The Rugby World Cup is the third largest sporting competition in the world. There has only been one northern hemisphere winner in its illustrious history. With the competition starting on Friday night, what chances do the four home nations stand of lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy in 2015?
For a side who have progressed beyond the quarter-finals on only one occasion, there is renewed optimism surrounding Scotland’s crusade for glory in this year’s tournament. Despite a torrid Six Nations where they failed to win a single match, coach Vern Cotter is beginning to bring some shrewd pragmatism to a formerly disjointed and unorganised outfit. After narrow losses to Argentina and England in 2011 meant that they failed to even reach the knockout stages of the tournament, the passionate Scottish fans will be baying for blood should history repeat itself in 2015.
There are still lingering suspicions that their set piece could struggle against classier opposition, but in Finn Russell and Greig Laidlaw they have a half-back combination which mixes the necessity of a top-class international kicking game with the ability to distribute well and put teammates through defensive holes. They are two measured, skilled and composed young men and for Scotland to progress further in the tournament they both need to be on flying form.
Scotland have been knocked out by New Zealand in four of the seven tournaments so far, but a quarter-final against host nation England at Twickenham beckons, and so too does another quarter-final exit. And that’s only after tackling bastions South Africa, bruisers Samoa, and the belligerent United States in the group stage. Keep an eye on them in 2019.
There was pessimism from all corners of Wales after Warren Gatland’s side were triumphantly trounced by England in the first match of this year’s Six Nations. But if the summer, along with wins against Ireland and Italy respectively, is anything to go by, then there is renewed cause for hope.
That was until, somewhat devastatingly, it was announced last week that hawk-eyed kicking metronome Leigh Halfpenny will miss the entire tournament due to a knee injury; as will their first choice scrum-half Rhys Webb. And with first choice tighthead prop Samson Lee also on his way back from a long-term injury, there is a possibility that Wales might have died before even entering their pool of death with England and Australia.
But that’s not to say that there isn’t still value in Wales’ squad. The physical, dangerous centre combination of Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams will regularly cause defensive (if slightly one-dimensional) turmoil. And in Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton they possess two of the tournament’s outstanding flankers. Dan Biggar settled the fly-half debate once and for all during the Six Nations in which his devastating commitment and silky footballing ability earned the hearts of a nation. His goal-kicking for the Ospreys has always been exemplary, and now with Halfpenny missing it has to be exemplary for his country also.
Having a strong proportion of the victorious 2013 British & Irish Lions squad is an obvious fillip for a side who have previously struggled with the mentality of beating top-class teams, but losing key personnel has not aided their plight. It’s difficult to see them progressing from their pool but splashes of home advantage could see them make the unlikely become reality.
Six Nations champions Ireland cannot be content with heading into this year’s tournament on the back of two straight losses, to Wales and England respectively. Certainly the loss to England, in which coach Joe Schmidt fielded a near full-strength side, will not be remembered fondly for the way in which England dominated the first half tactically, technically and physically.
The imperious Jonathan Sexton struggled at fly-half and the usually ubiquitous back-row duo of Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip were hardly seen. For Ireland to be successful, this world-class trio must improve.
There is no doubt that there’s work to be done to get past France in the pool stage – but work they will. Obdurate stalwart Paul O’Connell will lead with the usual volcanic ferocity in his final World Cup, and expect cannonball Cian Healy, who missed the England tussle, to swell Ireland’s physicality when he returns.
Currently ranked third in the world, expectations are high for a team which is littered with world-class talent and power. They will improve from the dejecting performances in Twickenham and Cardiff, and they will have to if they’re to beat France in the pool stage. It seems unlikely that they’re destined for anything further than a semi-final spot, but that will still be their best ever World Cup finish.
Stuart Lancaster et al have taken great strides with this current crop of England internationals. From bland, unimaginative and predictable rugby in 2011 to multi-layered and inventive attacking rugby in 2015; all with an augmented work ethic and a respected discipline code.
Question marks have been raised more recently over a usually granite set piece but, with a favourable knockout stage draw whereby they are unlikely to meet either New Zealand or South Africa until the final, the omens are good for the host nation.
Key man George Ford has the potential to be one of the best rugby players on the planet and there is no better platform to showcase his wondrous cutting-edge than a World Cup on home soil. He is prone to faltering under pressure but if he can stay composed then he’s an asset to any side that takes the field.
Yet all eyes will be focused on Rugby League convert Sam Burgess, who will be out to prove that the faith that Stuart Lancaster has pledged in him is not completely in vain. And his Bath teammate Jonathan Joseph will be keen to dispel the fallacy that English rugby is merely substance over style as he has done diligently all year.
With home advantage a huge factor, they should overcome the comprehensive challenges of Australia and Wales respectively. It’s worth remembering that England have not lost to Wales since 1987 in a World Cup, and since 1991 against Australia.
On Friday night the world will be in union as the twenty team tournament gets underway at Twickenham.