Next stop South Africa: Progress report on the 16 nations shaping up for this summer's World Cup

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Next stop South Africa: Progress report on the 16 nations shaping up for this summer's World Cup

ArgentinaTHE momentum in Argentina's build-up - two victories over Scotland in June - has been lost. The Pumas went to South Africa in October, took two hammerings, and came back to a political storm when the coaches criticised the executive committee and were sacked. Alessandro Pedra, the new coach, has a large number of internationals at his disposal, but this has less to do with strength in depth than selection vacillation in the past - 33 players were capped last year. However, Dougie Morgan, the Scottish coach defeated last summer, tips them for a quarter-final place (their group includes England, Western Samoa and Italy) and was particularly impressed with a scrummaging unit in which Federico Mendez (above), who laid out Paul Ackford at Twickenham in 1990, is now a cornerstone. "Their general physique is very good," said Morgan. "And they kicked better than we did. However, they tend to play better on their own patch than when travelling."

AustraliaTHE world champions had six wins out of six last year, one of them the Bledisloe Cup victory over the All Blacks. In the process, two significant discoveries were made: Ilie Tabua, a huge flanker of phenomenal pace, and George Gregan, a scrum-half - finally - to replace Nick Farr- Jones. Yet Australia laboured against a weak Irish side, very nearly fell to the Italians and left Bob Dwyer, the coach, bemoaning a shortage of top-quality players. "It was a good, but not great, season," he said. "We had our moments, but not many of them." He expects the Wallabies to have many more this year after a close season in which they met for a series of camps. The Super 10 season started last week, and the time off before it was ample for the ankle of the lock Rod McCall and the damaged tendons of the captain Phil Kearns to mend. Only Tim Horan (total knee restructure) remains doubtful and he has recently had two sevens games and yesterday played in a club trial match. The prime worry for Australia is that two and a half months might be insufficient to prepare for South Africa. "This may be a problem," Dwyer said, "but then again eight months might be even worse. We won't actually get the squad together now until three days before we play Argentina - if the players aren't needed by their state, then their clubs want them instead."

CanadaPREPARATION could hardly have gone worse. Defeat in all six of their European winter tour matches was followed by a falling out between players and management and a general acknowledgement that their game plan was four years out of date. If anyone could apply a last-minute remedy, it would be Gareth Rees (below), the stand-off and captain, but having been suspended after a fight in a recent match for Newport, his Welsh club, Rees may now miss the April tour, the only time when the Canucks' health could be restored. "I think the disharmony has been settled," said Chris Tynan, the team's injured scrum-half. "As for the new game plan, we wanted to open up our style from the 10-man rugby we played at the last World Cup. Against England, it obviously didn't work. The April tour will be a better indicator for the World Cup." Tynan has a prolapsed disc and is "touch and go" for South Africa; a glimmer of hope rests with Al Charron, the influential No8, whose shoulder will soon be mended.

Form Guide

11 June 1994 Canada 15 Wales 33

10 December England 60 Canada 19

17 December France 28 Canada 9

21 January 1995 Scotland 22 Canada 6

7 March Uruguay 9 Canada 28

World Cup run-in: Test vs Fiji (2 April, Fiji), Test vs New Zealand (22 April, Auckland).

Odds: 200-1

EnglandTHE ENGLISH chariot is not short on momentum: so confident has been its drive to the World Cup that it has become the talk of the southern hemisphere - "I'm shivering in my boots," Michael Lynagh, the Australian stand-off, said last week. Can it really be that before Christmas there were questions about the make-up of the back row? "If England had that back row in 1991, then the result may well have been different," Lynagh remarked.

After Saturday's Grand Slam decider, however, the domestic season limits the time the squad can spend together. There will be four Tuesday-night training sessions and only two weekend sessions. Is that enough? "I don't think you can ever have enough time," John Elliott, the assistant manager, said. "The importance is the frequency - you have to be doing the skills regularly." After Saturday, the goal will be to reproduce South African conditions, particularly the humidity of Durban, where England play their group matches. The players may train in clothing that simulates the climate.

Nothing is being left to chance: Les Cusworth, the assistant coach, was in Argentina last week to watch England's first opponents. "There will be a lot of other work," Elliott said. "The players will have to watch videos of our opponents at home. It's a case of using time wherever possible."

Form Guide

12 Nov 1994 England 54 Romania 3

10 December England 60 Canada 19

21 January 1995 Ireland 8 England 20

4 February England 31 France 10

18 February Wales 9 England 23

World Cup run-in: Calcutta Cup (Twickenham, Sat).

Odds: 7-2FranceIN JULY, when France beat the All Blacks with the last- minute try which Philippe Saint-Andr (below) memorably described as a "counter-attack from the end of the world", the French looked to have the Webb Ellis Cup in their sights. Having been totally outplayed by England and pipped by Scotland in recent Five Nations' matches, they did not. Unpredictable? The solution provided by coach Pierre Berbizier in the subsequent game against Ireland was in a team with no penalty-kicker: Emile N'Tamack's attempts strayed closer to the corner flags than the uprights.

Berbizier, however, appeared unperturbed - N'Tamack's misses only served to shorten France's winning margin. "We started the season with confidence," Berbizier said, "there was a black hole in the middle and we are confident now." Such confidence will be expected to increase at France's week-long training camp in Perpignan in May as France's natural running game would appear ideally suited to the South African veld.

Form Guide

17 December 1994 France 28 Canada 9

21 January 1995 France 21 Wales 9

4 February England 31 France 10

18 February France 21 Scotland 23

4 March Ireland 7 France 25

World Cup run-in: Test vs Romania (8 April, Bucharest).

Odds: 7-1

IrelandTHREE Five Nations defeats in three matches is hardly the ideal World Cup run-in - so what does coach Gerry Murphy have planned? "Other than mass suicide, you mean?" The most immediate alterations have been in Ireland's line-up for next weekend's bottom-place play-off with Wales: the dropping of Michael Bradley, the captain, is one of the six changes. "We are just not playing that well," Murphy said. "But I think we'll be able to put that right. Irish sides traditionally travel very well, which I hope will stand in our favour."

The result of next weekend's game in Cardiff is significant: Ireland and Wales are in the same group at the World Cup, one which New Zealand are expected to win and Japan are expected to lose. That would leave the two home countries competing for a quarter-final place. "Both us and Wales have had fairly disastrous seasons, so Saturday's result will carry a lot of psychological weight. However, given the enormously different conditions in South Africa, I'm not sure that the game will be much of an indicator," Murphy added.

It is the playing surfaces and altitude in South Africa that has persuaded Murphy to fly the side out as early as the World Cup rules allow. Until then, the team will be limited to Sunday get-togethers. Little time in which to put things right.

Form Guide

11 June 1994 Australia 32 Ireland 18

5 November Ireland 26 United States 15

21 January 1995 Ireland 8 England 20

4 February Scotland 26 Ireland 13

4 March Ireland 7 France 25

World Cup run-in: Five Nations match v Wales (Cardiff, Sat); Test v Italy (6 May, Treviso).

Odds: 50-1

ItalyLAST June Italy proved they had the potential to cause upsets in South Africa. With minutes left in the First Test in Brisbane, they were beating Australia, who had not lost during 1994, 17-13. The world champions finally kicked their way to victory, but Italy's masterful counter-attacking showed that they will be a threat. "That First Test was the one that got away, really disappointing," Julian Gardner, Italy's Australian-born forward, said. "Yet we won all our midweek games out there and held our own against Wales in October. There's definitely a strong chance of us to making the quarter-finals." The Italians' preparation would receive a boost if Massimo Giovanelli, their captain, were to cover sufficiently from a car crash last September when he suffered multiple fractures to his left femur. "That was a major disappointment," Gardner said. "However, he's just started running and if it is humanly possible to come through, he would be the man to do it."

Form Guide

21 May 1994 Italy 63 Holland 9

18 June Australia 23 Italy 20

25 June Australia 20 Italy 7

1 October Italy 24 Romania 6

12 October Wales 29 Italy 19

World Cup run-in: Training camp in France, 17 April-1 May (no fixtures finalised); Test v Ireland (6 May, Treviso).

Odds: 100-1

Ivory CoastFOR THE Ivory Coast, read France B. Fourteen of the squad live and play their rugby in France; one of them, Frederic DuPont, was born in Madagascar, taken to France when a baby, and had never been back to Africa before January when he set foot in the Ivory Coast for the first time.

No one expected the Ivory Coast to win the African qualifying tournament - Namibia rested six players for their fixture and paid for it - and they risk conceding a frightening number of points in the real thing. The squad's split across two continents certainly has not made their task any less gargantuan. "We are not very good at the moment and we have a lot of work to do because we are in different countries," Athanese Dali, the captain and a member of the French connection, said. "We go on our South African tour tomorrow, which will be very important."

Their nickname - the Elephants -hardly conjures images of speed and agility but Dali promises a running game. "I play full-back and like to come into the line a lot. The World Cup, though, is just a chance for us to participate. Everybody considers France and Scotland the best in our group and that's no problem. We want to go there, play our best and show that rugby is in good health in the Ivory Coast."

Form Guide

26 Oct 1993 Tunisia 16 IC 19 (Tunis)

30 Oct Morocco 3 IC 15 (Tunis)

14 June 1994 IC 9 Morocco 17 (C'blanca)

16 June IC 13 Namibia 12 (C'blanca)

18 June IC 17 Zimbabwe 10 (C'blanca)

World Cup run-in: South Africa tour (matches against three provinces, March); two-week camp in French Pyrenees (May).

Odds: 750-1