Stage is set for World Cup kick-off
August 29, 2007
"There has never been a more frenzied period of preparation as the northern hemisphere nations try to get up to speed and the southern hemisphere sides try to bring themselves back to the boil" John Taylor reports
At last, the phoney wars are over. We have a 'friendly' free weekend and then it all kicks-off for real as France take on Argentina in the opening match of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
There has never been a more frenzied period of preparation to a World Cup as the northern hemisphere nations try to get up to speed and the southern hemisphere sides try to bring themselves back to the boil but it has been horribly counter-productive for England, Ireland and Wales.
Of the home nations only Scotland look to have made major strides forward.
They finished the domestic season as the weakest of the four but have emerged from their training camp looking bigger, fitter and far more purposeful. All credit to coach, Frank Hadden, who kept his squad focused during a period of huge uncertainty before Edinburgh and the SRU finally settled their feud.
Victory against Ireland was a good result but due in part to a woeful performance from the Irish; the loss to South Africa was far more significant.
True, they were well beaten but South Africa are probably the second best team in the world at the moment and apart from a five minute blitz when the Springboks produced some ruthless finishing that would have ripped apart most sides Scotland almost matched them for physicality and kept them tryless in the second half - no mean achievement!
Chris Paterson's move to fly-half should have happened earlier but undoubtedly adds a touch of class in a problem area, David Callam has come on in leaps and bounds (they will be praying he is fit) and the emergence of Rory Lamont as a brave, powerhouse fullback plus the return of Jason White (a massive presence as leader and player) and Mike Blair has, literally, turned them into a different side.
Hadden has used the time he has had with his players really well - I'm not sure the same can be said of the other three national coaches.
I devoted most of my last column to England so I'll not revisit their problems. Suffice to say they demonstrated all the shortcomings I highlighted yet again in their final work-out against France in Marseille. The French contained England's ponderous attempts to attack with embarrassing ease and I just cannot see them breaking through in midfield against any of the top teams. There is just no substitute for pace!
Ireland have been perhaps the most disappointing of all. I think they should and would have won a Grand Slam in the Six nations if Brian O'Driscoll had been able to play through 80 minutes in every game and I expected them to step up a level again before the World Cup. I quite fancied a bet on them as dark horse outsiders because I thought they could beat anyone on their day. Now they appear to have gone backwards at a rate of knots.
Scotland and Italy should have been perfect warm-up games - good tests but not too challenging. Instead, they should have lost both - only Derek Bevan knows why he decided to allow the winning try against Italy.
Suddenly the forwards seem to have lost all their power and with no platform to launch from the backs have lost much of their penetration. The biggest problem seems to be the scrum where John Hayes and Marcus Horan are really struggling.
We all know how much the Argentines love scrummaging and how powerful they are in the front row so now the pool match on September 30th looks like Beechers Brook on the second circuit rather than just a hurdle.
Fortunately, Ireland start with two easy matches and Eddie O'Sullivan must be pinning everything on the return of his inspirational captain.
Wales have also been a dreadful let-down. The 2003 World Cup was when they rediscovered their own unique style and their beleaguered coach, Gareth Jenkins, loves to talk about 'the Welsh way' but it requires great skill and tempo which are missing at the moment.
You cannot play rugby without a platform and Wales have always struggled to find enough big men. At their best they make up for that by using every piece of precious possession to the full.
On Sunday, against France, they looked dangerous on occasions but it was not enough to disguise the shortcomings up front. Chris Horsman's reputation as a never-go-backwards prop has taken a bit of a battering and only Alun Wyn Jones looks more than adequate in the front five.
James Hook is a real talent, Shane Williams will regain his mercurial timing after another game or two and the return of Tom Shanklin at centre will add power and stability - but they are a far cry from the confident, cocky team that won a Grand Slam in 2005.
I hate to be a pessimist but the last time the World Cup was held in the northern hemisphere in 1999 Ireland failed to make the quarter-finals and the other three home countries all went out at that stage. Unless they suddenly all find the inspiration that has been sadly missing over the last few weeks there is a real possibility of that happening again.
Tom Hamilton reports back from the launch of the Guinness PRO12 where there is a renewed sense of optimism with all of the off-field changes to the league