OK, firstly, check out the current world standings! Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you: ARGEN-FUCKING-TINA ARE FIFTH IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW. Argentina are ahead of ENGLAND, IRELAND, AND WALES. Hell has truly frozen over. And it's a sad commentary on how far Scottish rugby has fallen that they have fallen behind even Italy. The best thing, though? Look at that huge gap of daylight between the All Blacks at #1 and everybody else. Honestly, maybe they should just kick out a couple of the worthless minnows (looking at you, Portugal and Namibia) and include the Junior All Blacks and New Zealand Maori. Hell, the Maori beat the USA 74-6 earlier this year, and that was our fourth string team against the best the Americans could throw at us!
I admit, though, that I have some jitters about the All Blacks. In the Tri-Nations, we demonstrated that we have great staying power (just look at how we beat the Springboks in South Africa) and that we can play some really spectacular rugby, but the basic skills sometimes just weren't there. Ever since the Tri-Nations ended, I damn well hope they've been practicing their basic skills to avoid some of the horrible mistakes they made in the Tri-Nations such as inept passes and woeful knock-ons. The squad does look pretty good, though I'm not sure this team is quite the equal of the dominant 2005-06 team.
Australia should be disqualified for having Matt Dunning on the team. That is seriously the most unhealthy rugby player I have ever seen, not to mention the most incompetent. Some forwards look like tanks; Dunning is probably a gigantic chocolate cake that grew legs. His complete inability to set scrums cracks me up, and it seems the refs are at least starting to wise up to his trick of trying to pass the blame to the other team. I hope the Wallabies fail abysmally. This is one of their worst teams ever. Some of their new backs, such as Huxley and Ashley-Cooper, seem to barely even know what they're doing.
So, what's going to happen? Well, here are my predictions of the order the teams will finish in their groups.
1. South Africa
England seems to rely on Jonny Wilkinson to have any success these days, while South Africa strikes me as more of a team, so the Boks should win that tussle. Samoa could potentially surprise England, especially if Wilkinson doesn't play, but I don't think they quite will. At the bottom of the table, I'm predicting the USA will upset Tonga. If they do, it will be the first time the Americans have beaten anyone other than the Japanese in the World Cup.
Australia won't struggle to finish top of this group, though I do hope Wales will give them a run for their money. As long as they play their full strength team, the Fijians could really push the Welsh, but the Welsh have a lot of pride on the line and I think they will play well enough to make the quarter-finals. Amongst the minnows, Canada probably won't have too much trouble overcoming the Japanese, who have competed in every World Cup but won only one game, against Zimbabwe in 1991, while the Canadians have actually reached the quarter-finals before. If they play well enough, the Canadians could even upset Fiji.
1. New Zealand
Yes, this really is the most pitifully pathetic group they could have possibly given the All Blacks. Scotland are a miserable shadow of some of their past achievements, and while Italy may be a rising force in the last few years of Six Nations rugby, I hardly think they will provide a decent challenge to the All Blacks. It just irritates the hell out of me that we're #1 in the world and the best warm-up we will receive prior to the quarter-finals will be against #9, Italy. At least everyone else gets at least a decent opponent in the group stages. And then look at the minnows! PORTUGAL? We might as well play a pack of Kiwi schoolboys - they'd be more of a challenge. 100+ point win there is not an unreasonable possibility.
Well, looking on the bright side, at least this is a group of life for the non-Kiwi teams.
And immediately following the group of life is the group of death. France, Argentina, and Ireland, numbers 3, 5, and 6 in the world respectively, in one group? They should have swapped Argentina and Italy/Scotland to make Group C more reasonable. I'm picking an upset here: the Irish haven't played that great lately while Argentina have been on a massive roll. Hell, the Argentines could top the group if they overcome France, but as that's the opening game of the tournament and on French soil, I don't think it'll happen. As for the minnows, Georgia will hopefully beat Namibia and get their first World Cup win, which should do wonders for the sport in Georgia: it is apparently the second most popular sport there, and the most popular in some regions.
Australia vs England: I want to go with England here, but I expect Australia will win. However, if South Africa end up being Group A's runner-up, then I think they will kick the Aussies out.
New Zealand vs Argentina: We've never lost to Argentina before. And if Ireland do qualify instead, we've never lost to them before either!
South Africa vs Wales: I think the Boks have it together enough that they should get past the Welsh.
France vs Italy: Won't be a contest regardless of whether Italy or Scotland makes it.
New Zealand vs Australia: Duh.
South Africa vs France: We're in France, after all.
Third Place Playoff
Australia vs South Africa: I think the Boks have demonstrated in the Tri-Nations that they are superior to the Wallabies.
New Zealand vs France: The Cup is coming home, damnit! I'm actually not at all confident about this pick. In light of 1999, facing the French is a bit daunting. But we've got to win. It's been 20 years since the first Cup. Time to bring it home.