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James Gemmell:

Mighty minnows

Who will shine in round two?

James Gemmell Posted 16th September 2011 view comments

If there's one thing the first week of the World Cup has taught us, it's how far rugby has come in the four years since we last all got together.

We've seen almost every team embrace an attitude of willingness and enterprise, and despite some concerns over the consistency of the refereeing, the spectators around the grounds of New Zealand have been treated.

Romania ran Scotland close

Romania ran Scotland close

We've also seen a remarkable improvement in the quality of lesser nations. This has been reflected on the scoreboard, certainly - take the Romanians leading the Scots with just minutes to play - but more importantly it's in the way they are now playing with an understanding of the game.

The most impressive so far in that respect were the Canadians. It wasn't a huge mismatch with Tonga in terms of world rankings, and of course the Tongans had only five days earlier played the All Blacks, but Kieran Crowley's bearded semi-professional mob gave the far bigger Pacific Islanders a lesson in structure.

How will Wales respond to their Wellington heartbreaker? The bonus point they picked up may yet play a part in their fortunes, but the win they probably deserved against South Africa eluded them and that heaps the pressure on now.

James Gemmell
Quotes of the week

They knew their limitations, they played to them, and they tackled like men possessed. And as the game wore on and they stayed in touch, their self belief grew to the point that it took them to victory.

It could have been a similar story for Wales on the bigger stage, but that self belief against the Southern powers is still lacking.

And so to the second weekend of the tournament, and the jockeying for play-off positions begins in earnest.

The All Blacks should have little problem disposing of Japan, despite the bizarre injury plague that's taken hold of their stars, but the match will still bring the country to a stop for two hours.

Saturday's match between Australia and Ireland will decide who heads first from Pool C, while there's interest on Sunday in England's ability to avoid an arm-wrestle with Georgia under the roof in Dunedin.

But the match capturing the most attention is without doubt Wales vs. Samoa in Hamilton. The storylines are strong for both sides.

How will Wales respond to their Wellington heartbreaker? The bonus point they picked up may yet play a part in their fortunes, but the win they probably deserved against South Africa eluded them and that heaps the pressure on now. They know a loss to Samoa will likely end their World Cup hopes.

In naming exactly the same team as last week Warren Gatland has shown faith, as well he might. The development of Sam Warburton and confidence of Rhys Priestland must be fostered for Wales to advance.

The pressure is very much on the Islanders, too. A warm-up against Namibia was ideal, but four days' turnaround versus Wales' week off is unfair. Inevitable, but still unfair. They have eyed a quarter-final spot as their minimum goal, and in a pool that also holds South Arica and Fiji, a win against Wales is as good as a must.

With players who largely ply their trade in Europe, Samoa are another example of a rugby nation who's understanding and game management has improved out of sight. Ally that with their players' physical gifts and you have a team who, if they make it out of their pool, could just go further than the quarter-finals.

The scene is set for this one. Waikato Stadium will be spilling over for two teams who like to play and have everything to play for. It is the fixture of the weekend, and if the start of the tournament is anything to go by, it'll deliver.

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