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The Wrap: The seven factors that will decide the World Cup

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15th September, 2019
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“Things are seldom as they seem, skim milk masquerades as cream,” are words written by lyricist WS Gilbert for the opera HMS Pinafore.

Penned in 1878, the saying is as relevant today, ahead of the ninth Rugby World Cup, as it was then.

Take Victorian construction union leader John Setka, under intense attack from fellow union leaders, Labour Party leader Anthony Albanese and independent Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie. Claiming to be at a loss to understand why so many people are out for his blood, Setka maintains it can’t be for him single-mindedly advancing the interests of the CFMMEU membership.

But what about distaste for his abrasive, confrontational nature? Setka told a union meeting on Thursday that it couldn’t possibly be his swearing that was at issue, recounting a recent meeting with Lambie where, “It was all meant to be a f—ing secret and she f—ing blabbed.”

Setka alleged the senator had said “f—” hundreds of times on the short journey to her house from the airport and “f—” and “c—” as many as 45 times.

“I knew it was not about the f—ing swearing.”

There is so much pre-tournament analysis around as to what is going to happen at this World Cup, and readers are entitled to feel confused and fatigued. All of this before the event actually starts!

Behind the smokescreens and macho bravado, John Setka knows exactly why decent people on all sides of politics want him gone. But with so many variables in play, sorting the skim milk from the cream of influencing factors is less straightforward.

Will a side who wins by playing ‘two sevens’ instead of a traditional ‘flyer’ and big-bodied No. 6 in tandem prove anything about the way modern rugby should be played, or are those sides merely accommodating their best players into the starting XV?

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How many collective Test matches or players aged over 30 will it take to prove that only the most experienced sides win World Cups? Or who, in trying to tick off that metric, might be shown to have carried a couple of old, slow blokes a season too long?

I’ve identified seven key areas I believe will determine this World Cup. That’s not to say that there aren’t other factors that will play an important role, but, to borrow from Setka, these are the big f—ing seven.

Ireland's Josh van der Flier, left, and Ireland's Bundee Aki embrace.

(AP/Peter Morrison)

The draw
What is a given is that to win the tournament, a side needs to win three matches on consecutive weekends against tier-one opposition (or sides who have beaten tier-one opponents).

England play Argentina and France in their final two pool matches, which this means they’ll five matches on consecutive weekends against tier-one opposition if they are to win the Cup.

There are two ways of looking at this: either it’s unlikely, or else their victory will deserve to be rated as the best World Cup triumph ever.

Scotland play Japan in the final match of the group phase. Even if they win – and there can be no guarantee – they will have only five days to prepare for their quarter-final match against either South Africa or New Zealand. Hmmm.

On the other hand, whoever loses the opening Pool B match between South Africa and New Zealand will suffer not much more than the indignity of having their chances downgraded and being reminded that sides do not come back from losses in pool play to claim the title.

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Almost certainly the impact of this loss on either side will be overstated. What will follow is three weeks of regrouping and resetting, three wins against relatively modest opposition and the opportunity to hit the quarter-finals running.

There are also two ways of looking at Ireland’s path. Either a customary quarter-final exit at the hands of South Africa or New Zealand or a triumphal march into the semi-finals as Cup favourite.

Nicolas Sanchez

(Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Cultural factors
Weather has been a big talking point. It has been a hot summer in Japan, but as the tournament progresses the temperature and humidity changes will be noticeable and are unlikely to significantly advantage any side over another.

For those concerned about the threat of typhoons, it may happen that a pool match is cancelled, but the likelihood of this occurring is so low it hardly warrants talking point status.

Of potentially more import are factors of cultural adjustment and boredom. By the time of the final, the competing sides will have been in Japan for eight weeks. No matter how well they’ve been inducted into the Japanese way of life, no matter how their food is tailored to suit their own preferences, there will be players struggling with the travails of repetitive, routine training, YouTube fatigue and homesickness.

It might not seem much right now, but it’s an advantage for those sides who are more familiar with long tours and playing in Japan.

Depth
England have impressive depth across a number of positions, but inside-centre Piers Francis and halfback Willi Heinz are both accomplished ex-Super Rugby players from the Blues and Crusaders. Had they remained in New Zealand, neither of them would be within cooee of selection for the All Blacks.

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Australia’s depth is brittle. Wales, already suffering from the withdrawal of Gareth Anscombe and Taulepe Faletau, cannot afford further upheaval.

In this respect, Ireland, through careful planning over the term of Joe Schmidt’s tenure and the success enjoyed by Leinster in Europe, are well served.

It is South Africa and New Zealand that bat deepest. Injuries will certainly be a factor, suspension might. Roar contributor Harry Jones recently looked at the respective players from each squad who subjectively might be ranked between 29 and 31. While only 23 players strip for each match, he is right to suggest that the performance of these players, when called upon, may prove to be just as important as the players ranked first to third.

Malcolm Marx battles the Wallabies.

(Jono Searle/Getty Images)

Pace and power
The winner in Japan will be a side capable of playing both through and around their opponents.

It is true that the sense of occasion around a World Cup often leads to scorelines tightening up. And yes, the winner will need to have one of the best two defences in the competition.

But that won’t be enough on its own to light the path to victory. Essential will be the ability to graft the ball over the line from close range and to strike out wide through superior deception, creation of space and pace on the wings.

South Africa offers a nice blend of power and evasion on their flanks: Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe. England are even better served by Joe Cokanasiga and Jonny May, and they have Manu Tualigi in the middle of the park able to draw the wide defenders in from the sideline.

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New Zealand are opting for a different kind of power aspect to their game. Their exciting new wingers are pacy ball players rather than physical brutes, and the coming together of Ardie Savea and Sam Cane in the loose forwards suggests, on the surface, that they lack the type of assertive presence Jerome Kaino provided in the past.

But height does not equate to power. Ignore the number on his back – Savea is a pit bull who is as powerful as any dog in this World Cup fight.

With Teddy Thomas on board, France offers extreme pace. Ireland too has plenty of speed on its outsides, Wales less so.

Michael Cheika insists upon Australia playing an up-tempo game, yet paradoxically his outside backs lack toe. If the Wallabies are able to dictate the pace and flow of their matches and retain possession for long periods, like they did recently in Perth, then they will prove troublesome.

On the other hand, should they be drawn into an attritional grunt-heavy forwards battle or a broken play fastest-stepper-wins shootout, they are less well placed.

Nic White and the Australian scrum

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Set piece
Once an Ox, Argentina’s scrum now resembles a jellyfish. Australia’s scrum too has got the speed wobbles, but the return of Richie Arnold and more focus on the second unit front row should help neutralise any concerns.

England boasts an embarrassment of riches at lock: George Kruis, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and Maru Itoje. South Africa’s quartet is equally formidable, featuring Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, RG Snyman and Franco Mostert. Five even, if you count Pieter-Steph du Toit.

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Very impressive, even if the fickle throwing of the Springbok hookers takes a little of the gloss off.

Any side who leaves Devin Toner at home is travelling nicely, and Wales offers Alun-Wyn Jones, worth almost two normal players. But again, man for man, Wales seem slightly off a couple of the other main contenders.

Whatever the New Zealand set piece does early, they will be the better for the return of Brodie Retallick for the play-off phase.

(Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

Match officials
I expect the Cup to be well refereed and most matches to pass without any meaningful controversy. But almost certainly there will be some contentious decisions made around discipline, with World Rugby’s motivation to reduce injuries clashing head-on with the high-stakes desperation of a World Cup.

This year’s under-20 World Cup was marked by a number of red cards issued for contact normally de rigueur for Test rugby. Perhaps the best fans can do is to cross their fingers and hope that, if it happens, it happens to someone else.

All sides will be well across the potential to have their campaigns derailed, but perhaps New Zealand, still smarting from Sonny Bill Williams and Scott Barrett’s recent dismissals, will have worked harder than most on getting this aspect right.

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Recent form
Save for a handful of tactical tweaks, most of which won’t be discernible to the average fan, nobody is winning this World Cup with a player who has hitherto been hidden from view or a style of play that will be unleashed on the world stage for the first time.

Can Wallabies fans who look at the team’s record since the last World Cup – 45 matches for only 20 wins – realistically expect that ratio to be thrown out the window and their side to win two tough pool matches plus three consecutive play-off matches?

Beyond the hope and optimism that all fans carry for their own side, there is nothing in the form lines to suggest that such a turnaround is likely.

The manner and the scoreline of the 47-26 victory in Perth showed what this Wallabies side is capable of. But to be able to repeat this through a six-week-long tournament?

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On exposed form – and here we’re talking over the two-to-three-year period since sides started to build for this tournament – I think we can safely exclude Russia and Namibia. Take that one to your local TAB and load up.

From there it gets tougher to separate the skim milk from the cream. Never before has there been a World Cup with so many nations entering as genuine winning chances.

If these seven factors truly are the ones that matter, then New Zealand and South Africa do hold the strongest appeal. England are right there, save for the concern around their draw.

Ireland are now ranked No. 1, but they win their biggest matches when fizzing on emotion – something they have consistently proven is hard to maintain over a whole tournament.

If things really aren’t what they seem today and there are other factors at play, then Australia, Wales and France have a bolter’s show.

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But right now, who knows? Maybe I’ll have to ask John Setka what he f—ing thinks.

Note: Due to logistical reasons, from next week for the duration of the World Cup ‘The Wrap’ will appear on Tuesday.