Danger lurks for England at RWC'11
December 1, 2008
IRB and RWCL chairman Bernard Lapasset pulls out New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup 2011 Pool Allocation Draw in London © Getty Images
There was almost a smile on Martin Johnson's face and one glance at the 2011 Rugby World Cup pool draw will have told you why.
Fresh from a bruising month of international inadequacy and a mauling at the hands of the media there was a moment of relief for Johnno as his side avoided all three of the southern hemisphere giants in today's draw. But the joy would have been short-lived.
England have much cause for concern after being drawn to face Argentina, who claimed third place at RWC'07, and Scotland, who took England's scalp in this year's Calcutta Cup clash. And subsequently there was no celebration from the under-fire boss.
Despite the needs of the sound-bite-hungry media machine there was no danger of anyone getting carried away by a draw for a tournament that is still three years but the extravagant ceremony did throw up some mouth-watering clashes.
Hosts New Zealand can look forward to a re-match with France in Pool A and will no doubt be keen to avenge their shock RWC quarter-final defeat last year. Wales will also relish the opportunity to hand out some retribution to Fiji in Pool D after seeing their RWC'07 dreams shattered by the impressive islanders in Nantes last year. Both teams will also have to tackle the defending champions South Africa.
Ireland will also tackle some old Rugby World Cup foes in the shape of Australia after both sides were drawn in Pool C alongside Italy. The Wallabies will be quietly happy with what they will see as a favourable draw.
However, England's clash with Scotland is the most enticing match-up. It will be their first clash since a nail-biting semi-final meeting in 1991 when Scotland fullback Gavin Hastings fluffed a relatively easy penalty chance that would have secured them a much-prized final berth.
That day has haunted the Scots ever since and despite being perennial quarter-finalists they have failed to get any closer to the sport's biggest prize. On present form you would back the Scots to overturn their neighbours as they did in this year's Calcutta Cup clash.
Argentina, victors over England in their last clash at Twickenham in 2006, will also fancy their chances and will hopefully continues to improve as a side. They are also sure to benefit from their much-delayed entry into the Tri-Nations.
Not surprisingly Johnson is wary of the challenge that awaits his side. "Playing Scotland in the World Cup will be a hell of a game, with huge passion," he said. "Argentina has been successful. They went to the World Cup in 2007 and came through the toughest pool of all and they could have got to the final."
Scotland coach Frank Hadden also saw reason for hope following the draw. His side were edged out in last year's quarter-finals by Argentina and have been buoyed by their most recent triumph over England.
"We felt we could have gone further last time and who is to say this is not the opportunity for our young squad to go all the way? We have beaten England twice in the last three years and we beat Argentina last summer. Of course you go into these situations with a cause for optimism."
All three sides are scheduled to meet on numerous occasions over the coming three years with each encounter set to provide a further pointer as to their respective RWC destiny.
It is Wales who will face the most trying test of their credentials in the pool stages but coach Warren Gatland was not shirking from the challenge. He was quite rightly bullish after his side notched the only victory of southern hemisphere opposition this autumn and he is confident his side kick on and offered encouragement to any fans concerned by their draw.
"It is a great draw and we are excited about it," he insisted. "Look at the World Cup last year - the winners of the competition came from the toughest pool."
A lot of things can, and probably will change over the next three years and chances are that a few of those present here today will be taking in RWC'11 from their armchair for one reason or another. And let us not forget that these battles are just the preliminaries for RWC'11 and any side with hopes of claiming the title of the world's best team cannot expect to have an easy ride.
"If you want to get to the last week of the World Cup you need to be good enough to beat the best in the world. Whoever we got in the pool doesn't change anything in that regard," Johnson told reporters with his usual intense gaze.
In truth, Johnson's side are far from world-beaters at present but he has the luxury of time and a teflon-like reputation to ride out this current storm and continue with his master plan for the English national side. But with a mis-firing team lacking in leadership he will welcome every one of the 1,011 days until New Zealand roll out the welcome mat.
Rugby World Cup 2011 Pool Draw:
Quarter-final 1: Winner Pool B v Runner-up Pool A
Semi-final 1: Winner QF1 v Winner QF2
Bronze Final: Loser SF1 v Loser SF2
Final: Winner SF1 v Winner SF2