“I think it will be between England and South Africa.” That is the prediction of Chris Robshaw, who captained England to a group stage departure in the 2015 World Cup.
The All Blacks, he said, will be “thereabouts, but I like the look of England and South Africa… of course, I hope England win it. It would be brilliant for the guys and amazing for the country.”
A player who came in for a huge deal of criticism after the calamity of 2015, Robshaw will not be on the plane to Japan, despite having played a great deal of international rugby early on in the Jones’ tenure.
His thoughts have been echoed by Johnny Wilkinson, who of course knows a thing or two about winning World Cups. Wilkinson said, “they’ve used the pre-season brilliantly, the warm-up games… they’re almost peaking and have got momentum going in, which is great.”
“Every game seems to have a real intention and objective about why they’re playing it, which team they’re picking and why they’re picking it.”
Looking at current form, it is hard to look past England and South Africa. The South Africans have their inspirational captain Siya Kolisi to return to the fray, although they play New Zealand in their opening fixture, which is likely to set the tone for their tournament. Deliver a statement victory and the Springboks will be feared by all. At half back, Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard might be the world’s best combination on current form.
The runner up in that group looks set to meet England, should they win their group, in the semi-finals. A fixture they will be looking to avoid.
That said, the All Blacks can never be underestimated, on the basis of the talent of their individuals and their proven winning mentality. Neither the current England nor South African sides have that same winning pedigree; it should not be underestimated.
Bizarrely, Ireland are currently above England and Wales in the current world rankings. It is a result of the strange nature of the World Rugby ranking system, but also the highly open nature of this World Cup. Anybody can beat anybody: Japan, Argentina, Scotland and France are likely to be dangerous, unpredictable opponents.
One potential draw back for Scotland, Ireland and Wales is the controversy that has greeted their World Cup squad announcements. The omission of individuals like Scott Williams, Rob Evans, Huw Jones and Devin Toner, all of whom have been regulars for their respective countries for four years, has contributed to the sense these nations do not know their best teams.
Likewise, their warm up performances have been shaky. With Wales, injury to Gareth Anscombe, a player around whom their entire style of play was built, has caused a major rethink. Gatland cannot rely on Dan Biggar to provide the same type of instinctive attacking brilliance.
You can never write off the All Blacks, but England and South Africa, as Robshaw says, are favourites now. The statement victories they have delivered this summer makes that indisputable.
Written by Joe Ronan