As 20 nations descend on our green and pleasant land, and each receive their own welcome ceremony – including, ironically, England – the tension grows ahead of rugby’s greatest spectacle.
Set to be the most attended, most viewed and generally the biggest Rugby World Cup ever, the next six weeks will no doubt be a roller coaster of emotions for players, friends, family and fans, including almost 500,000 expected visitors. And arguably the closest contested, with New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, Ireland, Wales and France all with a decent shot at the title.
So all England have to do is win seven games in a row, right?
That’s easier said than done of course but, despite sitting in the so-called ‘Pool of Death’, England’s draw could see a fairly straightforward run-in to the Final – the key will be topping the group.
England’s Pool fixtures will see them face Fiji, Wales and Australia at Twickenham and lastly Uruguay in Manchester.
So first up: Fiji. This evening’s Tournament curtain-raiser sees hosts England as the ‘away’ team at Twickenham due to a lost coin-toss, something the side prepared for by using the opposition facilities in the win over Ireland. England must also wear their red alternate kit and have been required to cover up all the inspirational messages installed by Stuart Lancaster.
Chris Robshaw captains the side for the 39th time, equalling Martin Johnson’s tally – an impressive feat given Robbo is 29 whereas Johnno won his last cap on that fateful night in Sydney in 2003 at the ripe old age of 33. Sam Burgess is named on the bench while speculation is rife in Australia that he’ll return to the NRL and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at the end of the season.
Fiji are a potential ‘banana skin’ with super-star players such as Nemani Nadolo, the 127kg freight-train of a winger who topped the Super Rugby try-scoring tally, Leicester’s silky centre Vereniki Goneva and the bruising power of captain Akapusi Qera.
But a win under the belts will set the side up nicely for Wales, who England should be confident of beating on their home patch. Wales find themselves in somewhat of a pickle with goal-kicker supremo Leigh Halfpenny, first-choice scrum-half Rhys Webb and centre Jonathan Davies set to miss the Tournament in its entirety. While Liam Williams offers a similarly penetrating counter-attack as Halfpenny, being down such a prolific points scorer is a major blow.
Next up, The Wallabies, who under Michael Cheika, have enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent months, winning the Rugby Championship due to having a pack that can actually win a scrum, an intriguing tactic of playing two openside flankers and a long list of hugely exciting backs (Cooper, Giteau, Toomua, Kurandrani, Folau, etc).
England have a good record, though, against Wales and Australia at Twickenham, and Uruguay shouldn’t cause any problems, so a top place finish in the Pool is realistic. This should leave us in a decent position to progress through the knock-out stages, while Wales could be the unlucky side not to advance from the Pool.
Elsewhere Scotland will also face a tough ride in Pool B as they come up against South Africa and the bruising Samoans, whilst USA and Japan are no mugs. The Springboks will walk this Pool, even though their recent form in the Rugby Championship was woeful, leaving Scotland and Samoa to most likely face-off in their own mini Rugby World Cup Final in Newcastle on October 10.
The easiest group is arguably Pool C; ironically the one that New Zealand sit in. The All Blacks’ toughest challenge will come in the shape of Argentina, who fresh off their most successful Rugby Championship ever will be looking to take a big scalp. The likelihood is that this won’t be New Zealand but that the Pumas will meet the winners of Pool D in the quarters … most likely Ireland.
Neck on the line time then … our knock-out predictions are:
- South Africa (Winner Pool B) v Australia (Runner-up Pool A)
- New Zealand (Winner Pool C) v France (Runner-up Pool D)
- Ireland (Winner Pool D) v Argentina (Runner-up Pool C)
- England (Winner Pool A) v Scotland (Runner-up Pool B)
- Australia v New Zealand
- England v Ireland
So, provided 1) England top Pool A and 2) New Zealand don’t come a cropper against France (again) and 3) one of South Africa and Australia drop out at the Quarters and 4) the other drops out at the Semis … and with home advantage playing into our hands … the stage is set for an England v New Zealand final. As the only northern-hemisphere side to have beaten the All Blacks in recent years (Twickenham 2012), there is therefore a smidgen of hope for England to lift the Trophy (something which the host nation has done on three occasions: 1987, 1995 and 2011).
But as much as it pains us to say it, here’s where the experience of the All Blacks could pay dividends. The All Blacks could boast over 1,000 caps across their starting XV, whereas the total of England’s XV named against Fiji is only 443.
Could New Zealand, then, be the first nation to retain the Webb Ellis Cup?
Follow Take The Three on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/TakeTheThree