The seventh Rugby World Cup begins today and as this is ostensibly a rugby column, there is only one subject worthy of discussion. There are, however, many ways of viewing a competition of this magnitude, not all of them solely through the prism of the union game. International sport in its broad range of manifestations is about performing at the very highest level, and there are many fascinating links and parallels between different disciplines.
I've written before about the shared demands of rugby union and Test cricket, and the similarities strike me once more as the big event in New Zealand shifts into gear. So let me begin by acknowledging the outstanding exploits of the England cricketers in whitewashing India and claiming the world No 1 spot.
Hats off to the two Andrews, Flower and Strauss, and all those players who demonstrated not only a formidable collective will, but also great individual leadership when the occasion demanded. Every time a critical situation arose, someone stepped into the firing line and delivered. This is the essential match-winning quality in high-level team sport.
During this World Cup, I hope to see the space issue being recognised, pursued and exploited by England's players in much the same way as the England batsmen addressed it. In both sports, we have players with excellent technique that allows them to play the ball into space. I draw a similarity here between Ian Bell and Jonny Wilkinson, both of whom have honed their core skills to a degree that allows them to exploit areas left unmarked by the opposition, even in the most pressurised circumstances. Then there are the "power units", the men who create space by bludgeoning and blasting holes in defences. England's latest X-factor player, the centre Manu Tuilagi, and the often spiky Kevin Pietersen are both front-foot, up-and-at-'em types who seek to impose themselves on events.
Finally – and here we encounter uncertainty in the England rugby camp – there is the player who, when space is at an absolute premium, pulls strings intuitively and inventively to create it. Eoin Morgan strikes me as a cricketer of this type. Yet as far as the England World Cup squad is concerned, no name jumps off the page and makes me think: "There is our Morgan – a man blessed with the intuition and self-belief to change the nature of a contest."
England still have to find a way of prospering against the stranglehold defence, especially in the midfield channels. Only then can the wider attackers be released into the less populated defensive areas. Also, they need to find a way of combating the ferocity, technical precision, physicality and ruthless mentality we are seeing from the best sides in the tackle area, especially when the ball is on the ground. If these issues can be resolved, and the management can find an Eoin Morgan or two to do the unexpected, who knows what might happen? As for Dunedin tomorrow, I expect England to get things moving with a good win over the Pumas.Reuse content