Hosts sweating on World Cup fate in draw of terrors
Almost three years before the event, the draw for the 2015 World Cup will be made on the banks of the Thames this afternoon by Boris Johnson, among others. The Mayor of London may understand more about the sport of ping-pong – or "wiff waff", as he has been known to call it – than he does about rugby, but not even the truest aficionado of the union game could have predicted the rankings ahead of today's formalities.
The rise of two South Seas nations in Samoa and Tonga, allied to the rapid demise of two Celtic nations in Scotland and Wales, has muddied the waters to the extent that the leading teams are unsure where they stand. New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and France are the four seeded teams and will therefore be kept apart in the pool stage. However, the effect of results over the four weeks of the autumn Test window, which ended with England's spectacular victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham and the Wallabies last-ditch win in Cardiff, has shone a new and unexpected light on matters.
England, the hosts, will enter the draw as a second-tier side along with Ireland, Argentina and the Samoans. By losing seven straight games, four of them against Australia, the Welsh have slipped into the third block of nations, together with Scotland – a rapid fall from grace that ensures two "pools of death".
With Fiji, deeply inconsistent but perfectly capable of causing an upset on a one-off occasion, down in the fourth tier – always assuming they qualify against the might of the Cook Islands and sundry other Pacific Islands sides – the draw for this World Cup holds more terrors than it did for any of the previous seven tournaments stretching back to 1987. The Fijians are likely to be accompanied by Japan, Georgia, where rugby has been established as the national game, and either Canada or the United States.
New Zealand, the reigning champions, have never lost a World Cup group fixture and will not be expected to do so in 2015, even if they are drawn with the hosts, who gave them such a thorough shellacking on Saturday. But the last two finals have featured a side who finished second in their pool – England in 2007, France last year - so a bad draw today will not necessarily be the end of the road for anyone.
BEST AND WORST: ENGLAND'S HOPES
England's dream draw
England's nightmare scenario
* Draw takes place at 3pm this afternoon, live on ITV 4
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