The eighth Rugby World Cup is upon us and the 2015 edition has the potential to be the most open and thrilling in the professional era.
There are more live contenders to take the crown at Twickenham on the final day of October than ever before and crunch clashes to saviour every one of the six weeks. Bring it on!
No team has successfully retained the World Cup but that’s the task facing tournament favourites New Zealand (1/1)Add to betslip. The All Blacks are without doubt the team to beat and head to England on the back of a staggeringly strong record of W30-D1-L2 since being beaten at Twickenham back in December 2012.
Those looking to oppose the world’s number one test team will also point to the fact the Men In Black have only ever triumphed at the World Cup on home soil. But even so, it would take a brave punter to bet against Steve Hansen’s side with any real confidence.
New Zealand are simply the complete package.
The squad is packed full of experience alongside some of the game’s rising stars and Hansen’s the luxury of picking from a squad that could arguably boast two of the best XVs on the planet. The All Blacks can call upon rugby’s finest lock, leader, scrum-half, fly-half, centre combination and full back.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out the Men In Black look primed to dominate over the next six weeks. A kind draw will see the defending champions take on either France or Ireland in the last eight before a likely semi-final showdown with the hosts or a Tri Nations rival.
The All Blacks went off at 8/11 four years in their own back yard but I believe they’re a more dangerous animal this time around and are without the added pressure-cooker atmosphere from the fiercely critical Kiwi media back home. At even-money, New Zealand are the team to beat.
Challengers – England
But before throwing all our eggs in the All Blacks basket, it’s worth taking a peek at the potential challengers. England appear next in the betting at 10/3 but there are a number of factors swaying me against a punt on the Red Rose. The hosts have failed to land a Six Nations title in four years and have been given a place in the Pool A’s ‘Group of Death’.
Stuart Lancaster has made the side tough to beat with a keen eye on defence. England are well-drilled and organised but rarely put opposition sides to the sword. There are potential gems in George Ford and Jonathan Joseph in the backs’ division but huge question marks remain at hooker whilst the Sam Burgess saga could prove an unwanted distraction.
England should have enough to see off an injury-hit Welsh side but Australia are a major danger despite their poor head-to-head record in south-west London. Top Pool A and the Red Rose avoid New Zealand and South Africa until the final – finish second and they can expect to meet the Southern Hemisphere giants at the quarter and semi-final stage – they’ve bagged one win over either of them in the past three years.
I’ve always liked South Africa (11/2) and the 1995 and 2007 champions aren’t easily written off. A hard-as-nails pack and confrontational approach often bullies those unwilling to go toe-to-toe with the Springboks but I have to admit, my interest in Heyneke Meyer’s experienced squad has waned in recent months.
Injuries have taken their toll and three consecutive losses in this summer’s Rugby Championship, including a humiliating home defeat to Argentina, suggest there are issues to be addressed. Meyer’s now under scrutiny back home but I’m not sure old-stagers such as Victor Matfield, Jean De Villiers, Schalk Burger and co have the energy to go the distance.
Preparation has been disrupted in South Africa with another race row threatening to overshadow their participation and the draw hasn’t been kind, either. The Springboks should top Pool B but will face a bruising knockout game with one of the Pool A countries – get through that and they’ll require even more muscle for a tussle with the All Blacks in the final four.
Australia have emerged as a serious challenger in the past 12 months with the Wallabies backed in from 11/1 to 13/2 shots. The two-time champions produced a fabulous performance to beat their old rivals from across the Tasman on their way to winning the Rugby Championship last month and their tails are up.
Michael Cheika’s men could already call upon the mercurial talents of Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Tevita Kuidrani but a decision to allow veteran Wallabies playing overseas to return to national duty could well reap rewards. Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell and Dean Mumm’s additions have added firepower and a further sprinkling of genius but their most important signing was former Argentina hooker Mario Ledesma as a set-piece coach.
Australia’s much-maligned scrum has too often proven their downfall but their pack is no longer a pushover. If they can solidify the set-piece, the outstanding array of creative match-winners in the backs could prove a potent combination. And that’s without giving a heads-up to two of the best openside scavengers in the game – David Pocock and Michael Hooper.
With Wales weakened by injury as well as a record of 10 successive wins over Warren Gatland’s charges, the Wallabies should take a place in the quarter-finals. However, their progress to the final depends on taking top spot in the Pool and a poor recent record against England is off-putting with a potential Springboks and All Blacks route to the final, should they lose out.
Calls for Ireland (10/1) to go the distance have dampened in the past few months. The Shamrocks have claimed back-to-back Six Nations gold but a poor World Cup record alongside a few below-par displays in warm-up defeats to Wales and England have raised alarm bells.
The Irish have never progressed past the quarter-finals of this competition and a quarter-final showdown with New Zealand or Argentina awaits. Understandably, fans of the Greens fear another early exit – memories of agonising World Cup losses to the Pumas still haunt the nation – but with Joe Schmidt’s leadership, the side can conquer Pool D and edge out their nemesis too.
The New Zealander in charge has made Ireland a tight, compact and consistent side. They’re as mentally tough as they are canny and although Ireland are far from flashy, they’ll concentrate on getting the basics right and executing their game-plan down to a tee. And then there’s the breakdown and collisions where Sean O’Brien’s impact is instrumental.
There’s still a worrying overreliance on Jonny Sexton and Cian Healey’s fitness concerns are nagging negatives. But with a settled side and an astute coach, there’s no reason why Ireland can’t pierce the final four and dream about a date at Twickenham on 31st October. But first, they must beat France at the Millennium Stadium – failure to do so ends their aspirations with New Zealand in the quarters.
France (14/1) should have no trouble joining Ireland in the knockout stages and Les Blues cannot be ruled out of World Cup winning contention despite their toils over the past three years. The Cockerels arrived at the 2011 edition in disarray but came so close to squeezing out hosts New Zealand in the final. Although spectacularly inconsistent, they have the potential to repeat those heroics.
Sure, France have failed pretty spectacularly in the Six Nations but beat Ireland in Cardiff and they’ve can plot a winnable route to the trophy. Les Blues have a superb World Cup record – six semi-finals in seven attempts – and their scrum remains as strong as ever.
Head coach Philippe Saint-Andre will send the side out to batter teams into submission but when they do decide to throw the ball around, there are match winners in Wesley Fofana, Noa Nakaitaci and Yoann Huget to unlock the best of defences. However, opposition sides will know – survive the collisions and you’re in with a good chance.
The major mark against Les Blues is their incredibly frustrating lack of care or attention to the halfbacks. Arguably two of the most important positions on the pitch, Saint-Andre has ditched Camille Lopez at 10 and opted for tried-and-often-failure Freddy Michalak at fly-half whilst world class nine Morgan Parra appears to be out of favour, again.
Wales & Others
Elsewhere, Wales have traded as short as 6/1 to win the tournament but Warren Gatland’s troops arrive as a 40/1 play. Why? Well, as well as being pitted in that unforgiving Pool A, the Dragons have been dealt a number of serious injuries. First, Jonathan Davies was ruled out – he’s the glue to the Welsh midfield. But more recently, scum-half Rhys Webb and goal-kicking extraordinaire Leigh Halfpenny were crocked.
Star wing George North has had his problems with injury and form in 2015, there’s a real lack of squad depth and although Wales entered 2011 as 10/11 rags and came within a red card of a place in the final, they just have to be considered outsiders. Gatland’s men hold a rotten recent record against Pool rivals Australia and England and failure to top Pool A will result in a devastatingly tough route to the final.
The final side worthy of a shout in the Rugby World Cup Winner market is Argentina and odds of 68/1 look disrespectful. Three years of experience tackling the cream of the Southern Hemisphere crop have only instilled an even greater appetite to succeed and the Pumas will be a dangerous quarter-final animal for France or Ireland.
Rugby fans will remember their charge to third-place in 2007 and Daniel Hourcade’s squad are bouncing after a first win over the Springboks just last month, and in South Africa at that. Of course, it was only their second Rugby Championship victory but there’s also been a string of near-misses during that time. With a pack the match of most, they’ll be no pushover.
Today’s XV have pace and trickery in the backs worth shouting about and Nicolas Sanchez carries the kicking responsibilities – an area the Pumas always excel in. They may not have enough in their lockers to progress past the semi-finals but a place in the final four is well within their range. Serious outsiders worthy of respect.
Elsewhere, I’m a big fan of Vern Cotter and Scotland’s improved performances under his watch sadly didn’t translate into victories during the most recent Six Nations campaign. With a strong Glasgow core, the Bravehearts will fancy their chances in bettering Samoa for second in Pool B with the head-to-head being held in Newcastle.
The Scots failed to reach the knockout stages for the first time four years ago and I reckon there’s enough in the squad to avoid a similar fate this time around. Alex Dunbar is their only major injury casualty and their 48-7 destruction of Italy in their final warm-up game will provide a welcome confidence-boost.
Samoa were disappointed to lose out to Fiji in the Pacific Nations Cup and don’t have a kicking game that compares favourably with Tier 1 nations. Northampton’s Karl Fotuali’i and the Pisi brothers star in a more than capable back line but a brave early departure (Samoa have been eliminated at the group stage in each of the past three World Cups) is likely but not before they hand out a few bruises to the Scots.
If you’re hunting a Top Tryscorer punt, avoid any of the Pool A sides purely because of the fiercely-competitive nature. New Zealand have been handed a dream draw and should hack up against the likes of Namibia and Georgia. But Hansen’s likely to ring the changes for matches against the minnows, making it tricky to second-guess their top poacher.
Prolific Julian Savea heads the field at 9/2 having plundered 30 tries from 35 All Black appearances and the explosive wing will take some stopping.
But it’s counterpart Nehe Milner-Skudder (10/1) that makes the most appeal at the prices with the tricky speedster arriving in flying form.
Milner-Skudder notched against the Wallabies in the Rugby Championship and could cut loose if given the nod against the Pool C outsiders. A hat-trick in one game could go along way to delivering a handsome pay-out if backed each-way with a ¼ of the odds on a top-five place.
New Zealand to win outright (1/1)
New Zealand v Ireland final (11/2)
Nehe Milner-Skudder to be Top Tryscorer (10/1 each-way)