A is for Aerial
Rugby used to be played at ground level, largely between two heaving bodily masses known as the rival packs. Now, it is increasingly played in the heavens: the masters of the “contestable kick” – New Zealand, Australia, Ireland – see it as a prime attacking weapon. If you’re no good in the air, you’re in trouble.
B is for Burger
Or maybe for “bravery”, but as Jacques Burger is raw courage made flesh, it amounts to the same thing. Namibia will be battered at every turn, but their captain, broken in body but undaunted in spirit, will return fire. Watch him play, wince… and pay homage.
C is for Concussion
The union game’s big issue. Smacks on the head are inevitable and it was ever thus – if you were never on the wrong end of one, you never played – but in this litigious age of rampant health-and-safetyism, rugby cannot afford not to care. Expect a row over player welfare.
D is for Defence
Defence wins World Cups. Or does it? Since 1999, when the Wallabies conceded only one try all tournament, the most parsimonious sides have not necessarily been the most successful. Rugby without the ball is important, but not the be-all and end-all.
E is for Etzebeth
It seems a little previous to be nominating candidates for “player of the tournament”, but the Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth is something else. If South Africa had 14 others as good as him, they’d walk it.
F is for Ford
Or perhaps Farrell. If England’s outside-half contenders, George and Owen, are old friends from the same neck of the woods, geographically and educationally as well as rugby-wise, they could not be more different, stylistically speaking. Who gets the gig? The artist or the street-fighter? Fascinating.
G is for Guarantee
The Rugby Football Union coughed up £80m in financial assurances just to win the hosting rights, so every penny will count. Happily, the tournament is expected to add £982m to national GDP – more than enough to keep the Twickenham hierarchy on Bollinger Boulevard.
H is for Halfpenny
The Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny is not the only top-quality player missing the fun through injury, but his absence is particularly upsetting. A new Jonny Wilkinson for the post-Wilkinson age, the glorious goal-kicker from Gorseinon would have been a grand thing to see.
I is for Islanders
They may be playing for their own nations, starved of training time as well as cash; they may be tripping the light fantastic with the All Blacks or the Wallabies, with England or with France. Wherever they are to be found, there is no denying the impact of the Fijians, the Samoans and the Tongans on the union game. If they were on a level playing field financially, one South Seas team would be champions.
J is for Japan
The next World Cup hosts – for the moment, at least. Money is tight in the land of the Brave Blossoms, hence the abandonment of a new stadium in Tokyo that would have staged the 2019 final. Will their interest in running that tournament be as short-lived as their playing interest in this one?
K is for Kilted
As in “Kilted Kiwi”. The Scots have close ancestral links with New Zealand – and even closer rugby ones when it comes to picking a World Cup squad. The Southland flanker John Hardie has never played for a Scottish team, apart from Scotland, and while his presence in this tournament meets the letter of the law, does it really meet the spirit?
L is for Lelos
Georgia’s nickname harks back to a Caucasian sport from pagan times – a game so bloodthirsty, it was adopted as a military exercise. Entirely appropriate, given that the astonishing back-rower Mamuka Gorgodze is a one-man army.
M is for McCaw
Saint Richie, the All Black captain, can do no wrong. Even the referees are dazzled by his celestial presence. The word is horribly overused, but he will go down as one of the “greats” irrespective of whether he becomes the first captain to win consecutive World Cups.
N is for No-hopers
Rugby is a horrible game when you know you can’t win, so spare a thought for the once-promising Romanians and the ever-willing Canadians when they face France and Ireland. Not to mention the Namibians and Uruguayans when they play anyone at all.
O is for Overseas
As in “overseas selection”. Many countries, including South Africa at the top end, are happy to pick from abroad. Conversely, New Zealand have no truck with it and neither do England. Hence the continuing row over the marginalisation of the Toulon flanker Steffon Armitage.
P is for Pool of Death
Australia, England, Wales, Fiji: all ranked in the top nine, all in the same group. Ouch.
Q is for Quota
South African history being what it is – or rather, was – there are pressures on the Springboks way beyond anything faced elsewhere: only this month, they saw court action over the racial make-up of the World Cup squad. That case went nowhere, but it was a reminder of the political combustibility surrounding the national team.
R is for Robshaw
Talking of pressure, the England captain, Chris Robshaw, finds himself under a whole heap of the stuff. Leading a host nation is tough enough, without having your credentials questioned by every Tom, Dick and Harriet. This correspondent wishes him the very best of British.
S is for Squad
As in the shape of it. England have taken the traditional route, picking three specialist hookers. Others have cut corners and there will be no end of controversy if a shortage of No 2s leads to uncontested scrums.
T is for Twickenham
Aka the old cabbage patch. The 82,000-seater stadium will stage most of the games that really matter and looks the part. England need it to sound the part, too.
U is for United States
How the money men would love to see the American market open up. Transatlantic links are being forged all the time, but only when the Eagles make a serious challenge for a knockout place will the zillions of gridiron and baseball obsessives sit up and take notice.
V is for Video
We’ll see a lot of it, more’s the pity. The day a referee trusts his own judgement on a tight call instead of consulting the “television match official”, hell will freeze over. Expect delays. Long ones.
W is for Wow factor
John Kirwan in 1987, David Campese in ’91, some bloke called Lomu in ’95, Rupeni Caucaunibuca in 2003… World Cups usually produce at least one stellar back-line performer. The favourite here? Step forward Israel Folau, the Wallaby full-back.
X is for X-rated
Once upon a time, rugby provided a Pow factor as well as a Wow one. The age of the mass punch-up is gone forever, thanks to television, but every World Cup has its frank and forthright moments. The Argentina-Tonga game in Leicester on 4 October has fun and games written all over it.
Y is for Yips
Gavin Hastings suffered from the condition in 1991: his fluffed penalty from in front of the sticks may well have cost Scotland a place in the final. Jonny Wilkinson was as shaky as you like in 2003, not that anyone remembers. Even the best goal-kickers fall apart in World Cup conditions.
Z is for Zach
As in Zachary Test, the US back with a reputation as the best high-ball specialist in the sport. Which takes us neatly back to “A”.Reuse content