The waiting is nearly over
August 31, 2011
How will Declan Kidney react after seeing his side lose all four of their warm-up Tests? © Getty Images
The waiting is nearly over. The time for experimenting has run-out and the next time the 20 countries now assembling in New Zealand run-out it will be for real.
The timing of the World Cup can never be perfect for everybody - the southern hemispheres teams are coming off the back of a full season, those in Europe took a short summer rest and then returned to lengthy training camps culminating in a series of warm-up games.
Could a full season of Super Rugby followed by a truncated Tri-Nations leave the southern guys feeling a touch jaded - surely New Zealand cannot have peaked too early yet again - or will it be a case of the northern nations going into the tournament a little undercooked. Everybody will claim they are happy with their preparations and are full of confidence but I would suggest the mood in the Home Nations' camps will be very different.
England and Wales will be comparatively happy about their preparations; Scotland will be hopeful but unsure whilst for Ireland the last few weeks have been an almost unmitigated disaster.
All one can say about England is that they got there in the end. It took forever but with Manu Tuilagi coming good in spectacular fashion and with Mike Tindall looking assured at inside centre there is a good chance they have solved their mid-field conundrum. The only disappointment was the lack of fluency from Jonny Wilkinson in his last outing when his running game had looked so sharp and uninhibited in that first match against Wales.
England's strength up front, and the return of Andrew Sheridan has given them a further boost, will always make them a difficult side to beat. With a cutting edge in mid-field they might just be real contenders but keep your fingers crossed England fans - you do need Tuilagi to stay fit.
Wales have had a great summer. Many people were cynical when Warren Gatland announced that they were off to Poland to use their cryotherapy facilities and techniques in a bid to get fitter than ever before. There is no cynicism now. They look to be in tremendous shape and the way they came back at England in the first game and then dominated the second game in the final quarter is proof that cryotherapy is not just a fad - it really works.
Whether it can make up for all Wales' physical shortcomings is another matter. If Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones were all fit and firing there would be real optimism but Rees is definitely out and there must be doubts about Jenkins so we shall have to wait and see.
Their understudies are not in the same class but they are much better than they were a year ago and that will be important against teams like Samoa and Fiji.
Playing the Pacific Islanders in the World Cup has become a real problem for Wales - they lost to Samoa in 1991 and 1999, then Fiji in 2007 - and Gatland's heart must have sunk when he found he had to contend with them both in the same pool this time round.
Their success came from disrupting Wales up front and drawing them into a fast loose game. This time Wales should be able to impose themselves and control the way the game is played.
We really have no idea how far Scotland have progressed if they have progressed at all. Andy Robinson opted for just two warm-up games and will be pleased that they won both but they merely reinforced what we already knew. They have a decent pack, although it is hardly fearsome, but they are as blunt as blunt can be when it comes to attacking backs.
Declan Kidney must have been feeling pretty good at the end of last season. Ireland had stuttered for much of it but they thrashed England with a performance that showed real authority when it mattered and the team looked full of quality. He decided on four tough warm-up games, something I thought a good call because his senior players seem slow to get up to speed these days, but has come out of them with his confidence (if not his dreams) in tatters.
True he was without Brian O'Driscoll against England but he will need all his captain's inspirational qualities to get the team back on track and firing on at least seven cylinders ready for the opening game. It appears that he and Paul O'Connell are even more important to this team than we realised.
Lack of strength in depth is the factor that always handicaps the smaller nations so Gatland, Kidney and Robinson will have their fingers crossed.
Wales finished third in1987, Scotland came close to toppling England in the semis and Ireland should have beaten Australia, the eventual winners in 1991, but that is now ancient history. Since then only England have performed at the World Cup. Let's hope for something to shout about from the other Home Nations for a change!
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games
"Cheika's been phenomenal. He gives you an incredible level of mental strength." Tom Hamilton talks to Waratahs star Jacques Potgieter
While the Super Rugby season enters the all-important knockout phase, elsewhere pre-season training never looked so enjoyable. We round-up the best snaps in our Week in Pictures