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We often hear the cliché “Form is temporary and class is permanent” perhaps that is the reason why coaches attempt to take as an experienced squad to the World Cup as possible.
The fact is throughout the history of the Rugby World Cup it is experienced teams that has taken the trophy.
In 2014 Australia had, by their usual standards, a poor year. This year, however, things have returned to normal and Australia are once again winning their home Tests and sport three wins from four matches.
On the other hand, South Africa has had a woeful time since the November series last year and has since lost to Ireland, Wales, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, the away losses should not be too much of a concern for them, however losing to Argentina at home should be seen as an unacceptable loss.
New Zealand, as ever, lose the odd match away from home but are as always near unbeatable.
Argentina provide some real inconsistency in performances, their high note beating South Africa comprehensively away from home.
England is still losing to South Africa and New Zealand, and they still haven’t won the Six Nations since 2011.
France is a mixed bag of poor, medium and the odd decent performance.
Wales just doesn’t fill anyone with confidence. One might say their record belies their true ability.
Ireland is on a high, champions of the Six Nations, have beaten South Africa in the November series and Joe Schmidt seems to have brought a revitalised Ireland out of mediocrity.
So who are the real World Cup contenders?
It might be prudent to look at the past four years, looking at what each team has achieved.
Home record since 2012
SA 77.50% – losses – New Zealand 3, ARG 1
ENG 72.72% – losses – New Zealand 2, SA 2, WAL 1, AUS 1
IRE 71.05% – losses – WAL 1, SA 1, ENG 1, AUS 1, New Zealand 1
AUS 65.21% – losses – New Zealand 3, SA 1, SCO 1
FRA 62.50% – losses – WAL 2, SA 1, ENG 1, IRE 1, ARG 1, New Zealand 1
WAL 54.16% – losses – New Zealand 2, SA 1, ENG 1, AUS 3, IRE 2, SAM 1, ARG 1
SCO 26.31% – losses – ENG 2, FRA 2, New Zealand 2, SA 2, TON 1, WAL 2, AUS 1, IRE 1, ITA 1
ARG 22.50% – losses – SA 3, New Zealand 3, AUS 3, SCO 1, IRE 2, ENG 2, FRA 1
Away record since 2012
NZ 84.61% – losses – SA, AUS, ENG
SA 59.52% – wins – IRE 1, SCO 2, ENG 2, ARG 3, FRA 1, WAL 1, AUS 1, ITA 1
WAL 52.94% – wins – IRE 1, ENG 1, FRA 2, ITA 2, SCO 2
IRE 52.77% – wins – WAL 2, ARG 2, USA 1, CAN 1, SCO 1, ITA 1, FRA 1
ENG 50% – wins – SCO 2, ITA 2, FRA 1, IRE 1, WAL 1, ARG 2
AUS 44% – wins – ARG 3, ENG 1, WAL 3, ITA 2, IRE 1, SCO 1
ARG 42.30% – wins – FRA 1, SA 1 (ignoring South American teams)
SCO 36.84% – wins – AUS 1, FIJ 1, SAM 1, ITA 1, USA 1, CAN 1, ARG 1
FRA 23.68% – wins – SCO 2, ARG 1, ITA 1
A week is a long time in rugby, let alone a month. Currently all teams are preparing for the Rugby World Cup, the European teams are playing warm up matches, the Southern Hemisphere teams are spending their time in training camps and quietly preparing for an onslaught of the William Webb Ellis Trophy.
Once the World Cup starts some teams will have the benefit of ‘playing themselves into form’ during their opening pool matches. Australia will have to hit the ground running.
Regardless of that, all teams will be prepared, have experienced squads and be focused.
Previous form will mean nothing.
New Zealand are odds on favourites to win the Cup. They have shown over the past few years that they know how to win even when things aren’t all clicking, and the team that is going to dethrone them will have to put in a very, very special performance on the day. They will probably need the 50/50 calls to go their way, and an added bonus will be if the All Blacks are off kilter.
Steve Hansen has no shortage of talent to select his side form, but perhaps the one concern he may have for this coming world Cup is the fitness and form of Dan Carter, with Aaron Cruden out injured, Beauden Barrett not really showing his ability to control matches and Lima Sapoanga the form player from the Super Rugby but inexperienced when it comes to Test match rugby. Hansen will be hoping 2015 is not a replica in terms of injuries to his number 10s.
We will likely see the end of an era with Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Kevin Mealamu, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu all potentially retiring from international rugby soon after the conclusion of the tournament.
Looking at the results of the past four years, South Africa has undoubtedly been the number two team in the world. Their record shows that, and bar the embarrassing defeat to Argentina, New Zealand is the only team that could beat them on home soil. Their game plan is suited to World Cup rugby and few teams play knock-out style better than them, other than New Zealand.
Coach Heyneke Meyer has a few selection headaches in terms of whether he should include players like Fourie de Preez, Jean de Villiers, Victor Matfield and Duane Vermeulen. All, in Meyer’s mind, are vital to the cause for South Africa. He is prepared to take the risk of including them into his squad even if they have to sit out the early rounds.
That is a huge risk; if it pays off, South Africa has a slight chance, but if it doesn’t things could go south for them very quickly. Either way, you cannot write of the team that has been the next best after New Zealand for much of the past four seasons, regardless of current form.
Australia has not had the best period since the previous World Cup, changing coaches twice, first Ewen McKenzie took over from Robbie Deans, then for the last eight or so Tests Michael Cheika has taken the reins, and has shown Australia to still be the danger side we all know.
With a pack that has shown significant improvement this year, parity is certain. I doubt they will dominate anyone, but Australia has never needed to dominate in the pack to be world beaters.
Michael Cheika has impressed with the way that he built confidence in his Wallaby squad, and a confident Australian is a tough proposition for anyone. His pack has at times looked very strong, and his backline, although not completely on fire, has shown there are enough ball carriers to break the line. Considering the likelihood that tactical kicking will be very prominent during this World Cup, Israel Folau has proven to be mercurial in the aerial battles.
The question still remains how Cheika is going to get his halves pairing to control a match territorially and tactically.
England has a familiarity about them; same coach, pretty much the same players, pretty much the same questions remain as to why they are not dominating Northern Hemisphere rugby. They also have a few bogey teams. South Africa, whether off or on form, and New Zealand seem a bridge too far most of the time.
Strangely England has been one of the teams kicking much less and trying to run the ball more, however continued mistimed passes, inaccurate offloads and poor handling skills have debilitated their backline for a number of years. Their strength have always been their set piece, and when that fails, unlike Australia, they are in for a world of hurt.
Ireland is the new kid on the block in terms of being a contender. There is a new found confidence and belief among Irish supporters, their ranking has everyone excited, they have beaten some significant teams In the recent past, albeit all at home.
Joe Schmidt has brought about a number of tactics and “trickery” if you will that shocked South Africa in November last year. Whether you see them as anti rugby, smart play or simply out thinking their opponents, the fact is Joe Schmidt has given the Irish hope of their first ever World Cup semi final, and perhaps something beyond.
Perhaps Schmidt has shown his hand too early? Teams will be certain not to underestimate them, given their poor showings in previous World Cups.
These are the teams I believe are in contention for William Webb Ellis, France may surprise, Argentina may surprise, however these five teams are in my opinion the real contenders.