Home nations verdicts
With just four days until the party starts with the World Cup opener at Twickenham, I have examined the prospects of the home nations.
Could for the first time since 2003 all four make it to the knockout stages? This is what I have decided…
Despite the somewhat controversial selection of Sam Burgess, the men in white have managed to keep the news reports heading into the tournament reasonably optimistic.
The biggest area of concern for England will be how they deal with the pressure of being hosts once it kicks off. They, on and off the field, will be under the microscope so behaviour must be impeccable. Therefore, head coach Stuart Lancaster made the brave but spot-on decision to dump bad boys Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi from his group.
England appears to be engrossed in their mission heading into their difficult Pool, which includes the accomplished rugby nations Australia and Wales. However, the men in white have the best strength in depth of the three and, therefore, should be able to top the Pool and advance to the knockout stages.
Nevertheless, Lancaster admitted shedding tears during his squad selection, and I’m afraid there may be further tears in the England camp as I see them falling short and finishing commendable runners up to the All Blacks, who are basically unbeatable when at their best.
VERDICT: Runners Up
Despite their rugby prowess, Ireland has never surpassed the quarter-finals of a Rugby World Cup, and that is something, following their Six Nations triumph in the Spring, which they must put right.
They don’t have a straightforward Pool with France and Italy posting reasonable threats, but they should win comfortably against Romania and Canada.
Since taking over in 2013, Joe Schmidt has got Ireland tactically structured with players knowing their job along with the overall game plan of the team. Also in Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton they have possibly the most efficient half-back partnerships in World Rugby today.
However, their main strength is also their weakness as if either Murray or Sexton gets injured, due to Ireland’s grave lack of depth, they would be struggling to find a suitable replacement in either position.
Overall Ireland is my fourth favourite to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, so if they can avoid any injuries to their key men, they should finally reach a long-awaited RWC semi-final.
New Zealand-born Vern Cotter’s Scotland were left holding the wooden spoon following a disastrous Six Nations in the Spring nevertheless have bounced back with some commendable warm-up displays against France and Italy.
The Scots were for so long a team that tried to edge wins with kicks and a robust defence, but it just didn’t work. Now under Cotter, there has been a resurgence, with the Dark Blues playing a more free-flowing, attractive brand of rugby. Fly-half Finn Russell and the rest of the backs can fly with the ball in hand, and they are not afraid to run ambitious set plays from the midfield.
The biggest issue potentially with Scotland’s squad is the belief factor. Despite some positive performances in the last year, which included running the All Blacks close, as soon as they lost a few during the six nations their ‘heads went down’ and they struggled.
However, their Pool has some very winnable games on offer, meaning if the Scots’ play the way they can they should pick up the results needed to finish second in the Pool, reaching the quarter-finals. This success would make up for their early exit in 2011, which was the first time they failed to reach the knockout stages of an RWC.
Wales’s stability has for so long been their main strength. However, that was thrown into disarray when point-scoring machine Leigh Halfpenny and playmaker Rhys Webb were both ruled out the tournament after suffering severe injuries against Italy in their final warm-up match.
This adds to the problem Warren Gatland already has with his front five. The Welsh pack has been outmuscled far too often of late, and that was explicitly evident during their defeat to England during this year’s Six Nations.
Wales, despite their losses still do have a lot of talent and capability in their Squad. Captain Sam Warburton has won a Grand Slam, Lions tour and has previous World Cup experience while in George North they have the hottest talent in the Northern Hemisphere.
However, in what was already going to be a tight Pool, their injuries plus their incredibly poor record against Australia, which has saw them lose ten consecutive matches against the Wallabies, will ultimately I think end in an early departure for the men in red I think.
VERDICT: Pool Stage