RWC 15: World in union one more time
Rugby Correspondent Gerry Thornley sets the scene for Rugby World Cup 2015
Ireland expects: Back-to-back Six Nations titles makes them contenders like never before. Photograph: Inpho/Billy Stickland
As in other sports, there’s nothing quite like it; the only tournament that brings all the leading and developing nations together on a relatively equal footing. Once every four years is about perfect. Not too often. Not too regularly. Hey, the World Cup is back.
Okay, “equal” is indeed relative. For sure, there will be the usual quotient of cricket-score scorelines, but there are enough heavyweight collisions scattered throughout the pool stages to keep things ticking over nicely.
Even Fiji look way better value than +28 on opening night against England in the pool of sharks. Holders New Zealand also play Argentina in a potential Pool C decider on the opening Saturday, with a significant Pool D clash between France and Italy that night too.
England host Wales on the second weekend, when South Africa meet Samoa, before the hosts entertain Australia, South Africa meet Scotland and Ireland play Italy on the third weekend. Pools A, B and D are all likely to remain unresolved until the final weekend match-ups between Australia and Wales, Samoa and Scotland and, of course, Ireland and France.
The anticipation is whetted with England as the main hosts. They have the grounds, the infrastructure and it is an easier country to access from than, say, New Zealand.
The potential downside is those heavyweights collisions – particularly in the knockout stages. Both past and recent history has shown that, save for inspired French performances, few of the matches truly endure in the memory.
Then there’s the refereeing. In the modern game it takes three to tango – both teams (especially the front rows at scrum time) and the referee. Such is the demand to reduce the number of re-set scrums that the referees are almost obliged to come to hasty decisions, and judging by the warm-up games, not often correctly. The thought of games being decided by one person’s interpretation of a scrum, a ruck, or new diktat, compared to another, is disconcerting to say the least.
That’s what happened four years ago when Sam Warburton and Wales were the victims of and IRB diktat when losing 9-8 in the semi-finals and in the final the All Blacks would seemingly have had to commit GBH before Craig Joubert pinged them as they precariously (and at times illegally) defended their 8-7 lead. Two free-scoring jamborees there.
For the first time, there appear to be seven genuine contenders to lift the trophy, given both Ireland and Wales look better equipped than ever before. It’s worth recalling therefore how close France and Wales were to winning the tournament in New Zealand, given bookmakers make them the outsiders of the seven at 14/1 and 18/1 respectively.
Even in 2011, Wales were already being earmarked for 2015. The core remain, along with a clever coaching staff, albeit with a question mark over tight-head in the post-Adam Jones era, with Samson Lee not having played since March and Tomas Francis unproven. Like Ireland, they need their front-liners to stay healthy.
In making a case for each of the seven, and against each of them, New Zealand have the most plusses and the least minuses. But then that’s invariably the way, and they’ve only won it twice out of seven previous attempts, and in keeping with history, they looked better in their unbeaten year of 2013. It would be good to see Dan Carter, now 33, stay healthy after his cruel fate four years ago, but at least the All Blacks have Beauden Barrett’s quality and experience as cover.
Alongside the brilliant Aaron Smith, they probably have the best half-back combination in the world, which history has shown us is usually a pre-requisite to lifting the Cup – even if four years ago disproved that theory.
They are also still dependant on Richie McCaw, now 34, but they have world-class players in every single department of their team. Indeed, even without Israel Dagg (and the tournament is the poorer for his absence), Ma’a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams, Julien Savea and Ben Smith are all game-breakers. But then again, they could be ripe for a mugging in a Cardiff quarter-final against France (who beat them at the same stage eight years ago) or, whisper it, Ireland.
South Africa retain nine of their 2007 winners, and are thus even more dependant upon the old guard. If Fourie du Preez returns from Japanese club rugby to anything like his form of ’07, they’ve a real chance. They have an outstanding second-row pairing in Victor Matfield, now 38, and the abrasive Eben Etzebeth, but will they ignite their back play with Jessie Kriel ahead of Jean de Villiers?
The recent controversy over race quotas will only strengthen their usual us-against-the-world mentality and they are, apparently, uber fit and well prepared. But there is also a question mark at outhalf.
England are somehow just ahead of the Springboks as second favourites, primarily one supposes, because of home advantage. They have power up front, bulk in midfield, pace out wide and a fine, aggressive defence. But despite four years’ planning, of the seven contenders their starting XV remains the biggest puzzle.
They are missing their primary hooker and hence may have to sacrifice one of their two best locks around the pitch, they have no breakdown poacher, whereas Wales and Australia have two each, their better outhalf – George Ford – hasn’t been given enough time in the jersey, and they somehow go into the World Cup with seemingly their first-choice midfield having started their first test in their last warm-up game.
Michael Cheika has gambled on two hookers and two scrum-halves, and the first especially looks very risky. Even though they’ve won the two tournaments hosted in the UK, 1991 and ‘99, they are always vulnerable if they run into one of the big guns on a wet night. But with their array of clever, interchangeable and versatile backs, they have as good a backline and impact off the bench as any team in the tournament, no matter who Cheika picks.
France, sadly, are almost the polar opposite. Big, strong, and uber fit as well. They seem set to play a game based on scrum dominance, mauling, a big defence and occasional strike moves, carved in the image of the Top 14 and their head coach Philippe Saint-André.
Will it be enough to finally win a World Cup? For once, you’d hope not, especially as they are in Ireland’s group. But if Ireland are considered to have a favourable draw, then the same must be said of France, who have beaten Ireland handsomely in all three previous World Cup meetings and have reached six semi-finals (as well as three finals)) more than Ireland.
And so what of Ireland? Back to back Six Nations titles makes them contenders like never before. They have proven quality everywhere too, not least at half-back, and will be well led and well coached. There’s a cloud over Cian Healy, and without Marty Moore, look potentially vulnerable in the front-row. Ala Australia, taking two scrum-halves is a genuine risk, and ala Wales they need front-liners such as Paul O’Connell, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw to stay fit and well.
The All Blacks look worthy favourites, but then again that still hasn’t helped them win a World Cup outside New Zealand.
It should be interesting alright.