The bad news for England pretty much covers the waterfront: it is macro and micro, general and specific, psychological and techno-tactical.
Looking at the big picture, the Wallabies took a giant step in beating the All Blacks in Sydney at the weekend – a first victory over their nearest and dearest from across the “ditch” since August 2011 and only their third in 24 attempts. There is no knowing the full extent of the positive impact this will have on the Australian mood ahead of next month’s business, but it is unlikely to be negligible.
As for the detail within the picture, the fact that Michael Cheika, the combustibly effective green-and-gold coach, has found himself a loose-head prop worthy of the name in Scott Sio and worked out a way of running Michael Hooper and David Pocock, his state-of-the-art loose forwards, in the same back row must be of serious concern to everyone else in the tournament. The latest evidence from Down Under is that the Wallabies will be better at the scrum than their rivals hoped, and even more proficient at the tackle area than was feared.
They have two more pre-World Cup outings ahead of them: a Bledisloe Cup decider against those pesky New Zealanders in Auckland this weekend and a runaround with the United States at Soldier Field in Chicago early next month. Having already found some important answers up front, Cheika can use those games to refine his thinking vis-à-vis a back division that, whichever way he cuts it, will be as threatening as any in the sport.
He has options everywhere from scrum-half to full-back, all of them good, which is why we can say this without fear of contradiction: the Australian rugby players will be a whole lot happier moving the ball at Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium than their cricketers were against the moving ball at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge.
Stuart Lancaster’s existing problems are the polar opposite to those Cheika solved in beating the world champions on Saturday. The red-rose coach must work out who to omit from the front-row equation – there are some proper scraps, as they say in the West Country, going on in all three sharp-end positions – while finding a way of improving the turnover count on the deck. If England do not have either a Hooper or a Pocock, logic tells us they are most unlikely to come up with an equivalent of the Hooper-Pocock combination.
There are still five uncapped players in the selection shake-up, which is five more than Lancaster anticipated when he embarked on this World Cup cycle at the back end of 2011. His issue, especially in the midfield department, is that he has enough curate’s egg types to rustle up an omelette the size of south-west London.
Brad Barritt is a defensive kingpin bereft of the creative spark; Billy Twelvetrees can play all the right notes but, like Eric Morecambe of old, he does not always get them in the right order; Owen Farrell has an iron will but is not the quickest; George Ford has pizzazz aplenty but is not the biggest; Luther Burrell prefers to operate at inside centre but is better further out; Henry Slade spends a good deal of time at outside centre but is better closer in. As for Sam Burgess, no one knows what, if anything, he amounts to. It’s time we should be told.
There is no reason to think that England will be anything other than outstanding in the set-piece department, or that their discipline will be anything less than admirable. They will win themselves an awful lot of ball, kick their goals, tackle like men possessed and be as fit as any side in the competition. So much for the science. We will learn more about the art, or lack of it, over the two warm-up games with France.
If there can be darkness in victory, then there can also be light in defeat. Had Warren Gatland’s side flown in the face of all the indicators and beaten a considerably thicker-skinned Ireland side in Cardiff at the weekend, with the old hands Mike Phillips and James Hook giving their inexperienced forwards targets to hit and creating front-foot opportunities for an equally callow bunch of outside backs, the coach would have found himself on Planet Awkward. As it turns out, he has been spared the agony of revisiting some deeply held views on players he no longer trusts.
It may be that three of the six Lions tourists involved on Saturday miss out on the final selection: Richard Hibbard, the hooker, is said to be some way short of a shoo-in. Among the winners were the dubutant flanker Ross Moriarty, definitely a chip off the old family block: his gung-ho approach to the blind-side duties may have cost him 10 minutes in the cooler, but he showed up well against a high-calibre Irish back-row combination and earned plenty of mentions in dispatches.
Things seem clear enough in the back five of the scrum, but Gatland still has a migraine-sized headache in the front row – one that can be alleviated only by the Scarlets tight-head prop Samson Lee, who is struggling for fitness. If Lee fails to recover, the decision to give the declining Adam Jones a helping hand downhill by omitting him from international consideration will be debated anew, with even greater vigour than it was at the time.
There are major-league talents in most areas of the back division, but the back-up to the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jamie Roberts, Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb is a little thin. The loss of Jonathan Davies, the Lions Test centre, looks more wounding by the day, and Gatland might have been better advised to give the undeniably gifted Hook a run at No 13 rather than No 10 when the Irish came to town.
Still, the Welsh know what it is to start these World Cup campaigns at a snail’s pace. Back in the summer of 2003, they were beaten 43-9 on home soil by England before scaring the pants off the world champions-elect in a compelling quarter-final in Brisbane just 10 weeks later.
John McKee, a much-travelled New Zealander who has been coaching the Fijians since last year, has just identified the 38 players who will go into pre-World Cup training in Suva this coming Wednesday. This is a step forward in itself: there have been times down the years when the occasionally spellbinding islanders have given the impression of playing without the benefit of a training session, let alone a camp.
Yet they have twice made the last eight at global level – in 1987, when they might easily have beaten France to a place in the semi-finals, and in 2007, when they famously threatened to dump South Africa out of the tournament before giving best to the Springbok scrum. This year, lovingly prepared and properly motivated, they could cause all manner of strife: not least to Wales, who hate playing them at the best of times and meet them five days after playing England at Twickenham.
England, who open their campaign against Fiji under floodlights on 18 September, are aware of the peril: as Lancaster said last week, the pool is horribly competitive – and not just because of Australia and Wales. The Fijians will arrive as Pacific Nations Cup champions, having beaten Samoa in a final staged in Canada at the beginning of the month, and possess game-breaking talents at lock, in the breakaway trio and across a back division blessed with free attacking spirits, from Nikola Matawalu at scrum-half to Napolioni Nalaga on the wing via Vereniki Goneva and the sensational Nemani Nadolo, who is fast recovering from the abdominal muscle injury that threatened his participation.
What is there to say about the South Americans, other than to wish them the very best of British? Los Teros are in decent enough shape within their own context – they beat a shadow Argentine XV in Montevideo just the other day – but they will travel without a single individual currently playing top-class professional rugby in Europe. Not even Rodrigo Capo Ortega, their finest practitioner by a country mile. The France-based lock has opted out of the tournament because his wife is expecting and he wants to be by her side when things happen. All things considered, you can’t blame him.Reuse content