Eight finals spots await ten contenders in France, where the proud hosts, all four prior World Cup winners, the three Celtic nations, the Flying Fijians, and the lords of Latin American rugby have a realistic chance to vie for glory, at least as far as the quarterfinals.
Countless pieces, posts, pods, and pub debates will name and give fame to the ‘key players’ or ‘most vital’ or ‘ones to watch’ in these ten teams. The greatness of Antoine Dupont, Ardie Savea, Tadgh Furlong and Eben Etzebeth will be on full display in all the previews. But the best players in each position are a hair or two different, whilst the weakest links often decide things.
With years to identify and isolate flaws, what may separate qualifiers from ‘almost’ teams, semifinalists from mere quarters, and the eventual winners from second best is how their weakest players perform on the biggest stages. Who can be found out? Where and when?
In 2019, England’s fragility at prop, shallowness at scrumhalf, and lack of speed in cover defence after turnovers were exploited by South Africa; after they had probed New Zealand’s tight five deficiencies, using preplanned lineout starter plays.
We could say deficits decided it more than superlatives.
Who are the two weakest links for each of the ten candidates; one in the pack and one out back?
The French kick the ball a great distance from the tripod of 9-10-15. Almost every deep punt seems to have a 50-22 chance. This poses their slender weakness: the chase.
In a Six Nations tournament, only Ireland and Scotland are capable of punishing bad kicks by France. Freddie Steward fields them but does not have Beauden Barrett’s or Willie le Roux’s skill to set others free. The great Liam Williams is in a basket case squad at the moment and Italy cannot get over France’s 22 line.
France will face two of four teams who can and will exploit long kicks.
This will test the conditioning of Damian Penaud, who seems to be most interested when the ball is already in his hand, and Gabin Villiere, as strong as a prop, but sized like a scrumhalf. Villiere is likely the weakest link under the high ball against the likes of Hugo Keenan, Canan Moodie, and Will Jordan.
The rugby world rocked at the loss of Romain Ntamack, but he does not play the role of ten given to the other top contenders’ flyhalves. He defers to Dupont. No, it is Cyril Baille’s calf which has exposed the French heel of Achilles: backup props at scrum time.
Baille is so important he is named despite likely missing all or most of the pool matches. This mean, whoever is the late-Test loosehead for France is the one all bomb squads and finishers will be targeting. Toulon strongman Jean-Baptiste Gros played 14 times for France Under20 but a last minute scrum against 35-cap Bok tighthead Vincent Koch will not be the same feeling.
The All Blacks found just the right time to bottom out and bounce back. The scrum has since been shored up, a lock or two to spare was found, Jason Ryan’s argonauts repelled mauls, Joe Schmidt put the starter back in the starter plays, Captain Cane refuted Peter O’Mahony’s intestinal comparison, and the Great Beaudy versus Richie beef was squashed; now they form a double-beef burger with plenty of bacon.
Cross kicks have found their targets once more (Air Jordan), and foes are kept guessing by a dynamic ten and static fifteen. When serious money is placed on the counter, the Kiwis will be the frontrunner for the tenth consecutive time. Flaw? What flaw?
The weakest links in the strongest team are hard to find, but they are likely on the wing and the bench.
Aaron Smith has outlasted all his understudies of yore and now is backed up by two relatively untested nines. Barely-capped Cam Roigard looks every bit the long-time successor but maybe not yet? Thus, if anything trips up the 118-cap legend, or he just wears down from attending a hundred rucks of less than two second duration, Scottish-born Finlay Christie will wear the heavy crown of All Black nine. He has not seemed ready each time he was called upon and no other misplayed position can cause a team more grief.
The weakest forward position is still six, even if Shannon Frizell had appeared to be the answer to Jerome Kaino’s question, because he has not stayed healthy, because Dalton Papali’i and Luke Jacobson do not play as big, and Scott Barrett appears to be shifted to lock again. But this is splitting hairs: most teams would love to have these choices.
How odd is it that one of the Boks’ weakest areas is goalkicking, if Handre Pollard cannot make it back? Manie Libbok is an exciting playmaker, with weapons galore outside him, but World Cups usually come down to nerveless kicks in the air, with the world watching each revolution, and no mercy for the miss. Libbok has been anything but convincing off the tee of late, even if he nailed many a crucial goal in the URC playoffs for the Stormers.
In the pack, with no current starter having fewer than 60 caps (if Duane Vermeulen wins his eighthman spot back from powerful Jasper Wiese) the Boks only have one question mark: Bongi Mbonambi’s troubling lineout woes.
The Boks game plan is physical and intimidating, yes, but more than all of that fury is accuracy: precision. The least precise parts right now are late match kicks and throws.
Seven time losing quarterfinalists Ireland must be a consensus “second team” for many fans, as they are easy to like at most positions, have had heartaches aplenty, and have quiet coaches.
Flaws do not exist in their starting 15 except at scrum time: Andrew Porter is a penalty magnet, leading the Six Nations in that ignominy some years, and a focal point for refs. He is also not capable of running the pivot or dummying the loop to current Irish standards.
On the bench, the weakest plank is “backup game manager,” whether that is the reserve flyhalf or nine.
The best Scottish team in a long time drew the worst pool in history.
The reasons they will lose out again are their set piece frailty (only as compared to South Africa and Ireland) and midfield defence.
Their weakest players are try scoring 13 Huw Jones (only on defence) because he opens the door as wide without the ball as he does with it, and (as odd as it may sound) their South African props. Old WP Nel is past it and less-than-technical Pierre Schoeman is a bit like Thomas Gallo of Argentina: better at carrying the ball than carrying the scrum.
In addition, the emigres often play worst when up against their old countries (Paul Willemse, Jack Dempsey, Duhan van der Merwe, Bundee Aki) because they try too hard.
I am not privy to Eddie Jones’ library, even if I have read his books, but I would expect to find many hardcovers of “the great men in history.” This theory hangs the story of humans on several dozen big actors, upon whom the turning points of history supposedly rest.
He carries himself in a presser or in practice as if he has special and rare knowledge, and tends to run off assistants who have an ambition to be head coach one day. Presumably Steve Hansen is done with all that.
Thus, it makes sense that Jones has thrown a swashbuckling young ten into the fire, without much of a backup.
The weakness for the Wallabies is at flyhalf, with a couple of cool cats with a handful of caps.
Warren Gatland and Simon Raiwalui are sure to send their hardest tacklers at Carter Gordon and Ben Donaldson, who have scarcely been tested in proper, full-on contact at Test level.
Beyond that, they will see many different zones, looks, and gimmicks in the backfield; the bane of a young ten’s existence being the intercept.
Tighthead is the other big hole for Australia; that is illustrated by one question. Who are the two Wallaby tightheads who will sing the anthem in the opening match against scrum gods Georgia?
What is the strength? The draw.
It is very difficult that even this struggling outfit will fail to qualify.
But they face a tough Argentina immediately and it feels like Steve Borthwick’s team could spiral if it lost.
Their flaws are born of a lack of red zone finesse and constipated scoring. Look no further than numbers eight and nine.
Jack van Poortvliet and Billy Vunipola may, for very different reasons, miss this tourney. For a long time, dating back three seasons, the 8-9 axis has seemed clunky for England. It remains so.
Alex Mitchell, Danny Care and Ben Youngs is an interesting stew: a gumbo without roux. Pick any one of these three and you have a wholly different taste profile.
Similarly if the next cab off the rank to replace Vunipola (even if not banned, he is notoriously susceptible to injury as he wildly veers from unfit to overly taxed).
The Pumas are vulnerable at scrum, where Thomas Gallo is just a bit small. He is listed at 1.76 metres, but that feels generous. It is not overstating it to claim Argentina will only go as far as their scrum takes them.
They have flyhalves: Santiago Carreras and Nicolas Sanchez. But Carreras, not a natural ten, has been the incumbent, with Emiliano Boffelli kicking for poles. This has left Sanchez short of game time.
Argentina have needed territory and game management, but seem wedded to Carreras, who does not give them either.
Fiji may have the biggest coach in Raiwalui, who was a forwards coach for Australia, and they may have the best hybrid player in the world in La Rochelle’s Levani Botia, who can take anyone one-on-one, whether at flank or centre.
The two weakest links are at flyhalf, where diminutive 23-year old Caleb Muntz cannot steer a game well enough to force the Fijian style on most teams; and hooker, in the form of 23-year old Tevita Ikanivere, who wafts the ball, rather than guns it.
Wales are dire. Their coach, Warren Gatland, admitted famously he would not have resumed the job if he knew how bad things really were.
So where to start?
There is quality in the back row (as usual) and in the backs as a whole; old Lions who know how to play in a knockout: patiently, pragmatically, and powerfully.
But there are glaring weaknesses. At lock, Will Rowlands is one of the best young talents in all of the UK. But Adam Beard has lost his mojo and Daffydd Jenkins is not going to match the likes of Will Skelton.
Johnny Williams will do his muscular best at 12, but he is not ready to tackle the world’s largest midfield (Fiji) or Samu Kerevi, probably Australia’s best player.
Who are your weakest links?