Rugby World Cup 'Pool of Death' promises thrills galore

Julian Guyer

London (AFP) - England, Australia and Wales will battle for a route to the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals from probably the toughest first round pool ever drawn in the tournament's history.

And even Fiji will not let the leading Pool A trio get away easily -- particularly when the extravaganza starts at Twickenham on Friday when they take on the English hosts.

One of the criticisms of the World Cup is that the pool stage has too often been predictable, with the two major sides in any one group rarely being tested before the final eight come together.

However, Pool A is anything but a foregone conclusion. Only Uruguay having the look of makeweights.

Organisers have been criticised for holding the pool draw in December 2012, so far ahead of the tournament, based on the world rankings at the time.

But if anyone is to blame, it is Wales.

The draw came when they were on a seven-match losing streak that saw them fall to ninth in the rankings, with the top eight sides all seeded.

Wales's defeat by Australia in late November of that year, a match played purely for financial gain, backfired spectacularly.

If they had not played it, Wales would have been ranked seventh.

In a professional era where money has become the dominating factor in so many rugby union decisions, it is a cautionary tale.

- Halfpenny blow -

Wales are now having to confront even more pressing problems after injuries suffered in a 23-19 warm-up win over Italy deprived them of ace goal-kicker Leigh Halfpenny and in-form scrum-half Rhys Webb for the entire World Cup.

Halfpenny's absence could be particularly tough in a pool where points difference could be a factor in deciding which teams go through to the last eight.

Wales still have plenty of attacking threat in the likes of centre Jamie Roberts and wing George North.

Nevertheless, they have lost their past 10 Tests against Australia. And their crunch pool matches against England and the Wallabies will be at Twickenham rather than Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

Wales coach Warren Gatland is defiant about the situation.

"If you (media) can do your jobs and write us off as much as possible and we can come in there being written off, which seems to be happening at the moment, that's the best situation for a Wales team to be in," said the combative New Zealander.

For England, the challenge will be to put together three good performances -- something they've rarely managed since Stuart Lancaster took charge in 2012 -- starting with Friday's tournament opener against Fiji.

Doubts remain over England's line-out, with first choice hooker Dylan Hartley dropped for disciplinary reasons, their ability to compete at the breakdown and whether they can make the most of a back-line featuring dynamic wings Anthony Watson and Jonny May.

But home advantage could be an important factor for a squad with plenty of strength in depth.

"We are in a unique position to be playing in a World Cup on home soil and to have the support of a nation behind the team," said Lancaster.

Two-time world champions Australia, who also won this year's Rugby Championship, boast a brilliant back division.

But the scrum has long been a problem area for Australia and coach Michael Cheika hopes the Wallabies' reputation won't count against them.

"The only way we can change that perception is by consistently performing in that area," he said.

"I think we've made improvements.... If we've improved enough, we'll do well in this part of the game."

Pacific Nations Cup champions Fiji, who knocked Wales out of the 2007 World Cup, are determined to do more than just make up the numbers.

"The core of our team has been together since June last year. We've been building towards this tournament all the time," said Fiji coach John McKee.