Most keen rugby observers agree that only five nations have a chance of winning the World Cup. Competition history bears this out. Just four teams have won the previous six tournaments: England, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa – the latter twice each. Come October any of these could be hoisting the Webb Ellis trophy in Auckland.
The fifth contender is France, twice a finalist (’87 & ’99) and twice victors over the All Blacks (’99 & ’07). France is New Zealand’s bogey team. They are matched in Pool A with both certain to advance. Favored again to win the Cup, the All Blacks will seek stern revenge for their only quarterfinal loss in 2007. The teams would not meet again until the Final.
The Wallabies under Robbie Deans may be a year away from greatness. Their explosive young backs are so good that veteran flyhalf/center Matt Giteau cannot get a start. Barring injury he may not even make the final squad.
Remember these names: Will Genia, Quade Cooper, Curtley Beale, James O’Connor, Digby Ione, Adam Ashley-Cooper. They make up the most potent attacking force at this year’s tournament; but it may not be enough.
World class flankers David Pocock and skipper Rocky Elsom along with hooker Stephen Moore cannot hold the Wallaby pack together. Their front five is suspect, more so after the recent loss of prop Benn Robinson to knee injury. The All Blacks eviscerated Australia’s forwards in a 30-14 demolition on August 6th at Eden Park.
The Wallabies have lost 11 of 13 tests to New Zealand in the Deans era. They have not won in Auckland for 25 years. Australia should get past Ireland in Pool C and face Wales in the quarter finals. From there it will get much harder.
Former England coach Dick Best has written off England’s chances at the World Cup. Instead he looks at France with foreboding. “No one wants to play them and you can understand why. Only England seems to know how to strangle and suffocate them.”
England could win the World Cup; but in 2015 when they host it, not this year.
They go into this tournament as Six Nations champions but Ireland revealed how hollow that distinction can be. They remain a work in progress under coach Martin Johnson with a raft of young players and a more open approach to the game.
Flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson may yet be steering England next month but look for the youngsters to shine. Chris Aston equalled the Six Nations try-scoring record this year and Tom Croft is a devastating blindside flanker with searing pace.
England could go deep into this tournament if they get past Argentina in Pool B.
They would then be likely to draw France in the quarters. If England comes second in pool play, they’ll get the All Blacks as punishment.
Nobody knows what’s coming out of South Africa. Springbok management elected to send a B team for first round Tri-Nations matches in Australia and New Zealand.
The “Baby Boks” were destroyed on successive weekends and it became clear that only a half dozen or so had the skills to make the World Cup squad.
The balance of the side, 21 veteran players, had been left at home. They will form the core of the tournament team with many making their farewells to international rugby. Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, John Smit and others will retire after the Cup or ply their trade at club level in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Springboks are always dangerous but it remains to be seen what style they will play. In 2007, coach Jake White also rested senior players in the lead-up. They won with the traditional South African game; crushing forward pressure, high ball attack from the wings and phenomenal goal kicking.
Fourie du Preeze is widely regarded as the world’s best scrumhalf. With Jean de Villiers, Jacque Fourie and Bryan Habana outside him the Boks could run against anyone. Yet Springbok coach Peter de Villiers has not embraced the recent open-play interpretations of modern rugby. Look for them to bash opponents into submission while relying on the goal kicking of Morne Steyn. Expect them also to win Pool D and face Ireland in the quarterfinals.
“Uncertain in their approach, inconsistent in strategy, too often mentally fragile.”
This is the analysis from esteemed English writer Peter Bills. At club level the
French have largely abandoned their rich heritage of fast, inventive attacking rugby. They are technically sound in the forwards but no longer resemble teams from the late 1990’s which won successive Grand Slams and terrified opponents with their dazzling style.
Under coach Marc Lievremont, “Les Bleus” often perform as though they don’t know what they’re doing. It seems as though the players won’t buy into his vision. Yet, that is when France can be most dangerous. Fear has been their motivator in the past and pushed them to astonishing efforts, particularly against New Zealand.
There are no logical reasons for the World Cup wins in 1999 and 2007 against the All Blacks. In 1994 they took the final test and the series at Eden Park by scoring the “Try from the end of the Earth.” Witnessed by this writer, it was pure French magic, a throwback to their “champagne” rugby of the 1970s.
What will France bring to this year’s Cup? Teams in their pool cannot be sure what to expect. Inspired by flanker Thierry Dusautoir, they will scrummage well, always counter-attack and completely confound the opposition – and themselves. As likely runners-up in Pool A, they will probably face England in the quarterfinals.
A.W. Scott is an American rugby writer based in New Zealand. He is the former International Editor of RUGBY Magazine.