With the Rugby World Cup set to start on Friday night in Paris, there are exciting weeks ahead and it’s just what rugby needs. It has been a tough year on and off the field both as players and spectators and I just really hope as a rugby fan myself that with the eyeballs on the game in the next seven weeks, hopefully the product is going to be great. I’m sure it will be.
During this pre-season block with Harlequins, I have been watching quite a lot of rugby. Maybe when I’m playing week in, week out I don’t watch as much but I have watched loads over the last month and I’m really looking forward to the start of the tournament – and the organisers couldn’t have picked a better opening weekend.
That France-All Blacks clash on Friday night could be any stage in the knockouts, let alone the first game. It’s an exciting way to kick the tournament off. Then for England, the draw didn’t favour them massively playing the biggest game of their group first up against Argentina on Saturday night, but that will be a great way for them to get rid of the negativity of the last month and hit the ground running.
I don’t think enough people are noticing that a win for England will mean the past month is forgotten. Fundamentally, they were warm-up games for the World Cup. The results and performances, were they what they wanted them to be? No, they weren’t.
But everyone in that squad knows the real deal is ahead of them and Saturday in Marseille is their big opportunity. No one will be talking about these last few months if they go and produce. I certainly believe they have got the quality of players and the quality of people on the staff to achieve.
“Will it be tough at the moment? Yeah, there is a lot of external noise. Some of it isn’t justified but that is the nature of the beast when you are playing international rugby. You are there to be criticised and you are there to be praised. The one thing England do have in abundance is a huge amount of experience.
“They will be leaning on that to get them through and if they get a win on Saturday, then they are up and running. That will probably secure them getting out of the group and when you get to the knockout stages in rugby, that is why we all love sport because you can never call them. You get to a knockout stage and the result is wide open.
It was good to see England go out to France early on August 31 and after going to the local town hall in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage for their capping ceremony, they will know it is a special, special feeling playing in a World Cup. Some guys are lucky enough to do it once and others get to do it multiple times.
No matter how many times you do it, it is a massive honour so this is a special week and the guys won’t take much geeing up for this weekend. I doubt there will be too much said about what has gone on in the Summer Nations Series, but they know that if they get their game right and turn up with a bit of confidence – the first 20 minutes will be huge – if they get off to a good start it will be there for the taking.
I have always loved games with Argentina. Rugby is certainly in a good position at the moment. You look at the number of teams who are improving year after year and you look at Argentina, the guys we are exposed to in the Premiership, they are always quality, quality operators.
They are a massive threat to the whole tournament really in terms of where they could go, but I do genuinely believe that England will put the last few weeks to the back of their mind and get the job done. It will be a really cagey game. The first games at the World Cup always are.
Look at the last few England had. We had arguably a couple of slightly easier games at the last two World Cups against Fiji and Tonga, but they were cagey events. The occasion of it all, the enormity of playing at the World Cup, you are so desperate to get off to a good start.
I feel that could lend itself to England, lend itself to the way they are trying to play and that arm wrestle, that real battle – and England will know they are in for a battle. I’m going for England by five points.
I’m also going for New Zealand to beat France on Friday night. The Kiwis were playing some good stuff before that defeat a fortnight ago to South Africa at Twickenham. They were starting to really build but no one was talking about them for the World Cup. Everyone was talking about a few other countries and no one was talking about them, but I felt they were quietly going about their business.
Yes, that record 7-35 loss will hurt. No one wants to lose in that manner but I’m sure they will be pragmatic and understand their side has been moving in the right direction. There is also their pedigree at big tournaments; I don’t think you can be writing them off.
France will be tough, though. Every time England used to play them, you always knew that if you gave them front-foot ball, gave them their off-loading game, they would always cause you a huge amount of trouble. But where they have come a long way in the last few years under Fabien Galthie is their game management – that has gone to the next level.
Their defence under Shaun Edwards has also gone up, as has their conditioning. There is no let-off now. They seem to be in the best condition ever, which gives them an 80-minute threat whereas before if you were in the game at 60 minutes you would have a bit more confidence about finishing the job.
Now, that certainly isn’t the case against them. I’d put them right up there as favorites for the tournament, especially with it being at home, but I am going with New Zealand to win this one.
Paul Willemse is a big injury loss, dropping out of the squad last week, and his place in the starting team against New Zealand has gone to Cameron Woki as the partner for Thibaud Flament. Willemse, in my mind, is very underrated. Hs someone who really helped the way they play.
They clearly go for an athletic, rangy sort of second row and then a bigger heavier second row, and it seems to be the model across quite a few of those teams at the moment. He fulfilled that job pretty amazingly and is a huge hole for them to fill.
South Africa, who play Scotland on Sunday in Marseille, are looking strong. They are looking to be the team to beat at the moment and I can see them getting off to a good start, although it is tough to call because Scotland have improved out of sight.
They were always a side that attacked well under Gregor Townsend. It’s the way he played as a player and he took that mindset into his coaching, but where they have really tightened up is in defence. They now look pretty decent but I will still go with South Africa.
A major recent talking point was their use of a seven-forwards/one-back bench split against New Zealand in London. Their bench against the Scots is a six/two split, which they have consistently used. My view of it is they can do whatever they want really but if they did that seven/one split regularly, are they likely to get their fingers burned at some point? I’m sure they would.
If they went seven/one and had an injury in the backline really early, people would be almost feeling sorry for them, but those South Africans certainly seem to be able to manage their bench well.
I always prided myself personally as a player on being someone who can go 80 minutes and have really enjoyed those last 20 minutes in a game when players are a bit tired. I really enjoy that part of rugby whereas coming off the bench I find a bit harder because it is a skill.
Elsewhere on Sunday, Wales-Fiji in Bordeaux should be a great game. If you could design a professional rugby player, you wouldn’t be going far from a Fijian. The way they play the game with a smile on their face and being everything our game is sort of crying out for, being real entertainers the way they try and play, is brilliant but what they showed against England two weeks ago is a good set-piece and they will need that against Wales for sure.
If they can re-create that platform, have a good strong scrum and lineout against Wales, then it could be a really exciting start to the tournament for Fiji. After the way they played at Twickenham, they will probably be everyone’s favourite second team.
It says it all about how excellent this opening weekend’s fixtures are that we are only now mentioning Ireland, who start their campaign on Saturday against Romania in Bordeaux. They have done everything right, they couldn’t have had a better run-in to the tournament, and they have got a really settled squad. They know what they are about.
I had the pleasure of working with Andy Farrell for a number of years at England and likewise Mike Catt, two quality coaches, guys who read the room really well. They have a great feel between having a bit of fun but also knowing when to work hard and you see that; it looks like Ireland are really enjoying being in camp.
They look like a team who are not living in fear of the expectation. It looks like they are ready to go and give it a good crack. It’s so exciting.
Ireland have done everything right to get to where they are but they are now matched with three or four teams who are in the same position as them on that side of the draw who are also going to be really, really hard to beat.
- This Rugby World Cup guest column is brought to you in association with the renewed partnership between Harlequins and official trading partner Saxo, a global leader in online investing, for the 2023/2024 Gallagher Premiership season.
- Aside from England lock Joe Launchbury, Wales legend and coach Adam Jones and ex-Ireland hooker-turned-coach Jerry Flannery will also be writing columns over the course of the next two months.