DUNEDIN, (Reuters) – The rugby World Cup paused for breath yesterday with a rare rest day as attention turned to the preparations of the 13 teams hoping this weekend’s final round of pool games will send them into the quarter-finals.
Several nations in action over the weekend have drawn on recent clashes for inspiration, or as a warning, but when it comes to England against Scotland they have 140 years-worth of rivalry to call upon.
The British neighbours, who played rugby’s first international match in 1871, meet for the 129th time but their first on neutral ground in Auckland in a Saturday night special. England, who lead Pool B after three wins, are favourites and need only a draw to top the group while Scotland will almost certainly need not only a win but one with a bonus point to maintain their record of reaching at least the quarter-finals of every World Cup.
Mark Cueto, who scored a hat-trick against Romania last week after coming back from injury, was left out of England’s match 22 as manager Martin Johnson opted for converted fullback Delon Armitage on the left wing.
Scotland captain and lock Alastair Kellock returns amid seven changes from the side beaten at the death by Argentina last week as coach Andy Robinson said he wanted to introduce more pace to the side.
“There’s a lot of chaos in England-Scotland games and the thing is to be able to think clearly in that chaos, and one of the things we’re looking to do on Saturday is play really quickly,” said Robinson, who faced Scotland as an England player and coach.
Johnson said he had not spent any time considering the bonus point situation and group variables.
“It’s knockout rugby, let’s not worry about points differences and things like that. We’ve got to win, they’ve got to win, it’s what World Cups are about,” he said.
England’s preparations suffered a minor blip yesterday as they banned assistant coaches David Alred and Paul Stridgeon from Saturday’s match as punishment for switching balls used by Jonny Wilkinson to kick conversions in Saturday’s win over Romania.
Tournament organisers said there would be no further sanctions but warned of “severe punishment” if there was any repeat.
While England have reached their fourth game relatively unscathed, Australia have been so hard-hit that coach Robbie Deans was forced to name 35-year-old loose forward Radike Samo, who scored a try against the U.S., on the wing for Saturday’s game against Russia.
Fortunately for Deans, he could probably field the entire 1991 Wallaby backline and still get the bonus-point victory that should send them through.
“We’ve got four backs coming back to us next week so it shouldn’t be an issue going forward, unless we have a train smash this weekend,” said Deans, who expects to have more selection options for a probable quarter-final with South Africa.
The Springboks should take their place by beating Samoa on Friday but winger Bryan Habana, who scored four tries in his side’s 59-7 victory over the islanders at the last World Cup, said he expected a hard night’s work.
“That first 20 minutes against Samoa in 2007 was some of the toughest test match rugby I have ever played,” Habana said.
Samoa have lost all six of their previous meetings with the world champions but Fiji have enough form against Wales to give them belief they could spring a surprise that could still sneak them into the last eight for the second successive tournament.
Fiji stunned the Welsh in a 38-34 pool thriller in the 2007 tournament and followed up with a 16-16 draw in Cardiff last November, having lost by only a point their on their previous visit in 2005.
“It keeps your feet on the ground having had that experience back in the autumn series,” assistant Wales coach Rob Howley said.
“It’s not a bad thing, in terms of the Welsh psyche. Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves and we think we’re better than we are. But we realise how good this Fiji side are.”
It seems a long time ago that Welsh fans dubbed Graham Henry “the Great Redeemer” after his impressive early impact as their national coach in 1999 and Saturday’s game against Canada marks his 100th in charge of the All Blacks.