Rugby World Cup: why Wales are to blame for 'Pool of Death'
England, Australia, Wales and Fiji must face off in Pool A thanks to the rankings in December 2012, and an extra international
Every major sporting tournament features a 'Group of Death' but Pool A of the 2015 Rugby World Cup must go down as the toughest ever. Hosts England will be battling against Australia and Wales as well as an under-rated Fiji side for a place in the quarter finals.
So how did three of the world's top six teams, and four of the top nine, end up in the same group with Uruguay? The question is even more pressing when you consider that Scotland (ranked below England, Australia, Wales and Fiji) are the second best team in Pool B, while New Zealand's stiffest competition in Pool C will come from Argentina or Tonga.
Timing of the draw
The reason for the anomaly, which could conceivably see host nations England and Wales knocked out in the group stages, is down to the timing of the draw. And, as website Wales Online forlornly admits, it was "all Wales' fault".
The pools were drawn in December 2012, a year after Wales had come within a whisker of making it to the 2011 World Cup final and after Warren Gatland's side had swept all before them on the way to a Six Nations Grand Slam.
But by the end of the year "Wales had temporarily slipped to ninth position in the rankings courtesy of a last-gasp defeat to Australia in a Test played outside the international window, which meant they ceased to be one of the top eight seeds", explains The Guardian.
Wales in decline
Wales's dramatic decline began with the summer tour of Australia that heralded "a brutal period of matches and defeats in the calendar year", says Wales Online. "Wales lost the three Test matches by only 11 aggregate points but they were a trio defeats nonetheless which saw Wales slip one place to sixth."
But it was the autumn internationals that really did the damage. Embarrassing defeats to Argentina and Samoa left Wales in eighth place. A 33-10 defeat to New Zealand came as no surprise, and Wales actually rose to seventh in the world because of other results.
At that stage the top four seeds had been confirmed as New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and France. England and Ireland were in fifth and sixth, and Wales, Samoa and Argentina were fighting it out for the final two places in the second tier.
It was against that backdrop that Wales welcomed Australia to the Millennium Stadium for a match there was no need to play. The game against the Wallabies was "an extra fixture created by the Welsh Rugby Union for financial gain that fell outside the IRB's autumn international window", says Wales Online.
The WRFU had handed the side a loaded gun, and they shot themselves in the foot in dramatic fashion, allowing Kurtley Beale to score a try for Australia in the final move of the match, securing the Wallabies' a win and sending Wales out of the top eight.
Two days later the World Cup draw pitted them against Australia and England, prompting widespread criticism of the decision to hold the draw so far in advance of the competition.
"Many within the game believe the pool draw should be delayed to try to ensure the strongest sides are kept apart until the knockout stages," reports the Guardian.
Meanwhile former Australian flanker George Smith has predicted that Fiji will spring a shock and go through to the quarter finals with Australia. If the big three in the group damage each other, then Fiji could take advantage.
"Apart from in 2011, Fiji seem to perform well in World Cup tournaments," he told Wales Online. "They put the Welsh out in 2007 and nearly beat the eventual champions South Africa in the quarterfinals. Anybody who underestimates Fiji will be in trouble."