Rugby World Cup France 2007

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Exciting games will decide the pass to the quarter-finals

Friday night's Rugby World Cup game between England and Tonga opens a weekend of vital matches that will decide which squads will make it to the quarter-finals of the tournament.

Yes, if fans are excited by the prospect of these do-or-die matches, so are the players.

"Everyone in Tonga is waiting for this match," Tonga's number eight Finau Maka admitted. "It's the biggest game in Tongan rugby. We can't wait."

Indeed, three of the eight quarter-final spots have already been filled, with two-time champions Australia, title favourites New Zealand and South Africa guaranteed to finish atop their pools.

But holders England, hosts France, upstarts Tonga, Fiji, Italy and Argentina as well as perennial also-rans Scotland, Ireland and Wales are all fighting for survival in the final pool clashes of this World Cup.

In addition to the England-Tonga Pool A encounter in Paris, Wales face Fiji on Saturday in Nantes and Scotland take on the Italian team in St. Etienne on the same day in a decisive Pool C match. The winners of these matches go on to the knock-out stage; the losers go home.

The situation in Pool D is more complex. If France beat Georgia on Sunday in Marseille they will advance, while Ireland must defeat the Pumas from Argentina later Sunday in Paris by more than seven points and score at least four tries to oust the Pumas and reach the quarter-finals.

In addition, because they beat France in the tournament's opening encounter, if Argentina win on Sunday they not only send the Irish packing but also condemn the French to second place in the pool and a quarter-final match against New Zealand, with the likelihood of being knocked out of their own Cup at an embarrassingly early stage.

England come into Friday's match on the upswing after a disappointing start to the tournament. After being kept out of the first two matches with a sad injury, fly half Jonny Wilkinson returned to the lineup to lead England to a 44-22 victory over Samoa.

That triumph followed a demoralizing 36-0 defeat at the hands of South Africa.

If England lose, they will become the first holders not to advance beyond the pool stage and Tonga will make their first-ever appearance in the quarter-finals. The winners will face Australia on October 6 in Marseille.

It's good to mention that Wales look to be heavily favoured over Fiji, especially in light of their excellent showing against the Wallabies, losing by 32-20, while Fiji only squeaked past minnows Japan 35-31.

However, the Pacific islanders have recalled 11 first-choice players they rested from their 55-12 loss to Australia on Sunday, and they have less to lose than the Welsh, who will view defeat as a humiliation.

In Saturday's Pool C derby, Scotland need only to tie Italy to advance, and they have so far looked the better side of the two. In addition, they rested key players against New Zealand to better prepare for Italy.

As Scotland coach Frank Hadden said, "It was always going to boil down to this match. What both teams have done up until now counts for nothing."

As we know, Italy have made great strides under French coach Pierre Berbizier, and won their last meeting 37-17 at Murrayfield in the 2007 Six Nations tournament. If the Italians win, they will make their first appearance in the World Cup quarter-finals.

It would be an enormous upset if France did not beat Georgia on Sunday. It would also be a big setback for the hosts if they did not score four tries to notch the bonus point that could make a difference between first and second place in Pool D.

We must remember that the runner-up faces the Kiwis, the pool winner gets to play either Scotland or Italy, a much more inviting prospect.

The Ireland-Argentina game, which kicks off just minutes after France-Georgia ends, is certain to be the most hard-fought game of the weekend.

The two sides have met 14 times, with the Irish winning seven and the Pumas six, with one draw. Nine of those 14 games were decided by seven points or less.

Based on performance in this World Cup, Argentina look to be favoured. The Pumas come into the match with the best defensive line of the tournament, having conceded only 18 points in three matches, with no tries.

In addition, Irish substitute prop Rory Best was taken ill and hospitalized this week with what appears to be a heart ailment.

Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan said this did not help preparations for the match. "We have an issue we did not expect to have and a team-mate in hospital," he expressed. "We will have to get ready for the game. It will go ahead regardless."

South Africa to use their big names against the United States

Favorites South Africa have named close to their best side for their final Rugby World Cup group clash against the United States on Sunday.

Indeed, the popular Springboks, who have already secured their quarter-final place against either Wales or Fiji, will give winger Akona Ndungane his first start in the tournament, while lock Albert van den Berg will be playing in his 50th Test.

Schalk Burger returns from a two-game suspension and will play at No.8 while Danie Rossouw recovers from a knock in South Africa’s 30-25 win over Tonga last weekend.

Fullback Percy Montgomery, lining up for his 91st Test against the American Eagles, faces a fitness test on a calf injury at training tomorrow.

"Akona hasn’t had a game at the World Cup, and I think it’s only fair that everyone has an opportunity to play here and he gets his start," coach Jake White said.

"Albert (van den Berg) is playing in his 50th Test game and I think it’s good to give him a start and also over and above that Bakkies Botha has played three consecutive games and he’s played 80 minutes last weekend so we’re going to need him going forwards into the quarters.

"It’s more about giving the whole squad an opportunity to rest and play, it’s just not about being sentimental to Albert’s 50th Test, but it’s also based on Bakkies needing a bit of time on the bench."

White expressed that Montgomery didn’t train today with a tight calf muscle, while hooker Gary Botha had a cut arm and winger Ashwin Willemse and prop Gurthro Steenkamp have mouth abscesses.

"Danie (Rossouw) is not 100 percent ready after last week’s match and scrum-half Rico Januarie has a shoulder injury," White said.

"The good thing is that by this time next week, if all goes well with the injuries, then we should have a clean bill of health for the quarter-finals, semis and final and that’s what you want to go into, you want all these players available for selection."

White will be celebrating his 50th Test as the Springboks’ coach with his success rate standing at just over 63 percent.