The build-up has seemed almost never-ending, the excitement increasingly palpable with every passing week. Yet the 2015 World Cup is now at our doorstep, with that door finally opening on September 18th when hosts England kick-off the tournament in the opening game at Twickenham. Predictions over potential champions only become pertinent when the tournament is a matter of days and weeks away. So what are the respective chances of the main favourites to win the eighth Rugby World Cup?
It would be wrong to start with anyone else but the defending champions and outright favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup for the third time. They go into every time tournament as most people’s pick to win but this time they arrive still riding the crest of the wave that took them to the title on home shores four years ago. They have lost just 2 out of 42 games since that historic moment in their homeland. While the losses to South Africa last year and recently to Australia in the 2015 Rugby Championship ended their unbeaten run and suggest perhaps a few chinks in their armour, the All Blacks are still in imperious form. Their quick recovery a week later to beat Australia to retain the Bledisloe Cup for the 12th year in succession shows that they are side brimming with mental steel as well as technical brilliance. They’re not just a squad of winners but an experienced one, with four centurions in their squad. World-class players such as Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu are still there and still producing. Replacements of equal quality wait in the wings. They are a team like no other in world sport – more pace and power than any other with an unrivalled spatial awareness. Can they beaten? Yes – but it will take a momentous performance from an opponent or an almighty All Black slip-up. Most probably both.
It would not be unfair to suggest that the Ireland of O’Gara and O’Driscoll underachieved at World Cups. Whilst such stellar names have now retired, this Ireland team are bursting at the seams with immense talent. The likes of Jonathan Sexton, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip can inspire Joe Schmidt’s group to Irish sporting history. Back-to-back Six Nations triumphs have demonstrated not just their quality but capability to deliver when it counts most. They know the conditions and are in form and have key players fit and raring to go. The semi-finals may perhaps be as great as it will get for Ireland but stranger things have happened than them going all the way. They have all the essential facets of a tournament wining team; the question is whether they can consistently bring them all together. To do so in what will be the great Paul O’Connell’s final World Cup would make it particularly special.
For a while Australia had been written off as one of the major contenders for the World Cup. However, slowly but surely they have moved their way up the list of realistic challengers with some impressive performances. Going into a tournament in form is everything and Michael Cheika’s squad certainly have that, as shown by winning the first leg of the Bledisloe Cup against New Zealand in August. They are a gathering force coming together at just the right time. The old weaknesses in the scrum are now not as glaring and they have arguably the most electrifying back division including Israel Folau and now, after a relaxing of their foreign-based player rule, the returning Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell. They are a lethal on the counter-attack. An inclination to implode, the prolonged lack of form they endured last year and a tough pool that includes both England and Wales (and a possible quarter-final against South Africa) suggest that they may struggle to get to a final they have reached three times before. Nevertheless, Australia often get it together when World Cups arrive. Write them off at your peril.
Like the other Sport Lived gap year destinations of Australia and New Zealand, the two-time Champions South Africa are always talked up as feasible World Cup winners. The Springboks deservedly find themselves ranked as the 2nd best team in the world and will again be feared opponents. The fact that they inflicted New Zealand’s first defeat in two years at the start of the summer shows that trepidation is not miss-placed. South African optimism has hardly been dampened by being placed into a Pool where they are the outstanding side. If they are to become the first nation to get a hat-trick of World Cups they will need to beat New Zealand once more, with a potential semi-final with the All Blacks a tantalising prospect. A prospect could very likely become a reality.
The debates about Stuart Lancaster’s final squad selection, principally of League convert Sam Burgess, have dominated the sports pages for weeks. It therefore comes as a relief that focus can return to the daunting task at hand – winning a World Cup on your own patch. How they handle the colossal domestic pressure will be vital. On paper, and with the home advantage, England can win the World Cup. Indeed, of the seven previous editions the hosts have reached the final on five occasions. Progressing from a Pool with both Australia and Wales is by no means a foregone conclusion yet they are predicted to top the group, having beaten both of them over the past year. Their final Pool game against Uruguay will also give them the fortune of knowing exactly how many points they need to progress. A route through the knock-out stages that would see them avoid the Southern Hemisphere powers is also a strong possibility. Being without the reprimanded Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi will be a big loss and the defeat to France in their penultimate warm-up game created questions that Lancaster would rather not have to face so close to the tournament start. And what price will be paid for a lack of squad experience, with only three players in the final 31 having passed the half-century of caps? However, England arguably have the necessary strength in depth, as well as a number of midfield options including the exciting Jonathan Joseph. With George Ford and Owen Farrell as the fly-half choices, England have a more potent attack to go along with their impressive pack. Almost pulling off one of the greatest 6 Nations wins also showed their ability to change it up from the traditional forward focused to a more expansive way of playing. Winning their own World Cup is a big ask but one Chris Robshaw’s troops, especially with the home roar behind them, are more than capable of delivering.
The talking is nearly over, the playing imminent. Naturally New Zealand are the overwhelming favourites. Nonetheless, with four other nations with realistic ambitions to be the ones celebrating on October 31st, not to mention the arguments from Wales and France, this could well turn out to be the exhilarating World Cup we all hoped for.