14 months out from the next Rugby World Cup and the final proper summer tours have taken place, it is worth having a look at how the top 8 nations are shaping up and who is in the best shape.
While the French whitewash in New Zealand may not have been a shock, it is difficult to read much into the series. New Zealand are almost unbeatable at home and several questionable calls went against the French. In most of the series, the French were still in the match at half time. But as happens so often, New Zealand pulled away in the second half, and because of that, they are undoubtedly the favourites to win the RWC for the fourth the next year. The only fly in the New Zealand’s dominance ointment may be South Africa, who are in New Zealand’s group. If they can do a number on them, the draw becomes more treacherous for them, as they may play Ireland in the QFs and as they have shown over the last year, they are very dangerous and are the strongest of the Northern Hemisphere teams, and deservedly second favourites. As for France, they are still work in progress having had a new coach before the Six Nations and having only had eight matches so far, but will have doubled that by the time Japan comes around.
Ireland’s performances in Australia, showed why they are second favourites. Coming back from losing the first match to win the series. Building on their Grand Slam in the Spring, they have shown that they can mix it with the power nations of World Rugby. They should win their group with the other seeds being Scotland and Japan. The fact the series was tight, suggests that Australia are doing what they always do and peaking for the World Cup. It doesn’t seem to matter what disarray they have in the four years between competitions they have the uncanny knack of peaking during the RWC. They may be the dark horses, but the Rugby Championship next month will be a better judge of how far the Wallabies are along the road.
As for England, I just don’t know what to make of it. The losses in the 6 Nations while disappointing were not exactly catastrophic. Scotland on their day can beat anybody at Murrayfield (New Zealand excepted) and they have been on an upward spiral for the last few years. France in Paris is never easy for the English, so no real shock, and the Ireland victory at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day wasn’t a surprise as at the start of the championship it was being touted as a Grand Slam decider! As for the South Africa series, I expected England to win 3-0 with lots to spare. SA are in transition and with lots of internal politics going on, they appeared to be easy prey. After the first twenty minutes of the first test they were in complete control scoring three tries and leading by 21 points. Then the wheels came off spectacularly losing the test. There has been lots of talk about Eddie Jones losing the changing room, and while there is no evidence of this, the way they came back after the first two reverses, show that there is still lots of fight left in the team. It may be a blessing in disguise. The run of results may allow the whole of the England team to rest their outlook, and build again, and they will hope to gain the success that was experienced in the first two years of Jones regime. As for South Africa, similar to Australia the Rugby Championship will give a better idea of where they are in their preparation for RWC 2019.
Wales, who finished with an unbeaten Summer tour with victories over SA and Argentina, seem to be in in a good place heading into Warren Gatland’s swansong as head coach. They toured the America’s with a squad short of several key men (as did Scotland). They came away with a victory over SA (both teams playing arguably 2nd teams), and a 2-0 victory over Argentina. While the SA game should never have been sanctioned as a test match, the victories against Argentina was excellent considering they were predominantly the Jaguars team that play week in week out in Super Rugby. The two comfortable wins will put Wales in a positive frame of mind, but it is tempered by the fact that Scotland defeated the Puma the following weekend by a greater margin than they did. They also did it with a semi-experimental team, so the Welsh strides may not have been as good as first envisaged. As for Argentina, I don’t see them doing anything of note. They will finish bottom of the Rugby Championship and may (I don’t expect them to) win one of their home fixtures. With England and France in their group, I would expect them to struggle to get out of the group. Scotland were a complete mixed bag. Winning comfortably against Canada (who are a shadow of their former selves), losing by the odd point against USA and then putting 29 points on Argentina. What I found odd about the tour was the selection of Gregor Townsend during the first two tests. He played the stronger team against the weaker opposition (Canada). While he may argue that this would show him what the back-up players could offer, looking at World Rankings points it was a strange decision. Scotland still don’t seem to be allowed to eat at the top table of World Rugby. They have not had a proper series tour against the big four of the Southern Hemisphere for a good few years. They have played one off matches against Australia, Argentina and South Africa, but have had to supplement those against the second-tier nations such as USA, Canada and Fiji. Despite this, and the hiding to nothing that they are up against as they don’t gain any points, but could lose many, they have played these countries away. This is a credit to them as they are playing emerging nations, unlike the majority of the Tier one nations. Next year they are playing Georgia, home and away in the build-up to the World Cup. Considering the tour, they will be relatively happy. It was a weakened team as they allowed key men to be rested this summer, as they will be involved in almost 14 months of continuous rugby by the time the RWC starts. The tour should strength in depth being developed in many areas, with the victory over Argentina, who were smarting from the series loss to Wales, a major scalp. Overall it was a successful tour on many fronts.
As for the RWC itself, I can’t see past the Southern Hemisphere! When you look at it, there key players will be rested over the tail end of the year, and the Super Rugby teams will use the players as directed by the National Body. This will keep the key players fresh. This is sort of true for Scotland and Ireland, and a lesser extent Wales (with their dual contracts), but they won’t be coming from a significant rest period at the start of the year. This is where England will struggle! Many of their top players are struggling with injuries and potential burn out by the time of the RWC. The RFU also don’t have as much control over the players as they want, and when they do they seem to do activities that lead to injury.
Based on all of this, I think the RWC will be won by one of New Zealand, Ireland or Australia!