England will have to do it the hard way
December 3, 2012
England coach Stuart Lancaster will have hoped for an easier 2015 Rugby World Cup pool draw © Getty Images
Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, welcomes the rugby world to London:
The great and the good from the world of rugby gathered in the unfamiliar surrounds of Tate Modern in London on Monday as preparations for the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England stepped up a gear.
A 'Who's Who' of the sport mingled in the concrete bowels of the world-famous gallery where Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, stole the show without the aid of a zip wire and England boss Stuart Lancaster lapped up praise for his side's recent victory over New Zealand - but the afterglow surrounding his side's dazzling demolition of the All Blacks dimmed a little as they were handed the toughest of assignments at the next World Cup.
Saturday's slaying of the world champions raised hopes that England were on course for a return to the glory days of 2003 but if they are to repeat the success of their predecessors then they are going to have to scrap every inch of the way having been drawn against Six Nations rivals Wales and southern hemisphere giants Australia in what was quickly labelled the 'pool of death'.
The first kick of the tournament may still be the best part of three years away but such a difficult draw is cause for concern for the hosts and tournament organisers who intend to leverage the staging of the World Cup to boost awareness and participation in the game as a whole. That will be immensely difficult to do if England's tournament is ended prematurely - a fate more likely following this unenviable draw with only two sides able to progress to the knock out stages.
England have no reason to fear anyone if they can consistently reach the heights of their last showing - and they may just need to. "To win a World Cup you need to win big games," admitted an up-beat Lancaster and his side will not be short of such challenges with South Africa and New Zealand likely to block their path to the Webb Ellis Cup in the latter stages if they manage to navigate their way out of their pool. It could have been worse had the All Blacks been plucked from among the top seeds instead of Australia but it could also have been a lot better with Scotland, Italy and Tonga the other options from the third tier of seeds that Wales emerged from as a result of a disastrous autumn campaign.
Wales boss Warren Gatland was quick to stress the positives of a tough pool campaign. His side emerged from a pool containing South Africa, Samoa and Fiji at the 2011 tournament - a gruelling schedule that he believes left them battle-hardened and laid the foundation for an eventual semi-final appearance. Adding weight to this argument is the fact that the last two World Cup Finals have featured sides from the same pool but make no mistake, Lancaster, Gatland and Wallabies coach Robbie Deans would prefer an easier ride and a better chance to progress.
The draw not only provided plenty of food for thought for Lancaster and co but also the tournament organisers England Rugby 2015 (ER2015). England and Wales were always going to be two of the biggest draws for a tournament played in the UK and having them play each other in the pool stages certainly hinders their plans to sell 2.9m tickets in the hope of generating in excess of £100m in profit. Both could easily sell out the biggest stadiums in the country on their own against any side so a fixture involving them both will hit revenues and force a re-think.
The other major issue centres on the use of the Millennium Stadium. Wales' iconic home formed part of the original bid document and the Welsh Rugby Union were hoping to stage eight games in Cardiff presumably including all of their pool games - but it is highly unlikely that England will play Wales anywhere but Twickenham. Wales would of course love to host the game - but they will not get their way as organisers would not be willing to jeopardise England's chances and therefore the overall success of the tournament in any such way.
ER2015 are then left with a quandary as to who, apart from Wales, could possibly sell out the Millennium Stadium to the tune of 72,500 seats? It seems that just as the headache caused by omitting Leicester's Welford Road from the shortlist of possible venues was starting to ease, organisers will be forced to reach for the ibuprofen once again.
New Zealand have been handed the easiest of draws with Argentina their main rivals in Pool C while South Africa will also sleep easy having been drawn with Samoa and Scotland. Pool D has a distinctive European flavour with France, Ireland and Italy set to contest a mini Six Nations.
Representatives from all of these sides did their best to fan the flames of expectation but it was a rather pointless exercise given that there is the small matter of three Six Nations, three Rugby Championships, a British & Irish Lions tour and a couple of dozen other tours to play out before the world descends on England in 2015. And no one is going to predict what is going to happen that far into the future when the autumn internationals showed it is difficult enough to know what to expect week to week.
But there can be no doubt that a fascinating battle awaits - albeit three years down the line. In the words of the mop-haired Mayor - 'Bring it on'.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
Firdose Moonda talks to Rob Louw about the difficulties of being a South African touring New Zealand at the height of Apartheid
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"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