Rugby World Cup 2015: Are New Zealand unbeatable? Will England rue axing players? State of play with 100 days to go

Will England rue ruling out Hartley and Tuilagi? Can Wales and Ireland build on decent autumn displays? Or are the All Blacks unbeatable? Hugh Godwin runs the rule over the World Cup’s top teams

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The Independent Online

Australia

Worth backing because…

Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell are available in the back line again thanks to the new 60-cap rule, and Israel Folau is a shout as the best full-back on the planet – the Wallaby attack can be built around him. David Pocock was seen at his best in Super Rugby last Saturday, and with him and Hooper around, no opponents will have it easy with the ball. Few teams turn defence into attack quicker than Australia.

Problems that need solving…

The tight five is under the gun, with a dearth of outstanding locks and an inconsistent front row. Will it be Nick Phipps or Will Genia at scrum-half? Is Bernard Foley a world-beater at fly-half? All stuff to sort out this summer when Australia, in common with New Zealand and South Africa, will follow the Super Rugby final on 4 July with a truncated Rugby Championship from 17 July to 15 August – a tougher build-up than any northern hemisphere team’s.

Pre-World Cup matches:

v S Africa (Brisbane, 18 Jul), Argentina (Mendoza, 25 Jul), N Zealand (Sydney, 8 Aug; Auckland, 15 Aug), USA (Chicago, 5 Sep).

England

Worth backing because…

England point to 18 tries in the Six Nations Championship as evidence of a fully functioning attack, and fly-half George Ford and centre Jonathan Joseph are on an upward curve towards world class. The scrum is unlikely to be bettered or even matched by most, the driving maul is a formidable bludgeon, and head coach Stuart Lancaster has made peerless fitness a keynote of the long run-in to the World Cup, in which all of England’s matches – bar Uruguay in Manchester – will be played at Twickenham.

Problems that need solving…

Is there any high-end alternative to Brad Barritt at inside centre, or any need to find one, when the South Africa-born Saracen is such a defensive linchpin? There is a need to find a line-out thrower of Dylan Hartley’s standard, as the Northampton hooker – along with Manu Tuilagi – has been dropped for disciplinary reasons. Steffon Armitage’s only international action this year will be for a World XV against South Africa in July, while the recently injured Ben Morgan, Joe Marler and Mike Brown must prove a clean bill of health.

Pre-World Cup matches:

v France (Twickenham, 15 Aug; Paris, 22 Aug), Ireland (Twickenham, 5 Sep).

France

Worth backing because…

Blind faith springs to mind, loosely supported by three final appearances in seven World Cups. Defence is decent, if you overlook the  55 points conceded to England last time out; ditto the set-piece and the driving maul. Fiji-born wing Noa Nakaitaci beats defenders for fun, and he has ousted Teddy Thomas, scorer of a lovely try in last autumn’s win over Australia.

Problems that need solving…

Rampant spending on overseas players by clubs in the domestic Top 14 has done little for the cause of France coach Philippe Saint-André who is on his last lap as boss, after three years of tinkering based too much on grunt, with Guy Novès of Toulouse already appointed to take over after the World Cup.

The ritual pundits’ head-scratching greeted the selection of Frédéric Michalak at fly-half over Camille Lopez in the summer training squad, and with both half-back positions up for grabs, there are worries over goal-kicking and a lack of attacking consistency. Centre Gaël Fickou has been injured since March and missed last weekend’s Top 14 semi-finals but should recover. Maybe the squad’s training trip to the Alps next month, with the chance to push club matters to the back of their minds, will help.

Pre-World Cup matches:

v England (Twickenham, 15 Aug; Paris, 22 Aug), Scotland (Paris, 5 Sep).

Ireland

Worth backing because…

Ireland have been Europe’s Six Nations champions for the past two seasons, on points difference each time. Head coach Joe Schmidt has a reputation for ingenious attack and, handily, the Lions half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are eminently capable of managing the New Zealander’s phase-play patterns on the field. Tommy Bowe can sniff out the less obvious opportunities on the wing, and the back-row defence led by Peter O’Mahony tends to be on the painful side of crushing.

Problems that need solving…

Ulster centre Stuart Olding will miss the World Cup with a knee injury, and props Marty Moore and Cian Healy are on a tight schedule of rehab, although Healy is confident he will be ready after a neck operation. The Irish scrum, per se, is no better than adequate and if first-choice tighthead Mike Ross – who offers little outside of the set-piece – is unavailable, there is skimpy cover.

Ireland’s losses to England at Twickenham in 2014 and Wales in Cardiff this year are perturbing pointers, given their World Cup schedule of a decisive pool match with France in the Millennium Stadium, after which the losers will almost certainly meet New Zealand in a Cardiff quarter-final, before the Twickenham semi-finals and final.

Pre-World Cup matches: 

v Wales (Cardiff, 8 Aug), Scotland (Dublin, 15 Aug), Wales (Dublin, 29 Aug), England (Twickenham, 5 Sep).

New Zealand

Worth backing because…

The All Blacks have been  No 1 in the world since the year dot, and it’s not false accounting. Line-out, kicking game, athleticism from one to 15, savagely dangerous back four (as the Kiwis like to refer to the centre, wings and  full-back), Brodie Retallick at lock, Aaron Smith at scrum-half, the lightning transition of defence to attack, zillions of caps, battle-hardened coaches… need we go on?

Okay, there’s Dan Carter looking his old, imperturbable self at fly-half for the Crusaders last weekend, and scoring machine Julian Savea who has 30 tries in 33 Tests. The exciting Hurricanes full-back Nehe Milner-Skudder and Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo are possible bolters.

Problems that need solving…

Injuries, for starters. Young lock Patrick Tuipulotu will miss the World Cup, with fly-half Aaron Cruden almost certain to join him. Among the backs, Israel Dagg has hardly played this year and Sonny Bill Williams has been off with back trouble, while front-rowers Nathan Harris and Tony Woodcock are long-term absentees, and – the biggest gulp – stellar No 8 Kieran Read is sitting matches out due to concussion.

Carter has unhappy World Cup memories, opponents could grind New Zealand down with attritional forward play and referees may get on the flanker and captain Richie McCaw’s case. Oh, and the All Blacks’ two World Cup final wins to date were in Auckland, not Europe.

Pre-World Cup matches:

v Samoa (Apia, 8 Jul), Argentina (Christchurch, 17 Jul), South Africa (Johannesburg, 26 Jul), Australia (Sydney, 8 Aug; Auckland, 15 Aug).

South Africa

Worth backing because…

The scrum and line-out stand comparison with the best, and the bewitching try scored against England last November – Pat Lambie’s delicate chip, and Willie le Roux’s catch and flick pass to Cobus Reinach – showed the Springboks as one of those maddening teams able to prosper on the counter, even if their opponents dominate possession. Young lock Pieter-Steph du Toit may be touch-and-go, but back-rower Duane Vermeulen is expected to recover soon from neck trouble and all the other big-hitters are fit.

Problems that need solving…

When the forwards are going well and dominating territory, the tries do not always flow. The Springboks also did most to give succour to Europe – whose teams have won one World Cup in seven attempts – in last season’s autumn internationals, by losing to Ireland and Wales, although the Cardiff result arguably turned on Jean De Villiers’ injury.

Pre-World Cup matches:

v World XV (Cape Town, 11 July), Australia (Brisbane, 18 Jul), N Zealand (Johannesburg, 25 Jul), Argentina (Durban, 8 Aug; Buenos Aires, 15 Aug).

Wales

Worth backing because…

Leigh Halfpenny’s kicks helped beat South Africa last November and the chapel-quiet full-back booted Toulon to the European Champions Cup at Twickenham in early May. The pack is replete with proven talent in Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton.

Normally reliant on the battering ram Jamie Roberts in attack, Wales may also unveil a Plan B, if coach Warren Gatland’s hints are to be believed. Come the pool stage, there are Cardiff matches against Uruguay and Fiji, and if Wales knock England out at Twickenham, or get the Australian monkey off their backs – currently running at one win in 14 meetings – the momentum would be mighty.

Problems that need solving…

George North is the rival of any wing for power, footwork and support play, but he has not played since March. Wales need Samson Lee fit for the front row, and fly-half Dan Biggar to continue a couple of seasons of steady improvement. And it feels premature to treat the November win over the Springboks – a first in 26 matches against one of the south’s big three – as a corner fully turned.

Pre-World Cup matches:

Ireland (Cardiff, 8 Aug; Dublin, 29 Aug), Italy (Cardiff, 5 Sep).

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