So here it is to get 2015 underway, the Lineout’s look ahead to the big International rugby events of this year culminating with the World Cup.
We’re all expecting a big one this year! Although Ireland were tipped as favourites to defend their title and win for a second consecutive year, this year’s tournament is looking increasingly wide open, and I would argue that a Grand Slam by any of the teams is HIGHLY unlikely. Ultimately it’s going to come down to the wire in a couple of key matches. For me the three big games of the tournament will be the tournament opener of Wales against England, followed by Ireland vs France, then Ireland vs England and the ultimate tournament decider of England vs France. Expect a reborn Scotland to cause a few upsets along the way, along with a Welsh side determined to make a statement before this year’s World Cup. This leaves us with the only sure-fire bet being Italy duking it out for the wooden spoon. Even with Italy we all know they are more than capable of upsetting the French when they play Les Bleus at home in Rome. In short, plenty of Wild cards this year!
Ireland were looking set for glory come Six Nations time this year and there is little question that they are probably still the front-runners to lift the trophy in March, with England snapping hard at their heels. However injuries to star fly half Johnny Sexton who is such an integral part of Ireland’s playmaking, have raised concerns in the Emerald Isle. Although Sexton should be fully match fit come the crucial encounter with England, there are doubts about his readiness for the game preceding that against France. For Ireland’s opener against Italy, they will definitely be without Sexton and have now received the blow that his capable understudy Paddy Jackson is now likely to be out for the whole tournament. This leaves Ireland having to slot in Ian Madigan who has impressed all year with Leinster even though he traditionally plays at centre rather than fly half. Nevertheless Madigan has shown he has a strong tactical kicking game along with some serious accuracy come goal kicking time. If Madigan can effectively fill in for Sexton for the first two matches and gain the necessary confidence for such big games, then Ireland’s hopes will surely be restored. With the return from injury of such forward stalwarts as Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy, then Ireland under coach Joe Schmidt will be a serious challenger for the Six Nations crown.
Ireland’s main threat and greatest rival this year will be the English. Although England had a very tough year in 2014, it is obvious that once this team finally starts to click everyone needs to look out. Despite some key injuries to Courtney Lawes and Ben Morgan, England’s forward pack looks set to be the powerhouse the other teams will have to reckon with. Furthermore if they get their scrum and fly half combination working properly and a back line bubbling with talent to fire then the Championship is theirs for the taking. Therefore it comes down to can a proven Ireland side outplay an England team who are just a few big games away from being the finished product?
Throw into this mix a Scotland team that increasingly looks like they have the potential to upset any of the big guns on a good day especially at home and a Welsh side determined to prove that they are a force to be reckoned with and desperate for a string of consistent quality performances. Ireland and England will have to be concerned at these teams’ potential to spoil the party. Last but not least, rugby’s ultimate dark horse, the French are the great unknown for this year. We had glimmers of what they have the capability of doing last year, it remains to be seen whether discipline, player/coaching issues and lack of experience of some of their rising stars can be sorted out to produce a team that can threaten for the whole Championship There will be one or two spectacular performances by the French this Six Nations but not enough to get them the silverware. Therefore, it will be between England and Ireland and with the World Cup in England this year, as much as my support will be with the Men in Green I can’t help feeling it will come down to a points difference with the narrowest of margins causing England to ultimately be crowned this year’s Six Nations Champions. For Ireland’s sake I sincerely hope I am proved wrong, but either way I think we are in for a cracker of a tournament this year.
As the other major International tournament this year prior to the big global showdown of the World Cup, there is plenty of excitement on offer. Due to the proximity of the World Cup, this year features an abbreviated tournament making the stakes that much higher. There are only three games this year to decide the Championship. Australia will play New Zealand for a second fixture along with Argentina having a second crack at South Africa but these two games will be World Cup warm ups as opposed to counting towards the Championship.
The fact that the shortened tournament structure heavily favours Australia and South Africa with these teams getting two of their matches at home while New Zealand and Argentina only get one home game, would make me think that the Wallabies and the Springboks are favourites to win. Having said that I expect to see Argentina once again win their home game against Australia and the All Blacks to upset Australia once more in Sydney. If Argentina do manage to claim another Wallaby scalp then expect them to push South Africa hard in Durban the following week, which will then mean it will come down to a points difference between South Africa and New Zealand. It will be close but with the try scoring machine commonly known as the All Blacks, expect once again to see the Men in Black come out on top and once more make them the benchmark team to beat at the World Cup. If South Africa maintain their ability to consistently win at home expect them to finish a strong second with Australia edging out the Pumas for third place. This will be no disrespect to the men from Argentina and expect them to challenge well in all three games to boost their confidence going into the World Cup. Like the Six Nations expect there to be some real cliffhanger matches!
Rugby World Cup
So we come to the BIG one! If you go simply on form over the last two years then it would seem obvious that New Zealand will be the first team in rugby history to claim two back to back World Cups. However, as we all know World Cups never go according to script.
New Zealand will have an easy ride to the quarter finals, when they will have to up their game dramatically after only one hard match against Argentina in the pools. Depending on the outcome of Pool D they will face either Ireland or France. If as expected Ireland win Pool D then New Zealand will face the team that has caused them so much heartache at World Cups. France’s record against New Zealand in previous World Cups says it all and this year when everyone has essentially written them off is usually when they are at their most dangerous against the All Blacks. Although I side with many in the media that the current New Zealand side are simply too strong for France this year I am still prepared to be surprised, although I can’t help feeling it to be unlikely. So on the basis of that expect New Zealand and Ireland to make their way easily out of their pools and into the semi-finals, barring any blue surprises.
South Africa should also make their way easily out of the pool stages, unless their current inability to win consistently away from home causes them to come unstuck against a rampaging Scottish team. Once out of the holiday pool stages life gets infinitely tougher for South Africa as they will have to face either the hosts England or Australia in the quarter finals. For England and Australia they have the unenviable task of having to beat each other plus a very physical Wales. How much of a threat to England and Australia Wales will be remains to be seen, but threat they will be and could end up being the smoking gun of the tournament. However, I’m still putting my money on Australia winning the pool with England being the runners-up. This should then allow an increasingly fired up England a victory over a South African side weakened by four matches away from home and a pressure match in front of a very vocal English crowd. Australia meanwhile will battle past a determined Scottish side which will then give them excellent preparation for a semi-final match-up with the Irish.
On the basis of these semi-final match ups, I would see New Zealand and England engaging in a monumental semi-final clash while Australia and Ireland battle it out with the winner being the team that tactically outsmarts the other. If Ireland stay fit then I see them getting the better of Australia in this mental tussle, while New Zealand overwhelm an English team that loses its way under the weight of the occasion in front of a home crowd. From there as in so many World Cups the final may well be an anti-climax as New Zealand’s all round class and depth get the better of a spirited Ireland.
There are a myriad of possible alternate scripts here, Argentina upset Ireland or France and then face England who are now finally clicking as a complete team, leaving Australia to be undone by the All Blacks at semi final time. However, I can’t help feeling that whatever happens, if it ends up being an England/New Zealand final, unless England play THE game of the 21st century, New Zealand will ultimately be writing the history books. Ladies and gentlemen – place your bets and be prepared for a spectacular ride with plenty of twists and turns along the way!