Now, while we hoped for what would be a week-long preview of the twenty teams’ prospects in the upcoming Rugby World Cup fate has intervened to ensure that the following, dear reader, will be an abridged version of what we first offered. Time is a cruel mistress and devoid of well….time we’ve had to make a few amendments to our earlier plans.
Over the next two days we will bring a preview of Group A –by far and away the most compelling – and, of course the most pivotal Group as far as Irish interest is concerned, Group D. The quickest way from A to D as everybody knows is straight through B and C so we’re taking this approach quite literally. In summary, South Africa top Group B with Scotland joining them –though only just, after a gruelling battle with Samoa- in the quarter-finals. In a shocking departure from conventional wisdom, New Zealand will cruise through Group C with the Argentinians joining them in the last eight.
Throughout the World Cup, we will provide regular ‘state of the tournament’ updates while highlighting some of the more interesting talking points. And of course, given the natural progression of the tournament there will be plenty to come on the reigning champions, New Zealand and the, massively under the radar, South Africans.
Before we go anywhere however let’s just temper home expectations. Of the home nations Ireland are still the only side yet to appear in a World Cup semi-final, so getting that far alone would be a fantastic achievement, even if the obvious endgame is to become the last team standing in west London.
We’ll tackle Group A today, the so-called ‘Group of Death’ –every international tournament is obliged to have one- where hosts England, have been pooled with double champions Australia, co-hosts Wales, the mystifying Fijians and inevitable whipping-boys Uruguay. There has been considerable talk, pre-World Cup, of teams pushing themselves through the absolute limit in terms fitness and one fully believes this. This group promises to be the most attritional and when the dust settles in four weeks, the qualifiers may have too many wounds to lick. Only time, luck and squad depth will tell.
Despite what people might say to the contrary –pressure, undue expectation- home advantage in a major sporting tournament possesses immeasurable advantages; partisan crowds, unintentionally ‘helpful’ referees, familiarity and we believe an inherent pride of place. In seven Rugby World Cups thus far only one side –and a really atrocious Welsh one at that in 1999- has failed to reach at least the last four. New Zealand twice –see ‘helpful referee’ in 2011- and South Africa have been victorious while England and Australia in 1991 and 2003 respectively came agonisingly close to success in front of their home crowds. With that in mind don’t be unduly surprised by what follows below.
So, first to England who naturally as both the hosts and, well…. being England will go into the tournament surrounded by extraordinary expectation and equipped with the admirable, though often inexplicable self-confidence, which accompanies English sides. Stuart Lancaster has worked tirelessly over the last four years to win back the hearts and minds of the English rugby community following the debacle of Martin Johnson’s poorly conceived, ill-fated reign. Quite clearly the hosting of the showpiece has been at the centre of Lancaster’s thoughts –despite any laughable protestations about building for 2019- since 2011. Though nowhere close to the relentless juggernaut of Clive Woodward’s 2003 World Cup winning side, the current iteration of the English rugby team will, in our view, go mighty close to winning the tournament.
England’s strength’s –powerful pack, excellent outside threat- have been well documented so it would be remiss to avoid what may well be a glaring weakness at out-half. Now, George Ford, the incumbent ten is an outstandingly talented player, possessed of an extremely rounded skill set and will probably establish himself over the next decade as one of the world’s premier out halves. But -and this is a big but- Ford’s heretofore unconfirmed pre-eminence in the game will mean nothing for the next six weeks. The extraordinary Jonny Wilkinson is the youngest out-half at twenty-four to ever guide his side to victory in a World Cup final –doing so of course in 2003- and even then Wilkinson was five and a half years into his international career. When Ford –or indeed Fijian Ben Volovola- kick off this year’s tournament on Friday night the Englishman will be just twenty-two and with a mere thirteen caps to his name. You might be able to win Premier League titles with kids but for England to win the World Cup on home soil they will need heretofore unprecedentedly mature performances from George Ford.
That said, Ford will shine for much of the tournament, England are a well-drilled unit under Lancaster and their home sod has returned in recent times to a sort of ‘Fortress Twickenham Lite’. If England can negotiate their group –so much the less compelling for the dreadfully unlucky Leigh Halfpenny’s absence- then our gut feeling is that they might ride on a crest of a wave of quickly growing confidence and jingoistic pride –think WWII imagery- all the way to the Halloween final. This side will go close but fall just short of the heroics of the 2003 collective of sporting MBEs, OBEs and knights.
One to Watch: Jonathan Joseph. A player with the near-unique ability to make inside or outside breaks. A constant threat in attack.
Former Leinster coach Michael Cheika was given a pretty interesting job around this time last year. Take an Australian team wildly low on confidence –yes you read that correctly- in complete disarray and transform them into World Cup contenders in just twelve months. From where we’re standing right now it seems like a case of job well done. A relatively successful November tour was followed by a first Rugby Championship since 2011 –also incidentally in its shortened version in a World Cup year- and Cheika now leads a side laced with cohesion, variety and most importantly a re-instilled winning mentality. Australian sport is laced with an equal parts enviable and loathsome complete, unshatterable sense that their merely being Australian makes them superior to their opponent.
Cheika is by all accounts a ‘take no shit’ coach which given their perilous state after last summer is exactly what the Wallabies required. The swagger is back but so too more importantly is the discipline demanded of an Australian side. With a small playing base, Australia has always relied on versatile, dynamic footballers allied with extraordinarily innovative coaching. The combination this year is no different, but Cheika is still faced with a headache as to who to select in the half-backs. Past performance would perhaps suggest the selections of Will Genia and Quade Cooper, but World Cups are rarely won with a conductor like Cooper. Not all the out halves who have won World Cups have been outstanding players, but they’ve all known how to play the right rugby at the right time.
While the number ten jumper may remain an issue for Australia the man at the back won’t. While all the cool kids are mentioning Kiwi Nehe Milner-Skudder as the man to watch during this tournament, our must-see player is the outlandishly talented Israel Folau. While he hasn’t played quite to his own monstrously high standards of late Folau has a skill-set that allows him perform feats –sometimes even on debut– that other players simply cannot even consider.
Australia, as the joint most successful Rugby World Cup performers of all time,- the All Blacks being the other- simply cannot be ignored. But, while Michael Cheika has worked Gordon Bombay-like wonders to rebuild the house in under a year, an appearance in the decider, though not impossible, seems unlikely.
One to Watch: May have played our hand early here but definitely Israel Folau.
Every four years the World Cup comes around and with it the evil winds of injury. No team is safe from this nefarious non-entity but in each four-year cycle one side gets punished particularly badly, perhaps for no other reason than the cruel whims of the Fates. Already in a historically difficult group –thanks perhaps to Warren Gatland’s belligerent indifference when the group seedings took place- Wales have seen two starters go down. The loss of scrum-half Rhys Webb has been compounded mercilessly by the news that Leigh Halfpenny, one of the world’s finest full-backs, has been ruled out with an ill-timed and devastating knee injury. We haven’t been to Wales in the last fortnight but one can only imagine a borderline funereal atmosphere –and we do not mean this in a hyperbolic sense- in the country when news of the full-back’s setback was announced. Between his metronomic boot, unfailing solidity at the back and well-timed incisions into the offensive line, Halfpenny could readily be described as Wales’ most important player.
One player –with all due respect to Webb who also misses out on all rugby players’ dream of representing their nation on the global stage- does not a team make but certain players are worth far more to their side than the one-fifteenth fraction they make up on paper. One can only imagine the pervading sense of gloom in Wales but Warren Gatland is as stoic as they come –except when whinging about the predictability of Joe Schmidt’s side- and the Sam Warburton led squad will have accepted by now that the hellish Group A needs to be negotiated without Halfpenny. It would be delightful to see Wales rail against the odds and escape this group and the feeling was that pre-injuries they were on track to do something massive in the next four weeks in particular. All three big guns in this group need their top players available. Wales are now perhaps missing their best. The tournament didn’t end with Halfpenny’s injury and the talent is there but, given that Wales are now missing three of their starting backline –Jonathan Davies was lost in the summer- the hill just turned into a mountain.
Predictions: Group stages.
Player to watch: If he can somehow force his way into an overpopulated back row, the remarkable Justin Tipuric.
Fiji drew an unbelievably short straw when they were drawn in this group. Fijians are the most joyous rugby players to watch in full flow, seeing grass where other see bodies and possessed of blinding pace and supreme ball handling skills. As the fourth seed in say, Ireland’s group the Pacific Islanders would have a tremendous opportunity to not only take a scalp –which in any event at this stage is not enough for the Pacific Island Nations- but compete for a quarter-final spot. Only on Friday night though, in Twickenham will we know how serious a part Fiji are going to play in deciding the destiny of this World Cup.
Prediction: Group Stage
Player to Watch: Nemani Nadolo. Yes, he may seem the lazy pick but more than one winger will be made look stupid by the behemoth Canterbury Crusaders flyer.
We have not come here to patronise, but there is no point in trying to talk up the South Americans chances in this their third World Cup appearance. Full unsurprising disclosure: we don’t know a thing about this Uruguayan side but Google can tell you what we can’t. That said they are the big boys of South American rugby after Argentina and if their footballing counterparts are anything to go by, then don’t expect Uruguay to go quietly into the night.
Prediction: Group stage.
Player to watch: Augustin Ormaechea. Because this report said so.