World Cup draw a boon for the Boks

South Africa have been drawn to meet New Zealand in pool play at the World Cup in Japan in 2019 and, believe it or not, the omens are good. What it means is that, win or lose to the All Blacks, the Springboks should qualify for the quarterfinals. They will then avoid the world’s best team until the final (if both survive that far).

To put it into perspective, when South Africa won their second World Cup in Paris in 2007, they beat England in the final, having already met the 2003 champions in pool play.

The bad news is that no World Cup-winning team has ever lost a game en route to the title. The good news is that there has to be a first time.

This far out, it is simply pointless to try to pick a winner based on playing personnel. Suffice to say that few would doubt that New Zealand will be the hot favourites, with the best team in the northern hemisphere right now, England, being grouped in the “pool of death” for the second successive tournament.

Eddie Jones wore a rueful smile when the pools were announced in Kyoto on Wednesday. The England coach needs to pilot a way out of Pool C, which also features Argentina and France.

In 2015 England finished third in a pool that included Australia and Wales, despite the advantage of playing both at Twickenham.

So, although there are a few potential banana skins along the way, Bok coach Allister Coetzee should be among the more sanguine leaving Japan this week. He will have to suffer a few slings and arrows from the press, who will point out that the third-ranked team in South Africa’s group, Italy, happened to win the last time the two nations met on the rugby field.

The other two sides in South Africa’s pool will not be known for some time, but one will probably be derived from a shoot-out involving Namibia, Kenya and Zimbabwe. The other will be the last team to qualify from the repechage system that rewards the best losers.

Even for Coetzee, this is not knee-knocking stuff and so a familiar scenario is in play. Try not to be overconfident in three pool games and don’t lose too heavily to New Zealand in the other. Then let the Springbok mongrel run riot in the knockout stages. Remember that the All Blacks came close to being toppled in the 2015 semifinal by a Bok team that could offer little more than blood, sweat and tears.

The likelihood is that the 2019 Springboks will be the youngest squad ever to represent this country. They will also, by decree of the South African Rugby Union (Saru), be the blackest. The imposed quota is 50% and the next two years need to be devoted to giving game time to the best players of colour that the country has to offer. Last year, Coetzee’s selections became paler as the year wore on. That can’t happen again.

Coetzee’s trip to Japan was largely ceremonial, but for the delegates from World Rugby, the meeting in Kyoto was not just about the World Cup draw. In an attempt to deal with mercenaries operating under flags of convenience, the rules pertaining to playing for a country other than the one of origin have now been made a good deal more onerous.

Currently, a player is required to be resident in a country for a minimum of three years to play for its national side. This has been to the advantage of players such as CJ Stander, deemed too small to play for the Boks but grabbed gratefully by Ireland and now the British and Irish Lions. With effect from January 2021, the residency rule has been extended to five years.

But World Rugby takes with one hand and gives back with the other: countries may no longer list their under-20 team as the second tier to the full national side.

Previously, players who had represented their country at under-20 level were deemed to have been capped by that country, meaning that they could not play for another country in the future, no matter how long they were resident there. This was an attempt to stop agents and unscrupulous unions from offering blandishments to outstanding youngsters to swap countries.

From a practical perspective this rule has now fallen away, meaning that the annual World Rugby Championships for under-20s will become a shop window for those with deep pockets.

It might well be argued that under the new dispensation no one is going to back a talented and uncapped 25-year-old, as he would be 30 by the time he became eligible for his new country. That is not the case when the player concerned is just 20, however.

So the South African under-20 squad currently in training for this year’s tournament will be the last to burn its bridges over international selection. Curwin Bosch, Gianni Lombard, Wandisile Simelane and a host of talented youngsters will be deemed to have opted for South Africa.

But from January next year, the callow youngsters following in their footsteps will be up for grabs for the rapacious agents who seem to run the game more effectively than any of the unions these days.

England once more drawn in  ‘group of death’

England were hit with a horror World Cup draw alongside France and Argentina on Wednesday in a devilishly tricky bracket that French coach Guy Noves called a “death group”.

The 2003 champions were handed the toughest assignment of rugby’s top nations, with holders New Zealand drawing South Africa and Italy in Pool B.

Two-time winners Australia went into Pool D with Wales and Georgia, and Ireland will face Scotland and hosts Japan in Pool A.

Two more teams will be added to each group after qualifying, which England will now watch closely after their nightmare showing in 2015.

Two years ago, England became the first World Cup hosts not to reach the knockouts after they were grouped with Wales, Australia, Fiji and Uruguay.

“No one’s going to die!” insisted England coach Eddie Jones, when asked about being plunged into another “group of death”.

“It’s simple — you’ve got to prepare well at the World Cup,” added the Australian, who has led England to 17 wins in 18 games and two straight Six Nations titles.

“We want to win the World Cup so the onus is on us to keep getting better.”

But Wednesday’s draw in Kyoto could complicate Jones’s often-repeated promise to knock New Zealand’s mighty All Blacks off their perch.— Alastair Himmer

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