RWC 2015: Rugby's chance to win the hearts of a nation

 

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Too Big to Miss. Amid the blizzard of slogans, hashtags and hoary mottos swirling around the eighth Rugby World Cup, this one was an exhortation to spectators to snap up the 2.4 million tickets at prices ranging from reasonable to second-mortgage material. But there is another, unintended meaning, that we can aim directly at Chris Robshaw and his England team. As hosts, playing your opening pool fixture against Fiji at Twickenham this week under Friday night lights and all but one of your other matches on the same precious, familiar turf, you will never have a bigger chance to be champions. Do you have what it takes to emulate the glory, glory boys of 2003 – Jonny, ‘Johnno’, Jason Robinson et al?

The World Cup will not be back substantially in the UK until 2027 at the earliest (Belfast is included in Ireland’s bid to host in eight years’ time, with Japan in place for 2019), and more probably 2031, by when £160 for a third-tier ticket to see England v Fiji might look a fantastic bargain. Amid the tsunami of numbers being thrown at the media, try this one for staggering size. A package of a £150 ticket to the final, on 31 October, plus pre-match food and drink and a band at a hotel in Westminster (that’s a 50-minute train ride and walk away from Twickenham) is £1,195. It’s understood that upwards of 1,800 people will be taking this up. And to think this reporter’s brother came up with two tickets to the 1991 final – the only previous one at Twickenham, when Will Carling’s England made a famous late adjustment of a winning game plan and lost to Australia – for less than 30 quid a few days before the match.

So much has changed in rugby, on and off the field. The London Olympics and Manchester and Glasgow Commonwealth Games have bequeathed a sense of sport as must-be-there events, coveted by those who can afford it. The word on Friday was that 168,000 of the World Cup tickets were still available. Full stadiums remain the organisers’ prediction – from the predictably tumultuous England pool clashes with Wales and Australia on successive Saturday evenings, to the less obviously gripping Canada v Romania at Leicester City FC on 6 October.

The 48 matches will be played at seven football stadiums and only three exclusively rugby venues – Twickenham, Kingsholm in Gloucester, and Exeter’s Sandy Park – plus the Olympic Stadium, Wembley and Cardiff’s Millennium. That may feel like an attack on rugby’s soul, but the £15 million profit from ticket sales projected by the RFU for investment in the game, and £350m claimed by World Rugby globally from New Zealand 2011 and England 2015 combined, won the argument. “The event, I think, is about to transform rugby in this country,” promised Ian Ritchie, the RFU chief executive, when there were 100 days to go.

The soul survival will be in the hands of the players and the hearts of the spectators. You can keep your “Strictly Come Dancing” and “X Factor”, with its recorded cheers rising. Welcome to rugby, real and raw. Leaving aside a genuine concern over the game’s injury rate, which savagely has already removed three of Wales’s key players Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Webb and Jonathan Davies, we are guaranteed astounding physical effort and skills from the hard grunt of the scrum to the deft touches of the sprinters on the wings. All but eight of the matches will be shown live on the main ITV channel. If England do well, we may see a “Euro 96” effect, gripping the nation beyond its existing rugby strongholds, becoming a topic of pub conservation and Monday-morning chatter in schools. The message tweeted by World Rugby’s chief executive Brett Gosper during the summer, expressing a hope for the hosts’ team to do well, was understandable if lacking in even-handed wisdom.

England’s pool fixtures could not be more helpfully timed (pity Japan, by comparison, facing South Africa and Scotland inside five days) and the enormous incentive to win the group is the likely avoidance of South Africa and New Zealand – world champions four times between them – until the final. The same route out of Pool A is on offer to Wales and Australia, whose world ranking of fifth and second respectively straddles England’s in fourth. The wish of England’s head coach Stuart Lancaster to enter the tournament ranked second (no one was ever likely to overtake New Zealand at the top) went bust with four successive failures to win the Six Nations Championship, plus home losses to the Springboks and All Blacks.

England, whose squad is reckoned to be 200 caps collectively short of the optimum number, have lost the suspended Dylan Hartley and his reliable line-out delivery, and the injured and dropped Manu Tuilagi with his terror on the gainline. They have gained the controversially selected Sam Burgess, who was snapped up as a “brand ambassador” for the hosts’ kit manufacturer Canterbury as soon as he arrived from rugby league 11 months ago. They at least must be delighted he made the squad cut.

What the best in the world will make of a 6ft 5ins centre still adjusting to the demands of his position remains to be seen. Jonah Lomu was one of the many renowned names wheeled out by sponsors to give a verdict, and he said Burgess had not played enough to warrant a place. Lomu, whose 15 tries in 1995 and 1999 still stand as the tournament’s best, added he would not “put his house” on a New Zealand win this time, instead citing forward-based, 10-man rugby if the rain buckets down as potentially swinging matters the northern hemisphere’s way. All around, the most often-heard opinion is the competition is wide open.

And that’s true, insofar as a red card – such as the Wales captain Sam Warburton’s in the 2011 semi-final loss to France – or a blade of grass tickling the ball for a try could make the difference.

Robshaw’s team have a chance in the big matches, if they can produce and keep reproducing organised defence, a pack that won’t be dominated and scoring breakouts featuring the exciting backs Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson, orchestrated by the young fly-half, George Ford.

By the way, don’t discount the influence of Ford’s rival No.10, Owen Farrell. Not as widely skilled, maybe, but thunderously competitive and vastly improved between bouts of injury since he toured with the Lions in 2013.

On the subject of improvement, who might upset the quarter-final pecking order, with short odds on the final eight being England, Australia or Wales, South Africa and Scotland, New Zealand and Argentina, and France and Ireland? The Japanese under Aussie coach Eddie Jones are playing a fast, open brand of rugby. It would be wonderful, neutrally speaking, for a Tonga or a Georgia to win three matches and blow apart the expectations. Argentina’s position is intriguing. The plucky underdog who beat France twice in their own World Cup in 2007, to finish third, stepped up in class by joining the Rugby Championship in 2012 and they won away to South Africa this year. If Argentina finish second in Pool C, they may need to beat two European teams – maybe Ireland and England, or France and Wales - to make it to a first final. Vamos los Pumas!

Carling and Lawrence Dallaglio are two former England captains who see a lack of strong leadership in support of Robshaw as a problem. Among the seven New Zealanders who are head coaches at the tournament, a couple of the better-known ones have said privately they expect England to implode - though surely not to the extent of 2011, when the first half of the quarter-final loss to France was one of the most abject performances in living memory.

Anyone who beats the All Blacks, who have at least half a dozen world-class players from Aaron Smith at scrum-half to Kieran Read at No.8, via just a tiny possible weakness in the front five, will consider themselves the favourites. Ireland won the Six Nations in 2014 and 2015 but they have a rotten record of stumbling at World Cups. If England are the ones fighting over the little gold pot against New Zealand in the final, it will represent a high achievement in itself.

Meanwhile, poor Halfpenny can only polish his boot-studs made of nine-carat gold mined in Snowdonia and wonder what might have been.

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