Rugby Union: The lower orders set to attack status quo

sees surprises ahead for the home nations in the qualifying series for the World Cup
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IT WOULD be stretching a point to suggest that Taiwan's 34-29 victory over Sri Lanka in an absolute humdinger of an Asia Round B tie in downtown Bangkok will send the bookmakers rushing to revise their ante- post odds for next year's World Cup. The All Blacks are unlikely to lose much sleep worrying about the Asian threat; back in 1995, the Japanese took the game to New Zealand for the best part of 20 seconds before succumbing 145-17.

All the same, the Taiwan result - and a few dozen others like it - has given shape and substance to a tournament finally ready to leave the backwaters and take its place in the sporting mainstream. By the end of May, we will know the precise make-up of the final qualifying rounds - rounds that will involve England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Argentina and the major powers of the South Sea islands. Oh, and Australia, too. The 1991 world champions also have to prove themselves worthy of a seat at the top table.

England must play two qualifiers this autumn and as things stand, they will be against the Netherlands and, rather more demandingly, Romania. (The Ukraine may yet have something to say about that assumption, but their 35-13 defeat in Amsterdam last November left them looking more like Chicken Kiev than Dynamo Kiev). The Scots, meanwhile, can expect to face two from Spain, Portugal and, er, Germany, who currently stand joint top of Europe Round B Pool 3, if that makes any sense at all.

Any dyed-in-the-wool rugger-bugger traditionalists inclined to poke fun at the lower end of the world order - to mock Guyana's inability to field a side against Brazil, to giggle uncontrollably at Bulgaria's 89-0 hammering by Latvia, to fall about laughing at the very thought of Andorra winning an entire qualifying pool - will wake up with a start when they realise the seriousness of forthcoming events. Especially if they happen to be Irish, who will almost certainly cop Italy in one of their autumn qualifying matches, or Australian. The Wallabies are about to risk life and limb in a three-match collision with Western Samoa, Fiji and Tonga. The very best of British to them.

Only four countries have pre-qualified for the finals proper: the top three from 1995 - South Africa, New Zealand and France - plus Wales as hosts. Provided England avoid being turned over by the Dutch, they will be based on home soil in a group already including the All Blacks. The Romanians will probably join them along with a rank outsider from a newly instigated and mind-blowingly complicated repechage arrangement.

South Africa will be based in Scotland and despite a likely Murrayfield collision with the Scots themselves, they appear to have secured the most comfortable ride into the last eight. The remaining groups are far more competitive: France will probably face Western Samoa and Canada, Ireland can expect to come up against both Australia and the fast-improving Italians, while Wales may well have to pick a route past Argentina and one of the South Sea big-hitters - something they famously failed to achieve the last time they undertook World Cup business on home turf.

Just to make it harder for the home nations, none of whom will start as clear favourites to win their group, the organisers have inserted a nasty little play-off round before the quarter-finals; a move that could see easily see England and the Scots thrown together in a desperate confrontation that would make this weekend's Calcutta Cup match look like a vicarage whist drive. Still, they should worry. Poor old Tahiti lost 92-6 to Papua New Guinea in their most recent World Cup tie. Presumably, the coach is on borrowed time.