Rugby Union: Countdown to Cardiff '99 starts now

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The Independent Online
I HAVE it on the best of authority that the people of Wales do not yet realise what's going to hit them when the rugby World Cup comes next year.

And if Wales should happen to get a good start in the event, the fever that will then sweep the country will give the Welsh an impetus they've never experienced before.

That's Francois Pienaar's opinion and he should know because he captained South Africa when they won the World Cup in Johannesburg three years ago. There is nothing to compare with being the host country, he says.

I had the honour of handing over the solid gold cup to Pienaar 10 days ago. It wasn't quite as emotional as when Nelson Mandela gave it to him in 1995 but he was still pleased to see it again. He came down to Cardiff to help promote next year's World Cup, and when his helicopter landed I met him with the trophy, which is in Wales ready to be battled for next October.

While the helicopter took us for a tour over the shell of the new Millennium Stadium he explained the advantage of being at home. Although South Africa were an excellent side in 1995 they were not the favourites but, according to him, they were swept along by the emotion of the nation. If Wales get a good start, he said, they won't believe what's happening to them.

With 11 months to go, many Welshmen may not be able to share such optimism but I do think we are in for a pleasant surprise. I wouldn't urge anyone to put their money on Wales, even at the odds of 80-1 that were being quoted last week, but I do expect Wales to have a much improved team by then.

Those odds will certainly fall and while it is asking too much for them to win the cup itself, they could reach the quarter-final and maybe even the semi-final.

We will soon have a better idea. Wales play South Africa in two weeks' time and our minds will be on our last meeting in Pretoria when they beat us 96-13.

It will be a big psychological barrier, let alone a massive test of rugby, and it would have been fairer to the new coach Graham Henry if he had had a warm-up game against lesser opposition. He has had only training sessions to tune up his team for the match but I fancy the result will be a lot closer than people think.

For a start, only a couple of the Welsh players who played in Pretoria will be appearing this time, so it will be a much stronger team. The Cardiff front row of Andrew Lewis, Jonathan Humphreys and David Young have been performing very well against the best English clubs this season, so they almost pick themselves.

The Quinnell brothers, Scott and Craig, are bang on form and I fancy that the Llanelli back-rower Chris Wyatt, who has great jumping technique, will get in as a mobile second-row man. Rob Howley and Neil Jenkins must be the half-backs, Scott Gibbs and Alan Bateman are automatic choices in the centre and with Mike Rayer or Shane Howarth at full-back there will be a very strong core running through the team.

But as important as the South African game is, I think the vital match is that against Argentina a week later. Wales meet them in the opening game of the World Cup, so victory is an absolute must for the Welsh to feel that they are on the right road.

England also have to sort themselves out with games against the South Africa and Australia and the World Cup qualifiers. I'm not sure what Clive Woodward's policy is going to be in the matches ahead. He might be tempted to make wholesale experiments, but too much chopping and changing will be counter-productive. I would choose now the nucleus of the team I expect to field in the World Cup and stick with them. He can try out one or two players from game to game but there is a lot to be gained from establishing continuity from now on.

At 16-1 for the World Cup, England might attract a little support but the team I would bet on right now is France at 8-1. In the three World Cups so far they have reached the final and have twice been narrowly beaten in the semi-finals. We know they have a terrific team and although they are not on home soil it is not exactly unfamiliar territory either.

As for the big three, they are the clear favourites. New Zealand are first at 11-8 with William Hills (7-4 with Ladbrokes), South Africa are 6-4 (2-1) and Australia are 11-4 with both. The odds are hardly generous but so powerful are these three that you wouldn't expect them to be. The Five Nations teams have a lot to do before forcing the bookies to change their minds.

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