As sceptical as I am about the format of this World Cup, I have to admit it has thrown up some intriguing match-ups. Obviously in Group A we will get a clearer picture of how the major three teams stack up against each other, but also in the other two groups we get matches that challenge the tipping skills of even the most clued-in League fan. Group B manages to throw up three sides who were it not for the World Cup would unlikely ever be playing each other. The fact that France and Scotland rarely get to play each other (before last year’s friendly, their last encounter was in the Euro Nations Cup in 2003, with Scotland prevailing 8-6) says something about the state of international affairs, but neither side will have had much exposure to Fiji.
This could prove to be a very tight group, with no side seemingly standing out from the others. All of them have a sprinkling of top-quality players combined with a steady supply of solid performers. They should all be fairly exciting teams to watch as well, each with a clutch of attacking-minded players. They all also have different sources for their lower-grade players, which means that we will be seeing players in this group from different levels all around the world. It all combines to make this perhaps the most fascinating and delicately poised group in the World Cup.
France are in an odd situation. They contain many players who have amongst the stand-outs in Super League this year, yet they also rely on a significant group of players who play at semi-pro level in a French Elite League of variable quality. They can also now call upon several Catalan Dragons players who now qualify through residency, including speed merchant Justin Murphy. There is also a band of player in the Elite League who might just prove to be Super League quality if given the chance, as the relative success of Eric Anselme at Leeds this year showed. France have had limited success on the international scene of late, with victories over Papua New Guinea countered with narrow defeat to New Zealand and a blowout to England. France have the personnel, but they need to gel and have a strong World Cup, to show that they are an internation team to be reckoned with and worthy of inclusion in the Tri-Nations (becoming a Quad-Nations?) next year.
Look for Fiji to make a splash on this tournament, hopefully with a brand of attacking rugby. My experience of playing with Fijians is that they play hard and they play fast. This Fiji side seems to be lacking the pure quality of previous Bati squads (who could call on the likes of Lote Tuquiri and Petro Civoniceva) but they still have a very useful core of solid top-flight performers like Semi Tadulala, who has been a fantastic player in a mediocre Bradford back-line, and Wes Naiquama has not been getting the plaudits he deserves for quite a while now. A back-three of Tadulala, Naiquama and Jarryd Hayne might just be the best outside the super-group. They also surprised everybody during the qualification process by taking the second automatic Pacific place above Samoa, which shows that they should not be underestimated.
Scotland will be seen as the weak link in this group. The critics go on about how they are not real Scotsmen and that they are a bunch of lower-league players who want a holiday. As well as this, they’ve already lost one potential high profile recruit, Mark Calderwood, to the auld enemy. But as good as Calderwood was playing towards the end of the season, Michael Robertson was playing even better and is more than suitable as a replacement. Scotland’s handling of the Calderwood saga underlines a requirement of commitment to the Braveheart cause, and I just find it too hard to write off a combination of a canny coach in Steve McCormack and a few big-time players like Robertson and Danny Brough. Scotland theoretically should probably finish bottom of this pool, but they could also turn into the surprise story of this World Cup. I just have this nagging suspicion about them…
My prediction? France should be able to take this group, but to do it they will really have to be at the top of their game. They have enough class and attacking prowess, and perhaps most importantly they have the most dynamic pack in this group, and the likes of Guisset and Fakir could really give the other teams nightmares. Fiji will be an unknown entity to the European sides, but they will play a high intensity game and should be a stern test for any side. And as for Scotland, if they click and Danny Brough is able to bring the likes of Mick Nanyn and Michael Robertson into the game, them who knows? I see all the games in this group being tight, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that it could come down to points difference.