LONDON (AP) — Australia, host country England and Wales were herded together in the same eye-catching group for the 2015 World Cup on Monday, ensuring one of the world's leading rugby nations will fail to qualify for the quarterfinals.
It didn't take long before organizers and coaches dubbed Pool A the "Group of Death" — and with some justification. "As the draw was being made, it was nice to see that we weren't in that group," New Zealand captain Richie McCaw said, with a smile.
Even more pleasing for the reigning champion All Blacks was the sight of Argentina and Tonga being drawn with them in Pool C, presenting New Zealand with a great chance of preserving its perfect record in group play.
Another team to leave the draw in central London breathing a sigh of relief was South Africa, which escaped with being grouped with Samoa — for the fourth straight World Cup — and Scotland in Pool B. Pool D contained three European teams — three-time finalist France, Ireland and Italy.
With only two countries going through from each of the four five-team groups, all the focus was on one pool in particular. "It's a tough draw," England coach Stuart Lancaster said. "I guess it is fate that Wales and England would be put together."
Wales, the current Six Nations champion and 2011 World Cup semifinalist, was always going to be the dangerous floater in the draw after dropping into the third band of seeded teams at the weekend following a run of seven straight losses. The Welsh were surprisingly upbeat about their prospects, however, especially with the principality hosting some of the tournament's matches.
"The tougher the group the better," Wales coach Warren Gatland said. "We put ourselves in this position, but our experience of 2011 is if you come out of a tough group it sets you up for the quarterfinals and semifinals. If you look at New Zealand, often they don't get tested enough in the group stages and teams sometimes field a second side against them and then they often come undone.
Australia, a two-time winner of the World Cup, is a long-time sporting rival of England and the enormity of the draw wasn't lost on Wallabies captain David Pocock. "I have never really experienced the magnitude of the rivalry until we were over here (on tour) in 2008 and there was a lot of commentary comparing the English, or British, medal tally to the Australians (in the Olympics that year)," Pocock said. "To play them in the pools, there will be a lot of hype around that game and it's one you look forward to as a player."
England is awash with confidence after the team's sensational 38-21 victory over New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday and it is widely considered that the hosts' young squad can only improve ahead of 2015.
"Hopefully we'll hit the ground running — it'll be great for the fans," said England captain Chris Robshaw, who will look to guide the team to a second world title — after 2003. Tournament organizers refused to rule out the possibility of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium hosting Wales' matches against England and/or Australia, raising the almost inconceivable prospect of the English playing an away match at their own World Cup. The match schedule will be finalized in March.
"It is very important to remember that Wales was included in the England's bid for matches in the Millennium Stadium," said Roger Lewis, chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union. "I think they would embrace the opportunity to play in the finest rugby stadium in the world."
Whoever does emerge as winner from Pool A can avoid New Zealand until the final at Twickenham, provided the All Blacks finish top of their group as expected. That scenario is likely as New Zealand has won every single group game it has played in the seven previous tournaments.
"If you don't respect somebody, you are going to get your rear end spanked," New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said. "No one has a God-given right to go through to the quarterfinals." Argentina has shown signs of improvement in recent years, and their inclusion in an expanded southern hemisphere tournament — the Rugby Championship — has given the Pumas more exposure to top-level rugby. However, it will be a major surprise if they or Tonga threaten the All Blacks.
South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer refused to get too carried away, despite coming away with arguably the best draw of the sport's big guns. "It doesn't matter who we are drawn against, because to win the World Cup you have to beat the best teams out there," Meyer said. "There really is very little to choose between the top sides in the world, while the next batch of teams has also improved a lot recently."
France captain Thierry Dusautoir described his team's group as a "little Six Nations" and had one eye on gaining "revenge" over the All Blacks after losing to them in the 2011 final. "At least we are not in the group de la mort (Group of Death)," France coach Philippe Saint-Andre said.
The identities of the eight remaining qualifiers for the four five-team pools will be known at the end of the global qualifying process in 2014. The 2015 World Cup takes place from Sept. 18 to Oct. 31.