History shows that defense and goal-kicking are the hard currencies to win a World Cup.
This insight is the background for my article. I decided to compile a list of what the top 15 (latest world rankings) rugby nations have going for them to win this year’s World Cup.
1. New Zealand
The defending champions are adamant they wont buckle under pressure in this world cup. Past NZ teams are renowned to choke during the final stages of every World Cup. Will this be the big farewell to legendary player Richie McCaw in his final World Cup year? Will Sam Cane finally prove he is the best No. 7 to fill Richie’s shoes? With their World Cup opener against Argentina, NZ will want to set the tone going forward, and they will want to earn the right to progress through to the Final.
Australia were given a stern warning, and they were simply and rather brutally knocked off their stride by the USA. Were Australia complacent after going 14-0 up? Probably not.. It will, however, do the Australian squad good to be reminded that if a team containing a couple of amateurs, can do that to you, then England, Wales and Fiji are to be taken very seriously indeed. Australia is likely to opt for 2 different sides going into their first 2 pool-games to be played.
3. South Africa
Banking on experience the Springboks opted for some old players to bolster their ranks. Coupled with recovering from serious injury players. Will this gamble pay off as players like Fourie du Preez have mot had international duty since mid 2014, Duan Vermeulen is on the comeback trail, Willem “the bone collector”Alberts is not close to his bruising best and Jean de Villiers is also shrugging off injuries. Francois Louw has to get to grips with the big collisions at ruck time and Bryan Habana needs to find his rhythm to create his own scoring opportunities.
The question remains, will this gamble from HM pay off to see his side through to the final?
If George Ford is going to be England’s first-choice fly half in the World Cup – England’s finishing must improve.
When Owen Farrell came on against Ireland, the alternative to Ford, he closed out the match with goal-kicking that is as sure as anybody’s in the world. If England are going to play this upbeat game, suited to Ford, then they have to score more tries, more consistently.
The third warm-up game was the one that got to them. It was the match Wales did not need. To go into the World Cup on the back of the away win in Dublin would have been splendid but Warren Gatland begged to differ and picked a strong XV to play Italy. He claimed his units needed more time together, injuries to Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny confirmed the worst fears. Wales are doomed to the Top 8 at best.
Picking only two specialist players in the No. 9 position in his squad has for the first time, made the world’s most analytical and generally like-able Head coach appear less than convincing. Ireland will have a delicate decision to make regarding the No. 9 replacements. Who will forget the towering Paul O’Connell during the 2013 Lions tour and his dominance during line-outs and rucks, then again this is not the Lions tour of 2013. What can we say about the iconic Ireland captain that hasn’t already been said? Intelligent, line-out savvy and able to inspire both with word and deed, he has also been delivering consistently high performances since returning from a long-term groin injury in 2013. Will he rise to the occasion and lead Ireland to World Cup Victory? There are some very tight decisions, particularly in the back three.
Michalak is still a powerhouse at No 10.
Frédéric Michalak will be 33 by the time the World Cup is over and his return to the French squad has raised plenty of eyebrows. He scuffed an early penalty against Scotland but went on to give an assured performance behind the strong French pack. Philippe Saint-André says this is pretty much the side that will contest France’s first World Cup game against Italy. France are coming good at the right time.
For so long Argentina’s strength, their problems in the scrum have been well-documented in the buildup to the World Cup – two tighthead props are out and another, Ramiro Herrera, is only just on his way back. Fortunately for the Head-coach, there is plenty to shout about in the backs with pairing Juan Martín Hernández and Marcelo Bosch they have a midfield partnership to rival most.
It was not until 2012 that the Pumas were welcomed into the then Tri-Nations and the benefits have been obvious, with victories over France, Australia and South Africa in the past 12 months. Progress since 2007 has been frustratingly slow but finally Argentina look ready to take their place at the elite level.
England might do well to keep hold of the ball as much as possible against Fiji at Twickenham. Letting it go far beyond Fiji’s second row seems a bad idea on the evidence from the match against Canada. The Fijians showcased their skills without ever hitting top gear. The power further out wide has the potential to light up the World Cup – if Fiji can get the ball to them against teams stronger than Canada.
The decision to pick John Hardie for the World Cup five weeks after the New Zealander’s arrival in Scotland has provoked as much debate as Sam Burgess’s selection for England. Hardie and the rest of the Scottish pack passed an extremely physical test in the warm up games. David Denton and the Gray brothers were also immense in the build-up. Saffa’s Josh Strauss and WP Nel will give Scotland more aggression than meets the untrained eye, but first the Scots must address their creaking line-outs and set pieces.
Tonga’s win over Canada in the Pacific Nations Cup means they are the only climbers in the latest World Rugby Rankings. Eleven members of Tonga’s squad for Rugby World Cup 2015 play their club rugby in England. Twenty of the players who helped Tonga finish third in the recent World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup have been selected for the country’s Rugby World Cup 2015 squad. With this depth and knowledge of English playing conditions, Tonga are sure to score and upset or two.
While the big teams finished their World Cup preparations with matches against top competition, Samoa had to finish their preparations by playing English club teams. The All Blacks’ first visit to Apia earlier this summer was a huge occasion and carried an enormous amount of prestige for Samoa. Look out for some familiar Samoan head hunting tackles in their games during the group stages.
Against Georgia, the very first minute ended with Japan winning a penalty, from which they took the lead, through a strong rolling maul. They kept their strength up, and in the 77th minute, the 1.89 m / 111 kg No. 8 Amanaki Lelei Mafi forced his way over the back of a driving maul to win the game for Japan. No one ever talks about Japan’s physical threat but their Pool B opponents would be wise not to take forward dominance for granted. The “Brave Blossoms” have made great strides under Australian Eddie Jones, breaking into the world’s top 10 last year following a run of 10 successive wins which culminated in victory over Six Nations side Italy.
Italy needed a third game to put themselves back on track after an abject performance against Scotland. By merely extracting a performance from their tried and tested players they go into the World Cup in far better shape after these three games. France and Ireland will be reminded now that they have both lost in recent times to Italy.
What happens when you take Samu Manoa off for a rest – Australia score five tries and escape a real embarrassment. The Toulon-bound No. 8 – who is just as happy at blind side or at lock – was at the heart of a magnificent defensive effort at Soldier Field. The question now is, what do Scotland do if the Eagles raise such passion at Elland Road? A lesser team than the Wallabies will have to dig deep for a win.