With just over four months before the Rugby World Cup kicks off in England, let’s see how the top three sides from each hemisphere are shaping up.
An obvious place to start given they are the current holders and world number 1 side.
To put it simply, they look frightening. It only takes a cursory glance at this year’s Super Rugby to see the outstanding depth of talent on offer to the All Blacks.
To start with they have four world class number 10s to choose from. Their talent in this position is so scary that the man rated as the world’s best 10 for many years, Dan Carter, is playing at 12 for the Crusaders to accommodate the excellent Colin Slade.
That is not to mention second rowers who can run 60-70 metres, fending off four challengers to score a try like Sam Whitlock, or a 36-year-old, 123-Test veteran hooker throwing a no-look pass to open up the opposition defence.
The Wallabies look vulnerable. Getting out of a group that includes England and Wales will be an achievement in itself. Unlike the All Blacks there is no world-class number 10 on offer. Even though there are other top-class players in the backline such as Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau who can break a game open, not having a top-class playmaker may hurt the Aussies.
Scrum time is also likely to be a key, area with both the English and the Welsh having imposing front fives. This isn’t a strong point with the Wallabies and will need to be resolved to ensure they aren’t exposed.
The Springboks will be strong and always put in good World Cup performances. An impressive pack mixed with talented backs make this side one everybody will be looking to avoid come the knock-out stages.
Losing to Wales on last year’s spring tour will no doubt have been a blow to their confidence but they have an easy group that they should top.
They’ll have a tough quarter final against either Australia/England/Wales, then if they get through that a likely semi-final against the All Blacks, who have the wood on them – although who don’t New Zealand have the wood on?
In recent years they have been underachievers which carried on during the recent Six Nations.
Their big decision will be who to play at 10. The young George Ford performed well during the recent tournament but his kicking let him down. The other option is the very reliable boot of Owen Farrell but with ball in hand he is unlikely to be the man to unlock a tight defence in a crucial game.
They have a strong pack that will give plenty of teams a headache at scrum time. They should have enough to overcome the Wallabies and the Welsh, especially playing at home, but the real Test will come against the Springboks and All Blacks.
The crash-and-bash philosophy of coach Warren Gatland has served Wales well in recent years but in big games you sometimes need a plan B and this has often been Wales’ undoing. This is especially true against the Southern Hemisphere teams, against which they have a terrible record.
They have great leadership in the form of inspirational captain Sam Warburton and second rower Alun Wyn Jones. They won’t miss too many penalties if Leigh Halfpenny stays fit, and George North is a monster on the wing.
They are in the much talked about ‘group of death’, but I fancy them to have just enough to beat the Wallabies in a very tight game.
Led by their talisman Paul O’Connell the current Six Nations champions could be a dark horse. They have the best number 10 in the northern hemisphere in Johnny Sexton and the best kicking scrum half in Conor Murray. Much will rest on their shoulders.
Injuries to any of their best players could expose a lack of depth in Irish rugby but their best XV is a match for any team bar the All Blacks.
Like the Welsh they can become a little too one-dimensional but their defence is notoriously hard to crack.