Rugby Union: Why we will have to protect to survive

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The Independent Online
THE ABILITY to stay in one piece will be the most valuable asset of any of the rugby World Cup squads that were announced last week. The group matches can be so physically hard that they will be capable of mowing down the best men before the serious knock-out stuff starts.

Some of the coaches are tinkering with the idea of putting out some second-choice players in the less demanding group matches in order to protect their leading stars, but cup rugby is such that this can be a risky business.

Much depends on how high you want to finish in the group. Ireland, for instance, are likely to face a smoother ride in the later stages by finishing second to Australia in their group, so it hardly seems worth them flinging their best team against the Aussies. Mind you, their fans might not be too happy at paying to see a weakened team get hammered.

It calls for some serious thinking because, no matter who the opposition, the early matches can help establish a rhythm and a pattern that will be invaluable later on. But when you examine the home squads you can see how much their chances depend on keeping key players off the casualty list.

Given an injury-free passage, I can see all four of the home nations' teams reaching the quarter-finals and one or two reaching the semis.

I am also aware of the havoc that a few nasty knocks could deliver to those chances. England have a very strong squad and I would rate them and South Africa as the next favourites behind the New Zealanders and the Australians. But looking through their likely first choices you cannot help but notice how vital Will Greenwood is to that back line.

He gives Jonny Wilkinson so many extra options that his presence makes the youngster's job much easier. Greenwood's ability to off-load in tackles is a godsend to Matt Perry and Jeremy Guscott and he provides a big target for the forwards over the advantage line. There are lots of excellent players among the England backs but there simply isn't another in the England squad who offers anywhere near as many plus points as Greenwood does.

England are going to be hard to beat in this World Cup, and the draw means that after the group matches they won't encounter New Zealand again before the final. That's another big factor in their favour, but the preservation of Greenwood's health is the most essential.

You can say even more about the value of Neil Jenkins to Wales. He is the fulcrum of the team and the fountain from where most of the points flow. They are by no means a one-man team but losing Jenks would hurt. You would also have to say that Shane Howarth would leave a big gap. Wales are fairly well covered elsewhere in the backs, where I would have to find a place for Allan Bateman. All the Welsh backs have an imposing physical presence but Bateman gives us a different dimension wherever he plays.

The Welsh forwards seem to get more intimidating in every game and we do have some good cover in that area as well, but the loss of players such as Peter Rogers, Brett Sinkinson and Colin Charvis, plus one or two others, would weigh heavily on what I consider to be a very good chance of going further than any of us dare hope.

The importance to Ireland of their outside-half, David Humphreys, makes him another of the pillars you would not like to see dislodged in the early stages. Scotland have a similar reliance on John Leslie in the backs and his brother Martin in the pack. Others, such as Gregor Townsend and Alan Tait, would also be hard to replace. I'm sorry that Craig Chalmers did not make the squad but I should imagine that the selectors felt that Duncan Hodge offers an extra option as a full-back. One of the other factors in lacking strength in depth is the tendency to go for players who can double up in other roles.

I really do have positive thoughts about the chances of our teams. Home advantage is a a very powerful weapon in a World Cup and we all have a healthy ration of it. If we can survive the early onslaughts, the tournament is going to bring us more pleasure and satisfaction than we could have imagined even six months ago.