By David de Winter – Sports Editor
The Rugby World Cup starts next weekend and I am very much looking forward to it. The chance to see the best rugby players in the world battle it out for supremacy in one’s own backyard is not to be missed (as fate would have it I failed in all six of the ballots I entered for match tickets). Nevertheless, I shall be an enthusiastic armchair fan, revelling in the drama that this wonderful competition will doubtless produce.
But what about the Home Nations? Each of their respective pre-World Cup preparations have not been ideal by any stretch of the imagination. None of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have found any consistency of performance in the warm-up matches and some have seemingly regressed, not progressed, since the Six Nations.
England’s preparation has been dominated by one man and one man only: Sam Burgess. Since converting from rugby league 11 months ago, the Yorkshireman has been fast-tracked into the England set-up despite some indifferent performances for his club side, Bath. Once he had been picked in the initial training squad there was a certain inevitability that he would be selected in the final 31 for the World Cup, given that the management had invested so much time and effort into him.
Burgess is an excellent tackler but his defensive positioning will come under intense scrutiny. Also, I worry that coming from a rugby league forward’s background that he will instinctively seek out contact instead of looking for space himself or to create space for others. There is no doubt he has talent but what about the relative merits of his Bath teammate Kyle Eastmond or Northampton Saints’ Luther Burrell? Eastmond has Jason Robinson-esque running ability whilst Burrell was England’s player of the tournament by a mile in the 2014 Six Nations.
However, maybe Stuart Lancaster has learnt the lessons of the previous World Cup campaign in 2011 by selecting players based on current form and performance instead of reputation. Current England captain Chris Robshaw was known to have performed extraordinarily in the physical tests at the 2011 pre-World Cup training camp and would lead Harlequins to the Premiership title that season (with a man-of-the-match performance in the final), yet was overlooked because of his relative inexperience at international level. In selecting Burgess and Exeter’s Henry Slade at centre, Lancaster has a formula that may be a roaring success but equally could be a dreadful failure. Similarly, British Lion Alex Corbisiero was overlooked in favour of Kieran Brookes, possibly another case of current performance over reputation.
Yet the one enigmatic player and arguably the form fly-half in the country was overlooked. Danny Cipriani does come with obvious baggage but has been in scintillating form for Sale in the past two seasons and has let his rugby take him from the front pages to the back pages of the newspapers. Unfortunately, maybe Cipriani’s arrest for drink-driving in June was a step too far for Lancaster to take. In any case George Ford and Owen Farrell are excellent fly-halves in their own right. However, Cipriani offers flair and guile à la James Hook (who hasn’t been selected for Wales) and Quade Cooper (who is Australia’s first choice). I have an inkling that the Wallabies’ bold approach in having the exceptional Cooper at fly-half will pay off and that Lancaster may well regret being conservative in omitting Cipriani.
Still, speaking of form, England’s hasn’t exactly been great. They managed two victories in their three warm-up fixtures but were unconvincing at times in all of them. They lacked the killer instinct to see off both France and Ireland at Twickenham (even though they won) and the less said about the dreadful performance at the Stade de France, the better. Whilst they do have home advantage, they have a tricky group to negotiate and, if they don’t find their mojo soon, could be in for a rude awakening and a group stage exit.
However, England’s prospects are looking a lot better as their rivals in Pool A, Wales, had a dreadful weekend all round. Not only did they labour to an unconvincing 23-19 victory against the Italians but they lost arguably their two best players in full-back Leigh Halfpenny and scrum-half Rhys Webb to injury. Both are world-class internationals and unfortunately Wales don’t have the strength in depth of the likes of England, South Africa or Australia to call upon.
Liam Williams is a more than adequate replacement for Halfpenny but he has had injury problems of his own and has not played in any of the warm-up matches. Scrum half is more of a problem. Neither Lloyd Williams nor Gareth Davies have much international experience and the likely replacement, Mike Phillips, is in the twilight of his career. So whilst the Welsh were already outsiders for the World Cup, their task has been made even more daunting shorn of two top players.
What of Ireland? Two consecutive defeats is not what the doctor ordered. They had a nightmare first 20 minutes against the English at Twickenham on Saturday which meant they were constantly playing catch-up. A victory over Scotland and an experimental Welsh side in mid-August are all they have to show for their efforts. Unusually they missed an alarming number of tackles against England and the experiment playing Simon Zebo at full-back didn’t really work.
Of greater concern, however, are the injuries to half-back pairing Conor Murray (concussion) and Jonathan Sexton, who was carrying a leg muscle injury in the 2nd half at Twickenham. The Irish must have those two fit and firing if they are to have any chance of getting their hands on the William Webb Ellis Trophy.
Scotland probably have the most to shout about. They recorded back to back victories against Italy (who beat them in the Six Nations earlier this year) and came within minutes of a famous win in Paris at the weekend, only to be denied by a Noa Nakaitaci try. Their backline looks very settled with the back three of Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Tim Visser looking particularly dangerous, and captain Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell have developed a partnership at half-back.
However there remains a nagging feeling that the Scots have a soft underbelly and can be bullied up front. The Gray brothers in the engine room will be key to preventing this. They have three potential banana skins in Japan (who beat Wales last summer), the USA and Samoa in their pool but if they manage to negotiate their way out of that they could be a tricky opponent in the quarter-finals.