The Rugby World Cup exploded into life on Saturday when Wales inflicted a mighty defeat on their co-hosts, England.
Perhaps the most normal part of this second weekend of the Rugby World Cup was Australia`s routine bonus point win over the brave Uruguayans. Michael Cheika would have been happy that his second stringers got through unscathed, and with some good tries in the bag as well.
He might be even happier that Wales produced one of the great performances of the professional era by downing their arch enemies England in an impossibly brave performance. Cheika will secretly be delighted that the Welsh have suffered yet more injuries to key players such was the ferocity of Saturday`s hugely entertaining tussle. The Wallabies may well play a patched up version of the Welsh third XV in a couple of week`s time and that is if Wales come through unscathed against Fiji.
It would be easy for Australia fans to start rejoicing now, after all the whole of England are still in shock having seen their expensively put together team somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. However, the Wallabies have not hit their straps yet, even with two solid wins, and have two significantly tougher assignments to come.
This group is by no means confirmed yet with the promise of a few twists and turns still to come.
The group`s next match takes on huge significance when a rested Fiji take on a physically shattered Wales on Thursday. Fiji have fronted up brilliantly in their first two games and if they play to their promise then there is a potential upset on the cards, given that it will take a superhuman effort by Sam Warburton`s men to be fresh enough for this match. Due to the injuries the Welsh have suffered and the significance of this match, Warren Gatland will not have the luxury of resting many of his first teamers following Saturday`s epic battle.
Many pundits predicted before the tournament kicked off that Wales, Australia and England would all lose one game, meaning points difference would probably decide it. So for the beleaguered England fans, it is not over yet as Lancaster`s men have managed to pick up a couple of bonus points. If they can topple Australia this weekend then you would back them to certainly qualify and may still finish top the group.
It will be a fascinating battle of courage and wits when Australia meet England this coming Saturday. There are so many enticing battles and scenarios facing both sides this weekend.
England won`t have any more chances if they get it wrong and therefore the pressure is going to be massive on the hosts. They will doubtless talk of concentrating on the next game and being positive this week but the reality facing them is immense. Just watching the agony etched on both Lancaster`s and Robshaw`s faces in the post match press conference knowing what an uphill struggle they have just to qualify, may mean that England will be too paralyzed by the fear of failure on Saturday.
Much will depend on Lancaster`s team selection which was conservative to say the least against Wales. Having installed the exciting George Ford over the 12 months at stand-off, England have been scoring tries for fun and yet after two quiet games he was jettisoned for a power axis of Farrell, Burgess and Barritt. It did not work against Wales and all of England (me included) is urging Lancaster to pick a team and bench that can excite. I would keep Burgess in the midfield as he went well against the dangerous Jamie Roberts but I would have Henry Slade in, who reminds me a lot of Matty Giteau when he burst onto the scene. Brad Barritt is a tough defender but has offered nothing in attack and England cannot have defence as the best form of attack on Saturday night. They won`t drop Farrell so it makes Slade`s selection even more important if Jonathan Joseph is not fit enough.
So who are favorites this weekend? I think the Wallabies will shade it as I believe England have regressed since the end of the Six Nations, particularly on their game plans. They are struggling to take games by the scruff of the neck when in charge and if the Aussies can stay in touch for the first 40 minutes then I would back them to take England in the last quarter.
There is a solid feel to the Australian line-up with key players like Israel Folau and Tevita Kuridrani in good form. This game will most likely be incredibly tight and Australia will win it if a piece of magic is needed to settle the outcome. They have more x-factor players than England and with Giteau now installed in the backline to complement the breakdown terriers Hooper and Pocock then Australia should have a platform to win this battle. That is the good news for Wallabies fans.
That said, England won the last battle in the autumn and they will know that they can beat the Aussies, particularly if their front five continues the good work they put in against Wales for the majority of Saturday`s match.
England will have the whole of the country behind them and if they can transform the enormity of this occasion into a positive then we may see a very different England. The Wallabies must expect a better performance from England and if they don`t get their mindset right then England could win this relatively comfortably.
The atmosphere on Saturday was absolutely incredible and with it came almost unbearable tension. Expect this coming Saturday’s encounter to go up a few notches again, which is scarcely believable given what we witnessed in the last quarter of the England/Wales game.
Get ready for what could be one of the greatest games in living memory between two of rugby`s fiercest rivals.
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