In exactly one year the Rugby World Cup 2015 will kick off at Twickenham with England against Fiji. Here at MatchPint we’re terrifically excited about what should be the most open and intriguing World Cup in recent years. Below we’ve taken a look at the current (according to the bookies) five favourites for the title considering their key strengths and what they’ve got a year to improve on.
1. New Zealand
Strengths - The world’s No.1 ranked side for the last 4 years, the All Blacks are in rude health as ever. Currently leading the Rugby Championship the Kiwis broke new ground in 2013 as they completed a 100% calendar year, winning all 14 Tests.
Their squad boasts the greatest depth in world rugby, their players the most refined skills and they always find a way to win. Led by Steve Hansen, Graham Henry’s right hand man in 2011, they have a hugely successful coach who has just 1 defeat to his name from 35 Tests and consecutive Rugby Championship gongs. Blessed with the world’s best player at the moment in Kieran Read, their captain Richie McCaw is allegedly quite handy as well.
The fact that they’ve never won a World Cup on foreign soil should provide a little extra motivation in the entirely unlikely event that they might need any.
Weaknesses – Clutching at straws time… Erm, people aren’t losing by quite so much to them these days? England registered a surprise victory at Twickenham in 2012 and since then England, Ireland and Australia have all pushed the All Blacks very hard, but to little avail in terms of an actual result.
Hmm, anything else? Dan Carter’s return from a sabbatical/injury could conceivably erm, not go that well… Maybe? Jeez, at least McCaw is getting pinged and binned occasionally these days for the sort of skullduggerous larks he’s otherwise been getting away with for over a decade.
Strengths – Blessed with home advantage, England are a vibrant and potentially lethal international side waiting to happen. Stuart Lancaster has transformed a team that approached contact situations at the 2011 World Cup with all the dynamism of a narcoleptic sloth into one that’s young, athletic and physically visceral.
England’s core strength is their depth of options, especially amongst the forwards, where they boast a multi talented and crunching pack that looks very solid at the set piece. In Ben Youngs and Danny Care they possess a pair of dynamic, front foot No.9’s whilst Owen Farrell is a ruthless general and world class kicker who is showing real improvements with the ball in hand. A range of more attacking options off the bench at outside half in the resurgent Cipriani as well as Freddie Burns and George Forde provides room to tinker for Stuart Lancaster. Manu Tuilagi when fit and firing remains an incomparable midfield cruise missile.
Weaknesses – Beyond the halfbacks plenty remains up in the air. There are talented but potentially round(ish) pegs in square holes regarding the centres whilst the back three, with the exception of Mike Brown, still looks worryingly green. The temptation to shoehorn Sam Burgess into the side ahead of schedule could provide an unwelcome distraction whilst the Wales game reeks of a banana skin.
3. South Africa
Strengths – Due to their national obsession with braiing everything possible and guzzling all of the beers, South Africa are a nation of big old boys. This is reflected in their frankly monstrous pack who remain the kings of the driving maul and lineout. Coach Heyneke Mayer is fortunate to be able to call upon heaps of test experience – this year’s Rugby Championship has seen them call up 13 different players with more than 50 Test caps. As a result of these vast reserves of game management know-how the Springboks are a bugger to beat, as they remain second only to New Zealand in terms of their ability to see out a game having got their noses in front. In La Roux (Willie, not the ginger electro-pop queen) they have a world-class full back who boasts a mesmerising goosestep and better chips than McCain.
Weaknesses – Their inability to replace so many of the 2007 winning side is slightly worrying with 37 year old Victor Matfield now back in the team having retired from the game for a year. Recent scrum beastings by Argentina and Australia must also be a real cause of concern.
Its also true that for a long time size over guile has been preferred in the back line, making them difficult, if rather predictable, opponents who can be stymied if matched physically. The decision to stick with the limited Morne Steyne at stand off for so long means that Handre Pollard and Pat Lambie, whilst both hugely promising footballers, are absolute babies in the Test world with just 9 caps between their combined 43 years of age.
Strengths – Some of the finest rugby hands and minds in the world litter their back line. Kurtley Beale, Quade Cooper, Will Genia, the irresistible triple code star, Israel Folau, and even new skipper Michael Hooper are magicians with the ball in hand and capable of piling on the points against anyone when provided with quick ball. A recent gritty home victory over the Saffers proved a point about the potential of this side, if they can repeat the feat in Cape Town later this month then it might be time to take them a little more seriously for the title.
Weaknesses – Cruelly drew the shitty straw, ending up in a group with the two home nations, England and Wales. The Aussies currently lack a pack capable of competing regularly against the best with the front row being a particular issue. No.8 Will Skelton is one major hope but again has just three test caps and only 23 Super Rugby run outs to his name.
The Wallabies also have the problem of what to with David Pocock when (if?) he returns after their former captain spent 2 years out of the game with successive knee construction jobs. Since then Hooper has snaffled his openside spot as well as the skipper’s armband. Hooper represents a more attacking option whilst Pocock at his best brings a superior physical presence and greater mischief at the breakdown. Also weakened by the sad/heart-warming reasons that Nick Cummins has withdrawn from the tournament (see bottom of link).
Coach Ewan McKenzie, despite the talents available to him, seems conflicted between unleashing his backline or playing a more structured game. Is also still occasionally forced to act on Australian sport’s biggest problem in the professional era – boozing and ill discipline off the pitch.
Strengths – Chronic underachievers Ireland came from behind to snatch a dramatic Six Nations crown in Paris last year and instilled real belief that this team could do something in 2015. Key to their game they have a fine pack that mixes grunt (O’Connell, Toner, Healy), mobility (O’Brien, Heaslip) and insatiable work rate (O’Mahony, Henry) whilst the hugely imaginative halfback coupling of Murray/Sexton are capable of making the absolute most of the set piece and quick ball they receive. Rob Kearney is a proven class act whilst Andrew Trimble blew in from the wilderness last spring to offer real cutting edge to their attacks.
In coach Joe Schmidt the Guinness guzzlers possess one of the game’s most astute thinkers and, due to the tournament being hosted in the UK, expect the boys in green to be fervently supported by thousands of terrifically pissed acolytes wherever they play. A decent draw, swerving southern hemisphere opposition and bagging Italy, means, if they can get the better of France, they should make it to their first ever WC semi final.
Weaknesses – Obviously the loss of BOD has hit the Irish midfield hard with outstanding young candidates to fill the role a smidge thin on the ground, something highlighted by Gordon Darcy’s continued presence in the starting XV. Darcy, despite his boyish looks, actually made his international debut in the last millennium and will be 35 come kick off next September. The front row is an area that could prove flaky if any of the first choice trio get injured and/or Cian Healy allows his occasionally volcanic temper to get the better of him.
Who do you think will lift the Web Ellis trophy aloft next October? Is it New Zealand's to lose, are we a cycle to soon for England and who do you think are the real dark horses? Let us know in the comments below!