With the Rugby World Cup beginning in Japan next month, rugby union fans are gearing up for the biggest festival of the 15-a-side game on the planet with mix of keen anticipation and restrained nervousness as regards their own nation’s prospects.
In my view the 2019 tournament is one of the most open there has ever been – a fact that adds to the uncertainty and speculation as to the readiness of the squads scheduled to be announced over the next three weeks.
Eddie Jones, who is the first coach into bat – scheduled to announce his line-up on Monday whereas the majority of his peers will be holding fire until nearer the 2nd September deadline – does so under something of a media cloud after a tenure in which his maverick style initially blew a welcome whirlwind-like breath of fresh air through the England set-up after the disappointments of 2015 but has since has lost some of its reputational lustre due to inconsistent results and a increasingly scattergun approach to selection.
The man himself might point to the vagaries of random fortune – not least a slew of injuries to key senior and other players – but many British rugby scribes and pundits have seemingly detected enough chaos in some of his decisions to conclude that perhaps Eddie’s early messiah status is not only undeserved but that he is better at ‘throwing things up in the air’ than he is at imposing the structure, direction and momentum-build required to achieve success in such an attritional and physically demanding sporting tournament.
Well, we shall see.
Personally, subject also to the fitness of key players currently either carrying niggling injuries or completing rehab, I have a sneaking suspicion that of the home countries Wales might be the one to watch not least because they have Warren Gatland at the helm, in my view the best coach in the world as his record over the past fifteen years amply attests.
I’d be delighted to be proved wrong but the impression that Ireland came to the boil eighteen months early and are now on the slide – epitomised by the age and form of talismatic Jonny Sexton – is hard to avoid.
Scotland’s eternal problem – the diminutive size of its playing population despite their strenuous efforts to find ancestral tartan genes wherever they exist around the globe – will present issues means that even the creativity of Gregor Townsend’s considerable brain will be unable to surmount.
From the Southern Hemisphere, of course, one chips away at the Kiwi aura of invincibility at one’s peril.
However, concerns over the fitness of Brodie Retallick – for many the best lock in the world but who dislocated his shoulder in the recent Rugby Championship – and the form of some of their players including fly half Beaudon Barrett (two-time World Player of The Year) suggest that supporters of “The Land of the Long White Cloud” are less confident of going all the way than they have been at any time in the last two decades.
The Pumas (Argentina) will probably flatter to deceive in the group stage of the RWC but the brutal truth is that whilst they pleasingly outperformed expectations in 2011 and 2015 – and structurally are in their best place ever – their player-cycle is in a transitional phase and they will be found wanting when we reach the business end of the coming tournament.
For me, although in the past two seasons they have made great strides with a young transitional squad – and one has to say this – South African rugby remains hamstrung by its ‘quota’ system which has resulted in over 350 players abandoning their national cause to ply their trade in Europe.
Union is, of course, the junior rugby code Down Under but I have seen enough in their recent campaign outings to persuade me that, provided they reach the semi-finals, and with a bit of the rub of the green along the way, the green and golds will be hoisting the Webb Ellis Cup when the dust has finally settled.