New Zealand aiming to build on their excellent showing at RWC 2007, when they defeated hosts France in the third-place play-off.

They will do so with a new coach and captain, former Pumas playing legend Santiago Phelan having replaced Marcelo Loffreda on the sidelines, while on-field leadership duties are likely to be assumed by Felipe Contepomi after 2007 captain Agustin Pichot's retirement two years ago.

Another star of 2007, fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez, failed to recover from a knee injury in time for RWC 2011, but Argentina's squad does feature 10 of the players who captured the imagination of the rugby world in France, including Contepomi, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Rodrigo Roncer and Mario Ledesma Arocena.

Without the benefit of Six Nations or Tri-Nations tournaments, Argentina have had just one international warm-up, a 28-13 defeat in Wales.

With England the favourites to top Pool B, the 25 September match between Argentina and Scotland in Wellington looks pivotal for both sides.

Georgia, ranked No.16, qualified for a third-successive RWC by winning the European Nations Cup after a decisive 36-8 victory over Russia in neutral Turkey.

In France four years ago Georgia's first RWC victory – 30-0 over Namibia – and a narrow 14-10 defeat by Ireland greatly helped develop the game in the country.

Coached by Richie Dixon, a former Scotland flanker and coach, Georgia have a number of players based in France, including Montpellier second row/flanker Mamuka Gorgodze. Georgia's leading try scorer with 18, he is known as 'Gorgodzilla' in France where he was voted foreign player of the season 2010-11.

Romania, ranked No.17, inflicted the only loss on Georgia in qualifying and later secured their place in New Zealand by beating Tunisia and Uruguay in the play-offs. 

The Oaks will target victory against Georgia to keep up their record of winning a pool game at every RWC except 1995, and will rely on Perpignan duo Ovidiu Tonita and Marius Tincu.

RNS sg/rg