WITH the World Cup just 173 days hence it’s time to look at what the home nations have to do between now and the big one to make themselves contenders for glory. England and Scotland may arguably be better set for the World Cup in Japan in 2019 thanks to the demographics, but at least three of the four home nations harbour genuine hopes of lifting the William Webb Ellis Trophy come October.
Gatland has to determine whether he gambles or sticks with route-one rugby. Points difference could matter
Vern Cotter’s World Cup check list
REVOLVER, check. Bullet, check. Darkened room, check. Cotter usually sports a doom-laden coupon at the best of times so presumably he was a lookey-likey for Munch’s The Scream after last weekend’s horror show.Above all else the Kiwi must breathe some confidence back into his squad if they are to have a chance of making an appearance in the quarter-final. Scotland are suffering a power shortage and, unless Cotter finds some, his team will be getting sand kicked in their faces all tournament. He can import the stuff via South Africa or do what Frank Hadden did ahead of RWC’07 and lock the boys in the gym between now and September. Perhaps both.
The Kiwi could do with an immovable tighthead rock but instead he will have to make do with WP Nel, who looks a little less than fully committed to Edinburgh’s cause, never mind Scotland’s. The breakaway duo of Adam Ashe and David Denton will have had more time in the saddle by September and another flanker, Ryan Wilson, may get the chance to pick on someone his own size.
In the probable absence of Alex Dunbar, Cotter may look to another physical centre in Saracens’ Duncan Taylor. Meantime, he will wrap Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell in cotton wool and keep every part of his anatomy crossed in the hope that Scotland come through those four pre-tournament friendlies relatively unscathed.
Replacements: Grant Gilchrist, Richie Gray, Josh Strauss, Duncans Weir and Taylor, Seans Lamont and Maitland, Ryan Wilson and possibly Nel will give a grateful Cotter some options.
Joe Schmidt’s World Cup check list
IT SHOULD be pretty short, you might imagine, except that top of his list may be a subtle change in psychology. “Schmidtler”, as he is known across the Irish Sea, is a notoriously hard task master and there was talk of the Irish heroes returning to their provincial teams with their brains scrambled.
Evidently the Ireland coach does not hand out play books but instead puts the team moves on a white board for a limited time and tests his players the following day to ensure they have committed them to memory. There is plenty enough psychological pressure on the players during a World Cup without having their coach add to it unnecessarily.
At a more mundane level, Schmidt must find a back-up to Rob Kearney at full-back because he seems to have gone cold on Felix Jones. Simon Zebo can do a shift across the back three but the Munsterman is the antithesis of a Schmidt player – loud, brash and a little erratic.
Up front, it is asking a lot of Mike Ross to expect a 35-year-old tighthead to lock the scrum in all the big games and Schmidt might be on the lookout for someone more aggressive than Marty Moore. Connacht’s Nathan White could be the answer. The Kiwi-born prop has been injured but managed one appearance for the Wolfhounds recently.
Replacements: Fergus McFadden, Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock all missed the Six Nations. While it’s unlikely any of them will start come the business end of the World Cup, all three are very useful squad players.
Stuart Lancaster’s World Cup check list
FIRST up, Lancaster has to get over the melodrama of that final day’s play and the gut-wrenching disappointment of finishing in second place for the fourth time in as many years. It’s difficult to conquer the world when the best you can manage is a silver medal in Europe. Most of Lancaster’s positional problems lie in the middle of the team sheet.
Chief amongst them is stand-off, where George Ford did (almost) everything asked of him but he still does not have a great boot when kicking at posts. Owen Farrell has the temperament and the ability but he can’t get his backline moving nearly as well as Ford. You can’t go into a World Cup without a world-class kicker but Ford is the best ten in open play. Picking them side by side would be an open invitation to every big beast in the opposition to give it his best shot down the 10/12 channel.
At scrum-half, Lancaster must decide whether to play a running nine (Danny Care) a kicking nine (Richard Wigglesworth) or Ben Youngs, who can do a bit of both?
Outside of stand-off, the coach has to find a functioning inside centre since Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees have both had countless opportunities to nail down the 12 shirt and still haven’t completed the task.
Perhaps Manu Tuilagi will slot in there since Jonathan Joseph was the find of the tournament at 13.
Replacements: Manu Tuilagi, Ben Morgan, Owen Farrell and Joe Launchbury missed the recent shindig but will return to strengthen the hosts’ squad.
Warren Gatland’s World Cup check list
IT IS a little ironic that, having played almost no running rugby in the tournament up til then, Wales unleashed a tsunami of tries on the hapless Italians in the final 30 meaningful minutes of rugby they had together before the World Cup.
They will almost certainly revert to type come September and to do so Gatland needs to unearth a tighthead prop who can hold up the Welsh scrum better than Aaron Jarvis managed in Italy. Adam Jones is widely seen as a busted flush, Samson Lee will do his bit when fit again and Exeter’s Thomas Francis may be plan B.
A very useful scrummager, Francis is 22 years old and 21 stones. He previously had a stint with London Scottish in England’s Championship. If Wales can get the Yorkshire-born Francis fit – and they will have almost three months to do so for goodness sakes – he might well be the surprise selection.
Elsewhere “Gats” has to determine whether he gambles or sticks with his brand of powerful, route-one rugby. In the very possible event that the three big guns in Pool A – Australia, England and Wales – all take one win from each other, the two teams that will qualify for the quarter-finals will be determined by points difference and then tries difference. Gatland may have to ask his players to play a more expansive style, at least against the so-called minnows of the group – Fiji and Uruguay – or risk losing out the same way they did last weekend.
Replacements: Exeter’s Thomas Francis is keeping Moray Low bench-bound at the moment and Alex Cuthbert was dropped in the middle of the tournament, although whether he is any better than his replacement Liam Williams is doubtful.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS