England could go all the way in Rugby World Cup
Rugby World Cup preview: With the All Blacks no longer feared as they once were, England have a chance
IT'S BEEN a decent summer so far for England's sporting teams what with the cricketers crushing India and the footballers all but qualifying for next summer's European Championships. Now it's the turn of the England rugby team to see if they can make it to their third consecutive World Cup final.
Having won the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003 and finished runners-up four years ago, England stand a good chance of becoming the first nation to reach three finals on the bounce. That's despite the fact they have a captain – Lewis Moody – who spends most of his time injured and weaknesses in certain areas, notably an imbalance in the back-row and a lack of creativity in the centre.
What they do have, however, is the vast experience of Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half, the most muscular set of forwards in the tournament and a very favourable draw.
In a group consisting of Scotland, Argentina, Romania and Georgia, the English should finish top. If results elsewhere go to form then they will face France in the quarter-final. The French don't like playing the English – in the last two World Cups they've been beaten by England in the semi-finals – and there is little in the current France team to scare Martin Johnson's side.
Dispose of France and England's reward is a likely head-to-head with Australia in the semi-final. The last time the two countries met was at Twickenham in November when the Aussies were thumped 35-18.
Of course, predictions are always precarious in the rugby World Cup where injuries often disrupt the best-laid plans. Four pool games in three weeks will push the players to their limits and all it needs are a couple of key men to limp out of the tournament and suddenly a side's aspirations are on the wane.
As it is, the tournament opener tomorrow between hosts New Zealand and Tonga will give the Kiwis the chance to show they've recovered from their recent dip in form.
Up until a couple of months ago New Zealand were the overwhelming favourites for the World Cup, but that was before they suffered back-to-back defeats against South Africa and Australia in the Tri-Nations tournament. Suddenly their aura of invincibility, carefully cultivated over the past three seasons, has been shattered and their rivals detect weaknesses.
The greatest weakness is psychological. In terms of talent New Zealand are to rugby what Brazilians are to football but since winning the inaugural World Cup in 1987 the All Blacks have failed to repeat their success. As a result they've been called chokers, famous for the way in which they implode under pressure.
They did it four years ago when they threw away a half-time lead against France to lose 20-18 in the quarter-final, and though the Kiwis remain slight favourites this year they won't be feared as they were 12 months ago.
France, who are in the same group as New Zealand, are an outside bet for the title. Twice finalists, the French have proved maddeningly inconsistent in previous tournaments, capable of scaling great heights one week and hitting rock bottom the next.
Ireland were considered contenders a few weeks ago but that was before they lost all four of their warm-up matches. There's plenty of talent in the Irish squad, but it's ageing talent, and the worry is that their squad is past its peak with the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan no longer the force they once were.
Wales, on the other hand, have a young squad short on experience. They're also in the toughest group of all, alongside world champions South Africa and the hard-hitting Samoans and free-running Fijians. Just to finish in the top two and make it through to the quarter-finals would be an achievement for Wales.
Similarly Scotland find themselves in with England and Argentina (who finished third in the 2007 World Cup) and they'll have to be at their best to maintain their proud record of always reaching the quarter-finals.
Then there's South Africa, the reigning world champions and along with Australia the only nation to have won the World Cup twice. Their pre-tournament form was dismal. They finished bottom of the Tri-Nations with three defeats from four matches and the omens for an unprecedented third title don't look good.
But then if New Zealand are the Brazil of the rugby world, the South Africans are the Germans: no matter how poor they might look in the run-up to a World Cup, they always seem to rise to the pressure of the big occasion.
Fortunately for England's sport fans, their rugby players don't crumble the way their footballers always do in the big tournaments. So expect at least a top four finish for the English and maybe more if their luck holds. ·
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