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Dublin: 7°C Sunday 18 April 2021

This is the north: how will the European sides fare at the Rugby World Cup?

Ireland are the only Home Nations side to have never progressed beyond the World Cup quarter-finals.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

WITH ENGLAND AND Fiji set to kickoff the eighth Rugby World Cup at Twickenham tomorrow, all the talk about potential tournament winners seems to be once again centred around the teams from the southern hemisphere.

It can be no surprise really, with England’s triumph under Clive Woodward in 2003 the only occasion to date when a team this side of the equator lifted the coveted Webb Ellis trophy.

The All Blacks are understandably short favorites with most bookmakers to defend their crown this time round – only five nations have managed to defeat New Zealand in Test matches since their international debut in 1903, and they are the leading Test match points scorers of all time.

Ireland have of course never managed to defeat the All Blacks, but came agonisingly close in the 2013 Autumn Internationals and will hope to replicate performances like the one at the Aviva Stadium that day over the coming weeks.

Source: Ruddy Darter/YouTube

Ireland are the only so-called home nations side to have never progressed beyond the World Cup quarter-finals, and Joe Schmidt will be keen to amend that staggering statistic with this current crop of players. They were impressive in retaining their Six Nations crown earlier this year and are beginning to learn to share the expectation more evenly throughout the team, rather than heaping the pressure on the shoulders of Johnny Sexton.

22-year-old Connacht centre Robbie Henshaw is set to miss Ireland’s opening Pool D game with Canada at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, with Luke Fitzgerald set to partner Jared Payne in Henshaw’s stead. Conor Murray and Sexton are up there as one of the finest, and most consistent, half-back pairings in the world and the Irish team in general want nothing more than to send the legendary Paul O’Connell off on a high.

Can they do it though? Expectation certainly won’t be all that high among large sections of the media and supporters after warm-up defeats to Wales and England respectively, but those results will be largely forgotten about in the Irish camp at this stage with the focus firmly set on Canada and earning a bonus-point win against the team ranked 18th in the world. The gulf between the world’s top 15 teams and those that follow below is plain to see, and if Ireland apply themselves and get on top early there’s no reason why Saturday’s game can’t be a major confidence-booster to prepare them for the tougher challenges that will lie ahead. It will come down to the final game between Ireland and France on 11 October to decide who tops the group (likely avoiding the All Blacks in the quarter-finals in the process) but it is essential Ireland heed the old cliché and take it one game at a time. With a master tactician like Schmidt at the helm focus will not be a problem.

Hosts England will fancy their chances of making at least the semi-finals of the tournament and undoubtedly the nation’s press will want to see even more than that after witnessing the strength-in-depth at Stuart Lancaster’s disposal. George Ford at outside-half provides a lot of vibrancy for the English team and he has been speaking pre-tournament about the importance of mental preparation.

“There are parts to rugby that aren’t necessarily about being big and powerful. There’s the mental side of it – being a bit smarter, a bit cleverer, a bit quicker, having a feel for the game,” he said.

England are in a potential bogey group with both Australia and Wales competing alongside them for the two top slots. The pressure that comes with being hosts perhaps balances out the advantage of having plenty of local support, with Brazil’s failure to win the football World Cup last year the perfect example.

Source: England Rugby/YouTube

On paper the French have always performed fairly well at World Cups and Les Bleus warm-up wins against England and Scotland can only have helped settle their nerves. The French have been runners-up three times (1987, 1999, 2011) losing in finals to New Zealand twice and Australia once, while they have also managed three semi-finals (1995, 2003, 2007) so they can never be discounted and Ireland will certainly be aware of the threat that is posed by Philippe Saint-André’s side. The French have a 59.14% win percentage against Ireland and will be fancied by many to once again make the last four at least.

Source: World Rugby/YouTube

Out of the Home Nations sides, perhaps Wales and Scotland possess the least likely chance of reaching this tournament’s latter stages, mainly because of the tough hands they have been respectively dealt. The Welsh are in the aforementioned group of death, with Scotland set to take on the might of the Springboks in Pool B. Many onlookers fancy Scotland to progress from their group by defeating the USA, Japan and Samoa, but a tie with the winner of the Group of Death (Australia, England and Wales) awaits in the next round. The Samoa-Scotland tie on 10 October at St James’ Park in Newcastle will be very interesting and Vern Cotter will be fully aware that his Scot side will likely need to win that game if they are to progress to the knockout phase. The Samoans haven’t made it past the group stage in the last three World Cups and that trend will likely continue. The Italians pose a potential banana skin for both France and Ireland, but both should claw out results against the Azzurri in the end.

When one discusses the northern hemisphere of rugby it can be very easy to forget Japan, Georgia, Canada, the USA and Romania, but there is a valid reason for that. Aside from the fact that Aj MacGinty, a Dublin-born out-half, will lead the Eagles into action in the World Cup, there really isn’t much to discuss about those teams.

The stage is set for some upsets and who’s to say we can’t have a northern hemisphere nation crowned as champions on 31 October.

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About the author:

Shane Hannon

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