The column inches devoted to World Cup warm up matches have reached almost manic proportions, and it’s almost a relief that the phoney war is now over. Everyone has taken a different approach, for example, I am not sure how intense the Irish have been. Methinks that when it matters they will step up, as O’Connell himself said after the Twickenham defeat that here were no alarm bells ringing.
They don’t have to peak for a while given their group, whereas England by contrast have no breathing space. In addition, Ireland has the best track record of all the Northern Hemisphere nations, winning Championships and a moral victory over the All Blacks. No other country comes close – it amuses me that no one gives any credit for that.
Conversely, since England’s much needed win over Ireland, there has been a growing expectancy that only a host nation has to acknowledge, but critically one of the most important facts of the last couple of weeks has been that the squad is fit and well.
I remember distinctly during the warm up to the 1991 World Cup that self preservation became a key objective. Having survived the punishing tour to Australia and Fiji, we played three more matches, one against Russia! It was a big relief when the squad emerged unscathed and was a major factor behind England reaching the final. We certainly couldn’t blame injuries or lack of fitness for a failure to win the match, although Rob Andrew being caught from behind by John Eales the second row as he was making for the try line caused some question marks!
Imagine for a moment how Warren Gatland must be feeling – Australia and England will be openly sympathetic but also heaving a huge sigh of relief at the prospect of not facing three of Wales’ best players, if you add Jonathon Davies to Halfpenny and Webb. They are a tragic loss and would have graced the tournament with their skills; it’s a sad situation for all rugby fans. I have said for a while that the injury count in a game of such physicality will be a determining factor. Only England and New Zealand could cope with a string of such fitness issues and its hugely in their favour.
I also feel for the players who are missing out either on first team selection or else on the squads themselves. Even in an era when you need a total squad of 23 to win a game, it still hurts not to be involved, ask Luther Burrell. However, all fringe players will be training hard and awaiting the call. I remember just missing out on selection on the wing for our crucial 91 quarterfinal against France, resplendent with Sella, Blanco, Camberabero, Champ and company at their peak. I took out my frustrations on the training pitch, putting myself through a brutal sprinting session on the Wednesday after the final big team training session. The coaches and players alike were surprised to see me put so much in. During the classic match that unfolded, Nigel Heslop the right wing was knocked out cold by Eric Champ after an ill-advised late challenge on Serge Blanco. He stayed on the pitch, played unsurprisingly in a daze and I eventually took his place for the semi-final and final. You never know what can happen in International Sport and when your chance may come. I predict that there will be a few surprising faces involved in the latter stages of this tournament.
Talking of wingers, how good are Watson and May looking right now? They are comfortably the form players for England and beyond, and reassured me somewhat as I was worried about individual form in the England team. They will score a try or two between them if a quality ball comes their way and this is an unexpected bonus for the hosts. England can enhance this scoring power by playing some territory and inducing penalties – suddenly there’s 20 points plus in prospect and that’s good enough if the defence is sound. World Cup opponents will not have factored this in to their assessment of the hosts chances – I am really quite excited, especially if you add Joseph into the mix who can beat anyone in the world, 1-1. Only the Australians and All Blacks have that potency, and it elevates England into a position of real strength.
It also shows the way forward for England’s tactics, attack the short side, and get these guys in the game and over the gain line, creating 1-1 rather than planned back moves which may rely on continuity, midfield passing skills and better ability than England has at the breakdown. Perceptive kicks to the wing allied to brutish midfield stabs from Barritt, Burgess and the back five should be the order of the day. Traditional English forward strength is NOT where this team will win its big games, in my opinion. I think that Lancaster is secretly excited at this new found potency, or should be.
Of course, this is predicated on surviving and prospering in their pool, pressure which will be nigh on suffocating at least until the Uruguayan points fest in Manchester. Rather than going back to the ‘what if we don’t get out of the pool’ journalism which is entirely understandable, I prefer to look ahead. Failure to progress is unacceptable and will depress me no end, so why bother with it!
My prediction therefore is that when England win the pool, having beaten Wales and Australia, an irresistible marker will have been put down to the rest of the World. A final beckons, and in that instance I would place money on an England win. I firmly believe that because England will score plenty of points and with home advantage, their defence will not only be fanatical, but roared on by their off field extras, the crowd. England won’t miss a tackle! So, that’s how the story goes, and it doesn’t have to be a dream, I know plenty of hardened and knowledgeable cynics who think England can do it.
I am sure people will forgive me for my burst of English fervour but it is based on three premises: outside back firepower, incredible strength in depth in most positions and home support. No one else, not even the tournament favourites the All Blacks, can boast all three. Also, some of you will remember that in 1991 the hopes of a nation rested upon us beating what ended up being one of the all time great Australian sides in the World Cup Final – I still have my losers medal but I am sure that my team mates on that day would join me in wishing our boys all the best, to go that ‘one step further’. My one major caveat is leadership skills running through the team – have we got what it takes to think and act correctly under pressure?