NEWS
09/19/2011 02:28 EDT | Updated 11/18/2011 05:12 EST

Midway through pool stages, Rugby World Cup shows a North-South divide

WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Midway through its pool stages the Rugby World Cup has begun to split along geographical lines, a single upset setting Europe and the southern hemisphere on opposite sides of the draw for the tournament's knockout rounds.

Ireland's win over Australia on Saturday has at least temporarily confounded forecasts that the No. 2-ranked Wallabies will finish at the top of their pool and has revised expected matchups from the quarterfinals on.

With all teams but Russia and Italy having played two of four group matches, New Zealand, England, Ireland and South Africa head their pools and only further upsets will prevent the knockout rounds being a contest between north and south.

After 19 of the tournament's scheduled 48 matches, Ireland's 15-6 win over Australia in Pool C stands out as the largest upset. Canada's 25-20 win over Tonga in Pool A was also a surprise but on a smaller scale.

In more general terms, the surprise of the tournament has been that matches between rugby's main powers and minor teams, the so-called minnows, have been much closer and more competitive than expected.

Peter de Villiers, coach of world champion South Africa, said it was no longer possible to expect easy matches at the World Cup.

"The day that you have minnows in the World Cup is over," he said.

England coach Martin Johnson echoed de Villiers' comment, acknowledging that his team has yet to dispatch any opponent with authority.

"The world is smaller in every sense," he said. "All the guys are professional and the big drubbings won't happen as much as they used to in the past.

"We're at a point where we shouldn't be surprised by any of these smaller teams. The Pacific island teams have been beating the so-called bigger teams for 20 years."

Even before Australia's loss to Ireland, Wallabies scrumhalf Will Genia warned that upsets were more likely than ever before.

"I think the biggest thing you get out of that first round is that reputations don't count for too much in a tournament like this, where it is do or die," he said. "It's exciting that all the other (unfancied) teams are playing very, very well and it just makes for a better spectacle."

Standings midway through pool play make the closer nature of the tournament apparent. Only in Pool A, which is topped by New Zealand and France, have teams achieved bonus point wins in both of their first two matches.

World No. 1 New Zealand beat Tonga 41-10 in the tournament's opening match, though it struggled against the Tongans in the second half. It then scored 13 tries in beating Japan 83-7 in its second match which, so far, is the only truly one-sided match of the tournament.

Though France beat Japan 47-21 and Canada 46-19, scoring six tries in its first match and four in its second, it was far from impressive and inflated the scorelines with late tries.

South Africa scored six tries in beating Fiji 49-3 after edging Wales 17-16 and by two tries to one in its opening match. It heads Pool D with nine points ahead of Samoa with six and Wales and Fiji with five.

Samoa, Wales and Fiji all have 1-1 records but Wales has the easier road to the quarterfinals, having already played South Africa and Samoa who are seen as the group's strongest teams. Samoa must still play South Africa and Fiji, while Fiji has Wales and Samoa to face.

England and Scotland both have nine points from their first two matches in Pool B, though neither has yet managed to win impressively. Scotland beat Romania 34-24 and Georgia 15-6 while England beat Argentina 13-9 and Georgia 41-10, a scoreline that was flattering.

Ireland heads Pool C after beating the United States 22-10 and Australia 15-6 while the Wallabies, two-time world champions, are 1-1 after their 32-6 win over Italy and Saturday's loss.

Australia has matches remaining against the United Sates, on Friday, and Russia, while Ireland has yet to play Russia and it's Six Nations rival Italy.

On the basis of current standings and barring any major upsets in pool play, New Zealand is in for a quarterfinal against either Scotland or Argentina, England for one against France, Ireland for a match against Wales and South Africa for a charged confrontation with Tri-Nations rival Australia.

By a subjective study, New Zealand has been the most impressive team so far, despite its second-half stumble against Tonga. South Africa also turned heads with its win over Fiji, improving significantly on a nervous first-up performance to show more dimensions to its game.

Ireland has shown an ability to dominate through its forward pack and has been labelled, not least by Australia, as a hard team to beat. England continues to win ugly but it did so at the 2003 World Cup and went all the way to the world title.

Wales has looked resilient but limited, scoring only two tries in two games, and France has finished its matches strongly but needs to overcome slow starts.

So far at the tournament, across 19 matches, 96 tries have been scored at an average of five per game, accounting for 480 of the 876 points scored in total. There has been an average of 46 points per match.

New Zealand is the tournament's top try-scoring team with 19, ahead of France with 10 and South Africa with eight. A total of 69 of the 96 tries scored so far have been converted — more than two thirds — and there have been 78 penalties kicked for 234 points.

Morne Steyn of South Africa and Morgan Parra of France are the tournament's top points-scorers with 28. Goalkicking success rates have been relatively low, though Steyn and Parra have been more consistent than the tournament's average of just under 70 per cent.

The World Cup has yet to produce a genuine star, though that often takes more time. Crowds have been captivated by the performances of some of the smaller teams, the resilient Canadians or hardworking Georgians.

Most matches have been well attended, pleasing organizers, and international television audiences have met expectations, despite the difficulties of New Zealand's time zone.