Rarely does a warm-up game on the eve of a major international tournament leave you convinced beyond reasonable doubt on who the champion of that very tournament will be, but South Africa’s 35-7 defeat of New Zealand was not only convincing in every sense, but also went down as the All Black’s biggest ever defeat in a rugby test match. The Springboks pronked at pretty much every line out, flowing parallel to a heavy pack that simply got stuck into the All Blacks back line for 80 minutes.
Now I know sports predictions are a very weird thing and will leave the very best of experts and former players with egg on their face, but I am ready to die on my cross. The rugby world cup kicks off in a few days in France and I have never been more certain of a pick than I am with our African home boys the Springboks. A pack of four will perhaps separate themselves from the rest, but do not rule out one or two huge upsets, most memorably the “Miracle of Brighton” as Japan pounced on the Springboks with an injury time try to hand them a shock 34-32 victory at the 2015 showpiece.
The annihilation of New Zealand ended the All Blacks 11-match unbeaten run as South Africa’s power game, so efficient during the 2019 World Cup, proved too much for their indiscipline opponents. Following on from a 52-16 demolition of Wales, this performance emphasised Jacques Nienaber’s side were hitting top form right in time for their World Cup opener against Scotland on 10th September.
Their biggest threat outside the All Blacks will be injuries that have denied them a core part of the side that triumphed four years ago. Fly-half Handre Pollard has struggled with a calf injury, outside center Lukhanyo Am’s knee issues have persisted and lock Lood de Jager have all not made the final cut albeit temporarily. Am and Pollard have been placed on a standby list should more injuries strike the 33-man squad, but it is highly unlikely they would produce their best performances with little time left to peak match fitness.
Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzbeth, Faf De Klerk, Bongi Mbonambi and Duane Vermeulen will shoulder the leadership responsibility. It’s their backline that raises a few concerns. Damian Wilemse is no Pollard but will be a more than able deputy allowing Willie Le Roux to marshal the final line of defense. Manie Libbok has also thrown his hat into the ring to replace Pollard at the 10 though his limited exposure at this stage might hold him back.
The biggest concern for the Boks will be finding a shoo-in partner for Damian de Allende in Am’s absence, with Andre Esterhuizen the best bet. Cheslin Kolbe’s own inconsistent season might have shadowed his star, but his pace and ability to score will be as vital as Makazole Mampimpi’s consistency on the other wing. The two combined for nine tries at the previous world cup, a joint best from any pair in the tournament and expect them to run their opponents rugged. My money is on the Boks to do what only New Zealand have managed, retain their crown.
Having won the Rugby Championship this year, the All Blacks should have been overwhelming favorites going into the tournament, but their final pre-tournament build up loss to the Springboks left me wondering if this team could walk the talk. The All-Blacks coach Ian Foster was gracious in defeat, but digging deeper, he appeared a man at crossroads and not sure what to expect from his stars.
This roster in quality, is nowhere near the 2015 squad, considered by many the greatest world cup side ever assembled. Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, and Sonny Bill Williams are long gone, but Captain Sam Cane,Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles, Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Codie Taylor carry world cup winning experience having been a part of that history making team, the first and last to repeat. Ardie Savea will anchor at the base of the All-Black scrum and the older of the trio of Barret brothers, Beauden will be charged with the playmaking, having hit form at a convenient time.
What they will make up for in quality is experience. Besides those seven that were part of the thumping of Australia in the 2015 final, the All Blacks have named the most experienced squad they’ve ever taken to a World Cup, with 1,493 test caps between the 33 players.
They had the chance to go into the world cup as number 1 ranked if they had won by 15 points against the Boks, but that will not matter anymore. Their opening tie against the hosts could well be their make-or-break tie of their tournament. An opening day loss to the hosts will in most likely hood present a quarter final meeting with the defending champions, a final before the final, and way too soon after their Twickenham blues. Navigate that and every rugby fanatic will be served a repeat of the 1995 final, the only time these two giants have clashed at the grand final stage.
A crisis of form has not only left Stephen Borthwick charges looking out of sorts but has also badly diminished their chances of adding to their sole 2003 crown. Their final pre-world cup match, a defeat by Fiji, was England’s third loss in four warm-up matches before the World Cup kicks off, following on from defeats to Ireland and Wales. Some have whispered that the Red and Whites are never impressive or overwhelming favorites going into the global show piece, but somehow always stand tall at the grand stage. Appearances in the 1991, 2007 and 2019 finals, all defeats albeit, with the two most recent at the hands of the Boks, clear testament to that.
This year’s preparation has drawn parallels with the 2007 team that only won one warm-up game against Wales, before losing 36-0 in the pool stages to South Africa. And if experience is the antidote to this weary form, then that they have in plenty. Out of the starting XV who faced the All Blacks in 2019 semifinal in Japan, a performance that is regarded as their greatest ever at the world cup, twelve will travel to France for the 2023 World Cup.
One of the twelve will be George Ford and the conundrum of how to fit him & captain Owen Farrell in the same line-up seems a thing of the past now, an identical challenge to their male football counterparts trying to accommodate Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. If they are good, then you must play them all at this stage surely. Ford will have to shoulder the creative burden for at least the first two games of the tournament. Both were in fine form guiding their club sides to the Premiership final with Farrell’s kicking key in securing Saracens the crown with a 10point win over Ford’s Sales.
England will however be without their captain and Billy Vunipola for their opening game against the Pumas of Argentina because of bans for high tackles, with Farrell also missing England’s second game against Japan. By then damage might already be done to their chances of avoiding the Wallabies in the last eight. Perhaps being on the lighter side of the draw and avoiding South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland and France till the semifinals at earliest, will be the motivation they need.
Not much excitement regarding the Wallabies as they come into this tournament. They are only in the final four in my books because they got a bargain from the draw, avoiding the Boks, All Blacks, Irish and the hosts till the semifinals. Facing an out of form Welsh side with three wins in their last thirteen test matches will be of help. The return of Eddie Jones to the dugout will provide the leadership they are badly short of.
BEST OF THE REST
Their forced entry into the final four will highly depend on which Blues show up in the tournament’s opener against New Zealand this Friday. Dubbed a final before the final for the French, an opening day victory will not only clear their path potentially to the final but will also most certainly condemn the All Blacks to a last 8 clash with the Boks, a tie both sides will not be so keen to entertain that early in the tournament.
The French have the joint most finals’ losses, tied with England at three, and their fans will hope its second time lucky, having hosted the 2007 edition where they exited in the semifinals, losing by an unconverted try to England. They came agonizingly close four years later losing 8-7 in the 2011 final to New Zealand, the narrowest of defeats in world cup final history.
Key center Jonathan Danty is a doubt for their opener against New Zealand because of a hamstring injury having scored in France’s 41-17 win over Australia in their final warm-up game before pulling up injured. The hosts have already lost starting fly-half Romain Ntamack for the whole tournament due to a serious knee injury and prop Cyril Baille for at least their first two games with a calf strain. Hard to imagine this depleted side can get the crucial opening day win against the All Blacks even with a wave of home support behind them.
Ireland is the world’s number one ranked team going into the world cup, followed closely by South Africa, France, and New Zealand. Not often do you see the number one ranked nation in any sport discarded so easily before a major tournament, but the luck of the draw has consigned them to a potential quarterfinal clash with New Zealand should results go to plan; at least my plan. A likely second place finish in Pool B behind the Boks will ensure this scenario.
However, should they upset the African nation, then a potential clash with the hosts awaits in the final eight, a clash they should lick their lips at, having thumped Les Bleus when they last met early this year. Till you then remember that the Irish have never gone past the quarterfinal stage at the world cup, managing 7 out of 9 last eight finishes.
A quick shout out to Chile, the sole debutants at this tournament and expected to be handed a chili reception in Pool D. Namibia as always will fly the second African flag but expect no more than a scrap with Uruguay to avoid sitting at the foot of Pool A.