The toughest pool to predict based on the fact that it contains hosts England, Rugby Championship winners Australia and 2011 semi-finalists Wales, not to mention the issues that Fiji might pose after winning the Pacific Nations Cup. Uruguay, the 20th side to qualify for the World Cup, complete the group.
Pool A’s winner would face the runner-up in Pool B, with the runner-up facing Pool B’s winner. South Africa are the favourites to top the other group with Samoa and Scotland in contention as runners-up, giving the winner of Pool A a far simpler quarter-final draw.
Each of the contending sides have substantial gaps between matches, with Wales arguably worse off with only five days between facing Australia and Fiji. Australia only have four days between games against Fiji and Uruguay, but should be able to rotate their squad.
England v Wales
England v Australia
Australia v Wales
Three monster games, so it would be wrong to not pick each of them out for analysis. England face old rivals Wales in the first big clash, with Stuart Lancaster’s team having won their last two meetings. Defeat would put Wales in a must-win situation against the Wallabies on the final day of the pool, a team they haven’t defeated since 2008, while England could wrap up Pool A if they defeat Australia a week before Michael Cheika’s side face Wales. All will be clearer after England’s game with Wales, but it’s incredibly difficult to predict. In those situations, home advantage becomes even more important, giving England arguably a slim edge.
Potential upsets: Should Wales win at Twickenham then the whole group would be thrown wide open, which is where Fiji can cause problems. The Pacific Islanders have made huge strides under new head coach John McKee, adding more structure to their traditional skill, making them dangerous should any of England, Australia or Wales be off their game. No side will be taking Fiji lightly. Uruguay appear unlikely to challenge the top three qualifiers but could give Fiji a run for their money in the scrums during their game in Milton Keynes.
England vs Fiji – 18 September, Twickenham Stadium
Wales vs Uruguay- 20 September, Millennium Stadium
Australia v Fiji – 23 September, Millennium Stadium
England vs Wales – 26 September, Twickenham Stadium
Australia vs Uruguay – 27 September, Villa Park
Wales vs Fiji – 1 October, Millennium Stadium
England vs Australia – 3 October, Twickenham Stadium
Fiji vs Uruguay – 6 October, Stadium mk
Australia vs Wales – 10 October, Twickenham Stadium
England vs Uruguay – 10 October, Manchester City Stadium
Dream scenario: A comfortable win and no injuries against Fiji would get England off to an ideal start and build support from the country behind them, with Stuart Lancaster opting to pick some first-team players before using his bench if things are going well. The two big games follow and backed by a home crowd at Twickenham, wins over Wales and Australia would then put England top of Pool A and able to rotate their squad for the final match against Uruguay before waiting to see who they will face in the last eight.
Nightmare scenario: Fail to convince against Fiji, as England have done in their first RWC games against the USA in 2007 and Argentina in 2011, and the pressure will increase before facing Wales. Lose that and it’s all or nothing against Australia. The head-to-head factor will also have to be considered if teams are tied on table points by the end of the competition too. Worst comes to the worst, England will play Uruguay in Manchester knowing they have no chance of qualifying for the knockout stages having been kicked out of their own tournament.
Dream scenario: The Wallabies appear to be peaking at just the right time with their Rugby Championship win and could carry that through to produce big wins over first Fiji and then Uruguay, boosting their confidence and giving the team more time to perfect their combinations throughout the side. The big games then follow, both at Twickenham, and after toughing it out and the return of their first-choice players, two feasible wins would put them through as group winners.
Nightmare scenario: An unconvincing start against Fiji would leave Michael Cheika in a tight spot deciding whether to give his best players another run against Uruguay or whether to wrap them in cotton wool and hope they find their form by the time they have to face England. Australia will have to win at least one of their games against England or Wales – if not they’ll be on the plane and watching the knockout stages at home for the first time in their history.
Dream scenario: Wales have the easiest start against Uruguay in Cardiff and could produce a huge win to get the country behind them. They’ll need everything they have to succeed at Twickenham against England but knocking over the old enemy would send expectations through the roof. Then against Fiji they would have a chance to rest some key players before aiming to seal top spot in the group against Australia – with a win making them serious contenders for the title.
Nightmare scenario: Defeat against Uruguay seems unlikely but Warren Gatland has to decide between whether to give his big guns some game time or not. Any injuries would also be a disaster. If Wales then fall at Twickenham against England then they might be distracted by the must-win clash with Australia when they first face Fiji, who are capable of causing an upset as Wales know all too well from 2007. Losing to Australia would then leave Wales out of the competition before the knockout stages for the fourth time in eight tournaments.
Dream scenario: Fiji’s quarter-final spot in 2007 came on the back of shocking Wales and the same opponent could be their best chance of another upset. Playing in the opening match against England will give Fiji the biggest stage to perform on, but could they actually win? Doing so would probably rank as the biggest World Cup shock ever and give them plenty of confidence ahead of facing Australia. A big win over Uruguay would be expected before facing Wales, where they could secure one of the top two spots and make the last eight for the third time.
Nightmare scenario: Fiji might not be expected to win but they are certainly backed to be competitive against England, so a heavy loss would be a big problem. Matters don’t get any easier five days later against the Wallabies, with little time to recover, and by then the steam might have been knocked out of their campaign by the time they face Wales in Cardiff. With three bruising losses they would then go face to face with a hungry Uruguay side gunning for an upset of their own, and while Fiji would be favourites, stranger things have happened.
Dream scenario: Uruguay come into the Rugby World Cup with no expectations on their shoulders – unlike England, Australia and Wales – which gives them the element of surprise. If they come through facing Wales and Australia having acquitted themselves well and having avoided two heavy losses then they will have plenty of confidence ahead of facing Fiji – their best chance of picking a first ever World Cup win. By dominating the physical battles and set-piece they would secure a famous victory, before rounding off against a potentially second-string England outfit in Manchester.
Nightmare scenario: If things go horribly wrong for Uruguay in their first two matches against Wales and Australia, for example 50-60 point defeats or possibly worse than that, then their prospects of defeating Fiji will take a real knock. This is Uruguay’s first World Cup for 12 years and who knows when they might be back, which makes that match all the more important for then to stamp their mark on the tournament. Should they lose then their confidence would evaporate and they could suffer a huge defeat to England in the final game.
Pool Prediction: Home advantage and a good recent record for England against Wales and Australia should see them finish top, while Australia’s head-to-head record with Wales gives the Wallabies the edge to sneak into that runners-up place, possibly after a very tight deciding game to round out the pool. Fiji should defeat Uruguay to avoid bottom spot in Pool A.