The opening weekend of the sixth World Cup saw the major southern hemisphere nations hit the ground running. England, on the other hand, hit the ground with an almighty splat and barely moved thereafter. Their performance against the United States, that ho-hum collection of low-profile professionals and rank amateurs, was so completely dispiriting that only one conclusion could be drawn: these particular reigning world champions are never less dangerous than when they have the ball.
New Zealand, on the other hand, are dangerous 24 hours a day, seven days aweek; Australia and South Africa only marginally less so. Ask the Italians, who saw their rugby lives flash before their eyes in Marseilles last Saturday, or the Japanese, who played out of their skins for 40 minutes in Lyons and still conceded 90 points. The tournament organisers must be tempted to confirm three sets of hotel bookings for the semi-final stage now in an effort to save themselves a few bob. Come to think of it, they might include the Argentines as part of a job lot.
Is there no hope for the Europeans? Pessimists, stay thy hands. There is always an All Black slaughter of the innocents in the pool stage of a World Cup. They beat the poor old Azzurri 70-6 in 1987, when tries were still worth four points; they put eight tries past the Americans in 1991; they stuck 145 points on Japan in 1995, even without the services of Jolly Jonah from Auckland; they passed the century mark again four years later (New Zealanders really do have it in for Italy, it seems); and scored 282 points in four pool matches last time out. And when did they last lay hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy? Twenty years ago.
We will discover nothing about these All Blacks until the knockout stage, for their pool is, by a distance, the least competitive. Australia, by contrast, will be posed a question or two this coming Saturday, when they take on Wales in that celebrated French city of Cardiff, where the sun always shines, the food is exquisiteand the local wine flows like running water. And the Springboks? They expect to be tested by the holders in Saint-Denis on Friday night, despite the evidence to the contrary provided in Lens last weekend. No fullstrength England team have lost heavily to South Africa since 1999, and there were mitigating circumstances even then.
There is no denying that the Europeans have suffered in the competition to date. France lost unexpectedly, although that opening match against the Pumas would have been an absolute brute for any team; Ireland were embarrassed by the Namibians; Wales struggled to subdue a pumped-up posse of physical Canadians; the Scots finished 30 points light against Portugal. By comparison, the three southern superpowers played the rugby of the gods.
How come? Partly, this immediate superiority is a product of the innate ruthlessness of southern hemisphere Test rugby. The All Blacks and the Wallabies have taken professionalism more seriously, and for longer, than anyone north of the Equator; the Boks never give anyone an even break. In addition, these sides have more recent experience of full-on international competition than any of their principal rivals. The Tri-Nations, which ended in July, was infinitely more meaningful than the half-baked matches played in Britain and France in August.
If it looks grim for the Europeans right now – and it does – it could look rather better this time next week. Blind optimism? We shall seeReuse content