BY THE TIME this goes to print, host England will have played Fiji and the World Cup will be well and truly underway. For six weeks the country and the world will be gripped by the spectacle of rugby on the biggest stage, and not for many years have all the home nations stood such a strong chance of not only getting out of the their respective pools but lifting the trophy.
If all four teams progress to the quarters, Scotland will find themselves playing either Wales or England to move to a first semi-final since 1991, but as strong as their prospects are, there are more than few hurdles to overcome first. Ireland have to get past six nations challengers France and Italy, Scotland have South African and Samoan mountains to climb, and Wales have to tackle Australia as well as England if they want to finish top of the group. Friendlies have finished, and teams have just about been established in the light of some last-minutes injuries, so here’s how the teams stack up:
Ranked lowest in the world (and still a respectable 10th) of the home nations this year, it can be argued Scotland have the least to lose and the most to gain from a good run in this competition. Anything more than a washout would be better than the Six Nations earlier this year in terms of results. Struggling to turn their patchy form into wins six months ago, their friendlies over the summer have been much more promising, unlucky against France to lose by three points, but a crushing 48 – 7 over Italy was more than enough to keep them motivated.
Mike Blair, former Scotland captain, is optimistic for his former club. “Scotland have been ranked predominantly 8-10 in the world over the past two to three years, so realistically this would mean a good World Cup in my eyes.”
The Courier predicts – Quarter-final finish.
Playing on home turf is always an advantage (unbeaten at Twickenham in 11 months is no mean feat) and a win over Ireland in their last game will have confidence in the England camp growing, but inconsistency has yet to be ironed out of the teams performances completely. France controlled their friendly with the hosts for the vast majority of the game, and even the Irish were left to their own devices mid-game as they staged a comeback. In another world cup, in another group, maybe England could scrape out of their pool with these problems, but with the Welsh and the Aussies bearing down on them, it’s going to be a dogfight to escape to the knockout stage.
The Courier predicts – 3rd in their group, but with a better points difference than 2nd.
The Irish have long-suffered on the international stage as bridesmaids, with the worst record of the four home nations at the RWC. To finally make it to a semi-final is not what captain Paul O’Donnell’s men have come for though; expected to win their group and most likely meet Argentina in the quarter-final, a strong looking Ireland will be fighting the urge to count their chickens before they hatch. Wobbles against England and Wales in their last matches could be cause for concern, with ex-international Shane Horgan claiming he saw “the worst performance [in] the Joe Schmidt era”, but unlike some of their competitors, they have time to make amends where they have to.
The Couriers prediction – Semi-finalists, at least.
Warren Gatland’s boys have had more than their fair share of bad luck and press attention since their last match against Italy. The loss of scrum-half Rhys Webb and full-back Leigh Halfpenny in one fell swoop was an undeniably large blow, and Jonathan Davies’ leg injury in May has kept him out of the team too. However, Wales did not get themselves ranked above England over the summer on the merits of individual players. The ethic Gatland has instilled in them and Sam Warburton’s leadership might have the faith stirring in the squad, but it’s the proof on the pitch that should give Wales such self-belief. With one of the most difficult routes to the final of any team, victory with be that much sweeter if they make it.
The Couriers prediction – A Wales-Australia final.
On Saturday night at 20:00 England take on Wales, but if you’re not reading this from your seat at the pub already, odds are you’ve missed your chance and there’s only standing room left. Get to the union for this, it’ll be pretty intense.