RWC 2011: Pool D - Springboks ready to turn on power
Story and Photo: www.rugbyworldcup.com
AUCKLAND, 4 Sept. - At first glance Pool D appears straightforward enough, with the wise money backing Wales and South Africa to go through. But two pool rivals hold painful memories for the Welsh: Fiji and Samoa.
The men from the Principality were humbled by Western Samoa (as they were then known) on their own patch in 1991, the Pacific Islanders advancing to the knockout stage at their expense after a 16-13 upset in Cardiff.
By 1999 the Welsh were well aware of the threat from Samoa but could not stop them prevailing again 38-31 in their pool match.
In 2007, Fiji went through to the quarter-finals by beating Wales 38-34 in a thrilling pool game in Nantes.
With those three scrapping it out for the second qualifier's spot, reigning champions South Africa are the favourites to go through in pole position, setting up a likely quarter-final against Ireland.
An experienced line-up features the core of the 2007 winners, with steel in the tight forwards in the form of hooker and captain John Smit and second rows Victor Matfield and BakkiesBotha, flair out wide in Bryan Habana and the points coming from the boot of the two Steyns, Morné and Francois.
Whether some of the side’s old guard are a couple of years past their best remains to be seen.
Having won in 2007 and beaten the British and Irish Lions in 2009, several of them have already achieved the greatest honours in the international game. This tournament offers them the opportunity to become the first team to retain the WebbEllis Cup.
The Springboks are traditionally strong up front, but Wales will expect to achieve something like parity in the scrum, particularly with the return from injury of prop Adam Jones.
The rest of the Welsh pack has an athletic look about it. With players such as second row AlunWyn Jones and back rows Sam Warburton and Ryan Jones strong at the breakdown, they should win enough ball to release their exciting backs.
Wales have long been synonymous with dazzling three-quarter play and some of the greats to wear the red shirt include Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies and Ieuan Evans. Of the current crop James Hook, Jamie Roberts and Shane Williams will be the ones to watch.
Wales will bring their own Polynesian flavour to the games against Samoa and Fiji - their flanker Toby Faletau was born in Tonga. His father, KuliFaletau, represented Tonga in the 1999 World Cup before moving to Wales to play club rugby for Ebbw Vale.
For Samoa, the warm-up period could hardly have gone better, with July’s 32-23 victory over an admittedly under-strength Australia in Sydney proving that they can upset some of the big names in this tournament.
Quarter-finalists in 1991 and 1995, their game is a blend of pace and all-out power, and in AlesanaTuilagi they have plenty of both. Tuilagi, whose younger brother Manu is in the England squad, is a familiar name for European followers, having impressed for his club side Leicester for several years.
Other players to watch out for include speedster David Lemi and centreSeilalaMapusua, while wing SailosiTagicakibau, playing in his third World Cup, packs 107kg into his 194cm frame.
Family ties will have to be put aside in Auckland on September 25 when Samoa take on Fiji. Tagicakibau’s younger brother Michael is a wing in the Fijian squad and likely to bring the electrifying running that has seen him become a fixture with English Premiership champions Saracens.
Captain Deacon Manu can give his teammates the inside word on the Welsh scrummaging, as he plays prop for Llanelli-based side the Scarlets. Gloucester’s outstanding loose forward AkapusiQera will bring pace to the Fijian back row.
CampeseMa'afu, younger brother of the Wallabies’ SalesiMa'afu, brings ballast to the scrum but Fiji are known for their free-flowing game and the clash with Samoa promises to be a thriller.
Namibia are the minnows of the group, but will not lack inspiration from their skipper Jacques Burger, who starred in Saracens’ back row last season.
Realistically, however, this is likely to be a steep learning curve for the Namibians. Though they can at least offer experience - 14 of the side were at France 2007 - they have lost all their 11 World Cup matches (1999 to 2007), and have never beaten any of their pool opponents.