The eighth Rugby World Cup kicks off tomorrow night with the tournament now one of the biggest in global sport. Dave Craven looks at the contenders for glory.
IS IT about time for a new face in the world of rugby union to finally lift the famed Webb Ellis Cup?
Some would argue it is given only four nations – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and England –have prospered in the Rugby World Cup since the first tournament was staged in 1987.
Indeed, aside from France’s regular flirtation as runners-up – to the All Blacks at Auckland in that inaugural competition, Australia in 1999 and New Zealand again last time – no side outside of that dominant quartet has even ventured as far as a final.
Whether or not any team can, then, break that overall monotony in the weeks ahead, as the eighth tournament of its kind gets underway tomorrow, certainly remains to be seen.
England will be hoping it is not the case.
Hosting the tournament for the first time since 1999, there is a great burden of pressure on Stuart Lancaster’s shoulders to now deliver the trophy themselves and replicate the glory of Sir Clive Woodward’s Sydney heroes of 2003.
It does not matter that they are not the best team; the weight of expectancy is there and it will be fascinating to see if the former Leeds Carnegie chief can watch his four years of meticulous planning now reach the ultimate outcome.
You would expect there is a decent chance – perhaps no more than that – of England utilising their home advantage so that the massive swathes of support behind them will, as the ubiquitous slogan says, “Carry Them Home”.
But is there any realistic hope of someone ruining that status quo held by the four aforementioned nations?
There is good reason after all why New Zealand, the holders, are such big favourites to retain their crown; when they perform near their peak, they are often unplayable.
With inspirational captain Richie McCaw, the doyen of modern-day players, seeking to end his career on the perfect note by raising the trophy for them again at Twickenham on October 31, it would be no surprise if the dream finale for him did occur as intended.
If there was to be a ‘bolter’ then many observers initially believed Wales would actually be a better bet than England to get out of Pool A, the so-called ‘Group of Death’ which, infamously, sees that pair and Australia all battling for just two tickets to reach the knock-out stages.
But once talisman Leigh Halfpenny was left crumpled on the Millennium Stadium pitch, knee ligaments having ruptured during their last warm-up game against Italy less than a fortnight ago, their hopes of reaching a maiden World Cup final must surely have been severely reduced.
Granted, the prolific British Lion full-back does not represent a one-man team, but he is a genuine world-class star, the competition will be poorer without him and his deadly kicking skill, among other traits, would have been crucial in some of their perilous forthcoming games.
To lose, in the same fixture, first-choice scrum-half Rhys Webb for the tournament, too, is appallingly bad luck but, to their credit, the Welsh are staying eternally optimistic and so let’s hope they can still bring their distinct flavour to the party.
If anything, they deserve an appearance in the showpiece event after agonisingly missing out 9-8 to France in the 2011 semi-final after their captain Sam Warburton was controversially sent-off for a spear tackle that still, to this day, brings cries of derision and incredulity from disgruntled Wales supporters.
It still rankles the team, too, and understandably so as they were deprived of their totem for an offence which, ordinarily, may only perhaps have seen a yellow card brandished.
There is definitely a sense of unfinished business for Warren Gatland’s squad but with an unfinished squad, too, due to Halfpenny and Webb’s forced omission here, they may come up short yet again.
Ireland perhaps should be viewed as the one side who could force their way into the reckoning especially as Paul O’Connell, the legendary lock, will want to remind people it is not only McCaw bowing out from the international stage after this event.
The talismanic veteran is heading for Toulon from Munster but not before wanting to create yet more history for his beloved county.
Let’s not forget, for all the talk of England, it is Ireland who have won two successive Six Nations titles under the revitalising coaching of Joe Schmidt and they are second in the world rankings for the first time in their history.
Jonny Sexton is a No10 of genuine class but the one nagging doubt is his country’s general malaise when it comes to World Cups; forget talk of the final, they have still yet to even reach a semi-final which seems utterly bizarre.
What of France who have bordered on the ludicrous at times under the strangely conservative Philippe Saint-Andre?
He will be replaced by Toulouse’s Guy Noves after the tournament – the French powers-that-be must feel certain the incoming coach can bring some of his club’s traditional flair and menace to the national side – so you can imagine Saint-Andre would first love to stick up the proverbial two fingers by becoming the first coach to lead Les Bleus to a World Cup success.
They do still have grit and style among their ranks and seemingly always somehow emerge on the inside rails at these global gatherings every four years regardless of their lack of form and substance.
Yet it is still hard to envisage them venturing any further than the semi-finals this time around given some of the dross they have served up in recent Six Nations.
Lastly, Argentina always bring some colour to these events and they will be lifted immeasurably by their recent maiden win over the Springboks but they still lack the consistency required to negotiate such rocky waters.
So, it would be no great shock if the Webb Ellis trophy did end up in familiar hands once more.
Australia – who have not won it since 1999 – are improving nicely as demonstrated with wins over South Africa and, most impressively, New Zealand during the recent Rugby Championship.
That is ominous for England and, in Israel Folau, the Wallabies have one of the sport’s most thrilling exponents of attacking rugby in a particularly stylish backline, while they have won 10 successive Tests against Wales so do have that psychological aspect in their favour, too, as they head into that gruesome Pool A.
England have so many imponderables going into the tournament, especially over team selection, but they have the potential to strike on home soil especially with potential matchwinners like Jonathan Joseph, George Ford and Mike Brown.
Will 2015 be too early for Lancaster’s clearly embryonic side? Possibly.
But they have reached a final before without ever being near their best in 2007 and will be mindful of the effect the vociferous Twickenham crowd can not only have on raising their own game but potentially stifling the opposition, too.
Whatever occurs over the next seven weeks, the stage is certainly set for the world’s finest footballers to flourish.
Now it all depends which of them will seize the moment always knowing, that if they do not, four years is a long time to wait for another chance.