At any one given World Cup, most matches in the group stages offer up pretty predictable outcomes.
Yes, there’s always a bit of a fight for the top spot in the pool – and it’s touch and go who will win when the Pacific teams are grouped together. By and large, however, results are fairly easy to pick.
That’s not always the case, however; sometimes there are major surprises.
At the 1999 tournament, Samoa scored an unexpected win over Wales – who ended up topping the pool.
2007 again saw Wales falling prey to the Pacific – this time in the form of the Flying Fijians (although two years of poor performances from Wales may have somewhat foretold that result).
In 2011, Tonga – who had already been bested by Canada – played out of their skins against an inconsistent French team and pulled off a 5-point win. That same French side came exceptionally close to taking out the whole tournament.
Come 2015, it was Japan’s turn to do some damage. In arguably the biggest upset in international rugby history, the Brave Blossoms scored in the final play of the game to earn their first win over the Springboks.
It’s worth noting, however, that these underdog sides have rarely gone on to post a second major upset. None of the above teams have since recorded such a major result at World Cups.
It seems that, at least since the beginning of the professional era, one big win has been enough to put the other more-fancied sides on notice.
Where tier-1 teams have been prone to putting out second-string sides to deal with the ‘minnows’ in the past, those days are now long gone.
The backup players may get their opportunities against the likes of Namibia and Uruguay now, but you can bet that Wales, France and South Africa won’t make the same mistake twice against the Pacific Nations and Japan.
Despite all the talk that the second-tier teams are growing in stature, don’t expect to see many upsets at this World Cup.
Fiji may have a raft of physically imposing and talented players to pick from thanks to greater exposure in the Top 14, and Japan may well be on a drug called Tony Brown, but the likes of Wales and Scotland know full well what they’re dealing with.
The nature of rugby means that an even slightly more dominant team has a greater chance of winning a match-up than in a comparatively similar clash in a sport like football.
This weekend will see Fiji try to upset Australia – and many have been suggesting that the Pacific Islanders could catch the Wallabies by surprise. History tells us, however, that won’t happen.
With both sides fresh and neither facing tough opposition for at least a week following, head coaches John McKee (Fiji) and Michael Cheika (Australia) won’t be afraid to put their strongest combinations forward.
Perhaps, for many, a Fijian victory would be desirable – but it would be hard to bet against the Wallabies.
An upset seems much more plausible on the last day of pool play when Japan and Scotland square off in the final game of the group stages.
That’s not simply down to the fact that the gap between Japan and Scotland is significantly smaller than the one between Fiji and Australia, however.
Japan will be coming off a seven-day rest since their last game against Samoa. Scotland, by contrast, will have played Russia just four days prior.
Russia may be one of the weakest sides in the competition, but they’ve got some big, physical specimens who could cause some damage to the Scottish forwards.
Despite all that, Scotland should still go into the game as huge favourites.
Yes, Japan have improved significantly in recent times – but upsets have often come at times when the more-fancied sides are at a low point. Scotland, although they came 5th in this year’s Six Nations, are actually performing reasonably well at present – which is what will make this World Cup so competitive at the top end of the spectrum.
Every man and his dog (excepting those of the Scottish persuasion) will be hoping for a Japan win in the final game of the pools. Chances are, however, that Scotland will pull clear.
Taking all that into consideration, is there a fixture that involves a somewhat underrated national team that is yet to take a major scalp at a World Cup and a top-tier side that is underperforming?
Perhaps there is one match that could see an upset.
All the talk surrounding the Pacific Nations Cup this year was geared towards who would come out on top out of Japan and Fiji – but it wasn’t Fiji who ended up in a do-or-die clash with the Brave Blossoms at the end of the competition.
The USA have been slowly improving in recent times and have flown somewhat under the radar compared to the likes of Japan, Fiji and even Georgia.
The Eagles have had the wood over fellow World Cup attendees Samoa, Canada, Russia and Uruguay in the past few years and also recorded their first-ever win over a tier-1 nation when they escaped with a 1-point win over Scotland in 2018.
The belief they will have built up over the last cycle will galvanise the squad and it would be foolish to write them off against any team who is off form.
If you’re looking for a team that could fall prey to the Eagles, then look no further than France.
Since 2017, Les Bleus have drawn with Japan and lost to Fiji on their own home ground. They’ve also struggled against the higher-ranked teams and haven’t recorded a win over any of the top three Northern Hemisphere or Southern Hemisphere sides since March last year, when they narrowly bested England at the Stade de France.
There’s every chance that France will absolutely wallop the United States – the French do know how to turn it on from time to time. Even in the eight matches between the sides to date, however, France’s biggest win was only by 27 points.
Their most recent game – way back in 2004 – ended in a victory to Les Bleus, 39-31.
France have built a reputation for winning games they should lose and losing games they should win. France should win against the USA in their Pool C clash on October 2nd – and that should be cause for concern for French supporters.
Japan and Fiji may be the darlings of world rugby right now and neutral supporters will all be gunning for the underdogs in their matches with sides like Scotland, Ireland, Australia and Wales.
If you’re looking for a game at the 2019 Rugby World Cup with a real chance of an upset, however, you’re more likely to find it early in October than at the beginning or end of the pool stages.
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