Gareth Thomas has hailed the current Rugby World Cup as the best since the tournament’s inception but admits to being at a loss to predict an eventual winner.
Indeed the former Wales and Lions skipper (he took over the job in 2005 after Brian O’Driscoll was unceremoniously dumped by the Kevin Mealamu-Tana Umaga axis) believes that this is the most open tournament ever, with a real chance of a northern hemisphere team prevailing.
He includes Irelandalthough they have yet to hit the heights of their last two Six Nations campaigns.
Regardless of the underwhelming performance against Italy, Thomas insists that the rest of the rugby world views Joe Schmidt’s men as contenders.
“They are a better team now” said Thomas yesterday. When you look at them individually and you look at them collectively, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be.
“What they have now too is a coach who is very intelligent, very shrewd, very tactically aware and what they have is the players to be able to implement what the coach is asking them as well which I think may be the difference from the past.
“I think people fear playing Ireland. I think the Welsh-Irish rivalry has grown of late. Wales and Ireland have played each other with a lot at stake, which has allowed the rivalry to grow. I think the Welsh national team has grown in stature and I think that the Irish have as well. They have kind of grown together.
“For me, this Ireland team is very similar to a Welsh team in that they have players who they could potentially start with or sit on the bench who are game-breakers, really exciting players, but also they have really solid players.
“But if you want to play in a typically Irish way, they have the best No 10 in the world to be able to do that as well.” Thomas is struggling to call the Ireland-France game tomorrow but is unequivocal about how essential victory is, with the loser taking on New Zealand.
The likelihood of the Millennium Stadium being dominated by Irish supporters might swing it in favour of the Boys In Green he surmises.
“Everyone’s waiting to see the best of Ireland, everyone’s waiting to see the best of France, and whoever brings the best game on the weekend will win.
“I was at Wembley for the Ireland-Romania game and it was like a home game for Ireland. I’ve never seen so many green jerseys in Wembley in my life. Where have all these people come from? It was bonkers.
“There’s going to be a big Irish support for Ireland in Cardiff. The Millennium Stadium is a cauldron and if you look at that, the Irish fans will overshadow the French and get a good atmosphere going then there’s no reason why the Irish can’t win and it’s important that they win as well. The ramifications of it are not nice.” As for an overall winner?
“For the first time ever you genuinely have maybe eight teams who can win the World Cup. You can’t write off New Zealand but it’s like with Ireland - who have New Zealand played that people are talking about them?
“Everyone is talking about Wales, Australia, the Irelands and the Frances because they have played big games (after this weekend). Until you are tested, it’s difficult to see what ability you are going into the World Cup with.
“After last weekend, I think Australia, right now, are the team who have played the best 90 minutes.”
That is not to say he is ruling his own country out when they battle the Wallabies for pool supremacy today.
“I think Australia favourites and rightly so. And if I was being professional then... there’s no way in the world do I want Australia to win, I obviously want Wales to win for my passion. You can’t ignore what happened last week (between Australia and England) and I think anybody would look at last week and think that’s one of the best teams in the world. Wales would definitely be an underdog to beat them.”
But with Warren Gatland at the helm, anything is possible says Thomas, clearly won over by the Kiwi who ended his own international career.
“It always works, that’s the bonkers thing about it. He pulls some things off. He’s put (Justin) Tipuric in now because Dan (Lydiate) is struggling with an eye socket or something. It’s almost like a perfect game for Tips to play anyway.
“You’ve got George North now playing at 13, it’s a one-off gamble. You’ve got George North up against (Tevita) Kuridrani, you just chuck him in there and say ‘have a go.’ it’s a game where they can kind of throw a bit of caution to the wind.
“They’re more than capable but again, this Australian team, after Saturday, if they perform within their capabilities then they’re definitely one of the best teams in the tournament.”
Gareth Thomas was in Dublin to discuss the new Guinness rugby ad campaign, including his ad entitled Gareth Thomas — Never Alone, which celebrates integrity and character in the world of rugby.
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