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Three hundred and sixty three days to go and counting. Even more than football, modern rugby union exists in four-year cycles defined by the next World Cup.
This weekend marks a distinct point in the cycle. It is now less than a year until France kick off against Argentina, who with stupefying ill-luck have been cast for the third tournament running as the host’s opening day obstacle.
To end this year’s tri-Nations tournament, Saturday’s meeting between South Africa and Australia in Johannesburg is the last significant match which can be defined as ‘penultimate’ rather than ‘last’ before the next World Cup. Next week sees the beginning of the European qualifiers that will start to fill in the final gaps on next year’s schedule.
On one level the Ellis Park contest is an academic exercise. South Africa are doomed to finish last in the tri-Nations and Australian cannot rise higher than an extremely distant second behind New Zealand, already confirmed as champions . Those issues were clarified even before the Springboks spoilt the All Blacks season last week with a narrow win at Rustenberg. Those ‘dead rubbers’ are, some might argue, fair reward for the southern hemisphere’s moneyed trio deciding to play more matches between themselves rather than showing some imagination and incorporating Argentina.
Little, though, is academic a year before a World Cup. New Zealand look overwhelming favourites at this point. Nobody else has made a compelling case, while the All Blacks have hammered Britain’s best and dominated the Tri-Nations, but one need only think back to all those previews before the football World Cup asking ‘Can anyone beat Brazil ?’, to remember what can happen to hot favourites.
Others will be scrutinising New Zealand’s potential weaknesses - the vulnerable line-out exposed last week by South Africa and the lack of brilliant, as opposed to highly competent, cover for Danny Carter as midfield playmaker. New Zealanders also wonder whether the pressures of living up to an incomparable heritage and bitter memory of their last two World Cup failures have created insuperable psychological pressure on their team.
France has home advantage and share with South Africa proven ability, albeit expressed in very different style, to rattle New Zealand. Australia’s recent history shows an ability to peak in World Cup years. The mere fact of being holders will stiffen England’s resolve.
We know 12 of the 20 teams who have qualified for next year - the eight ‘Foundation Unions’ who were quarter-finalists in 2003 plus Fiji, Samoa, Argentina and Canada. A strong case of the usual suspects - all but Fiji, who missed 1995, and Samoa, not invited in 1987, have played in every World Cup . It is possible the 20-team line-up in France will be identical to that in Australia four years ago.
Number 13 will be known early next month with the forward power of Uruguay, qualifiers in 1999 and 2003, making them favourites against the USA. Every previous competition has had at least one debutant. Best bet this time may be Morocco, already all but assured of a place in next month’s African home and away final against either Namibia, familiar from the last three tournaments, or Tunisia.
Next week’s European matches, Ukraine v Russia and Spain v Czech Republic, with away legs two weeks later, will supply the final contestants for two October European mini-leagues likely to send Italy - who will fancy their chances of displacing Scotland to reach the quarter-final next year - and perennial qualifiers Romania to France. The third place, to be settled in November, is likely to be contested by 2003’s sentimental favourites Georgia and Portugal, who must fear that an outstanding team peaked too late for 2003 and too early for this edition.
November will also bring the Asian round-robin in Sri Lanka, where Japan will expect to maintain their 100 per cent finals attendance record at the expense of Korea and Hong Kong.
All that will remain in the New Year is the two repechage places. Bad news for likely Asian runner-up Korea is that Tonga, who beat them 194-0 on aggregate this time four years ago, are waiting for them. Rather more interest will attend the other repechage, where Europe and Africa’s runners-up, possibly Portugal and Namibia respectively, will play off for a place in the final qualifier against the American losers, likely to be USA.
Without prejudice against any other nation, those who like a little novelty in the early stages of the finals should spend the next few weeks cheering on Portugal and Morocco.