Rugby World Cup 2015: House of Lancaster faces home truths

With this kind draw and home advantage, not to win the World Cup would be the greatest missed opportunity since that bloke at Decca Records turned down the Beatles

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The Independent Online

Want a ticket to the Rugby World Cup final at Twickenham on 31 October? As long as Santa left £6,000 in your stocking. To see the tournament’s climax you will have to buy a hospitality parcel costing  £5,795 plus vat that also allows you to see the semi-finals.

While the hoi-polloi public sale has the “house full” signs up for the big encounters, around 1.15million tickets are allocated to the participating unions, teams, travel and sponsors’ programmes and roughly 380,000 of these have yet to be sold or doled out to the entitled few. You may be obliged to eat a prawn sandwich or two, but won’t it be worth it to see England’s captain Chris Robshaw lift the Webb Ellis Trophy?

Some may scoff at that – the Robshaw bit, not the sandwiches – but England are second favourites in the betting, behind only New Zealand, who have hardly lost to anyone, anywhere since they won the last World Cup in their own country in 2011.

Home is where a lot of the hope is. Whatever happens to England, the only time they need to go away from Twickenham is an easy-win pool match against Uruguay in Manchester. The most obviously navigable route to the final is to knock out  either Australia or Wales to win Pool A and then get past Scotland at Twickenham in the quarter-finals, and France, Ireland or Argentina at Twickenham in the semi-finals.

This way, neither New Zealand nor South Africa – the world’s top two – need be negotiated until the final. With this kind draw and home advantage, not to win the World Cup would be the greatest missed opportunity since that bloke at Decca Records turned down the Beatles.

Robshaw, the hairy-chinned Harlequins flanker, has become the face of a durable national team whose trigger to shoot for the ultimate goal is a near faultless scrum and line-out, and relentless defence. The latter works best when Saracens’ Brad Barritt is glueing it all together. The firecracker sparkle may come from Bath’s fly-half George Ford.

That probably leaves Leicester’s Manu Tuilagi as the optimal third midfielder, except that the bowling-ball centre has been beset by injury. England’s head coach Stuart Lancaster must rein in the red flags of doubt.

Looking back to 2003, when Robshaw’s more garlanded predecessor Martin Johnson led England to World Cup success in Australia, the semi-finalists were easily predicted. Australia and New Zealand, France and England had dominated their respective Tri Nations and Six Nations tournaments in the preceding years, and they duly made it to the last four. Based on corresponding recent form, and excepting the Twickenham X-factor, the 2015 event should rest between New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland and Wales. The Irish are the Six Nations champions, and came out of the autumn series with a powerful pack and some clever strategies plotted by their coach Joe Schmidt.

Wales, meanwhile, beat a southern- hemisphere team at last (South Africa) before letting it be known their monumental wing George North was not keeping the coaches entirely happy. Some might regard this as advising Van Gogh to take a fresh look at those sunflowers, but Wales boss Warren Gatland didn’t get where he is today without winning a few mind games. Lost a couple, too, mind you – memorably when he criticised England’s Dylan Hartley before a game in Cardiff, and the hooker played out of his skin. Fast-forward to the present and we find the combustible captain of England’s club champions, Northampton, serving the fifth suspension of his career. Hartley is crucial to his country’s smooth set-piece; he needs to hold his temper.

Scotland, in common with the Irish and Welsh, have a New Zealander head coach, and last month Vern Cotter presided over a defeat of Argentina and a close-run thing against New Zealand. If the full-back Stuart Hogg gets a regular sniff, the Scots can go well at the World Cup.

Two of their games are at St James’ Park, and Lancaster is off to Newcastle on New Year’s Eve to unveil the World Cup logo on the Tyne Bridge. There are comparisons to be made with the 2012 Olympics and 2014 Commonwealth Games, so will everyone be gripped by the Rugby World Cup? There have been 6,000 volunteers signed up and a whopping 300 full-time employees tasked with everything from measuring suits to monitoring Twitter.

Off the field, surely, it will be a load of fun. And on it, the outcome? No England player is as patriotic as Lawrence Dallaglio, yet the No 8 from 2003 was less than gung-ho when interviewed on London Live last week. “England are a team no one particularly wants to play against,” he said. “They are getting better. Whether they’ll be great enough to beat the likes of New Zealand and South Africa remains to be seen.”

England have eight matches across the Six Nations and summer warm-ups with France (twice) and Ireland to get ready; the preparations of Scotland, Wales and Ireland are similar. The southern-hemisphere big boys are off limits – until the main event. 

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