THIS will be the first World Cup to be held outside one of the major nations and I am pleased for Japan because it is an exciting tournament which is billed as the third biggest global sporting event.
It will be very interesting to see how the World Cup impacts on not just Japan, but also the whole of Asia and the Pacific.
My only concern is that the conditions might be wet, as well as humid, because World Rugby has agreed to the tournament being played in what I’m told is the rainy season. I hope that the conditions do not become detrimental to growing a wider spectator base for the sport, because wet conditions are not ideal for a showpiece event like the World Cup.
In most World Cups you get a Tier 2 underdog that can break through, but this time the quarter-finals are likely to feature England, Australia, Wales, France, Scotland, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland.
However, it is difficult to predict what will happen from there on, purely because of the inconsistency of the top teams over the last 18 months. This time I don’t feel that there is any side jumping off the page and shouting, ‘it’s ours!’.
In most World Cups New Zealand go in as favourites, although 2003 was an exception because England were capable of beating any team in any conditions, and could play wide, tight, up-the-middle, over the top, and were rightfully tipped to win.
A team like England in 2003 pretty well picked itself, and you could virtually name every player in every position in the team.
This time there are a few contradictions. Although New Zealand are not ranked No.1 in the world, they are everyone’s choice as number one. At the same time you get the sense that New Zealand are beatable – and that’s why they are favourites rather than being overwhelming favourites.
There are three teams who have the key players to win it this time, with England and South Africa joining New Zealand. England have a realistic chance because six of their eight forwards can carry well, and then have the power of backs like Manu Tuilagi and Joe Cokanasiga.
I have commented already that if George Ford and Owen Farrell are picked as a 10-12 combo then it is important that Cokanasiga is in the line alongside them because you cannot expect Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly or Jonny May to have the same impact on the crash ball as big Joe.
The issue for Farrell if he is picked at fly-half is that his decision-making against Wales in the Six Nations was not of a high enough standard, and the same applied against Scotland.
Farrell has to be 9/10, and that means improving his defence, and tactical kicking, so that he is playing as well as he was for Saracens at the end of last season when he was a big part of them winning the double.
What we saw from England against Ireland in Dublin during the Six Nations was supercharged and they will have to find five games in a row like that in order to win it.
That is unlikely, because they will have a wobble somewhere – like they did in the 2003 quarter-final against Wales – but if they have players who can correct it and say in the eye of the storm, “this is how we win it”, they can still get there.
Most teams that win the World Cup will be asked a huge question at some stage, and if England can find the answers and show they have grown, then they will be a team worthy of being world champions.
Some of those questions could come from France and Argentina during the Pool stage. The last time we saw France in the Six Nations they were not inspiring, apart from a few flashes from young stars Damian Penaud, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack.
Fabien Galthie, who has been appointed as consultant coach, seems to divide opinion, but if he can harness the youth and ambition of the France I played against, and combine it with some forward power, they could start to work.
We have seen glimpses of England playing like Saracens, but it has taken Eddie Jones a very long time to get there, and I believe Galthie could take a shortcut by getting France to play like Toulouse. Dupont and Ntamack both play for Toulouse, and so do Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard who are both good players, and if you add an on-song Wesley Fofana,
England should be wary. However, although you write France off at your peril, if England play tight they will start getting frustrated.
Argentina are no walkover because of their ability to find a big game in every tournament. They have a fly-half who keeps this scoreboard ticking over in Nicolas Sanchez, and they surprised the world with the open rugby they played four years ago.
However, the Pumas backs do not look quite as clinical, zippy and sharp now as they did then, and although their forwards are robust I am not convinced they will be the power they were in getting to the 2015 semi-finals. Whether it is France or Argentina, this England side will not be intimidated by their form.
I would like England and Wales to avoid each other in the quarter-finals, giving both the chance to progress to the last four – where they will probably meet New Zealand or South Africa, who will have flown through their Pool.
Wales have a great defence, and they pride themselves on fitness – and that is why you back them to win close games, especially with a competitor like Dan Biggar at 10 and Leigh Halfpenny kicking the penalties. What is also true is that Wales have built their reputation mainly on home games, because they haven’t gone to the southern hemisphere and done it.
New Zealand will test their defence to the limit, and so will South Africa – and I think that in Japanese conditions that means Wales lose.
That judgement is based on New Zealand’s ability to move defences around and cut you to shreds, while South Africa are capable of powering straight through you – and while the Welsh defence is good against what it is used to in the Six Nations, which is pretty predictable, this is another level of intensity.
However, if Wales can make the final I fancy them more to win that than a quarter-final or semi-final because finals are always tight, nervy games.
Ireland going into the tournament as world No.1 is quite funny, but I sense this will be a hard tournament for them. Rory Best’s form and Johnny Sexton’s fitness both being questionable is not a great start, and although they should beat Scotland and Japan, they will probably have to play South Africa or New Zealand at some stage, and they will be lucky to go further.
Scotland are individually very good in some positions, with hooker and captain Stuart McInally leading by example and flanker Hamish Watson playing like a man possessed, but they have not yet fulfilled the potential that is there.
Scotland have to believe in themselves, but that means Finn Russell recognising that you don’t have to run everything from everywhere – and that if they do it against a team that thrives on a quick game like Japan, it could be costly.
I back New Zealand to get to the final again because after losing to Australia, but then nilling them in the return, that was the statement of a team which is not letting anything go easily. They then emphasised the point by putting 90 points on Tonga.
New Zealand’s USP is a skill set so good that they can run the ball from their own try line. The difference is that where they looked unbeatable in 2015, they have lost a lot of players.
Richie Mo’unga is not Dan Carter, Sam Cane is not Richie McCaw, and they are not settled, with scrum-half Aaron Smith frequently being replaced by TJ Perenara.
That is why I fancy South Africa to play New Zealand in the final, and for the Springboks to win it, denying the All Blacks a third world title.
South Africa have got the best players for the way the game is at the moment. When it goes phase after phase you need ball-carriers everywhere and they have them. Everyone in the pack is a strong carrier, and it’s the same in midfield.
My only reservation is that if fly-half Handre Pollard is injured, I don’t think South Africa will win it. If he stays fit, they will.
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