Neil Back: This young England side are good enough to get to the World Cup final – and maybe even win it

Neil Back won 66 caps for England between 1994 and 2003. His book ‘The Death of Rugby’ is out now

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The Independent Online

My dream World Cup final would be the team ranked No 1 in the world, New Zealand, playing the hosts, England, at Fortress Twickenham. And it’s better than a dream, because I can see it happening, and I’m excited just thinking about it. In fact this is the most excited I’ve been about any World Cup, which might surprise you considering that in 2003 I was playing in a team that won it. Back then, I had pure tunnel vision, just concentrating on the next job, the next match. I had no chance to take the whole thing in until after the party.

Taking a look at the first pool A match versus Fiji, I expect it to be close at half-time but England to put the foot down and pull away to win it. Fiji will be a tough opener, but England got their house in order in the set-piece against Ireland last week, with the inclusion of Geoff Parling, and they’ll be happy with their defence, having conceded only three tries in three warm-up matches.

Even if England have a slip-up against Wales or Australia, they’ll go into the last game with Uruguay knowing exactly what they’ll have to do but I don’t think it will come to that. Two weeks ago I’d have included Wales among seven or eight genuine contenders who could win the World Cup, which is exciting in itself because previously it’s only been three or four. Not any more. The injuries Wales have picked up are devastating, to Rhys Webb and particularly the one to Leigh Halfpenny. His metronomic accuracy punishes ill-discipline, nonchalantly knocking over penalties from anywhere in the opposition half.

It makes you wonder – who England would struggle to replace? I think they’d hate to be without Jonathan Joseph (pictured below), because of what he’s added to that No 13 position. Joseph’s not only a great attacker, but a great defender too. He covered three men on his own at one point against Ireland, with his speed and footwork. 

So I’d expect England to make the quarter-finals, and to overcome the Pool B runners-up, probably Scotland or Samoa. I think Greig Laidlaw will keep his position at scrum-half for Scotland due to his goal-kicking, although he is under pressure from Henry Pyrgos and a razor-sharp young lad called Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, who was coming through the ranks when I coached Edinburgh in 2012-13. But I doubt whether the Scots will win enough front-foot ball to feed their star man, Stuart Hogg.

That would put England into the last four and possibly a replay of last week’s friendly – against Ireland at Twickenham. If it happens, I don’t believe that Ireland will play as badly again.

Argentina are my very dark horses, battle hardened as they are from four years in the Rugby Championship. And you cannot discount South Africa, despite their off the field issues, who I think will meet New Zealand in the semi-finals. What England might have in their favour by that stage is to be on a run of six wins, which would be the first time they’ve done that since, guess when? 2003.

If England can beat Wales, Australia and then Ireland – the teams currently ranked five, two and six in the world – Chris Robshaw and his men would be in a marvellous place, with huge belief and momentum.

So, will England win the World Cup? Currently they are a good side, not yet great. They have been up and down, and over the next couple of months I want to see consistency of performance, consistently high. Discipline will be absolutely crucial. How long to leave your hand in there, where you take the offside line when you push forward in defence, the lines you run, the offloads you make. The margins are so fine.

Put it this way, if my dream final comes to reality, and England concede no more than one try and fewer than 10 penalties, they will beat New Zealand. The trouble is that not many teams deny the All Blacks to that extent.

The last time England beat them was 2012 at Twickenham, when Manu Tuilagi had one of his better games and the bounce of the ball went our way. Manu’s not around now, and maybe Joseph can lead the way, but New Zealand are ranked by far and away number one in the world. For their consistency in beating the best teams, at home and away, there is no one to touch them.

Neil Back won 66 caps for England between 1994 and 2003. His book ‘The Death of Rugby’ is out now.

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