WELL, by the time you read this, it has started. England will have played Fiji at Twickenham, and they could certainly have had an easier start. Mind you, in 1991 they kicked off, also at HQ, against the All Blacks, then faced Jonah Lomu et al early on in 1999, and that was a good deal nastier. This is the fourth World Cup to have been played in the northern hemisphere, and the winners of the previous three have been Australia twice, in 1991 and 1999, and South Africa in 2007. What are the odds against New Zealand picking up their first NH World Cup?
Whatever the result of last night’s opener, England as the home nation must have a chance. Confidence is surely high. Twickenham is usually a fortress that’s hard to scale, and they certainly approach this tournament in much better shape than in 2011. On the other hand they have a comparatively young side, and experience has usually told in the World Cup. Moreover it’s years since they won the Six Nations.
Ireland are the current champions of the North, and their coach Joe Schmidt is regarded as the shrewdest in the business. Moreover he has Ireland playing a more limited game than his Leinster teams used to, and, sad though it is for the romantics, free-flowing rugby and success don’t historically go together in the World Cup. Not all the way through anyway. In 1999 France played some sublime rugby to come from behind and beat the All Blacks 43-31 in the semi-final, only to be squeezed out in the final by an Australian team built on an impregnable defence. So an Ireland game built on a solid set-piece, tigerish commitment at the break-down and the kicking from hand of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, may be just what is needed. My worry, if I was Irish, would be that Sexton has looked a shadow of himself in the last two warm-up matches.
What of Scotland? Will Greenwood, great England centre, acute analyst but sometimes wayward pundit, has been kind enough to suggest Scotland may come in under the radar. Well, a Scottish revival has been forecast often enough, only for us to see bright promise fade. Last season an encouraging autumn was followed by a Six Nations campaign that got worse the longer it went on. What we can say is that we look better prepared than for any World Cup since 1999. We went into that one as Five Nations champions, but losing to South Africa in a match which may have turned on the injury sustained by John Leslie in the act of scoring a try, condemned us to a quarter-final against the All Blacks. End of story.
The fact is that, in the seven previous World Cups, we haven’t beaten anyone we weren’t generally expected to beat – though some of the victories have been nerve-shreddingly close – and haven’t lost to anyone we should have beaten, except, arguably, Argentina in 2007, and, possibly, England in 1991 and 2011. In short our record has been that of a middle-ranking country, one that, since the Five Nations became Six, has more often than not struggled to beat Italy.
Nevertheless there are several reasons for optimism. We are scoring more tries than we have for years, perhaps even since 1999. This should make matches against Japan, the USA and even Samoa just that bit more manageable. Then Greig Laidlaw is a reliable goal-kicker, something we didn’t have in 1999. The set scrum, which has been a weakness, went well in the last two warm-ups, against Italy and France. The lineout however faltered in Paris, and the French try came because we rashly called a long throw near our own line, and then lost the ball. This is, one would hope, a mistake we wouldn’t make again. The defence looks more secure and better organised than it was few months ago, and no team has ever flourished in the World Cup without a secure defence. On the other hand our recent record is poor. The last time South Africa came to Murrayfield in the autumn of 2013 they won 28-0, though we did beat them in 2010. We will start very much as underdogs against them, though perhaps free of the inferiority complex that burdens us whenever we play New Zealand. Nevertheless, though the reasonable assumption is that we will lose to the Springboks and must beat Samoa to reach the quarter-final, one would expect Vern Cotter, pictured, to field his strongest XV against South Africa rather than saving some for Samoa a week later. In 2007 Frank Hadden put out a second XV against New Zealand to be sure of having his first choice side fit for the crunch game against Italy. We beat Italy – if only just; so I suppose his decision was justified.
Finally the news that referees have been instructed to come down hard on any dissent is very welcome. The only person who should speak to the referee is the captain, and then only for clarification. Ten yards back for the first show of dissent, a yellow card for the second.