- 03 Sep 15
But not yet with baited breath. So are Ireland really in with a chance of winning the Rugby World Cup? That indeed is the question...
So, the planet prepares to come to a standstill, as World Cup Fever takes hold. Well, maybe not quite to a standstill. As an English colleague remarked while basking in the euphoria of Blighty’s almighty feat in conquering the rugby planet back in 2003: “It’s just a shame it’s not a proper sport that more than a dozen countries play.”
I’m whole-heartedly inclined to embrace the Rugby World Cup, as a concept, and have thoroughly enjoyed every single one of them to date. Nonetheless, it ought to be at least acknowledged that there’s no gigantic sense of a nation holding its breath and counting down the days, which is mildly puzzling when you pause to take stock of the very real possibility that this could well transpire to be the greatest few weeks in Ireland’s sporting history.
It’s generally acknowledged that the turn of the millennium was the point where the sun broke through the clouds and Ireland’s rugby fortunes took a colossal leap forward. We entered the World Cups of 2003, 2007 and 2011 with optimism in plentiful supply.
But it’s also fair to state that there’s been another quantum leap since then, dating from the moment Joe Schmidt took charge: the team has never looked quite as potent in all departments as it does right now.
Back-to-back Six Nations championship wins, last year and this year, have established Ireland beyond dispute as the northern hemisphere’s leading lights. Accordingly, we enter the global get-together rated as extremely live runners to win the whole thing, joint-fourth with the Aussies in most markets, trading at a general 8/1. England are substantially shorter (5/1) for a variety of reasons, not least home advantage, and the trio of Southern Hemisphere dreadnoughts are obviously a mighty force. But the general consensus is that we’re on a shortlist of five major contenders (Wales and France are relative long-shots, the Argies are a 66/1 flyer, and no-one else is given an earthly prayer).
The All Blacks are favourites, as ever, having (very nervously) finally seized their destiny four years ago on home soil, after fucking up five World Cups in a row. There was absolutely nothing emphatic about the way they did it, even on their own turf, as, almost paralysed by fear, they limped to an incredibly tense 8-7 triumph against the French in the Final.
Though gripping and profoundly compelling, in many respects it was a truly horrible game: a grim, attritional slog marked by an almost-total absence of line breaks, wayward kicking from the hosts’ petrified placekicker Piri Weepu, a litany of refereeing errors and an undercurrent of vicious nastiness. The Kiwis didn’t care; they’d scaled the summit, at last.
It well may be that the ‘curse’ having been laid to rest, they will play with greater freedom this time out and put everyone else in their place. There’s rarely been any doubt that, at their best, the All Blacks are the world’s top team, and can scale heights no-one else is capable of. But there have been more obviously brilliant NZ teams than this one, and at a narrow shade of odds-against to win the thing, they’re probably best opposed.
France came within a nose-hair of claiming the crown last time out despite open player mutiny against the lamentable stewardship of Marc Lievrement, and their mercurial ‘you never know what to expect’ nature has become a byword. But they’ve gone steadily backwards at a rate of knots since than, and even at 18/1 I wouldn’t touch them with a barge-pole. Themselves and the Italians are our first-round opponents of note (Canada and Romania ought not to cause us undue sleep loss), and I will be quite stunned if we don’t top the group in some style. Unless the Kiwis fuck up Group C, which they won’t, this would leave us facing a quarter-final against Argentina or Tonga, both of whom we would expect to demolish. In other words – and I know how much fatal-hubris statements such as this can come back to bite – Ireland look seriously nailed-on good things for a semi-final spot at least.
The other half of the draw looks far more competitive – in particular Group A, where any one of England, Australia and Wales will have to bite the dust. Whoever emerges in second place there might be worth chancing to upset the South Africans. Fast-forwarding to the Final Four, I am speculating that we may be looking at Wales-New Zealand and England-Ireland as the semi-final line-up. And it’s fair to suggest that if fevered excitement hasn’t swept the nation by then, it never will.
So, who’s going to win it all? Deep breath. Here goes. England.
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 11 Jul 23