Tuesday 17 October 2017

Tony Ward: England, New Zealand, Ireland and Australia to make World Cup last four with All Blacks to prevail

Leigh Halfpenny leaves the field injured against Itay. Without one of their talismans, the Welsh look vulnerable in the Group of Death
Leigh Halfpenny leaves the field injured against Itay. Without one of their talismans, the Welsh look vulnerable in the Group of Death
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Just six days to go to lift-off and it's time to don the Mystic Meg gear. Already, though, the sceptics are out in force, suggesting that the third biggest sporting tournament on the planet is a foregone conclusion, at best a shoot-out between a handful of rugby superpowers.

Yes of course there is an elite group better equipped to go the course, but show me a competition in which that is not the case.

Look at the English Premier League, where one of Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea will inevitably come out on top; or La Liga, where Real Madrid or Barcelona, at a push Atletico, will rule; or closer to home, where Kilkenny, Tipp or maybe Cork will lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup; or was anyone surprised that Kerry, Dublin and Mayo were the last three counties standing in this year's race for Sam?

There will always be a ruling elite in any sport. Rugby is no different, but it is an awful lot better placed than its main rival, rugby league, where attempts to make the code global come World Cup time border on the farcical.

In league, Australia will be crowned world champions, with only New Zealand offering a semblance of opposition, especially with Great Britain now divided into Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales for international purposes.

In rugby union, four countries have won the World Cup, in the seven tournaments played: Australia, New Zealand and South Africa twice each and England once.

Reasonable

That is a reasonable spread at this stage in the game's professional development, given that in football, the acknowledged 'game of the people', we have had only eight different winners in the 20 World Cups held since 1930.

In almost every competition, we pretty much know that the winner will come from a narrow group, but does that dampen our enthusiasm?

Does it stop us believing that our team, or any team, can have its David and Goliath day?

If the underdogs just lay down and accepted their fate, would Munster have even bothered taking on the All Blacks all those years ago?

We live for the big upset. And the beauty of sport is its occasional unpredictability.

My prediction is that New Zealand will become the first country to win back-to-back World Cups. But does that mean I will switch off for the next six weeks? Of course not.

Players are only human and on any given day anything can happen to turn the form book on its head.

Yes, there will be some lop-sided Pool games, for the simple reason that rugby scoring tends to reflect possession and territorial domination to a greater extent than soccer.

An inferior soccer team can put everybody behind the ball and a Gaelic football team can operate a blanket defence; it is much harder in rugby to stop the opposition scoring when you are struggling for primary possession.

Of course I would like the gulf to be narrowed, but think what it means to the players and people of Georgia or Namibia to face down the haka followed by a tilt at the most powerful force in world rugby.

World Rugby is trying (although some would argue not hard enough) to bridge the gap in standards and playing numbers.

But with the World Cup almost upon us, we are where we are, so what can we expect in the coming weeks of wall-to-wall rugby?

There are 20 teams competing across the four pools, and you could argue that it would have been preferable to have just 16.

But few people associated with rugby and the game's development in Uruguay, the USA, Namibia, Romania, Georgia or Canada will go along with that, despite some almost guaranteed defeats set to come.

Somewhere along the way - think Ireland v Georgia in 2007, or Tonga beating France in 2011 - one of the minnows will rattle a very big cage.

Call me a romantic but I believe in the unpredictability of sport. In every game I played, I believed we not only could but would win.

Pool A is indeed the Pool of Death, featuring three of the top five sides in the official rankings - England, Wales and Australia. And all three will be dreading coming up against Fiji.

Whenever a South Sea island team manages to add discipline and structure to natural talent and explosive power, then watch out world.

In Friday's opener, I'm taking England to edge a match they dare not lose, but expect the Fijians to take at least one major scalp.

The Welsh, given the massive loss of Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny, look the most vulnerable. They will be hugely motivated against England but could struggle against their nemesis Australia.

I'm taking the Wallabies to top the Pool with England a close second.

In Pool B, it's impossible to look beyond the Springboks, even though they are coming into the World Cup below the radar like never before.

The Samoans appear best positioned of the Polynesian teams to cause an upset. The Boks will top the Pool with Scotland and Samoa meeting on October 10 in Newcastle to determine the second qualifier. I'm taking the Scots.

Problems

I can't envisage New Zealand having any problems topping Pool 3, and Argentina will surely be runners-up ahead of Tonga.

In Pool 4, I'm not wearing any green blinkers when predicting that Ireland will beat France to secure top spot, and a quarter-final clash with the Pumas.

That would make for a last eight line up as follows: South Africa v England, New Zealand v France, Ireland v Argentina and Australia v Scotland.

I hope I am wrong because that would be four of the old Five Nations plus all four Championship teams.

Beyond that - and now Meg is being truly stretched - I'm going for England v New Zealand and Ireland v Australia.

Beyond that again who knows, but the All Blacks to win it out.

Irish Independent

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