POOL A: South Africa, USA, Australia, Russia
South Africa showed a statement of intent for the coming season last weekend, demonstrating that second place on tour is not what they're satisfied with. With the news that Seabelo Senatla will only be around for three more tourneys with his commitment to the Stormers & 15's, the time is now to win & rack up the tourney points. With home field advantage & a packed crowd expected that is starved to see some green & gold success, look out!
The US showed how close they are to being a real force on tour. They barely lost to Scotland as a result of a few tough calls & excellent game management by the Scots and dropped a two point game against the Blitzboks. They have all the ingredients but just need a little more possession. Once that ball starts bouncing around, the breaks seem to go against them. Winning that battle has been their fight on too many weekends. One or two strong consistent tourneys & this group will be very tough to handle beyond that.
Australia had burner Henry Hutchinson working on the inside & not out on the wings in space as much as he was used to. Perhaps the Aussies are one speed merchant short or one playmaker short depending on how you look at it. But they're still a very fine team. They're dangerous at ruck time and generally make good decisions with the footy. If one more man in gold can step up their level of play, it might make all the difference for this group.
Russia seem a step ahead of Japan in terms of staying on tour at the end of this year but are even at one standings point each through one tourney. All of their experience has to propel them to notch a few more wins on Day One and leave that contest for higher rungs on the ladder. One good game per weekend on Day One won't cut it.
POOL B: Fiji, Kenya, France, Japan
Fiji hit a speed bump in the Final in Dubai as a rejuvenated South African team rolled to victory. Honestly, there's nothing wrong with Fiji. South Africa just played a great game. Would Fiji like to be a little more ruthless closing out games like their pool match with Canada? Heck yes but otherwise, the Fijian machine continuies to roll on with loads of talent and enterprising offloads.
Kenya will look to have another shot at the French in pool play with the winner likely headed to the quarters. Andrew Amonde will earn his 50th event cap this weekend, so the team will be looking to come together for him. Day Two was solid for them in Dubai as they beat a solid Canada side and came within two points of the US in the Challenge Trophy Semis. The line between victory and defeat on tour is often razor thin and Kenya will be looking to be on the other side in Cape Town.
France took care of business in a pool game against Kenya last week that propelled them to the quarterfinals and they hope to do so again this weekend in Cape Town. The French took care of the ball, worked their plan well at restart time & made their tackles. For them to succeed, rinse & repeat is the recipe.
The Japanese looked like a University laden side last weekend, even losing to tourney newbies Uganda on Day Two. The same group will be back at it this weekend save Hamish Paterson who'll get his first cap on the Series.
POOL C: England, New Zealand, Argentina, Canada
Should I be pessimistic and discuss New Zealand's weekend in Dubai or should I be optimistic and talk about England's weekend in Dubai?
My glass is half full, so let's talk England first! Did they get a little fortunate versus Scotland? Yes. However, staying close in games will get you that result every now and then. Dan Norton was outstanding for England, looking like the threat England needs to advance in World Series play. England's lineout was iffy in places as was their defense but their resolve was excellent and they counter-punched well all weekend.
New Zealand, however, ehhh. In the quarter-final versus South Africa, they had next to no spark in attack and the passing got a little ugly. The Blitzboks gave them no room to work with & no adjustments were made. It was embarrassing for a proud program, especially the 17.5 seconds the Blitboks waited to score in the NZ try zone early on in the match. There was no response then, nor was there one coming.
Argentina clearly slipped a bit last weekend. Agonizing losses to Wales, Fiji & Samoa (by a sum total of 7 points) marked their trip to the UAE. Fewer penalties and more haste to open spots & rucks will be the inches they need to change results.
Canada looks a thousand times better already under new Coach Damian McGrath. They clearly believe in him, as well they should given his results with Samoa last season. This team needed better execution and more confidence and both showed in a strong rally against Fiji on Day One. Looking at the rest of the pool, this group could go 3-0 or 0-3. Continuing the progress made last week in executing their game plans will tell the tale. Captain John Moonlight plays his 50th tourney on the World Series for Canada as well.
POOL D: Wales, Uganda, Samoa, Scotland
While outgunned in the semis & the third place game, Wales showed a lot last weekend in Dubai. In their wins over Argentina & Australia, they saved their best rugby for the second half & showed real determination for 14 minutes. They chose some excellent running lines and were able to cut teams up in the middle of the field. Their task is to take these attributes and keep applying them against the top teams. Last weekend's experience will help along the way.
Uganda thrilled the fans last weekend with some sweet tries & they showed the world a roster full of excellent athletes that just need a little bit of experience. Clearly, the Ugandans are a serious threat to join the tour next season! They looked especially good on the counter attack, so continuing to create turnovers or winning restart ball quickly will be a boon to this talent-laden team.
Samoa looked a little nervous in their first tourney under Coach Betham and one would expect some simple mistakes to be ironed out this week in Cape Town. However, they did win a few close games over Argentina & Russia, so pressure isn't the major problem...just a little focus here & there.
Scotland looked strong again, getting a great win over America & almost beating the auld enemy in the quarterfinals. Had they managed that final penalty a little better, who knows what would've happened in the semis & beyond? Theoretically, this pool could be theirs for the taking, provided they play the same smart, efficient rugby they did in Dubai.
Quarters & Beyond:
It'd be easy to pick South Africa at home, especially considering the way they won the final last week. Will Fiji's new coach be able to make adjustments the same way Coach Ryan was able to in past? Will their players be able to? That's a question that needs to be answered. Here's another...how will the Cape Town crowd react if Fiji takes a 12-0 lead in the Cup Final? Will they get negative following some tough November results for the 15's side or rally the troops?
Am taking South Africa at home but the margins are super slim here.