RWC 2015: Our pundits' predictions ahead of the big event

Rugby (and soccer’s) great and good take the five-question World Cup challenge

Waisake Naholo of the All Blacks makes a break in a game against Argentina. Photograph: Inpho/Chris Symes

Waisake Naholo of the All Blacks makes a break in a game against Argentina. Photograph: Inpho/Chris Symes



Winner, runner-up please? New Zealand to win, beating Wales in the final. You can raise serious question marks about all the seven or eight viable contenders, but pound for pound, the All Blacks are still the best squad. I haven’t a clue really who will come out of the other half of the draw really. It could be Ireland, England, Australia, Wales or France.

Ireland – how far will we go and by which route? To boldly go where no Irish team has gone before and reach the semi-finals, possibly even beating the All Blacks, but more likely by dint of beating Italy, France and Argentina. The difficulty will then be making it four or five wins in a row.

Player to watch and why? From an Irish point of view, Johnny Sexton. The last one didn’t go as he’d have liked but he is primed to establish himself as at least the best outhalf in Europe and maybe more. Of the rest, Israel Folau can light up the World Cup as befits the world’s most exciting player.

Most looking forward to? Ireland v France, England v Wales, England v Australia, watching a revitalised Fijian team . . . ah, just the matches really.

Least looking forward to? The refereeing and the commuting.


Winner, runner-up please? New Zealand and Ireland!

Ireland – how far will we go and by which route? Defeat France (with no key injuries - miracles can happen) and then the final awaits by beating Argentina in Cardiff (no injuries) and then Wales in Twickenham.

Player to watch and why? The local answer is Iain Henderson but with Israel Dagg and Cory Jane missing out in the All Black squad selection I’m most looking forward to winger Nehe Milner-Skudder’s thundering runs.

Most looking forward to? The rematch with Warren Gatland (with Joe Schmidt, above) and Wales in the semi-finals.

Least looking forward to? The potential devaluing of the greatest part of our game. Where 16 monster forwards lock horns a dozen times a match at scrum time while world rugby looks to keep the game moving.


Winner, runner-up please? NZ v Ireland final is my bet! If New Zealand find form they’ll naturally be tough to beat. Ireland are at their strongest tactically under Schmidt, with an important mix of experience to keep things steady as the pressure builds and younger players to keep the energy high.

Ireland – How far will we go and by which route? Seven games in seven weeks is an endurance test but Ireland can get to the final. Squad rotation will be vital to ensure players stay fresh. I’ve full faith in Joe and Les to come up with the right game plans. They will win their pool if they can match France’s pack and then meet Argentina in quarters where we’ll need another huge performance up front. I foresee Wales in the semis as I don’t think England will get out of their pool if Australia are on form.

Player to watch and why? Willie le Roux always has my attention but Israel Folau gets my nod. Pool A will be packed with must-win, nervy games. Folau is an exceptional athlete, aggressively competitive under high balls with an abundance of confidence to score breakaway tries.

Most looking forward to? Wales v Australia. Australia have turned it around under Michael Cheika and have lively threats across the field. However, they will need momentum as I don’t think they are cohesive enough under pressure and may not have enough work done to beat Wales in final pool game, if they lose to England earlier in tournament. Wales will be better prepared and have similar threats in a lot of positions.

Least looking forward to? Samoa v Japan. Ouch!


Winner, runner-up please? Australia to beat the All Blacks. They have beaten them once this year in the truncated Rugby Championship and Australian coach Michael Cheika will give the Wallabies what they need, a bit of backbone and self belief, the things he brought to Leinster.

Ireland – how far will we go and by which route? Ireland to get to the semi-finals by beating France in the last group match and topping the pool. That probably puts them in line for a quarter-final against Argentina, who beat South Africa this year. Still it’s a semi-final for Ireland. Then Australia come into the equation.

Player to watch and why? Sam Burgess. In many people’s eyes he’s still a rugby league experiment. Stuart Lancaster obviously wants bulk in the centre and Burgess goes in knowing that he owes the coach for selection. We’ve seen a few big tackles from him. Presumably he has more than that.

Most looking forward to? Ireland playing. Expectations are higher than 2007. Joe Schmidt travels with the possibility of a big fall. How will he cope if things go wrong, if the two scrumhalf selection doesn’t work, if Sexton gets injured and Cian Healy breaks down after one match? Are we really the second best team in the world?

Least looking forward to? Mismatches. Australia v Uruguay; New Zealand v Namibia. Having watched the All Blacks beat Italy 76-14 in Marseille in 2007 (they also beat Portugal 108-13) it’s no fun. It highlights the global depth of the game or lack off it and can also distort the pool positions.


Winner, runner-up please? This is a very close World Cup. A New Zealand v Ireland final is a real possibility. As always, New Zealand are the best team going into the competition but they are an ageing and vulnerable cohort. Ireland, England, Australia and South Africa are very close in performance. Ireland have an excellent draw and a real chance of the final.

Ireland – how far will we go and by which route? Ireland can make the final but only if the win their pool and avoid New Zealand in the quarters. They do not need to worry about winning their pool games by 50 points. Just win the games and develop cohesion and energy as a group. Winning the quarter-final is the key. Win that game and they can win the William Webb Ellis Trophy.

Player to watch and why? Sam Burgess, the England inside centre. A former Rugby League international, a league superstar in Australia, Sam is a powerful close runner and devastating tackler. He could be a real star. I think he will come off the bench and be very destructive running at opposition outhalves in the last 20 minutes.

Most looking forward to? The festival of rugby that is the pool stages. Rugby minnows like Uruguay and Namibia getting to play the Wallabies and New Zealand. A celebration of the egalitarian nature of the game. The amateurs getting their day in the sun against the best on the planet. A pure joy to watch.

Least looking forward to? Teams refusing to clear the ball from the base of scrums and pushing until the referee awards a penalty that will give matching winning points for play that is a bastardisation of game’s ethos. Boring.


Winner, runner-up please? There are so many variables in terms of injuries, refereeing and weather - to highlight three - but if Ireland, with a bit of luck to boot, can properly represent their playing and coaching talent then they can reach the final. New Zealand have never won a World Cup final in the Northern Hemisphere but are rightly favourites to change that statistic.

Ireland - how far will we go and by which route? I’d expect Ireland to win their first three pool games and if they get there with the squad intact, I can see them achieving a first by beating France in a World Cup match. Another nemesis in Argentina awaits them in a quarter-final and then England/ Australia/ Wales in a semi-final. Ireland’s record in the last two Six Nations suggests that they can now back-up big performances. Finalists.

Player to watch and why? Australia’s fullback Israel Folau is a brilliant athlete, wonderful in the air and strong yet lithe in his running style. He invariably attracts multiple tacklers and this creates space for others in the Wallaby backline. New Zealand wings Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder are also great to watch.

Most looking forward to? The three-way spat between England, Australia and Wales in Pool A with Fiji potentially playing the role of joker and the prospect of France taking on New Zealand in a World Cup quarter-final. More than any other competing country, the French have earned the right to lay claim to the William Webb Ellis trophy based on their back story.

Least looking forward to? Any match where the outcome is disproportionately determined by the officiating. It would be great to see a tournament where the meritocracy of the rugby held sway rather than a fluctuating interpretation of the laws.


Winner, runner-up please? The obvious answer to this question is New Zealand. However, history shows that pressure can make the team buckle in the final stages of the competition. I can see England pushing this year but their coaching staff are their only weak link. New Zealand to win as they are in superior form at the moment and England second.

Ireland - how far will we go and by which route? Ireland will make it to the quarter-finals at least. However, the route they get there will have an effect on their confidence to get further. The one thing this group of Irish players has more than those who have entered the competition in years gone by is that the worldwide respect for this Irish squad could not be higher; be it Argentina or New Zealand, neither team will hold fear for this Irish squad to proceed to the semis and further.

Player to watch and why? Nehe Milner-Skudder, the All Black wing, for his size he packed a big punch in this year’s Rugby Championship. He can turn up anywhere with super pace and great offloading skills and the World Cup is coming at a time just as he finds his feet as a Test winger. Also, Danny Care for England is sure to entertain; he was single-handedly beating the French in this year’s Six Nations until Lancaster took him off and will always add spark to a game be it starting or off the bench.

Most looking forward to? I’m looking forward to seeing England. They have a great squad of players with depth in all areas but unfortunately are in the group of death with Australia and Wales. Wales will always be tricky with Gatland at the helm and Cheika with Australia will produce a hard working Wallabies side, but England’s performances over the last few years against the Southern Hemisphere teams have been the best of the home nations, particularly at Twickenham.

Least looking forward to? Ireland v France. Other teams have many obstacles in their respective groups but Ireland’s success at this World Cup depends on one game; France are unpredictable most of the time but invariably have the ability to turn it on when the World Cups roll around.


Winner, runner-up please? New Zealand. Ireland. Even writing that is making me break out in a cold sweat. There won’t be the same suffocating pressure for All Blacks as there was in 2011. They are not invincible and can be got at. But they can still turn it on from anywhere on the pitch like no other team can.

Ireland - how far will we go and by which route? If Ireland top their group then anything can happen. And I expect them to top their group, win their quarter-final and then all bets are off. Progress is absolutely dependent on frontline players staying fit. There are a heap of “what ifs” but we also have the best head coach in the world to help Ireland break new ground.

Player to watch and why? There will be the flashes of brilliance from players. New Zealand’s Nehe Milner-Skudder and South Africa’s Jesse Kriel could provide this. But I also want to see a player own this World Cup and this is the stage Johnny Sexton has been waiting for. Plus there’s one combination I can’t wait to see again - David Pocock and Michael Hooper in the Australia backrow.

Most looking forward to? Seeing Ireland play to their potential and seeing what moves Joe Schmidt is going to unwrap. We only got one game during the 6 Nations - the win over Scotland - when we saw Ireland really open up. Remember the Devin Toner to Sean O’Brien move which resulted in a try against the Scots? More of this please.

Least looking forward to? As well as over inflated prices, I’m not looking forward to one of England, Wales or Australia not making it into the quarter-finals. A big tournament needs the host nation to stay as long as possible. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see England go out at the pool stage.


Winner, runner-up please? New Zealand, South Africa.

Ireland - how far will we go and by which route? Courageous quarter-final defeat to New Zealand after finishing second in group.

Player to watch and why? Waisake Naholo. Apparently one of his legs is broken but he’s going to play anyway. I like his style.

Most looking forward to? Ireland v France. One of those moments when it feels like everyone is watching the same thing. They don’t come along very often.

Least looking forward to? Cultural imperialism of overstimulated Irish rugby fans.


Winner, runner-up please? New Zealand to grow old before our eyes. After beating Argentina in their Pool and France in an epic Cardiff revenge for 2007, they will fall short against younger Springbok power in the semi-final. Boks to beat England or Australia in the final.

Ireland – how far will we go and by which route? Semi-final but only if we defy logic. Let’s get real; Ireland could squeeze past France and Argentina before regrouping to outfox England but that requires a sustained level of brilliance never seen before in Irish sport. We lack the depth of world class player to beat them all. And no way Sexton, O’Brien, O’Connell, Heaslip, Jared Payne, Cian Healy and Iain Henderson will survive the attrition. If they somehow stay fit we can make the final but no way . . .

Player to watch and why? Richie McCaw. For every moment of every All Black game forget the run of play or flight of the ball and stay with Richie because the greatest player to ever lace up a pair of black boots will eventually find his way to the action. Soon he will be gone and his relentlessness, his iron will (142 caps, 15 defeats), his astonishing durability, shall never be seen again. And Izzy Folau - watch him scorch English and Welsh earth.

Most looking forward to? So much. Balmy autumn nights in Cardiff. The wilds of Burton-Upon-Trent. Riding the UK rails. Seriously though, watching an Ireland team finally surpass its potential at a World Cup by surviving that quarter-final weekend in Cardiff.

Least looking forward to? The main Irish weakness being badly exposed. Power runners will dominate at this World Cup. Wales out muscled O’Connell’s pack recently and England, New Zealand, South Africa and particularly France are bigger again. Beware the mercenary benches.

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