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Playing in their seventh tournament, the Pacific Nations champions who are two-time quarterfinalists (1987 and 2007) have every right to be furious with the organisers. One away match — when they play England — is an occupational hazard of being in the same pool as the hosts. A second — against Wales — could be viewed as grossly unfair. As well that this is not the biggest thing on their rugby horizon — they go into the sevens at the 2016 Olympics with high hopes of winning Fiji’s first medal in any sport. Stars such as Joshua Matavesi will compete with vigour, and charm neutrals with their attacking instincts. On their day — ask the South Africans, shaken in their 2007 quarter-final — they can scare the best, but qualifying from a pool including three of the world’s top six would surpass any previous Fijian feat.
Of all the qualifiers, Los Teros (or the Lapwings) may be the happiest simply to be here, back for the third time after a 12-year break. Qualification was secured, in spite of losing out to the US in the Americas playoff, by defeating 2011’s rookies Russia 57-49 in the two-leg home and away repêchage final. Coached by former Bristol and Stade Français stalwart Pablo Lemoine, they draw on a tiny pool of players, but thanks to the influence of neighbours Argentina can be counted on to be competitive in the setpieces. Much will depend on lively scrum-half Agustin Ormachaea, pictured, whose father Diego was captain when Uruguay first qualified in 1999 — aged over 40, he was older than the union president — and coach in 2003.
Back for the seventh tournament running, the Samoans are, as any Welsh fan will tell you, the outsiders nobody wants in their pool. True, it is 16 years since they reached the knockout stage, but Scotland have every reason to be worried — not only are Samoa ahead of them in the world rankings, but they ran the All Blacks close in early July. That match in Apia was a ridiculously overdue New Zealand visit in acknowledgment of an extremely close relationship — there are more Samoan males in Auckland than in Samoa itself — and where one country ends and the other begins is, in rugby terms, often hard to tell. Samoans populate every major professional league, their remittances home making a huge contribution to the national economy, but that global spread of talent makes it tough to bring the national team together — except at World Cups, where they relish the pre-tournament camp and are all the more formidable for that opportunity.
World Cup ever-presents, the Japanese are back for the eighth time and even if they were not designated hosts for 2019 there would seem little difficulty in extending that run. Korea’s threat of a decade ago has been long extinguished and Japan scored more than 300 points in their four qualifying matches, in the process taking their ninth consecutive Asian championship. Their problems start now. Their technique and commitment are impeccable and they are hugely popular wherever they play — even the perennially likeable Fijians find themselves cast as overdogs when they meet — but have never found a solution to their inherent physical disadvantages. It is 24 years and six tournaments since their only finals victory, a 52-8 mullering of Zimbabwe in Belfast in 1991. Japan were fourth in the Pacific Nations, ahead of pool rivals USA. But they lost 23-18 to the Americans and have lost both World Cup meetings. Too bad they’re not playing Canada, whom they beat 20-6, and have drawn with at the last two World Cups.
For the past 91 years, the US have been the reigning Olympic rugby champions.
After winning this year’s London Sevens and finishing sixth in the annual rankings, they will hope to be extending the honour when rugby returns to the Olympics at Rio. The US have found World Cups far from congenial. They have only three wins, against Russia in 2011 and Japan in 1987 and 2003, to show for six finals appearances. They have prime talent, some of it familiar to British watchers. Dual-qualified Saracens back Chris Wyles, pictured, now captain, would be pressing for an England place if he had invoked that part of his heritage, while back row forward Manu Samoa has been a force of nature for Northampton. The problem is depth. Unless the US can persuade players who do not make it to pro football to try an allied trade, they will struggle to emerge from the also-rans.
Tonga have been the best of the three South Sea Island nations in the last two tournaments. In 2007, they beat Samoa and scared England, while making themselves hugely popular with their host community at Clapiers by refusing invitations to events that were not also open to townsfolk. Four years ago they beat the final-bound French and were only denied a place in the quarter-finals because of an earlier defeat by Canada. Flanker Nili Latu, outstanding in 2007, is set to lead a veteran squad, including full-back Vunga Lilo. In a fearsomely physical pool, no team is less likely to take a backward step than Tonga — and their Sipi Tau edges pool favourite New Zealand’s haka for sheer ferocity.
If any of the developing nations has a medium-term chance of bridging the gap to the established giants it is Georgia, winner of rugby’s last five European Nations Cups. It is big enough to promise a real flow of talent, but not sufficiently large to be a significant rugby nation. It also has a physical culture heritage based around wrestling. Strong connections with France mean that its best players have the chance to play high-level professional rugby. In their fourth tournament, Georgia have worried some leading nations — Ireland were given a huge scare in 2007, Argentina and Scotland were pushed all the way in 2011 — without yet bringing one down. All three matches were low scoring, pointing to an on obvious and slightly ironic limitation. A state (and team) born out of the demise of the Soviet Union would prefer any eventuality to its return, but a team that — like the Soviet combinations of the 1980s — combined Georgian forwards with Russian backs could probably make the breakthrough.
Like Japan, Namibia continue to command their continent’s allotted place in the World Cup finals, but struggle once there. Where they differ is that they also have to battle to stay ahead of local contenders. Morocco, Tunisia, Kenya and Zimbabwe have all come close to emulating the Ivorians of 1995, the last team to beat Namibia to the finals. Their fifth consecutive appearance was no more clear-cut than the previous four, a big win over Madagascar (who had beaten them at an earlier stage) squeezing them through on points difference when Kenya fell at the last hurdle, losing to Zimbabwe.
The Namibians bring colourful back stories — one player in 2003 was an animal trainer who had reputedly once punched a lion — and committed physicality to the finals, but have generally served as a punchbag for stronger nations. The average score by opponents has been 65 points, with a peak of 142-0 by Australia at Adelaide in 2003, making the use of the venue’s cricket scoreboard all too appropriate.
World Cup ever-presents playing in their eighth tournament, Canada have fallen a little from their early status as one of the best of the second-tier nations. They were among the first to make an impact, challenging Ireland and Wales for a good hour in their pool contests in 1987 and making it to the quarter-finals in 1991, when they gave the All Blacks a decent game before going down 29-13 in rainswept Lille. They have not gone as far, nor looked much like doing so, since — but have retained the ability to give any opponent a game, with only the All Blacks (twice) topping 50 against them. Drawing strength from a well-established rugby culture in Vancouver and Victoria, Canada continue to punch above their weight in peripheral World Cup categories — a tradition of smart, wryly humorous captains and the finest beard seen at the tournament, sported by flanker Adam Kleeburger, pictured, in 2011.
Another team of World Cup perennials who are not quite what they were. Romania were perhaps unlucky that the first tournament was not until 1987, by which time the privations of the late Ceaucescu era were dragging them down from the peaks attained earlier in the decade when, in playing strength at least, they were potential recruits to the then Five Nations. National captain Florica Murariu was among the martyrs of the revolution of 1989. Since then, they have dropped down the rankings, being overtaken by first Italy then Georgia. They have finished second in the last three European Nations Cups and their best recent performer, feisty French-based hooker Marius Tincu, pictured, last played in 2012, but they will offer any opponent a tough, physically committed challenge.