The 2015 Rugby World Cup will be the most open yet, in the tournament`s rich and thrilling history.
This may be a bold prediction, given the very obvious credentials of the current holders New Zealand. Realistically, there are at least six teams who can lay claim to be genuine contenders. In no particular order after New Zealand; Australia, South Africa, Ireland, England, Wales and France all will definitely fancy their chances.
As ever, luck, injuries and being able to close the tight games out will determine who ends up with rugby`s ultimate crown. What I hope is that we see a fitting final given the relatively limp offerings we have seen since the tournament’s inception in 1987 (2003 an honorable exception).
So let us try and put some coherent context to these supposed contenders. There are also many sumptuous subplots around selection, form, x-factor players and politics to whet the appetite.
All Blacks lead the pack
An obvious place to start the form guide is New Zealand, the current holders of the famous Webb Ellis Trophy.
The All Blacks’ form over the last four years has been pretty bloody good save for a disappointing loss to the Wallabies a few weeks back. Their record of four losses since the 2011 World Cup is remarkable for its consistency and an ominous warning to the rest of the competition that to get past them is going to take a phenomenal performance.
It is also worth adding that among the thirty-odd wins they have racked up since that famous night in Auckland, many have come in the last 10 minutes against familiar old foes in the shape of the Australians, the English and the South Africans. Some may see this as a weakness but the reality is that the All Blacks know how to win in any game situation. They have the players and more importantly the experience across the field to confidently get over the line.
Add in the brilliance from the likes of the peerless Richie McCaw, Kieran Reed, Julia Saeva and Aaron Smith to name but a few and it is difficult to see where the chinks of armor are.
Like a broken gramophone record, doubts remain over New Zealand`s ability to play knockout rugby in the final stages. That idea is wearing very thin though, given the Kiwis’ brilliance week in, week out.
Wallabies on the bound
Australia are arguably the biggest threats to New Zealand`s crown.
Yes, the Wallabies were smashed in the last game of the recent Rugby Championship but that could be attributed to a number of questionable selection calls from Michael Chieka. The most important selection call was the acquisition of Mario Ledesma, the legendary Argentinian hooker who has added a hard edge to a previously questionable Wallaby front five.
Any hopes England and Wales hold on having the edge up front have been severely dented. The Aussies have pace, power and talent to burn out wide. Imagine what they can do with quality possession. Whether they have the ability to go all the way from a murderously tough group is the big question mark; as it is for England and Wales.
Watch out for Israel Folau, he has had a quiet year by his standards but this is the kind of platform where he should excel.
Springboks the dark horse?
South Africa reminds me of France during the 2011 World Cup campaign. Their form has been terrible in the lead up, with Henneyke Meyer under pressure for a very backward thinking squad. There are many players who seem past their sell-by date and others who have not even played for many months. Only time will tell whether Meyer is a magician or pariah.
That said, if you blend the brilliance of Willie Le Roux and Bryan Habana with the power of Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen then the Boks are capable of going all the way. Everyone ridiculed France in 2011 and yet they went all the way to the final and were the better team in the decider.
Pacific an ocean of talent
Very honourable mentions go to the Pacific Islanders. I can`t wait to see how Fiji go in England`s group because they have such immense threat out wide. With so many players excelling in the lucrative French Top 14 competition, any loose ball will be run back with interest and tries.
The underlying issue for Fiji, as is likely for Western Samoa and Tonga, will be how much quality ball they will get from the set piece.
England, Wales and Australia cannot afford to take Fiji for granted, or they will come horribly unstuck. Think about the memorable contest between Wales and Fiji in 2007 and that should be motivation enough.
England and Wales expect
With the tournament being hosted in England and Wales, it is a wonderful opportunity for England in particular, with Ireland and France right on their coat tails. That is not to disrespect Wales, they cannot be discounted, but I feel that England and Australia have the thinnest of advantages at this stage.
The so-called ‘group of death’ involving England, Wales and Australia is a subplot in itself. Stating the blindingly obvious, all three teams must hit the ground running. That means England and Wales have to dramatically improve their troubled friendly preparations if they are confident of taking Australia out of the equation.
England has the formidable advantage of hosting both teams at Twickenham, a priceless one percenter, particularly if these games go to the wire where the crowd can be a 16th man. Wales do not have a good track record against Australia nor do they fare well when matches go into the last 10 minutes. So without any confidence whatsoever, I would make England very marginal favourites to get out of that group as winners.
Another Gallic uprising?
The way France brutalized England up front in Paris in the warm-up game in August would have sent some relatively strong shockwaves through the competition.
The French are notoriously fickle, more so than ever before and that is what makes them such a difficult team to predict. Saint Andre has convinced no one that he knows what his strongest XV is but they look fit and fired up to go one better than their barmy 2011 campaign.
Ireland also deserves much consideration. The men in green are perhaps not getting the praise that their considerable efforts deserve over the last two years. They have added some southern hemisphere scalps to their two recent Six Nations crowns and have come closer to most when scalping the All Blacks.
Keep Paul O`Connell and Johnny Sexton fit and they will be a frightening opponent to meet in the finals. Robbie Henshaw has soothed the shock of no more Brian O`Driscoll and their pack is full of snarling, aggressive Irishmen as per the true Shamrock style.
Who to look out for
Before we get to some predictions, I have to say that I cannot wait to see the extraordinary talent which will be showcased over the six weeks.
Every team needs an x-factor player to perform and there will be plenty to watch over the tournament. There has been much hype around Sam Burgess grabbing a spot in England`s squad, as was the case with Sonny Bill Williams back in 2011. Some may see it is a risk but there is no question what a talent Burgess is. Send him down the number 10 channel with a bit of space to work with and he will create opportunities.
Julian Savea is poised to perform a very credible version of 1995`s Jonah Lomu. You can add in the entire All Black backline and some very decent Australian claret in the form of the ageless Adam Ashley Cooper and Israel Folau.
South Africa, despite their problems, has unearthed a considerable gem in Jessie Kriel.
Meanwhile, Stuart Hogg along with Leigh Halfpenny, Yoann Huget, Jonathan Joseph and Robbie Henshaw have just as much ability to excite as their Southern Hemisphere counterparts.
But when you talk about talent, look no further than what Fiji and Western Samoa have at their disposal. The Pisi bruise brothers have lit up the premiership for the last few years and you can rail off a whole host of Fijian wingers with Talebula, Goneva and Matawalu among the very best on the planet.
And don`t forget those wily veterans in the talent stakes. The fierce Alesana Tuilagi will lead the Samoans into battle, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter are sure to once again show their excellence and Victor Matfield at the age of 38 can still rule the lineout like no other. A special mention to Mauro Bergamasco who is making his fifth tournament appearance and he still has just as much hair as he did in 1999.
The big prediction
So, who will win the 2015 Rugby World Cup? New Zealand rightfully go in as favourites but will they have enough match fitness from an easy group to have the necessary edge to progress through the finals?
That is why I think the ultimate winner will come from the ‘group of death’, with England and Australia the most likely to emerge from it.
Bring it on, and what a festival of rugby we have coming up!
IMAGE: Intosportphotography / Shutterstock.com