If the London Olympics of four years ago is the yardstick by which the Rugby World Cup is to be judged then the tournament organisers have set themselves an incredibly high standard.
The Rainbow World Cup, hosted by South Africa in 1995, will always be special for the inspired manner with which Nelson Mandela used a sport, seen by the vast majority of his country’s population as elitist, as a unifying force when adopting the “one team-one country” mantra.
In pure rugby terms, Australia 2003 and New Zealand 2011 were magnificent in so many ways but each tournament tends to take on a life of its own. Over the next seven weeks we are set for another rugby extravaganza, hopefully one with a difference in that at least six international squads enter the fray harbouring genuine hope and belief that they can contest for ultimate honours.
That hasn’t always been the case.
With the opening ceremony only two days away now, we are set for an early indication of what to expect. Once the razzmatazz is over on Friday night — what stunt will the organisers pull out of the bag this time to match that of the Queen and James Bond parachuting from a plane to launch the 2012 Olympic Games? — all the focus will be on the action on the field for what promises to be the most competitive event in the tournament’s comparatively short history.
Even the opening game between hosts England and Fiji has the capacity for drama as the ever-improving Fijians will seek to impose their aesthetically-pleasing running style on the opening night’s proceedings. Let’s hope others follow if, for no other reason, to justify the exorbitant cost of the tickets.
As always New Zealand enter the fray as favourites but history shows that doesn’t mean a lot. After all, they have never won a tournament outside of their home patch and their veil of invincibility has slipped a little in recent times.
Australia arrive in rude health after a pretty horrible run of form in recent seasons. They looked a disorganised rabble against the Lions only two seasons ago which predictably led to the departure of their coach Robbie Deans. His successor Ewen McKenzie lasted little over a year before ex-Leinster coach Michael Cheika took over in difficult and challenging circumstances.
He has worked miracles, given that he is less than 10 months in the job and by winning the Rugby Championship this summer has set the Wallabies up for a big tournament, even allowing for the fact that they are in a massively competitive pool.
South Africa arrive with an even bigger pack of forwards than they normally produce — and that is saying something. Behind the scrum, so much depends on whether they stick with the relatively inexperienced Handre Pollard at out-half or if coach Heyneke Meyer recalls Morne Steyn. That will tell us a lot. Having that uncertainty surrounding your main playmaker does not auger well but they have the power across the board to be serious contenders.
The new found attacking threat posed by young midfield sensations Jesse Kriel and Damien de Allande demands having Pollard or Pat Lambie on board but the more conservative Steyn may yet prove the coach’s choice.
Of the rest, Ireland and England are entitled to fancy their chances while France, despite showing no form whatsoever since their desperately unlucky final appearance in Eden Park four years ago, know they have what it takes to make the semi-finals for the seventh time in eight tournaments.
That is some record.
Wales will also prove a handful but one of the three contenders from Pool A, either England, Australia or the Welsh is set to bite the dust at the preliminary stage. The catastrophic run of injuries that Warren Gatland’s squad has endured recently places them on the back foot. Of the rest, don’t discount Argentina from having a very decent tournament.
There is an assumption that if Ireland beat France to top their pool and avoid a quarter-final meeting with New Zealand, a first ever semi-final appearance beckons. While I can see Ireland emerge top of Pool D, anyone who witnessed Argentina dismantle the Springbok pack in Durban during the Rugby Championship will appreciate that they are becoming a very competent and abrasive side. Will the Pumas have any inhibitions about meeting Ireland in a quarter-final? I doubt it very much.
To prosper at this tournament it is vital to have a functioning scrum. While the purists like myself relish the set-piece battle, the casual supporter is often, with good cause it has to be said, left frustrated and disillusioned. For many teams the scrum has become a means of generating penalties and so much will depend on the ground rules set by the referees from the outset. I will watch with interest to see how that develops over the next few weeks.
At least we can derive a lot of comfort from the fact that Ireland’s scrum, even without Cian Healy on board, proved the most consistent weapon in the four warm-up games. Jack McGrath has been sensational at loose head in Healy’s absence while Mike Ross is playing as well as ever.
However in a pool with such enthusiastic scrummagers as Italy, France and even Romania, Healy’s recovery from injury is vital. Hopefully he will see some game time against Canada.
Despite Joe Schmidt’s assertion last week that Canada are “an incredible banana skin for us,” Ireland need to lay down a marker in this opening game to put to bed the mixed messages to emerge from the warm up phase.
The squad need to avoid the type of uncertainty that emanated from the abject opening performances against Namibia and Georgia in the ill-fated 2007 event in France. A confident start lays down a marker from the outset and that is exactly what Ireland need to do on Saturday.
While I look forward to Ireland hitting the ground running at the Millennium Stadium and to analysing Pool D rivals France and Italy going head to head later on at Twickenham, it’s a clash 24 hours later that captures my imagination on the opening weekend.
Ireland will make the last eight of the World Cup. The big question is, who will they meet in that quarter final — the holders New Zealand or Argentina? They play against each other at Wembley on Sunday and consequently that contest holds massive intrigue for me.
The one downside of the tournament is that Ireland, on the certainty that we will make the knockout phase, is scheduled to play three of their first five games in Cardiff despite the fact that England host the tournament. That seems crazy. On the flip side, we get to see Ireland play in London’s most iconic new sporting arenas at Wembley and the Olympic Stadium.
Even the new Wembley will resonate with countless Irish fans who grew up watching the build up to the FA Cup final on BBC at a time when there was very little live soccer on television. There is a special magic attaching to the place. Let’s hope the entire tournament is sprinkled with a decent supply of gold dust, culminating in a first ever appearance for Ireland in a World Cup semi-final.
That will do nicely for a start. After that we are all entitled to dream a little. Despite the ever increasing commercial and financial issues that go hand in hand with professionalism, isn’t that what all sport is really about?
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