After all the build matches and what felt like no close season at all, the Rugby World Cup finally kicks off tonight. When you look at the warm up matches, they seem to pose more questions than they answered. England win their home games and don’t turn up for the first 60 minutes in Paris. And the player that turned their game around doesn’t make it to the RWC. While Danny Cipriani has his flaws, I think this decision may backfire on England as Cipriani can be a gamechanger. If England are up against it at any point, he has ability to win it on his own (or make the mistake to give it away). I don’t think any other player that was in the extended squad has that ability.
Australia will be looking to win the group as well, and as usual they are coming to their peak in time for the RWC, winning the Rugby Championship for the first time since 2011, albeit in a truncated format. They have a good mixture of players and their policy of letting their most experienced players play overseas and still play for the Wallabies may be to their benefit.
Wales, on the other hand, have lost two of their playmakers in Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb. While Mike Phillips comes in for Webb (not bad to bring in a Lions tourist), the loss of Halfpenny will be huge. Not just his kicking temperament, but the all round game he brings to Wales. With these injuries, I think Welsh challenge may have already gone.
The group is the proverbial ‘Group of Death’. Not just Australia and Wales, but Fiji. Fiji have qualified 3 times for the Quarter Finals and were seconds away from qualifying in 2003, when a Tom Smith try with the last play allowed Scotland to qualify. They have also beaten Wales in the RWC in 2007. They won’t qualify (famous last words), but may have a say as they could be the banana skin that trips up one of the big three. What I do hope is that the roof stays open at the Millennium Stadium. Now that bonus points count, all games should be open to the elements, as this can have an effect on a try bonus point, which in this group could be crucial.
Group B, is straightforward for the winners, that should be South Africa. The other place will be between Scotland and Samoa. It should be Scotland, as Vern Cotter has them playing with structure and had a good build up beating Italy home and away, and more importantly running Ireland and France close in their backyards.
The other groups are more straightforward, with Pool C being won by New Zealand, with Argentina the only challenging match. This will keep the All Blacks fresh for the knock out stages. Pool D will be closer and will depend on which French team turns up. They are still in the perpetual state of flux, which should allow Ireland to win the group.
Whatever happens in Group A, I expect the winners to go all the way to the final, with home advantage, it will be England. They will play the runners up in Pool B (Scotland / Samoa). They will then play the France / Ireland / Argentina, which in my opinion will be Ireland, and they will get past them. The runners up in Group A will come up against South Africa, who will win Group B. If they get past South Africa (which I doubt), they will most likely run into New Zealand. Considering the way the fixtures have fallen, this could be a match too far, as they will have played test rugby against top 10 opposition in five successive weeks.
So, I envisage a New Zealand v England final on 31st October, with the All Blacks becoming the first team to retain the Webb Ellis Cup. I wouldn’t put any money on it, but I am looking forward to six weeks of top quality rugby, showcasing all that is good about Rugby Union.