So the Rugby Union World Cup starts today with England, joint hosts with Wales, playing Fiji at Twickenham. Time to get excited!
Naturally the question I most want to ask is, can England win the World Cup? Most commentators don’t seem to think so; I think there’s a decent chance, but ultimately I don’t really believe they can. They have a promising, quite young team, with some pace in the backs and an inventive fly half in George Ford. The forwards are tried and tested, and few will be able to boss them, although France gave them a bit of a going over in one of the recent friendlies. But even now, after a few years of being promising, they haven’t developed the ruthlessness in the final phases, the clinical finishing that is so essential when chances are few and far between. Maybe the home support, the edge that real competition can elicit, will add those final touches. But in the end I can’t quite see them matching New Zealand or South Africa, who, as ever, will be the favourites.
Just to show that the draw from the groups isn’t fiddled in favour of the hosts, both England and Wales have been put in the same group as Australia. Veritably the “group of death”. Normally all three would expect a passage to the quarter finals; this time one must fall. England can beat both, but they could just as easily lose. Fiji won’t be pushovers either. Wales have had some injury setbacks – the loss of Leigh Halfpenny deprives them of the best goal kicker in the world. But they remain a strong, powerful side. Australia have better, more incisive backs than just about anyone, but their scrum usually lets them down when in the Northern Hemisphere. Apparently it has got better under Michael Cheika’s direction, but the jury is still out.
So all I can do really is say England can do it and hope for the best! It’s essential they come first: that way, they avoid going into the half of the knockout draw where New Zealand and South Africa will be lurking, assuming they both top their groups. If England come second, they will face South Africa, probably, in the quarter finals – a big ask. If they come top, they will most likely face Scotland or Samoa. That’s very winnable, though any match with Scotland comes with a special fire and passion. If they beat Scotland, there’s a good chance they’ll meet Ireland in the semi-final, if the Irish maintain their form as the best European team in the last two Six Nations (as opposed to their form in the last friendly against England). And then in the final it would be New Zealand or South Africa – or Australia/Wales… or France. You can never rule the French out in World Cups. They often spark to life against the odds: last time, in 2011, they made the final and were unlucky not to beat New Zealand, who seized up when the moment of glory approached.
To be honest, it’s only that possibility of nerves getting to the New Zealand in the final stages that gives anyone else hope of winning. They are the supreme team, solid and resourceful in all areas, with devastating pace and guile in the back three and ruthless when they gain possession in broken play. Dan Carter, the best fly half of the last decade, gets a final chance to win a World Cup, having missed the tournament through injury last time, in his home country. And the awesome Richie McCaw, the world’s most-capped rugby player now, leads them out once more.
Amongst the European sides, you’d expect Ireland to be the best, with Johnny Sexton orchestrating them from fly half; but their World Cup pedigree is poor. Will they have the belief deep down? The same question could be asked of Wales, whereas both England and France have often done well, even when the team is not a great one (England 2007, France last time).
Argentina can’t be ignored either. They are now battle-hardened from regular games against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. They could be heading for a quarter final against Ireland. Brutal.
Anyway, with a dash of wishful thinking, I will predict a New Zealand v England final, with the All Blacks winning. Ireland and South Africa losing semi-finalists.
Now is the time to stick your money on Australia or France!