To host or not to host, that is the question. After witnessing first hand the buzz and excitement that has been so evident at the four games I have attended over the opening two weekends of World Cup action, I can think of nothing better than the prospect of Ireland hosting the event in eight years’ time, writes Donal Lenihan.
That said, be careful what you wish for, as the England squad is discovering at present, it is not all sweetness and light.
Running the event has the capacity to inspire or suffocate the host nation.
That was certainly the case four years ago in New Zealand when the pressure on the All Blacks to finally deliver after years of failure at the tournament almost derailed their efforts. In the end, they stuttered over the line.
The pressure was so intense on France in 2007, they lost their opening game against Argentina at the Stade de France and reserved their best performance for the only time they played outside the country, that epic quarter-final win over New Zealand in Cardiff.
With the weight of a nation temporarily removed, they played out of their skins.
Seven days later in the semi-final against a distinctly average England side, they bombed once again back in Paris. They simply couldn’t handle the level of expectation attached to hosting the event.
Of course, there is plenty of evidence supporting the fact that the excitement and national fervour derived from running the show can lift your side to unprecedented heights.
Francois Pienaar’s successful Springbok side of 1995 are proof of that. They were inspired by an emotional tide of unprecedented levels en route to conquering a far superior All Blacks side in the final.
Likewise Australia, under current Japanese boss Eddie Jones, went within an extra time drop goal of denying the tournament’s best side, England, the trophy in 2003, with a Wallaby squad that was past its sell-by date.
Yet with the whole country behind them, they came within a whisker of becoming the first country to retain the trophy, a feat New Zealand have set for themselves next month.
While Twickenham rocked last Saturday night, it was clear to me that the burden of expectation is weighing heavily of Stuart Lancaster and his England squad.
They were in total command of that game and, despite the fact that the Welsh were dropping like flies, England tried to crawl their way over the line rather than going for the jugular. For them, the fear of losing suppressed their desire to finish the job.
In some ways it was pitiful to watch but you were left with nothing but admiration for Wales who have been hit with so many injury blows but refuse to throw in the towel.
It is an admirable quality but England must be still scratching their heads as to how they contrived to lose that game.
When both Liam Williams and Hallam Amos were left in a heap on the ground and unable to continue with 14 minutes remaining, you felt Wales’ number was up.
Yet despite finishing with a winger in the centre, a scrum-half on the wing and an out-half at full-back, Wales scored 10 unanswered points to close out the game. Astonishing.
England froze spectacularly and the question now is whether they have thawed in time to rescue their cause against Australia on Saturday?
When England arrive at Twickenham, their team bus parks 200 metres from the famous Lion’s Gate entrance to the West Stand where they are greeted by thousands of flag-waving England fans lined up on both sides.
I watched them going through on Saturday night and the signs weren’t good. The pressure of the moment was betrayed in their facial expressions.
On the flip side, when Wales were met with a similar experience, their body language sent a different message, “bring it on”.
After some questionable midfield selections last weekend, Lancaster and his management team are under intense scrutiny now.
The failure to opt for a kick at goal to tie the game has also opened old wounds, lingering from similar questionable calls in the past by captain Chris Robshaw so, he too, is feeling the heat.
That decision will look even worse if Fiji manage to overturn Wales tomorrow at the Millennium Stadium and that is not as fanciful as it may appear. Wales must be emotionally and physically drained after their Twickenham experience and Warren Gatland has had to cobble a backline together with little or no time to prepare with just a five-day turnaround.
In defeat, in their opening two games against England and Australia, the Pacific Islanders displayed enough class and physicality to suggest that, with eight days to recuperate from their joust with the Wallabies, they will be up to take a big scalp.
The fact that they sent Wales packing in Nantes at the pool stage of the 2007 World Cup will also be fresh in their minds. If that were to happen, Robshaw’s decision will look even more flawed. The fact that the game is being played in Cardiff however should provide enough inspiration to get Wales over the line.
If England are feeling the heat two weeks into the tournament, favourites New Zealand along with contenders Ireland, Australia and France, have managed to float along, relatively unnoticed under the radar.
The mood in their respective camps will be very positive after bagging successive opening wins and the bigger clashes elsewhere has allowed them the space to settle into the tournament without any great degree of fuss.
That will change over the next 10 days but the lack of attention will be welcome for the time being at least. Despite their opening defeat to New Zealand, I would still categorise Argentina in the dark horse category while South Africa also remain in the equation after bouncing back impressively against Samoa from that shock defeat to Japan.
The question now is have the Springboks galvanised sufficiently to emulate what France did in 2011, when they bounced back from losing to Tonga in the pool stage to make it all the way to the final. Will history repeat itself?
The loss of captain Jean de Villiers will be felt in the leadership stakes but it may well encourage their coach Heyneke Meyer to reunite the exciting young partnership of Damian de Allende and Jesse Kriel in midfield which could transform their team.
Their game against Scotland on Saturday now assumes a massive importance. Win that, and they will be back on track.
Round three of action kicks off tomorrow with that key game for Wales, while our main pool rivals France will be keen to dispose of Canada.
That affords them an attractive 10-day build-up to focus exclusively on formulating a plan to beat Ireland. After those less than taxing outings against Canada and Romania, Ireland are in need of a more intense contest against Italy but on the evidence of their abject showing against the Canadians last weekend, they don’t appear to have it in them.
Then again, they specialise in making life difficult for Ireland before wilting. We will wait and see. As for Ireland hosting the 2023 event, I’d gladly take my chances and grasp that opportunity with both hands.
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