Rugby World Cup - Just Under 100 Hundred Days Out
It is just under 100 days to the Rugby World Cup in Japan in what promises to be one of the most exciting tournaments for some time. The showpiece event is the biggest competition in the rugby calendar. Below, The Rugby Magazine take a brief look at some of the teams shaping up as favourites and the three key points which will determine the tournament's overall success.
While the All Blacks were overriding favourites and deserved winners in 2011 and 2015, there is an inkling of uncertainty around who will lift the Webb Ellis Cup in 2019. It looks set to be the most open competition we've seen for some time
New Zealand are rightful favourites once again, going for the first-ever hat-trick of consecutive World Cup wins. They have quality players and an extremely large squad, depth wise. They have consistency in selection and have "been there, done that”, it will take an extremely good side to wrestle the trophy away from the current world champions. However, it must be said that the aura of invincibility is slipping ever so slightly and the gap to the chasing pack seems to be getting smaller. A 36-34 loss to the Springboks in Wellington and a tight win against South Africa in Pretoria during the 2018 Rugby Championship both boosted rivals' hopes and proved that the men in black were not as unbeatable as it once seemed.
Twickenham - England were next to push the All Blacks close last autumn in what looked like a victory for the home team before a Sam Underhill try was disallowed late on. After a great spell under Eddie Jones, England went off the boil but now seem to be building nicely towards Japan. There are, however, a few key personnel decisions to be made but the team aren’t a million miles away from where they would like to be. It seems that time is running out for Dylan Hartley and this will mean the hooking berth and captaincy discussions are put to bed with Jamie George at No 2 and Owen Farrell taking over the captaincy respectively. This is a very good England team and they have depth in areas but are a little bit thin in others. Manu Tuilagi and Mako Vunipola’s fitness would be a welcome boost for World Cup success.
Step up Ireland. After a fantastic 2018 including a Grand Slam, the Irish were next to put New Zealand to the sword in a 16-9 win in Dublin, a famous victory where the Guinness will likely have flowed faster than a Jordan Larmour sidestep. There was talk about Ireland being one of the favourites for Japan, that is until a, relatively, poor Six Nations in 2019 by Kiwi head coach Joe Schmidt's high standards. Of course, Schmidt’s charges are not to be sniffed at and will be a tough nut to crack for any team in Japan. There is the question of whether they can be successful as one of the favourites going into the tournament but a lot of the current players have played in some high profile games and have come out on the right side of the ledger, you feel Schmidt is bound to have them firing come World Cup time. The form of halfbacks Connor Murray and Jonathan Sexton will be vital for a good run in Japan for the men in green.
Wales are a dark horse and seem to be quietly going under the radar – racking up a record number of wins coinciding with a Grand Slam in 2019. Warren Gatland’s charges were relentless in the 25-7 schooling of Ireland to seal the Grand Slam and showed they are a quality outfit. In Alun Wyn Jones they have a leader who ranks among the great locks of the modern era and Gatland and his coaching staff have built a team that is going to be there or thereabouts. A team with great recent history, whether they can add to it in November remains to be seen.
Heading down to the southern hemisphere and there have been some stark challenges in recent years. The Springboks seem to be on the way up under Rassie Erasmus, and a win and close loss against the All Blacks show they can compete on their day. However, consistency will be a concern for them. Expect a minimum of one big result during the World Cup. Australia and Argentina always come good at tournament time and will be competing as always at the business end of the competition. The Jaguares are currently backing this theory up in the current Super Rugby tournament.
As can be seen, Japan 2019 looks to be a relatively open and an exciting proposition for a fair few teams and one which promises much in terms of entertainment. This is without mentioning France, Scotland and the likes of Samoa and Fiji – plenty of thrills and spills to be expected from these four as well.
Three key factors which could determine who holds up the trophy on the 2nd of November in Yokohama as well as what will determine a successful event are touched on below.
Quality of refereeing
At present there seems to be a general shortage of international standard referees. Although, it must be noted that the laws do not assist the men with the whistle. Referees are under more and more scrutiny, while mistakes by players are accepted, it is typically not the case for the officials. It takes a thick skin to officiate the game we play. There is a constant analysis of the accuracy of calls made by the man in the middle, noth behind closed doors, in the pubs, classrooms, offices and, of course, social media. The major requirement is the consistency of the calls in line with the laws of the game. Unfortunatly, the current climate is incorporates an inconsistent interpretation of the laws from referee to referee. The northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere officials tend to call the breakdown differently; a constant challenge and frustration for players and coaching staff. There is an under-utilisation of the assistant referees, especially in the case of the offside line where the assistant referees should be monitoring this. “Line creep” has become a key factor ruining attacking rugby and isn’t being policed effectively. World Rugby needs to look at improving this area of the game and providing the men in the middle with all the resources to assist them in the white-hot environment of officiating. There is a good bunch of high-quality referees, but perhaps not quite enough for this global tournament, which is a genuine concern.
Since the inaugural 1987 tournament, player fitness, especially of key players, has been paramount to the overall success of any side in lifting the Webb Ellis Cup. Would the All Blacks have been triumphant at Twickenham if Richie McCaw and Dan Carter weren’t there in 2015? Similarly in 2003, would Clive Woodward’s men have been world champions without Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson or even Lawrence Dallaglio? Every single side has pressure points when it comes to fitness and injury, this is determined by the quality of the starting player or the often overlooked back up or squad player. The game is well and truly a squad game now and the team that wins will have to have a squad that goes deep. If England were forced to go without Owen Farrell, Ireland lose a certain Johnny Sexton or New Zealand Brodie Retallick, would they be able to push on to win the tournament? Player fitness is vital to any team’s ambitions and therefore there is always a certain amount of luck in any tournament victory – we all remember Stephen Donald cutting short a fishing trip to play a key role in the 2011 final for the All Blacks. Fitness of the big players goes a long way in determining who will lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
Standardisation of rule application and review process
The contentious review process is controversial among players, coaches and fans alike, both in foul play and try-scoring circumstances. Week-in and week-out in both hemispheres, there are reviewed calls which boggle the mind. For instance, two illegal tackles similar nature can get a penalty in one game and a yellow or red card in another. There is no excuse to get a reviewed call incorrect when the technology and time are there, as they are. The adjudication committee needs to be aligned and have covered all the bases and scenarios. Player welfare is a key element to this especially in light of foul play and injuries – suspension and bans are also linked to this and must be consistent. It is essential that World Rugby gets these elements right for a successful tournament.