It feels like a form of blasphemy, but let it be said, anyhow. Better that someone from beyond these shores claims the rugby World Cup if they are the ones to set the next six weeks on fire.
Let it be the side whose feats pull new players into the rugby clubhouses of Britain and bring back those who have drifted away from the game. And if that side happens to be England, Wales or Ireland – the potential for each of those, with New Zealand, Australia and South Africa to clinch it being part of this tournament’s beautiful equilibrium – then so much the better.
The tournament is about what the sport might become, more than whether a home nation might win it, and the numbers tell us that electricity will be needed to shift some negative notions about the game which are rooted in class consciousness.
To observe that more than two-thirds of the England squad are privately educated – and 10 of them at the kind of establishment where no less than £30,000 a year would have paid their way – is relevant to the preconceptions. The RFU’s All Schools programme has helped, yet we stand on the threshold of a tournament which can take rugby football soaring into places where the associated game has become the daily obsession. It can send 12-year-olds out into schoolyards to re-enact offloads and line-breaks.
For Stuart Lancaster’s England to be the team which fires imaginations will require the squad to play beyond themselves. It can be done. The mesmerising 12-try contest against the French in March – England requiring a 26-point winning margin and falling one try short – told us that much.
It also revealed the ice-cold temperament of George Ford, kicking with poise and precision in the febrile closing moments at Twickenham. A coach simply cannot know how his young players will perform in such a torrent as that. Lancaster’s reflections on Ford that Saturday night restored to mind the legend of how Sir Matt Busby felt about the desperately introspective boy called George Best, whom he listed as “reserve”, to preserve him from stage fright, when he scrawled out the team sheet in ballpoint for a Manchester United match, 52 years ago. Best started, playing so invincibly that Busby later wondered aloud whether what he had observed had been a dream.
Lancaster has Jonathan Joseph, too – the centre whose try-scoring performances in the Six Nations transformed the picture of how the nation could play. That 55-35 England win against the French was an aberration, though. Lancaster’s side don’t tend to run up such numbers. That much has been clear from the course of the past 12 months and is why a few penalties could put them under pressure in the formidable terrain of Group A, with Australia and Wales for company.
The genesis of this conservative culture is evident in the deeply illuminating picture painted of the coach by the newly published biography by the journalist Neil Squires, The House of Lancaster. It tracks the way Lancaster has scientifically honed a coaching style, with the title of his 10,000-word thesis for the RFU’s elite Level 5 award: “Changing my coaching behaviour to create mentally stronger individuals and a more cohesive team.” The title is symbolic of how it is cerebral qualities, rather than spiritual, that Lancaster brings. Fiercely self-critical, he demanded his scholars at the Leeds club’s academy mark him out of five on five criteria, and rated himself even lower than they did on all but one. One of the few concerns the players expressed was about Lancaster’s negative response to them taking risks.
You wonder where the inspiration – the something exceptional – is going to come from, because when England lifted this trophy in 2003 they seemed more inspired. The professional perspective was only just beginning to take hold back then. Clive Woodward’s coach Dave Reddin inculcated such a determination to lift the fitness levels to match the previously untouchable farmers’ sons of New Zealand and South Africa that Jason Leonard, Will Greenwood and Lawrence Dallaglio would be in to train with him for an hour at 6.30am every Monday and then head off to their clubs. There was something unfettered about them down in the southern hemisphere, while the pressure of a home World Cup is a different business.
Rugby World Cup country-by-country guide
Rugby World Cup country-by-country guide
1/20 Pool A: Australia
Captain Stephen Moore.
Coach Michael Cheika.
RWC record Winners 1991, 1999; 2nd 2003; 3rd 2011; 4th 1987; QF 1995, 2007.
Strengths Annual trips to Twickenham and Cardiff mean there’s no mystery to playing here. Coach Cheika has indicated an adventurous game plan with the selection of two openside flankers in David Pocock and Michael Hooper – wisely, given the talent behind them. A long run of narrow wins over Wales is a psychological advantage.
Concerns New prop Scott Sio ripped up the script about a wobbly scrum with a strong display against New Zealand in the summer, but a dewy evening facing England at Twickenham might be different.
Player to watch Israel Folau. So he doesn’t kick very often – but he can catch, run, feint and attack from anywhere.
Team song Let England Shake (PJ Harvey)
Captain Chris Robshaw.
Coach Stuart Lancaster.
RWC record Winners 2003; 2nd 1991, 2007; 4th 1995; QF 1987, 1999, 2011.
Strengths Home advantage, undoubtedly. And togetherness: boat-rockers such as Steffon Armitage have gone overboard and Lancaster has given debuts to 40 players – 21 have made it to this tournament. For Mike Brown, George Ford and Courtney Lawes, a great World Cup could rubber-stamp them as world-class.
Concerns It will be hard work to avoid mentally switching off. Robshaw must be tactically spot on in deciding whether to take points or territory. The scrums should go well, but not every match is dominated by them.
Player to watch Ben Youngs . Scrum-half with a sound mix of passing and handling. Can give the pack a kick up the backside.
Team song A Good Year for the Roses (Elvis Costello)
Captain Akapusi Qera.
Coach John McKee.
RWC record QF 1987, 2007; QF play-off 1999; Pool 1991, 2003, 2011; DNQ 1995.
Strengths The aptly nicknamed “Flying Fijians” love to use the full width of the pitch and will aim to move the ball quickly to the wings Nemani Nadolo and Waisea Nayacalevu, guided by half-backs Nikola Matawalu and Josh Matavesi.
ConcernsThe scrum made mincemeat of Canada’s second string in Sunday’s warm-up but a World Cup opener against England is very different. The lavish offloads of second-row Leone Nakarawa can be counter-productive if they cough up possession.
Player to watch Opposing wings will suck up deep breaths before getting in the way of 19-stone Nadolo. As a kicker at the tee he is the most unusual sight since the Wallaby lock John Eales.
Team song Anarchy in the UK (Sex Pistols)
Captain Santiago Vilaseca.
Coach Pablo Lemoine.
RWC record Pool 1999, 2003; DNQ 1995, 2007, 2011.
Strengths Fly-half Felipe Berchesi came through a test of goalkicking nerve with 15 out of 18 in the two legs of the repêchage win over Russia. Scrum-half Agustin Ormaechea maintains a pleasing family link with the grand man of Uruguay’s earlier World Cup exploits, his dad Diego.
Concerns Former Bristol prop Lemoine says Los Teros’ mainly amateur status makes them the “representatives of the majority of rugby players around the world” but that won’t help them in the pool of death.
Player to watch With 6ft 5in Castres lock Rodrigo Capo Ortega having mysteriously retired from international rugby this summer, Agustin Ormaechea – with his silky sevens skills – may now be Uruguay’s shining light.
Team song Livin’ la Vida Loca (Ricky Martin)
Captain Sam Warburton.
Coach Warren Gatland.
RWC record 3rd 1987; 4th 2011; QF 1999, 2003; Pool 1991, 1995, 2007.
Strengths Big backs bash the ball up, manhandle opponents on the gainline, with centre Scott Williams adding subtlety. Gatland picked 10 Welshmen for the Lions’ victorious third Test in Australia in 2013, and the same crew, more or less, won two Six Nations.
Concerns As a fancied team who always fret over a lack of depth, last weekend’s injuries to world-class goalkicker Leigh Halfpenny and No 1 scrum-half Rhys Webb were a savage blow.
Player to watch Alun Wyn Jones. All of Wales awaits news of the second-row’s dodgy knee, so integral is his ability to find field position with power and intelligence. His maturity was accelerated as stand-in Lions captain in 2013.
Team song Another One Bites the Dust (Queen)
6/20 Pool B: Japan
Captain Michael Leitch.
Coach Eddie Jones.
RWC record Pool 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011.
Strengths In a softly, softly fashion, Japan have been developing into a potential surprise package. Tricky scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka had a briefly productive spell with the Highlanders in New Zealand, and a nice balance of adopted sons such as back-rower Leitch alongside indigenous talent has addressed the age-old size problem in the pack.
Concerns The South Africa and Scotland matches four days apart raises a dilemma: drop one of them and risk a 90-point beating, or flog the first team for no ultimate reward?
Player to watch Ayumu Goromaru. The full-back made his debut at 19 in 2005 and after missing the World Cup in 2011, he has averaged more than 12 points per match.
Team song House of the Rising Sun (The Animals)
Captain Ofisa Treviranus.
Coach Stephen Betham.
RWC record QF 1991, 1995; QF play-off 1999; Pool 2003, 2007, 2011.
Strengths Coach Betham has beaten Wales, Scotland and Italy, and had a close-run thing with New Zealand this summer. The flair in the backs of the three Pisis – fly-half Tusi, centre George and wing Ken – is helped by French-based forward grunt in the prop Zak Taulafo and Toulouse flanker Joe Tekori.
Concerns For all their popular support, Samoa have failed to reach the quarter-finals at the last three World Cups. Their trademark big tackles can leave them stranded in defence.
Player to watch Kahn Fotuali’i. The scrum-half took a while to show his best form after moving from Ospreys to Northampton, but his breaks around the fringes will be crucial.
Team song Mercy Mercy (Don Covay)
Captain Greig Laidlaw.
Coach Vern Cotter.
RWC record 4th 1991; QF 1987, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007; Pool 2011.
Strengths Glasgow backs and Edinburgh forwards offer settled combinations, with the South Africa-born “project player” WP Nel among the latter as the crucial tighthead prop. If the pack can deliver, Laidlaw, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg will weave prettier patterns than most.
Concerns The old rucking game has gone, leaving Scotland prey to teams with greater power and belligerence. Can the second-row Gray brothers, Richie and Jonny, combine with David Denton to win the collisions?
Player to watch Tim Visser (above left). The big Edinburgh wing never seems to stop scoring. Two matches at St James’ Park should make him feel at home, as he played for nearby Falcons.
Team song Whistle While you Work (Seven Dwarfs)
9/20 South Africa
Captain Jean de Villiers.
Coach Heyneke Meyer.
RWC record Winners 1995, 2007; 3rd 1999; QF 2003, 2011.
Strengths Assuming Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira and the Du Plessis brothers have another tour of duty in them, the scrum will fancy a crack at any opposition. The back row must be in decent nick after leaving Heinrich Brussow at home. Full-back Willie le Roux is one of the best counter-attackers of all.
Concerns They can struggle to turn territorial domination into tries. Totemic centre Jean de Villiers beat expectations with his recovery from a knee reconstruction, only to break his jaw against Argentina. The Springboks often stutter without him.
Player to watch Francois Louw. Surgeon of the breakdown, he mixes exquisite timing with technique to prise ball from opponents.
Team song Trampled Under Foot (Led Zeppelin)
10/20 United States
Captain Chris Wyles.
Coach Mike Tolkin.
RWC record Pool 1987, 1991, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011; DNQ 1995.
Strengths Recent wins over Georgia, Russia and Romania nudged them up the rankings, and we can expect the best of Northampton’s San Francisco hard-man lock/No 8 Samu Manoa and the blindingly quick Zimbabwe-born wing Takudzwa Ngwenya.
Concerns Who’s been bashed about most is likely to decide the key battle within the war, the last pool match against Japan. Forward Cam Dolan, who never had a first-team look-in at Northampton, will be keen to strut his stuff.
Player to watch Chris Wyles. The definition of “utility back”, he has been a winger for Saracens lately but is equally adept at full-back or centre. A crossover talent who would surely have thrived 30 years ago.
Team song No Particular Place to Go (Chuck Berry)
11/20 Pool C: Argentina
Captain Agustin Creevy.
Coach Daniel Hourcade.
RWC record 3rd 2007; QF 1999, 2011; Pool 1987, 1991, 1995, 2003.
Strengths With ex-hooker Mario Ledesma schooling the Wallaby pack, only about a million scrummaging experts are left in Argentina. Entry to the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship in 2012 sharpened up the Pumas and, with everything bouncing their way, they had a famous win in Durban in August.
Concerns Creevy was tipped as one to watch by the great flanker Juan Fernandez Lobbe before the 2011 World Cup; the hooker must now learn to deal with his team being a pool favourite.
Player to watch Juan Martin Hernandez, aka the “Maradona of rugby”, has made a welcome return after long years of injury misery following his stunning 2007 World Cup.
Team song Tango Till They’re Sore (Tom Waits)
Captain Mamuka Gorgodze.
Coach Milton Haig.
RWC record Pool 2003, 2007, 2011; DNQ 1995, 1999.
Strengths Back-rower Gorgodze and fly-half Merab Kvirikashvili made it into my team of the World Cup in 2011, such was their contribution to England’s otherwise stodgy pool. Both are involved again: it will be a fourth World Cup for Georgia’s record points scorer Kvirikashvili.
Concerns If the pack is going backwards there’s not much strength elsewhere to reverse the flow. It will take all the New Zealand nous of Haig, one of seven Kiwi head coaches operating in the competition, to keep better attacking units at bay. Player to watch Davit Zirakashvili. If you want a blueprint for a tighthead prop, look no further. He is beloved of his crack French club Clermont Auvergne.
Team song The Devil Went Down to Georgia (Charlie Daniels Band)
Captain Jacques Burger.
Coach Phil Davies.
RWC record Pool 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011; DNQ 1995.
Strengths English eyes are so accustomed to the curly mane of Saracens’ Burger hammering into tackles and rucks, it’s easy to forget the flanker spent two years out having his knee rearranged.
Concerns Rumours of racism among the old management on last autumn’s European tour were followed by the resignation of coach Danie Vermeulen, leaving Davies, the former Wales lock and Cardiff Blues and Leeds coach, to take charge. Even with ex-Wales wing Wayne “The Body” Proctor advising on fitness, a squad of mostly amateurs handling full-time pros is a tall order.
Player to watch Russell van Wyk. A wing or full-back, his stooping gait and searing foot speed bring to mind another hero of southern Africa, Bryan Habana.
Team song I Say a Little Prayer (Aretha Franklin)
14/20 New Zealand
Captain Richie McCaw.
Coach Steve Hansen.
RWC record Winners 1987, 2011; 2nd 1995; 3rd 1991, 2003; 4th 1999; QF 2007.
Strengths Continuity, with 2011 assistant coach Hansen as head honcho now and the mighty McCaw and Kieran Read as near-enough co-captains. The All Blacks are the best at turning momentary opportunity into points with straight running, quick hands and tireless support.
Concerns Teams driving up the middle might make gaps in the strung-out defence. The All Blacks have never lost a pool match but in knockouts have lost six out of 19: two to France, two to Australia and two to South Africa.
Player to watch Conrad Smith. The masterly centre, 34 next month, has reached that sporting apotheosis of retaining his vision and distributive skills alongside a new calmness.
Team song Back to Black (Amy Winehouse)
Captain Nili Latu.
Coach Mana Otai.
RWC record Pool 1987, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011; DNQ 1991.
Strengths Latu was named among The Independent’s top 50 players in the world in 2008. Ten England-based players in the squad means there will be no culture shock. The traditional South Seas tactics of tackle hard, ask questions later, will be to the fore. And there’s some Aussie wisdom in the attack coach Jim McKay.
Concerns Will they stand tall against their illustrious neighbours the All Blacks? All that fire and brimstone has tended to peter out in the second half of World Cup matches, with the memorable exception of the shock defeat of France in Wellington last time round.
Player to watch Steve Mafi. The leggy back-rower or lock won a lot of friends in his time with Leicester Tigers, and is still only 25.
Team song Thunder Island (Jay Ferguson)
16/20 Pool D: Canada
Captain Tyler Ardron.
Coach Kieran Crowley.
RWC record QF 1991; Pool 1987, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011.
Strengths Crowley is on his fifth World Cup – twice as Canada coach, twice as an All Black full-back, and once as a selector – and Ardron is a sparkling flanker. Their final pool game against Romania in Leicester is the big one.
Concerns Jamie Cudmore, Phil Mackenzie and DTH van der Merwe are stalwarts of European rugby, but most of the squad play for Canadian clubs such as Castaway Wanderers, Prairie Wolf Pack and Calgary Hornets. Sadly, professionalism has turned the country of Gareth Rees’s 1991 quarter-finalists into the land that time forgot.
Player to watch Jamie Cudmore – or “card more” as wags will have it, owing to the lock’s penchant for a punch-up. Or, a top man who keeps the opposition honest.
Team song It Ain’t Easy (David Bowie)
Captain Thierry Dusautoir
Coach Philippe Saint-André
RWC record 2nd 1987, 1999, 2011; 3rd 1995; 4th 2003, 2007; QF 1991.
Strengths The French have course-and-distance form dating back to the 2007 quarter-final win in Cardiff and 1999 semi-final win at Twickenham, both over New Zealand. The pack know their onions (ho ho), and the super-smooth Fiji-born wing Noa Nakaitaci could set the tournament alight.
Concerns As in 2011, France have a head coach serving his notice – Guy Novès will take over from Saint-André after the tournament. It could be uniting or disrupting.
Player to watch Mathieu Bastareaud. I’d tended to dismiss the oil-tanker of a centre as all muscle and no finesse but there have been signs of late of a Ma’a Nonu-style expansion of his range.
Team song Tangled Up in Blue (Bob Dylan)
Captain Paul O’Connell
Coach Joe Schmidt
RWC record QF 1987, 1991, 1995, 2003, 2011; QF play-off 1999; Pool 2007.
Strengths O’Connell never gives an opposition pack a moment’s peace – he’s a Martin Johnson de nos jours. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton may be the world’s best half-back combination and if Sexton is on the front foot, he implements Schmidt’s tactical ploys with precision kicking.
Concerns Palpitations over the scrum if loosehead prop Cian Healy is at less than full bore, or anything happens to tighthead Mike Ross.
Player to watch Robbie Henshaw. The era of Brian O’Driscoll is over; step forward Henshaw of Connacht, with his mix of heft and intricate handling. Schmidt has given him and Jared Payne every chance to forge a centre combination .
Team song Get On the Good Foot (James Brown)
Captain Sergio Parisse
Coach Jacques Brunel
RWC record Pool 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011.
Strengths For Veni, Vidi, Vici, read Parisse, Parisse, Parisse – the captain and contender as world’s greatest No. 8 has it all, with quick feet, hands and brain, and will patrol the back of a decent pack shrewdly overseen by Brunel and former prop Giampiero de Carli.
Concerns Italy have beaten their trans-Alpine foes France twice in Rome in recent years, but this is neutral ground and the Azzurri’s World Cup record is… lamentable.
Player to watch Josh Furno has inherited the second-row jersey of the long-serving Marco Bortolami, and can also do service on the blindside flank. Dean Richards signed him at Newcastle, which is a good recommendation.
Team song Arrivederci Roma (Mario Lanza)
Captain Mihai Macovei
Coach Lynn Howells
RWC record Pool 1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011.
Strengths Howells, a one-time right-hand man to Graham Henry when the latter was Wales coach, will expect a sturdy pack performance based on a number of French-based forwards. The 32-year-old Paulica Ion does the anchoring job.
Concerns As with all the “Tier Two” nations, the Romanians take time to adjust to the quadrennial jousts with the big boys. Much will depend on new backs Michael Wiringi and Paula Kinikinilau.
Player to watch Catalin Fercu. Take care pronouncing the surname, but enjoy the full-back, an Anglo-Welsh Cup winner at Saracens last season, whose devil-may-care style is a throwback to the era before gym bunnies.
Team song Even the Losers (get lucky sometimes) (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers)
The Wales, Ireland and Scotland sides have pressures too, and some preconceived notions about them to deal with. For the Welsh, it is the now infamous biff-bang “Warren-ball” tag – which is usually taken to mean Jamie Roberts being launched in a straight line into the heart of opposition territory. The greater concern is the remains of Warren Gatland’s fragile squad staying physically intact. The warm-up victory in Dublin last month sent confidence soaring but the injuries to Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny are more than setbacks. They have deprived Gatland of the best goal-kicker in the world and the player of last season within these shores. The Welsh nation has been bereft these past 10 days. Those injuries may cost them in Pool A.
Ireland have no such concerns, though it is not the high-point of a rugby imagination they offer, with coach Joe Schmidt’s low-risk game plan built around fly-half Johnny Sexton’s kicking. It works, though. The grim Irish World Cup record, never progressing beyond quarter-finals, is what Schmidt has to contend with.
Scotland would give a lot for what Ireland possess. At a stretch, you might call them the purist’s home nation, who played probably more rugby than any side in the Six Nations. Vern Cotter asks for some tempo rather than the breakdown. The difficulty is that his players do not generally beat sides.
It is the composition of Pool B that helps their shining lights: Stuart Hogg and the Gray brothers. The Scots should put Japan and the United States away and lose to South Africa, assigning some almighty tension to an all-or-nothing meeting with Samoa, two places beneath them in the world rankings, at St James’ Park.
Perhaps in the midst of those home nation squads there is someone waiting to seize the chance to command the nation’s headlines and conversation. The Irishman Conor Murray. Schmidt’s inspirational captain Paul O’Connell. For the Welsh, George North – another force of nature. Maybe England’s Sam Burgess will reveal the ink spilt over him wasn’t wasted.
Whoever they might be, and from whichever denomination, let’s hope that they inspire: that speed of foot and mind, the capacity to calculate in full flight, to twist and to turn and to fly become the currencies of this tournament, more than the sheer, lumpen brute force of giants. That there is a surprise nation in there. Maybe that one of the Pacific Islanders, many here with a sense of God on their side, can shatter corporeal expectations.
The framed motivational message Lancaster has on the wall in one of the training buildings, at England’s Pennyhill Park base, was issued from Ulysses S Grant, the American Civil War general and later president. “In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves at their limit,” it states. “Then he who continues the attack wins.” May the one who attacks, who inspires and who soars emerge with the spoils.Reuse content