The World Cup is just over two weeks old and from what I have seen so far the only team capable of beating holders and favourites New Zealand is England.
The pools aren’t fully played out yet but I’m seeing England, New Zealand, Wales and South Africa as the four semi-finalists and if my crystal ball gazing is correct that would mean a semi-final between England and the All Blacks.
For that to happen though England must beat France in their final pool game on Saturday, even though that game could be seen as a dead rubber with both sides already through to the quarter-finals a week early.
The only team capable of beating current holders and favourites New Zealand is England
Losing would nonetheless be a huge momentum shifter. It has the potential to slow England and sow seeds of doubt. The pressure would crank up, people might get twitchy and everything would look more problematical.
If England did lose they would be more vulnerable in their quarter-final which would be against a buoyant Wales. As the statisticians keep telling us, no World Cup winning side has ever lost a pool game.
Records are made for breaking and statistics can be misleading but I would suggest that it is a pretty strong pattern that needs to be acknowledged.
I don’t see England losing, in fact I am confident they will put France away in considerable style, but if I was in Eddie Jones’s shoes this week I would be painting the match as a do or die game of the utmost importance. Because it is.
England must use this game to really lay down a marker. They need to take their game up a notch or two. Their path to the quarter-finals has been pretty straightforward and undemanding.
If England did lose against France they would be more vulnerable in their quarter-final
The signs are good. England have been dominant up front in all three games and the knock-on effect of that is we are seeing the best of George Ford at fly-half.
The question always asked of Ford is how effective can he be behind a struggling pack, playing on the back foot. Well in this England team that question is academic because I don’t see any opposition pack bullying them.
Ford is getting front-foot ball and very smooth service and that brings out the best in him. He has been controlling the games nicely and has clearly benefitted from the trust and faith Eddie is showing in him.
It has been a difficult couple of years for Ford. For a long while the Danny Cipriani bandwagon was rolling and there was a perception that Ford was under threat from that quarter.
Eddie Jones has asked George Ford to captain his side on a number of different occasions
And then Eddie decided he wanted Owen Farrell as his starting fly-half. It must have been a testing period for Ford’s self-confidence and he has also moved back to Leicester, who have been struggling a little. But then the tide turned. Eddie made it clear earlier this year that he was not seriously considering Cipriani as an option and that he was also inclined to move back to the old Ford/Farrell combo at 10 and 12.
More than that, Eddie has also asked Ford to captain the side on a number of occasions. As a vote of confidence it couldn’t have been more emphatic. He is England’s first-choice 10 and is again beginning to show why.
He combines well with Farrell, they offer a twin threat and the return to form and fitness of Manu Tuilagi also helps. England — and Ford — now have so many attacking options in midfield.
The squad is fit and available with the exception of a slight worry over Billy Vunipola
Elsewhere, with the exception of a slight worry over Billy Vunipola, the squad is fit and available, just about everybody has enjoyed some good game-time and the basics are in place: scrum, lineout and restarts — not that England have had much practice chasing their own restarts because the opposition haven’t been scoring very often.
The front five are looking as good as any in the tournament and England have real strength in depth in that area, where the attrition rate can be high.
And England have been keeping the penalty count down and not irritating referees. That needs to continue!
MY VERDICT ON THE OTHER CONTENDERS
The hosts have covered themselves in glory with their wonderful, high-tempo game. Their two scrum-halves, Yutaka Nagare and Fumiaki Tanaka, have been brilliant — small guys taking on and beating the giants. Wing Kotaro Matsushima is world-class and hooker Shota Horie is one of the best in the tournament. Japan would make history and cause a rugby sensation if they could reach the last eight, but my gut feeling is Scotland will do just enough.
Inexplicably poor against Ireland and the loss of Hamish Watson was huge, but much improved when putting Samoa away with a bonus point win. Assuming they do the same against Russia, it will be crunch time against Japan when, even if they win, they must prevent the hosts from scoring a bonus point. I’m tipping the Scots to pull this off and reach the quarter-finals but it will be a nail-biter. They won’t beat New Zealand if they meet in the knockout stage.
Scotland would fail to beat holders New Zealand should the two sides meet in the knockouts
Very good against Scotland, middling against Japan, workmanlike against Russia. The Irish need to sweep into the quarter-finals off the back of a top-rate performance against Samoa. They need Johnny Sexton to start firing and for their outside backs to rediscover their best attacking form. Ireland are heading for a quarter-final against the Boks or New Zealand, both of whom they defeated last year. They will fear neither, but I don’t see them reaching the semi-finals for the first time.
Unquestionably the favourites — in fact, the only team I can see beating them is England. All their traditional qualities have been to the fore: pace, high tempo, brilliant handling under pressure, the ability to absorb a team’s best shots and then counter-attack 90 yards to score. That opening win against the Boks decided the pool there and then and they will be looking to finish with a full-bore performance against a disappointing Italy.
New Zealand will hope to finish the pool stage with a strong performance against Italy
Dangerous floaters. They played pretty well against New Zealand but were undone by five minutes of All Blacks brilliance and didn’t trust their backs enough. In Cheslin Kolbe, they have one of the most stunning attacking players on the planet. They must use him more. Their massive pack can batter most teams but, against the very best opponents, South Africa must use all the resources at their disposal.
Brilliant for 40 minutes against Argentina, then that old weakness — a lack of full 80-minute fitness — kicked in. They were hanging on against a poor Pumas team and nearly tripped up against Tonga. France have to find a way of maintaining the tempo. Their youngsters Antoine Dupont, Damian Penaud and Romain Ntamack can do it but the pack still struggle. The game has become too fast for the likes of Louis Picamoles. I don’t see them beating Australia or Wales.
France were hanging on against a poor Pumas team and had almost tripped up against Tonga
Made hard work of beating Fiji first up and were all over the place in the first half against Wales. Showed enough quality and class in the second half against the Welsh, though, to remind everybody how good they can be. Will qualify easily enough and face France or England. They can never be discounted because they can accumulate points quickly, but their forwards are not dominant and their goal-kicking has not been convincing.
Shaping up very nicely and, although not technically through yet, they will surely progress as pool winners and meet France or England. Jonathan Davies is beginning to tick in the centre, Gareth Davies looks one of the best scrum-halves in the world, Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell are going well at No 10 and Justin Tipuric is having a standout tournament. Must keep their foot on the gas against Fiji on Wednesday — the Pacific islanders are looking for an upset.
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