Any doubt about who should be playing at number 7 for the Wallabies this season has been erased by the Waratahs’ comprehensive 45-12 rout of the Reds in the gathering rain on Saturday evening.
From now until the RWC officially begins there will be a continued frenzy of predictions.
Everyone has an opinion, which is what makes it enjoyable, and we like to think we are right. But our predictions are based on a combination of beliefs and facts, and our interpretations of the facts, which can quite often be wrong.
There are few people that would predict a team other than Australia, New Zealand, England, South Africa, Ireland or Wales to win the World Cup. Most pundits would add Scotland or Japan and Argentina or France to make it to the quarter-finals, too.
And that’s where it gets challenging.
To win the World Cup a team must put together three successive victories, all the while with pressure increasing almost exponentially with massive expectations being placed on the team, the coach and the supporting staff. And these victories will be against the other top teams who believe they too can win the World Cup.
Who wins the Cup will be a function of a range of factors – all of which may play out differently in each knock-out match. For example, which teams handle the humidity the best?
Which teams have the consistent high-level skills to play a fast game with a slippery ball due to humidity and/or rain?
When will we see moments of sheer individual brilliance – one or two players producing some pure magic that suddenly puts their team in a winning situation?
Which players in all the teams, handle the stress well, and conversely, will some players crack under the pressure?
Which teams are the fittest?
Which teams have the most depth?
Which teams get beaten up in the pool matches and lose confidence in their combinations and tactics, and their belief in themselves?
Will players receive yellow or, yikes, red cards that change the entire flow of the match, and conceivably the tournament?
Which teams accumulate injuries that affect their starting XV or match-day 23?
What if past concussions emerge for players in their training and the pool matches and they are required, quite rightly, to no longer play in the RWC?
Which teams came to the RWC the best prepared?
What if sickness – a virus perhaps – takes hold in a team?
What if unknown food allergies (or poisoning) affect some players?
Could a Typhoon blow in and disrupt or postpone a match in some way, rattling the teams in the process? And what about heavy rainfalls, especially at this time of year in Japan?
Which teams have done the best homework on the opposition?
Which teams are holding new tactical plays in their back pocket to be unveiled in the knockout rounds?
What about unforced errors? The margins of victory could be quite low in the knock-out phase. One dropped high ball or silly, needless penalty could result in a converted try that seals a game in the last few minutes and a team suddenly finds itself packing their bags the next day.
Which of the kickers will simply have an off day?
The point is, any or all of these factors – and others, no doubt – will affect each knock-out game. The winner of the Rugby World Cup successfully manages these factors, each game. Three times.
Can Australia win the World Cup?
A lot of people will say yes, because there are some amazing players in the squad and the x-factor is there. Australia had an awesome game beating the All Blacks in Perth. They showed they can play extremely well.
But Australia lost the next match badly to a pumped-up All Blacks team and didn’t look like the winners that they were in Perth. Add the other factors listed above and ask yourself if they can pull off three Perth games in a row?
Can England win the World Cup?
England have their ups and downs. A powerful team with some electric players for sure, but they get rattled – and when that happens, the wheels fall off and other teams pounce. Or at least they will be certain to in Japan.
Look what happened in the last Six Nations match against Scotland at Twickenham. It was a brilliant, somewhat unbelievable game. England had a massive lead and let it go. Super credit to Scotland, who showed that anything is possible.
I was at the game with all the other media folks, everyone trying to write their match reports but so little time to put into words what had just happened. Will the same thing happen to England again in Japan?
Can South Africa win the World Cup?
A huge team making a comeback on the international scene. They have spent the longest preparing in Japan, aside from the Japanese team of course, and they may argue that as a result they will be better acclimatised.
They have a huge forward pack, a halfback that could dominate every game he plays in the tournament, and a back line that combines blistering speed and strength.
They are a powerhouse on the hard surfaces – but remember, with the humidity, likely a wet ball. They can beat any team on their day. But again, will they have three of those days in a row?
Can Wales win the World Cup?
Here’s a team with a great track record and a belief they can win it all, and they have a relentless, serious, hardcore pack that will grind other teams into the ground if they have just a glimmer of a chance.
But on hard Japanese surfaces where expansive games will be played, are they fast enough and fit enough for 80 minutes to get around the field maintaining their pressure? And again, for three games on the trot?
Can Ireland win the World Cup?
Ireland 2019 seem different to Ireland 2018. Ireland had a patchy Six Nations and their form has been erratic in the lead-up to the World Cup.
But they have brilliant players who can change a game in an instant. Do they have the depth to sustain themselves through to the final? Have other teams worked them out? And like Wales, do they have the ability to play their effective, relentless style on the hard and fast fields in Japan?
Can New Zealand win the World Cup?
You can forget world rankings when you get to the knock-out phase of the RWC. The All Blacks no longer rank as No.1 but everyone sees them as the team to beat.
Most New Zealanders are born wearing rugby boots and the team is always under extreme pressure to perform. The All Blacks, more than any other team, will likely cope with the pressure of expectations the best. They do it every game.
Coach Steve Hansen feels the team is peaking at the right time and although there are a few injuries, with the exception of Brodie Retallick, all the players will be fit and able to play in the pool matches. However, as if to emphasise the factors above, loose forward Luke Jacobson arrived in Japan and at training showed signs he still has concussion problems. He’s now unfortunately off back to NZ and replacement Shannon Frizell has been called up.
Although the All Blacks have brilliant players scattered through the 31-man squad, they too can be easily rattled. The other teams will have done their homework and know what weaknesses exist, per player, and what strategies and tactics will be the most effective.
But rugby at this level is like a game of chess. It would be naïve to think that the All Black coaches have not thought of how other teams are likely to play against them. And super naïve to think they don’t have unseen tactics and combinations up their sleeves that they will introduce in the knock-out matches.
All it takes, though, is one or some of the factors listed above to affect the All Blacks’ game plan. You can easily imagine David Pocock and Michael Hooper playing blinders and Kurtley Beale or Marika Koroibete crashing through on brilliant lines crossing for two tries out of nowhere. And suddenly the game tilts Australia’s way and the All Blacks are defeated.
Substitute those Australian players for players in the other teams and the All Blacks could be out of contention. Without dredging up too much history, France showed how the All Blacks could be defeated in earlier World Cups. Anything is possible.
All that said, yes, these teams need to win three hard matches in a row to win the World Cup. But maybe it’s not so much that they play to their fullest potential in every knockout match, but rather they play just well enough to beat the opposition.
Maybe Australia only need to play one match at their Perth finest, and simply do enough in other games to get by because the opposition will be affected by some of the factors listed above.
That’s what makes this Rugby World Cup so interesting. Any of these teams could conceivably hoist the William Webb Ellis trophy in a few weeks. And my guess is that it will be because of the effects of the many factors listed here that will ultimately determine the World Cup winner.