Pool C: Wallabies pose potent threat but Irish in a dark place


Australia

Coach Robbie Deans

Captain James Horwill

it is 10 long years since the Wallabies won a Test match on the far side of the "ditch", as Australians call the Tasman Sea, and if it boils down to a last-day shoot-out against New Zealand in Auckland, where the All Blacks have not lost for the best part of two decades, there is only one sensible place for the smart money to go. So runs the orthodox argument.

The unorthodox argument says that with Deans, a dyed-in-the-wool Kiwi with the coaching credentials from heaven, on the inside track when it comes to strategy and tactics, an upset is more than possible.

Australia last claimed a world title in 1999, on the back of a magnificent pack and a defence so niggardly that it conceded only one try throughout the whole tournament. Since then, they have been a pushover up front – quite literally, as England will testify. Deans has scoured the country for forwards capable of providing a stellar back division with 40 per cent of the ball, which is generally more than enough for the likes of Will Genia, Quade Cooper, Adam Ashley-Cooper, James O'Connor, Digby Ioane and Kurtley Beale. Now, at just the right moment, he seems to have found the needful.

If Ben Alexander and Stephen Moore stay fit and Horwill forges a working relationship with the newly re-available Dan Vickerman in the engine room – and if the sensational flanker David Pocock performs as he did against the All Blacks in Brisbane nine days ago – they will take an awful lot of beating.





Ireland

Coach Declan Kidney

Captain Brian O'Driscoll

ice-cold after the warm-up programme, in which they lost all four of their matches, the Irish are in a dark place that they could not have imagined inhabiting a year ago. The loss of David Wallace, their highly effective breakaway forward, to injury while firing volleys of blanks at England in Dublin nine days ago was a blow upon a bruise, and it is still hurting.

Rather like the All Blacks, they appear to be on the wrong cycle when it comes to World Cup years: excellent in between, fallible during. Some of their most familiar players, from Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell up front to Ronan O'Gara in midfield, are fanning the embers of their careers, although the wondrous O'Driscoll can still win a big match pretty much on his own at the grand old age of 32.

It is for the younger generation to step up now, and while the outside-half Jonathan Sexton and the outstanding flanker Sean O'Brien are among the best to be found in Europe, there are barren patches elsewhere.

Italy

Coach Nick Mallett

Captain Sergio Parisse

On the face of it, the custodians of the Azzurri game were just a little previous in deciding that Mallett's career as national coach should be wound down at the end of the tournament. Italy's ground-breaking Six Nations victory over France in Rome must surely have reminded them that Mallett, for all his occasional foibles in selection, is among the finest half-dozen strategists in the sport.

Italy have seldom had much to write home about during World Cups, although they might easily have qualified for the quarter-finals in 2003 but for a savagely unfair fixture schedule that forced them to play Canada and Wales in the space of 96 hours. But they have some class at their disposal this time – and not just in the shape of back-row forward Parisse, who would probably find a place in any team anywhere. They have depth at prop, an ever-improving flanker in Alessandro Zanni and a young scrum-half in Edoardo Gori (above), who may just be the best home-grown player in a generation.





United States

Coach Eddie O'Sullivan

Captain Todd Clever

If every Eagles player was as exhilarating as Taku Ngwenya, the Zimbabwean-born wing who ran round the Springboks at the last World Cup and launched a professional career for himself in the process, the American public might take an interest.

As this is not the case, the prospects of the union game registering so much as a blip on the radar protecting Planet Gridiron are remote indeed. There are some decent performers in this current squad, though, some of whom – Mike MacDonald, Hayden Smith, the excellent Chris Wyles – have coped comfortably with the demands of Premiership rugby. All the same, victory over Russia is their first and only target.





Russia

Coach Nikolay Nerush

Captain Vladislav Korshunov

There are precious few foreign-based personnel in the Bears' squad – 25 of the 30 selected play in Russia, 13 of them for the Moscow side WA-Podmoskovje – but the back-room team is decidedly international.

The former Sale coach Kingsley Jones, the dual-code Test player Henry Paul and the Lions prop Darren Morris are all helping Nerush, who will cut a heroic figure if he can plot victory over the Americans in the opening match. The wing Vasily Artemyev, recently signed by Northampton, looks like a serious talent.

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