South Africa vs Japan | Sep 19 | Brighton Community Stadium, Brighton
Samoa vs USA | Sep 20 | Brighton Community Stadium, Brighton
Scotland vs Japan | Sep 23 | Kingsholm, Gloucester
South Africa vs Samoa | Sep 26 | Villa Park, Birmingham
Scotland vs USA | Sep 27 | Elland Road, Leeds
Samoa vs Japan | Oct 3 | Stadiummk, Milton Keynes
South Africa vs Scotland | Oct 3 | St James Park, Newcastle
South Africa vs USA | Oct 7 | Queen Elizabeth Park, London
Samoa vs Scotland | Oct 10 | St James Park, Newcastle
USA vs Japan | Oct 11 | Kingsholm, Gloucester
South Africa - While Australia tried valiantly throughout the Rugby Championship despite clearly having one eye on the World Cup, South Africa take the cake as the most dangerous team we currently know nothing about. Judging South Africa on any rugby played this year, whether it be from the RC or what the South African teams did in Super Rugby could lead one into thinking that they won't be a factor in the World Cup, but they've welcomed back a few key men back from injury and I'm expecting them to play with immense pride for their country.
Yeah, I actually think that the semi-drama of the racial quotas which ended up being nothing more than a huff and a puff could have a positive impact on this rugby team. But that isn't a concrete reason as to why they'll be good. Their playing roster however is a very concrete reason as to why they will be good as this is one of the first South African teams I can remember that is so well balanced. Usually they are great at set-piece time and this will once again be the case with an exceptional front-row led by the du Plessis brothers and three of the best locks in the world from which coach Heyneke Meyer will need to pick two starters (Victor Matfield, Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager). This is where Willem Alberts and Duane Vermelean come into the equation as they hardly featured throughout the RC and they are nothing short of behemoths, which obviously helps their set-piece but along with Schalk Burger, they will be a wrecking crew at the breakdown and in general play.
The conditions might restrict games to be played in the forwards, or we might see more running rugby and South Africa's backline is well equipped for both. There's blokes who want to run the ball instead of standing in the pocket and kicking, plus there's a healthy injection of youth that will keep things funky. Meyer must decide on the value of Jean de Villiers who is their skipper but has battled injury all year and with Jessie Kriel and Damien de Allande impressing, they're putting pressure on de Villiers.
Noise about South Africa has been limited to the racial issue, which has ensured that they are creeping into this World Cup slightly under the radar. That's scary because on paper, this is a very good team and they will enjoy a pretty easy path to the quarter-finals, but not too easy as Samoa, Scotland and USA will all provide a physical battle while Japan will throw the ball around.
Samoa - While South Africa are somewhat sliding under the radar, the fact that all is well in Samoan Rugby has also flown under the radar. That is important because we're going to see a Samoan team with a host of players representing their nation who earn a living playing in Europe, which will raise their standard and should ensure that they come out of Pool B in second place.
That's what Samoa will be aiming for here, they'll struggle to beat South Africa but will push them close and while the other teams in Pool B could upset Samoa, I'm rocking with the usos to be too good. General stereotypes will point to Samoa being a physical force, which is fair enough but in Tusi Pisi they have a first-five who can guide them around the field and kick goals accurately. There's the possibility that we could see Samoa target the breakdown area with guns like Jack Lam likely to bring the ruckus and rely on the boot of Pisi to get points on the board.
Samoa are similar to South Africa in that this is one of the more well-balanced teams I've seen them roll out. They'll compete hard in the forwards and if their forwards are able to get quick ball and win ball off their opponents then the Samoan backline will be one of the more entertaining backlines of the World Cup. Kahn Fotuali'i is class at halfback while Ray Lee Lo and Tim Nanai-Williams are both quality backs to love to run the footy. Throw in Alesana Tuilagi who will be one of the biggest wingers at the World Cup and Samoa will be able to attack from anywhere as well as showing a clinical touch in their opponent's 22.
Scotland, USA and Japan - I've grouped these teams together because there's very little between them and there's a small possibility that one of these teams could push Samoa to finish second in Pool B. If Samoa were weaker, then this could be a low key pool of death as you'd struggle to pick who would join South Africa in making it to the quarter-finals.
Both Japan and USA have made gains in international rugby and I'll be very interested to see how they shape up against Scotland. The Scots could fall victim to a big, aggressive American forward pack while Eddie Jones has Japan finely tuned to play and exciting, open brand of footy. It's a pity that there isn't much on the line for these three teams, so I'm going to build my own hype here as I'm going to be keeping a close eye on which of these three teams finishes in third. The fact that I've got it closer than what many might think, shows how far Japan and USA have come in recent times.
Stay Up To Watch...
Tim Nanai-Williams (Samoa)
Duane Vermeulen (SA)
Stuart Hogg (Sco)
Ayumu Goromaru (Japan)
Jack Lam (Samoa)
Samu Manoa (USA)
Amanaki Mafi (Japan)
Wille Le Roux (SA)