Gregor Paul in Toulouse
A shock, at last, or maybe it wasn’t. Fiji beating Australia was perhaps the natural order of events, given their respective world rankings and just how awful the
But whether it was a surprise or not, Fiji’s win against Australia has highlighted that this World Cup is almost playing out as two separate tournaments – there’s the Tier One Pools A and B, and the Tier Two Pools C and D.
At this rate, the Wallabies may only qualify for the 2027 tournament because they are the hosts and Jones, heralded as the saviour of a dying and defunct code when he arrived in January, may finish the year with just two wins – against Georgia and Portugal.
Whatever Eddie Jones was hired to do, he can’t possibly be doing it as the Wallabies produced an 80-minute performance against Fiji that was memorable only for smashing whatever remnant of hope Australians may have been hanging on to that it is a serious rugby nation.
No one, however, should assume the Wallabies will beat Portugal, although, bizarrely, it wouldn’t be such a leap of faith to imagine they can beat Wales.
That’s because the Welsh are equally awful and in a similar free-fall.
That they sit top of Pool C is not illustrative of anything other than the refereeing atrocities that were committed against Fiji when the two sides met.
Wales are weak and they are vulnerable, which is mostly true of England as well, who have clocked two wins at the Rugby World Cup and seemingly convinced their own media that they are building something special at this tournament.
But like Wales, their place at the top of Pool D is illusionary. It doesn’t tell the story of a powerful and dominant team being constructed under the clever coaching of Steve Borthwick.
It’s not a great revival tale at all, but a sad reflection of just how weak the other teams in the group are. England’s kick-and-hope game looks like it will be pulled apart by any of the proper, heavyweight teams on the other side of the draw.
And herein lies the curiosity of this World Cup – the draw is madly imbalanced, with the five best teams on one side and everyone else on the other.
This has long been highlighted as a flaw, but now that the first two rounds have played out, the enormity of the situation has presented itself.
The gap between the best teams in Pools A and B and the best teams in Pools C and D is significantly larger than anyone imagined and New Zealand, France, Ireland, South Africa, and maybe even Scotland, will be thinking that if they can make it to the last four with at least 15 fit players – maybe they will only need 14 – they will have to stuff up on an epic scale to not progress to the final.
There is, as World Cups have so often proved, a chance that England, Wales, Fiji, Argentina and even Australia, should they pull off the miracle of even making it out of their group, could develop as the tournament plays out.
But with the exception of Fiji, these teams have such deficiencies in all the basic parts of their game as to be justifiably sceptical that they will be world-beaters in a few weeks.
England look as confused by a two-on-one situation as a Kiwi kid does when asked what is two plus one.
And that pretty much sums England up: they are the rugby equivalent of New Zealand’s crumbling maths curriculum – a once high-performing marvel of which everyone was proud, but now a testament to falling standards and weird ideas about what constitutes success.
Fiji, with an inordinate number of gifted athletes, look the best-equipped team on the Pool C/Pool D side of the draw.
Their scrum buckled the Wallabies and their work at the breakdown was world-class – but we haven’t yet seen their game flow the way most suspect it can.
Maybe now that they have a win under their belts and will be chasing bonus points, knowing that if they pick up two in defeating Portugal and Georgia, they are guaranteed a place in the quarter-finals, the natural pass and catch skillset will come to the fore.
Even if Fiji do tap into their natural game in these next few weeks, it’s hard to see them being anything other than a long shot to beat whichever of France, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand or Scotland make it through to the semifinals.
Likewise, England, Wales and Argentina on current form look like teams that the Pool A/Pool B big boys would be able to stick 30 points on before halftime.
All of this means that for the All Blacks, the quarter-final is shaping up as an even bigger game than anyone initially anticipated – and if they win that, then the door to the final looks not so much ajar, but wide open.
Gregor Paul is one of New Zealand’s most respected rugby writers and columnists. He has won multiple awards for journalism and has written several books about sport.