Four years older, but any wiser?
May 5, 2011
Tonga No.8 Finau Maka introduces himself to England's Mathew Tait at the 2007 Rugby World Cup © Getty Images
In October 2007, as South Africa and England prepared to go head-to-head in the Rugby World Cup Final, TIME magazine published an article declaring that "the big winner" was the tournament itself.
Underlining their claim was the collective performance of the so-called 'minnows', with a number of bloody noses among the game's elite showing that the time for standing on ceremony was over for many. With the next edition of rugby's global gathering a matter of months away and preparations off and running for most sides, we've taken a look at how the intervening years have treated the underdogs of 2007 in our latest Scrum Sevens.
The biggest success story (and arguably the biggest story full stop) in France four years ago was Marcello Loffreda's Pumas. A third-place finish, two wins over France, a rout of Ireland and a sea of new fans made it a worthwhile venture for the South Americans, whose status in the game reached new heights. Since then it has been a mixed bag. Agustin Pichot, superb scrum-half and fearless leader, has spearheaded their entry into an expanded Four Nations from 2012 - the move their 2007 performance demanded - but on-field it has been a period of transition. Pichot, Gonzalo Longo-Elia, Mario Ledesma and Ignacio Corleto and Fernandez Lobbe have, among others, hung up their international spurs. The new coach, former Test flanker Santiago Phelan, has struggled to generate an attacking spark without the permanently-injured Juan Martin Hernandez and they have slipped from fourth to eighth in the world rankings. At domestic level the Argentina Jaguars program has helped to add a professional edge prior to their Tri-Nations bow and the future should be bright, but this year looks to be too soon. The Pumas' Pool, where they face the relatively evenly-matched England and Scotland, is a tough one.
The architects of the best game at the 2007 World Cup, a thrilling victory over Wales in Nantes, Fiji have failed to hit such heights since. In 17 Tests following the conclusion of the tournament they have a record of eight wins, eight losses and a draw, with their 16-16 stalemate against Wales in November 2010 their best result against Tier One opposition. As with their Pacific neighbours, Tonga and Samoa, they have struggled to field competitive sides due to the number of big names playing overseas and in recent months their very participation in New Zealand has been threatened due to meddling from the country's military government and irregularities in a lottery designed to raise cash for their campaign. Still, a World Cup will bring their best back home and in a group with South Africa, Wales and their perennial foes Samoa, a quarter-final berth is not out of the question.
Like Argentina, Tonga were box-office news four years ago. Inspired by the brilliant back-row of Finau Maka, Nili Latu and Hale T-Pole, they beat Samoa, ran England close and took a shadow South Africa side all the way before succumbing 30-25. Since then, their profile on the international stage has shrunk dramatically. Across the four years, having secured automatic qualification for the World Cup thanks to their exploits in 2007, they have not met a Tier One nation, surviving on a diet of Pacific Nations Cup action and one-off meetings with the 'A' sides of Scotland and Italy. Like Fiji they have also struggled behind the scenes with the union, among other things, reportedly asked by the IRB to explain the whereabouts of a NZ$2.5 million development grant. Among a 51-man squad recently announced by coach Isitolo Maka there were a number of big names however, including Northampton's Soane Tonga'uiha, Maka and Cardiff's Tau Filise, while Melbourne Rebels winger Cooper Vuna and Waratahs lock Sitaleki Timani are on the radar despite their eligibility to play for the Wallabies.
On one of Irish rugby's lowest nights, Georgia came within inches of an upset in 2007. A grizzled pack, ferocious determination and a couple of pacy backs led the European side closer than ever before to that watershed victory and they have continued to develop since then. The reigning champions in the European Nations Cup, in recent seasons they have hovered close enough to Italy (there are two places separating them on the IRB rankings) for some to suggest that a shake-up of the Six Nations could be in order. While the suggestion is fanciful, Georgia will present a fairly sizable problem for England, Argentina and Scotland. Whatever the level, nobody likes playing against a giant forward pack boasting a good scrum. The number of Georgian players currently operating in France is another good indicator of their progress, with the likes of Clermont's Davit Zirakashvili and Toulon's Davit Kubriashvili just two examples. On a recent short tour of England a Georgian squad defeated the Army at Kingsholm and Oxford University.
Samoa were a major disappointment at the last World Cup, losing all of their games bar a narrow win over the USA, but in recent seasons they have become a prominent presence in the world game. Winners of the IRB Sevens World Series for the first time in 2010, the Islanders completed a double by winning the Pacific Nations Cup months later. They have also made good use of several northern hemisphere tours, bringing in their overseas players, including Seilala Mapusua, Alesana Tuilagi and Tasesa Lavea. England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales have all found out first hand that they are no pushovers and the Welsh will be nervous prior to a group game against a team with a winning record against them at World Cups.
Another side to take chunks out of Ireland four years ago, Namibia celebrated a major victory in 2010 by winning the IRB Nations Cup with a 100% record, beating Georgia and reigning champions Scotland 'A' along the way. Viewers of the Premiership in England will also be familiar with their skipper, Saracens flanker Jacques Burger, who is among the league's elite back-rowers. Drawn alongside Wales, Fiji and Samoa, their clash with South Africa at the World Cup will not be one for the squeamish. Unfortunately, like so many smaller unions, they have also been dogged by financial irregularities and had their place at the finals threatened. In February, the IRB announced that it had taken over the running of the Namibian Rugby Union (NRU) because of the organisation's "financial problems" - with allegations of corruption rife. "It's critical that the NRU is well-organised," IRB development chief Mark Egan said. "We are asking a small union with limited resources to compete against the best teams in the world."
The hosts of the 2019 tournament, Japan have been building towards this year's tournament for some time. Four years ago their challenge again failed to amount to much, but head coach John Kirwan has high expectations for the current crop. Under his tutelage their 100-point hammerings of rivals in the Asian Five Nations have been followed by public criticisms of their performance, with the former All Black aiming far higher. In last year's Pacific Nations Cup they upset Samoa 31-23 and beat Tonga by three points, finishing third in the standings but only a point behind the winners. With the current Asian Five Nations underway, a rusty Japan beat Hong Kong 45-22 in round one, Kirwan had one message for his aspirant World Cup squad: "They are playing for their World Cup spot and we need to see them under the pump. How else can we know? I've told them they have one foot in the door and we need to confirm that."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September