Thursday 19 September 2019

State of the Nations

Less than two weeks out from the opening of their World Cup campaigns, Jack De Menezes assesses where Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales stand having completed their warm-ups last weekend

Mako Vunipola may be a little short of match practice. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Mako Vunipola may be a little short of match practice. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Jack De Menezes

England: Injuries: A mixed bag. England appear to have made it through their four World Cup warm-up games relatively unscathed as all 31 members of the initial squad remain intact, but there are still enough concerns for Eddie Jones to worry about.

Jack Nowell and Henry Slade have not played a minute of rugby this season as they head to Japan, while Mako Vunipola is not much better off with just 17 minutes under his belt. The final match against Italy also brought a few further headaches with Kyle Sinckler, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Joe Launchbury all forced off with injury, but Jones is confident all of those listed will be cleared up by the time their big pool games against France and Argentina come around.

Rob Kearney escapes the tackle by Jonathan Davies of Wales on his way to scoring Ireland’s first try against Wales. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Rob Kearney escapes the tackle by Jonathan Davies of Wales on his way to scoring Ireland’s first try against Wales. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Form: Strong. An impressive win over Wales with an experimental team and a record 57-15 victory over Ireland sandwiched a narrow defeat in Cardiff, and the 37-0 rout of Italy cemented England's status as genuine World Cup contenders in Japan.

Coach: Jones has the experience and pedigree to be successful in Japan. In what will be his fourth World Cup campaign, England certainly have a head coach who knows what it takes to succeed thanks to his part in South Africa's 2007 triumph, while he was also part of the famous Brighton miracle four years ago. Given how much he has been inclined to talk up England's potential over the last four years, it's time to see if his belief is genuine.

Chances: Good, as long as they can avoid any slip-ups early on. If England come out of the pool stage games against Tonga and the United States with two wins in the bag and no injuries to report, they will be nicely lined up to take on Argentina and France and, if everything goes as expected, they'll face Australia for a place in the last four. That's where the All Blacks could await, but then there's a lot of rugby to play before then.

Ireland

Injuries: Much like England, Ireland have come through their warm-up games in good shape, although the long-term injury to Dan Leavy still feels like a massive blow to their chances. Joe Schmidt was optimistic that the injury to Keith Earls will not prove serious following the win over Wales in Dublin, but it still feels as though the team are one serious injury to Johnny Sexton from being in big trouble.

Denmark’s Yussuf Poulsen in action with Georgia’s Jemal Tabidze. Photo: Reuters/Vasil Gedenidze
Denmark’s Yussuf Poulsen in action with Georgia’s Jemal Tabidze. Photo: Reuters/Vasil Gedenidze

Form: Ok. It's hard to know exactly where Ireland are due to the thumping defeat at Twickenham, but back-to-back wins over Wales appears to suggest they are back on course and that the England defeat was an anomaly.

Coach: Schmidt's credentials were tested following the England defeat and a disappointing Six Nations, but it's worth remembering how good his record has been with Ireland and, as he reminded people this week, that they have beaten every team they have faced at the Aviva. With Schmidt stepping down after the World Cup and Andy Farrell taking over, the Kiwi will want to go out with a bang.

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Chances: Perhaps not as good as they seemed a year ago, but then those predictions may have been carried away after the win over the All Blacks. The quarter-finals will prove testing no matter how the pool stages play out, and if Ireland go the whole way, it's not going to be through a fluke.

Scotland

Injuries: Scotland haven't been so lucky with their warm-up matches, with the win over Georgia on Friday night leaving Gregor Townsend (right) with five fresh injury concerns on his hands. Jamie Ritchie looked to be the worst of those, but with Townsend's best fifteen not immediately clear anyway, injuries may open the door for others to put their hand up.

Form: Much like Ireland, Scotland have a heavy defeat in among their results, but the 32-3 loss to France was largely eradicated by the impressive victory the following week over Les Bleus that was followed by two wins away and home against Georgia. Given the calibre of opposition, the results don't really tell us a great deal about where Scotland are, which gives them an intriguing uncertainty going into the tournament.

Coach: Perhaps one of the most attacking-minded coaches heading to the World Cup, Gregor Townsend will certainly not allow his side to die without trying. Townsend and his coaching staff are tied down through to 2021, which removes any uncertainty over their future, providing Scotland hit their targets.

Chances: You would expect Scotland's best bet being a semi-final appearance, which would certainly meet the high expectations they are setting themselves, but their pool is probably one of the more uncertain outcomes given the presence of two stronger tier-two nations in Japan and Samoa. Scotland should come out of the pool, though making it past an All Blacks or Springboks team in the last eight will be a considerably tougher ask.

Wales

Injuries: Wales have undoubtedly been hurt the hardest by injuries, with two certain starters in Taulupe Faletau and Gareth Anscombe ruled out of the entire tournament. The World Cup will be a lesser competition without them, but you have to wonder if it robs Wales of their X-factor that they'll need to get past Australia and whatever tricky quarter-final they end up with.

Form: Wales have suffered the worst run of results of the home nations during the warm-up campaign, but then that came off a run of 14 straight victories - a record for the national team. They bounced back from defeat at Twickenham to win against the English in the Cardiff return fixture last month. That is a result that now looks far more important than it seemed at the time, although the failure to beat Ireland is something of a concern for them.

Coach: Possibly one of the greatest coaches never to reach a World Cup final, let alone actually win one, and with this set to be Warren Gatland's Wales swansong, it's difficult to see how this campaign won't become about him after 12 glorious years in the Wales job. Gatland's (left) true World Cup calling could come further down the line if he ever takes the All Blacks position, but he has talked up a strong game of Wales's chances in Japan and you'd have to be a big gambler to go against him, such is his previous record in the prediction department.

Chances: If Wales are at their best against Australia, the Wallabies should be no match and they'll go on to top the pool - avoiding the side that tops Pool C, that could well be England. You sense they have enough talent to make it all the way, but whether they have the squad depth remains to be seen.

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