The British and Irish Lions tour has brought into sharper focus the so-called “group of death” at the 2015 World Cup, where Wales, England and Australia have been drawn together.
So what have we learned on the back of the Lions visit?
Surely the favourites from the Northern Hemisphere to challenge for the trophy, and in my book second favourites behind the defending champion All Blacks.
With Warren Gatland back at the helm after taking time off to focus on the Lions tour, they seem set to pick up from their successful Six Nations campaign, and provided the core of the winning Lions team.
We should also not forget that Shaun Edwards, Gatland’s defence coach with Wales, was overlooked for the Lions coaching team in favour of Andy Farrell – as a proud man he will be desperate to prove that he should have been the man to orchestrate the Lions defence.
• Back Row: With Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and Sam Warburton the trio is as well balanced as the northern hemisphere has seen since the days of Hill/Back/Dallaglio for England in the early noughties. Add to this Justin Tipuric on the bench and you have a formidable unit.
• Centres and Back Three: Wow! Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies were fantastic and play very well together, and with George North, Leigh Halfpenny – who some are calling the best player in world rugby – and Alex Cuthbert behind them, any time they have the ball the opposition need to be on their mettle.
Opposing teams will also need to be on their best behaviour as Halfpenny will punish you from all angles with the boot.
• Leadership: Warburton is a fantastic leader, when he talks people listen and he sets the perfect example on the field. He has great lieutenants too such as Alun Wyn-Jones who skippered the Lions in the third Test.
• Loose head: They are very well set at hooker and tight head, but loose head is a different story. Perhaps Paul James or Rhys Gill will step up, but this could be an area opposition sides look to exploit.
• No. 10: With all the talent around him in the back division and back row, perhaps all they need is a game manager? But you feel the likes of Dan Biggar and/or Rhys Priestland need to step up if Wales want to fulfil their potential.
Whether the Lions victory will convince them that they can beat the Wallabies as Wales remains to be seen, but on paper they are group winners.
The host nation has never failed to make it out of the group stage of the World Cup, could this be the year it happens. England versus the Wallabies on October 3 at Twickenham will be a huge game. Having beaten a weary New Zealand side in November, started strongly in the 6N and completing a convincing 2-0 win in Argentina are all great signs, but the hammering at the hands of Wales in the 6N decider is still a concern.
• Front Row: with four of the six front rowers picked for the third Lions Test, and a full complement who destroyed the usually rock solid Puma scrum to add to the mix, this is a real area of strength. Tom Youngs is a phenomenal story, and what he lacks in scrummaging power he makes up for in his work rate in the loose.
A couple of years more playing in the position and he could be the best hooker going around. With Dan Cole and Alex Corbisiero likely to be the starting props backed up by the likes of Mako Vunipola, Joe Marler and Dave Wilson, this is a real powerhouse department.
• Back Row: With the exception of an out and out seven England are blessed with some seriously good, young, players in the back row. The most difficult decision the coach will have is how to squeeze Wood, Robshaw, Morgan, Croft, Kvesic, Billy Vunipola etc into the 22.
• Wingers: England have got through the past season or so playing Mike Brown out of position on the Wing. This may work for a time, but in the long run you need specialists. The likes of Wade and Yarde give hope for the future but they have serious deficiencies in their games at the moment that will need to be addressed
• Experience: Although this will have changed by the time 2015 comes around, the England Management almost have to pick their 2015 squad now and stick with it to provide enough experience to really challenge for the trophy.
That said they have a fine selection of young players all round the park to choose from, so the quality is there. One other issue is that of captaincy…Robshaw and Wood, both good leaders – but do they get into the first XV?
They strength of their forwards and the verve in a young back line will carry them through to second in the group.
The appointment of Ewen McKenzie to take charge of the Wallabies is absolutely the right thing to do. I was and still am a big fan of Robbie Deans, but he clearly has issues with his man management and once he has picked his favourites he won’t change his mind. With any luck this will change, as the Wallabies have the talent, especially behind the scrum to trouble anyone.
• Back Three: O’Connor (he should be on the wing), Beale, Mogg, Folau, Ioane, Tomane, Mitchell, Morahan, Barnes(?) all competing for three positions….talk about an embarrassment of riches.
• Back Row: Mowen was the standout wallaby across all three Lions Tests, his work in the first Test to shut down Mike Phillips and therefore blunt the Lions attacking option was fantastic. Add to that Pocock (backed up by Hooper and Gill) as well as Higginbotham (I fear Palu may be past his sell by date come 2015) you have a well rounded, aggressive unit.
• Discipline: This has to be the first focus for McKenzie. In the professional era when your opposition will be 100% focussed on the job at hand, you cannot afford to have people who are not adhering to team rules. Missing the bus to training is inexcusable. I am also of the opinion that rugby players should focus on rugby and not boxing (Quade) – especially in a time as crucial as this.
• Front Row: Are the wallabies as bad as they seemed in the third Test – probably not. But in a World Cup where one defeat can mean the end, they cannot afford to be perceived as weak in this area. There appear to be some good young props around the circuit, they need to develop into world class operators in the next two years, which historically has not been easy.
Unfortunately for the likes of Will Genia (another in the conversation for best player in the world), the Wallabies come up against a the finest Welsh side for three decades at its peak, and a hungry home nation with a blend of strong forwards and fearless backs, and will finish third in the group.
It is a real shame that one of the top six sides at the tournament (NZ, SA, Wallabies, England, Wales and France) will be knocked out this early, but to be the best you have to beat the best, and the winner of this group will be battle hardened come the knock-out phases and in great shape to have a real crack at the trophy.
A lot can happen in two years mind, so who knows…