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Situation Vacant: Rugby World Cup Favourite

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Dave Griffith
Dave Griffith

Two years out from the Rugby World Cup and we are in new territory. There is no clear favourite for the title, and there doesn't look like being one any time soon.

The spread of rugby power is narrow to start with. Realistically there are normally only five teams – England, South Africa, Australia, France and New Zealand that are contenders for the title (apologies to Wales and Ireland).
On the evidence of the Autumn Internationals in the Northern Hemisphere, we could throw a blanket over them. No one is rising above the pack and being the ‘yard stick’ for others to aspire to.
So of the top 5, who is the most likely to make a break from the pack over the next two years?
The talent is there. They have a competitive forward pack and an up and coming back line, that is only a season or two away from realising its potential. The problem for Australia is that having nabbed their man in Robbie Deans there seemed to be a belief that he would wave a magic wand and take them to another level. In rugby it is never that simple. What is seen on the paddock is the culmination of a lot of work on systems, patterns and thinking.
There needed to be change, but as we have seen in the past when Graham Henry took on Wales, the establishment and the players might say they want change, but when it comes to the crunch they back away from it and become parochial. Falling back on the comfortable and familiar rather than take orders form a foreigner.
Australia looks like they have reached the point where the majority of the senior players are rebelling against Deans coaching regime. If a team lacks belief in the strategy and tactics of the coach, then it shows on the field. If Australia remove Deans their last chance to win the 2011 World Cup is gone.
As long as the English are in their current ‘ gallant losers’ mode then even winning the pub meat raffle is beyond them. They have the largest player base and the biggest piggy bank of anyone. They lifted when they played the All Blacks last weekend, but they were still a distant second. If that is the best they can do on their home turf then they are toast.
Their current strategyof Martin Johnson bringing back his old team mates is waving the white flag on developing the game. Old players will win them games against second tier teams and the odd first tier, but it certainly won’t win the world cup in two years time. It is almost an admission that the cupboard is bare in up and coming talent, so they are reverting to yesterdays talent to ensure short term survival for the coaching staff.
Who knows what we will get with the French? They are capable of glorious victories and awful defeats in the space of a few days. It is this inconsistency that usually counts against them in World Cups where three games in a row need to be won in the knockout stages to win the title. This has always proven a bridge too far for the French.
In the last world cup after beating the heavily favoured All Blacks in the Quarter Final in Cardiff, they went back to their home stadium and lost to an average English team. Until the French can overcome this inconsistency then the title of World Champion is beyond them.
South Africa
After their deserved win in the Tri-nations South Africa were hailed as the best in the world. The follow up performances to date in their Northern tour have been below average. With South Africa we are always waiting for off-field dramas to derail them. It is hard to imagine that a united front can be maintained for another two seasons.
There is also still the question mark over their ability to win away from home. They have the players to win there is no question of that, but they also have interfering administrators who too often allow internal politics to take priority over putting the best team on the park. They are like an active volcano. Things might be quiet for a while but we always know that there will be an eruption eventually.
New Zealand
They still have the talent and the ability to win the World Cup. On current form they are better than most other teams, but the current ‘best practice’ in winning international rugby is not playing to our strengths of flair and attacking back play.
Until the coaches can find a way to unlock the universal tight defences and relentless kicking for territory then they are only ever going to be as good a chance as anybody else. Definitely this season they have shown signs of being over coached to fit into a team pattern. Unfortunately rigid adherence to a pattern makes them predictable and an easy target for astute tacticians from other teams.
So Who Will Win?
The winning rugby formula at the moment is about kicking for territory and having 15 men spread across the park to shut down any gaps, then hoping to kick the penalties that will come from territorial dominance. Defence is dominating attack. Having forwards in the back line might stop a team conceding tries but equally it stops them scoring them as well. It is hard to see the IRB doing anything with the rules any time soon, since they chickened out of their last bold effort to speed up the game.   
The winner of the 2011 Rugby World Cup will be the team that can find a way to move the game on from what it is now. The only way I can see this happening is if one of the international heavy weight teams can consistently hit the ball up the middle with the forwards hard and fast, left and right as long as it takes to suck in the forwards defending in the back line. Static ball is meaningless. Having a First Five with enough intelligence to choose when to shift the ball wide and exploit the gaps is crucial.
Two things are clear. That team patterns have overwhelmed individual brilliance and there is not enough tactical flexibility on the field. The current style of the international game means teams like Italy and Argentina can lose by respectable scores. But while this style of rugby rules, the fans - who are the people who finance the game - are becoming disillusioned. If something doesn’t change soon then their money and passionate support will find new homes in other codes.  If the current state of the international game continues much longer the question will not be - who will win the Rugby World Cup? But – who cares?     

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