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Egotists, never-weres and safe bets - how things stand a year out from the World Cup

With the November Series ready to heat up, we run our eye over the leading challengers for next year’s tournament.

Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

NEW ZEALAND

What’s the story?

Where do you want to start? They won this year’s Rugby Championship yet seem one game away from a crisis every time they step onto a pitch.

Their captain, Sam Cane, is out with injury and perhaps that’s no bad thing, not because some consider him ‘a shit Richie McCaw’ but because it’s clear he is suffering the strain of leading a team in decline.

And make no mistake they are on the slide. In the last couple of years they have lost to Argentina for the first time, been beaten at home Ireland, by the Pumas again, and last week, they only barely got past Japan, winning by seven points.

Problems are evident in their midfield, while their front row lacks the skill level of rival sides, especially Ireland’s. They’ve had their scrummaging issues too, have come second best in too many physical battles over the course of 2022 and clearly aren’t the New Zealand of old.

Yet this last point comes with an asterisk. Compare the 2022 All Blacks to the 2011 or 2015 edition and of course they’ll show up poorly. So would everyone. The current All Blacks task is to be better than Wales, Scotland and England. And they will be.

As for next year, it’ll be either Ireland or South Africa in the quarter finals and for the first time ever Irish fans are genuinely hoping they face the All Blacks rather than Les Bleus although it is plainly clear after last night’s chastening experience for Ireland A that New Zealand have greater depth.

World ranking

4

November diary

Wales, Scotland, England.

World Cup chances?

They remain one of the world’s top four sides but the issue is the remaining three members of the Fab Four are due to clash in the quarter-finals. Hard to see them winning three big knock-out matches in successive weeks.

Verdict: quarter-finalists

sam-cane Sam Cane is out of the November series. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

SOUTH AFRICA

What’s the story?

After some failed experiments in the summer, South Africa now know their 33-man squad for France and have a Plan B in place in case Plan A doesn’t work. But as we learned in Japan three years ago, that Plan A – to punch their opponent in the nose – is a fairly sensible tactic when you are bigger and uglier than everyone else.

Since that tournament, results have been mixed. Yes, there was the series win over the Lions but they struggled to put Wales away in the summer, while the last two Rugby Championships have brought just seven wins from 12 fixtures.

And yet they have a habit of peaking at the right time, being three-time winners of the World Cup as well as the current holders. Look at the profile of their pack; all eight starting forwards are aged between 28 and 31, with another six heavyweights waiting to come off the bench to join the fun.

No team is as capable of mauling teams to death. We saw that in the final game of this year’s Rugby Championship against Argentina, when all five of their tries came from close range.

It’s also worth noting that this tournament also saw over 50 per cent of their tries come from phase play, the electrifying pace of their back three proving too much to handle.

It’ll be fascinating to see how Cheslin Kolbe goes today at full-back, equally as interesting to see if the half-back combo of Willemse and Hendrikse take a few more risks than the previous partnership of de Klerk/Pollard. South Africans don’t like to be told they have a boring team. But they have. It just so happens to also be a bloody good one.

World ranking

3

November diary

Ireland, France, Italy, England

World Cup chances

In the same pool as Ireland, the Springboks are destined for a quarter-final against France or New Zealand and right now are a good bet to make the final as their depth allows them to cope with injuries better than most. On top of this their coaching ticket – the ruthless Rassie Erasmus and warm-hearted Jacques Nienaber – is a winning one.

Verdict: Finalists

cheslin-kolbe Kolbe lines out at full-back today. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

FRANCE

What’s their story?

Last time they met tonight’s opponents, Australia, France lost the series 2-1. Still it is best to read the small print.

Anthony Jelonch, Cameron Woki and Damian Penaud are the only starters from the final game of that 2021 series who face the Wallabies today.

It is a different France team when Antoine Dupont rather than Baptiste Couilloud is in your number nine shirt, the France scrumhalf posing such a threat from open play while his relationship with Toulouse flyhalf Romain Ntamack transfers seamlessly from the club arena onto the international stage.

Winners of a record 10 games in a row, France are – according to Australia coach Dave Rennie – the real No1 ranked side in the world which isn’t going to win Rennie too many fans in Ireland.

You can see his point, though. The back row combo of Ollivon, Alldritt and Jelonch is the most exciting trio the Stade de France has seen since Zidane, Henry and Djorkaeff were in their pomp. The latter three helped France win soccer’s World Cup in ’98. Can their rugby brothers follow suit a year from now? You wouldn’t back against them.

November diary

Australia, South Africa, Japan

World ranking: 2

World Cup chances?

It is theirs to lose even if the draw is unkind, sharing a pool with the All Blacks and a quarter-final against either Ireland or South Africa. They are one of three teams with serious depth but the big concern is whether the pressure of being favourites on home soil will get to them.

Verdict: champions

antoine-dupont-celebrates-with-the-six-nations-trophy Antoine Dupont is the world's best player. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

SCOTLAND

What’s their story?

The latest Battle of Hastings is a bit like the original, with a losing egotist back in France nursing his wounds. As Finn Russell gets used to life in his Parisian exile, Blair Kinghorn and Adam Hastings are battling it out for the No10 jersey.

That’s still a hard one to get your head around, when you remember that Kinghorn used to be a winger and Hastings didn’t even make Scotland’s original squad for this year’s Six Nations, securing just four minutes action in the tournament, against mighty Italy.

So much has changed. Russell is out of the picture, Kinghorn is out of the team after missing a last-minute penalty against Australia last weekend, and Hastings is in it. The latter can kick – as Gavin’s son it’s in the genes – but you have to wonder how he can go from being out in the cold to starting ten?

“Couple of things,” Gregor Townsend, Scotland’s coach, said. “Physically he’s in a really good place and that has helped his defence. He’s always been competitive but he hasn’t defended that well. He’s stronger and applied himself on the defensive side more.”

The Scotland that’ll face Fiji today is better than the one who went down by a point to the Wallabies last week, with the Gray brothers returning along with four new backs, including Stuart Hogg. These are all plus points for a team that has never reached its potential.

November diary

Lost to Australia last week, Fiji today, then New Zealand and Argentina.

World ranking: 9

World Cup chances?

In a pool with Ireland, South Africa, Tonga and Romania, they are going to finish third. We could be excessively polite and pretend otherwise but look at their results over the last five years against Ireland.

Verdict: Pool stage exit.

scotlands-stuart-hogg Hogg's return is vital for Scotland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

ENGLAND

What’s their story?

No players generate as many column inches in English rugby as Owen Farrell, Marcus Smith or Manu Tuilagi. One is a proven winner; another is a maverick, the third a wrecking ball who always seems to be battling injury. Today the three combine in an England shirt for just the second time, Smith at 10, Farrell at 12, Tuilagi at outside centre.

If this experiment works, England could be onto a winning formula. They need one. The last 18 months have been poor.

How much of this comes down to The Eddie Show? Rugby’s Mourinho is in danger of turning into his own karaoke singer the way he spouts on. By this stage the rest of the rugby world is a bit tired of him and if that weariness creeps into the England dressing room then you can forget about them winning a World Cup.

But the reason teams persevere with Jones is because he has shown in previous World Cups the capacity to get things right. England have a relatively easy passage to the semi-finals. That might be where the journey ends.

November diary

Argentina, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa

World ranking: 5

World Cup chances?

Strong enough as their pool opponents, Japan, Argentina, Samoa and Chile, aren’t in the same class. That’ll bring them to a quarter-final tie, probably against Australia or Wales, where again you’d back them to win. That’s when it gets tricky for England.

Verdict: semi-finalists.

marcus-smith Class act: Marcus Smith starts at 10. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

AUSTRALIA

What’s their story?

It isn’t that long ago that you expected the Wallabies to win pretty much every time they took the field on their European tours. That has changed, just seven wins coming from their last 19 Tests on this continent.

Their record at home hasn’t been much better, Dave Rennie, their coach presiding over a win ratio that hovers just under 40 per cent. His job is safe enough until the World Cup, despite pressure mounting from the Australian media. Crucially, he has the players as well as the Australian union on board, with Nic White saying recently that Rennie is the best coach he’s ever worked with.

Those qualities will be tested tonight as Australia face France in Paris for the first time in six years. Last time they were here, they played their second string, which is indicative of where French rugby was then compared to now.

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As for the Wallabies, they have Fabian Galthie’s respect.

“We know the Australians well. They’re fighters, tough like cowboys, and have players that come from southern lands that have a decent culture,” the France coach said.

“They are two-time world champions, they have a culture and rugby players that are inventive and creative and solid. They can be behind by 20 points and remain capable of turning the situation around.”

Can Rennie turn things around in time for next year’s World Cup? Yes, to a degree.

November diary

France, Italy, Ireland

World ranking: 6

World Cup chances?

They aren’t one of the world’s top four sides now yet a semi-final is theirs to throw away. A World Cup pool with Wales and Fiji is winnable, as is a likely quarter final against either Argentina or Japan. After that, it gets serious.

Verdict: Semi-finalists

WALES

What’s their story?

They are the men they couldn’t hang. Every time you think they are going to disappear, they fight back. Awful in the 2020 Six Nations, they then went and won the following year’s championship. Poor again this spring, they came close to a series win in South Africa.

For years they have been over reliant on some old warhorses, Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Dan Lydiate, Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, George North, Dan Biggar, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny.

They still are to an extent but if they can squeeze another year out of these 30somethings then there are some green shoots emerging elsewhere. Prop Rhys Carré is 24, 6”3, 21 stone and while he isn’t currently flavour of the month with Wayne Pivac, there’s plenty of time between now and next October for Carré to get back in the side.

Dewi Lake, currently injured, is a Welsh Ronan Kelleher, powerful, skilful and athletic and it isn’t hard to imagine a Carré/Lake/Tomas Francis front row emerging over the next year.

Look out too for Dafydd Jenkins and Christ Tshiunza – the forward pair at Exeter Chiefs, aged 19 and 20 respectively. Tshiunza – dubbed a Welsh Maro Itoje – has been capped already by Pivac, while Jenkins has made seven appearances for Exeter’s first team. At 6”7 he is a serious prospect but the question is whether this World Cup will be a year too early for him, Tshiunza, winger Rio Dyer and centre Joe Hawkins – an uncapped 20-year-old who’d remind you of Gavin Henson.

But if they can mature fast enough and Alun Wyn, Owens and Biggar can hang around for another year, Wales have an outside chance of making the last four again.

November diary

New Zealand, Argentina, Georgia, Australia

World ranking: 7

World Cup chances?

Relatively good, first because of their pedigree, second because of the draw. Fiji and Australia are tough but winnable games and if they were to win their pool then you’d favour Wales against either the Pumas or Japanese in the quarters. A last four trip is possible rather than probable.

Verdict: Quarter finalists

alun-wyn-jones Old warhorse: Alun Wyn Jones. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

ARGENTINA

What’s their story?

They have come full circle since the last time a World Cup was held in France, back in 2007 when they finished a best ever third. Back then all their key players were based in Europe, mainly in France. That’s where they are again after the end of the Jaguares/Super Rugby experiment.

Quite a bit is made of their World Cup record – twice semi-finalists, twice quarter-finalists – but they’ve had some mediocre tournaments too, failing to get out of their pool in 2003 and 2019, getting hammered in the last eight of the 2011 competition.

Since entering the Rugby Championship, they have won only eight of their 58 games, yet two of those victories were recent ones over the All Blacks. In other words they need to be respected rather than feared.

November diary

England, Wales, Scotland

World ranking: 8

World Cup chances?

Since Michael Cheika became their head coach their gameplan has become a bit more ambitious and his experience of tournament rugby, honed with the Wallabies in 2015 and 2019, will help especially as Cheika tends to achieve his best results with teams in the second or third year of his tenure. A quarter-final date with Australia or Wales won’t scare them.

Verdict: Quarter finalists

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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