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With Wales beating England, New Zealand hammering Australia and France seeing off a toothless Scotland, the latest round of World Cup warm-up games has given us plenty to ponder as the countdown to the tournament continues.
Wales are officially the best side in the world. At least that’s what the latest rankings would suggest anyway. This year’s Grand Slam winners beat England 13-6 at the Principality Stadium on Saturday to supplant New Zealand as world’s top team.
It’s hard to know if it’s a blessing or a curse for Warren Gatland and his charges. It will give them confidence, no doubt, but will it give them too much confidence? It could be fatal. Of course, England coach Eddie Jones, being the gentleman that he is, was quick to chime in and suggest that Wales are now favourites for the tournament.
It was a good turnaround for Wales though, who were well beaten at Twickenham by the same opposition only a week ago. The forwards were much more cohesive this time around, while out-half Dan Biggar showed that he is a more than able deputy for the injured Gareth Anscombe as his quick thinking created what turned out to be the winning try for George North. Wales showed that they can go far in Japan – to the semi-finals at least – and possibly even further.
The signs were less encouraging for England who caught many by surprise last week when they named their final 31-man squad for the tournament. Could that be a mis-step that comes back to haunt Jones as his undoubtedly talented side looked a little one-dimensional as they tried to break down a resolute Welsh defence. Maybe tagging Wales as favourites was his way of deflecting attention away from his camp where there is obviously still plenty of work to be done.
All Blacks back on track
New Zealand won't be too worried about surrendering top spot in the rankings as they dismantled Australia 36-0 at Eden Park. It was a result that secured the Bledisloe Cup for the fourteenth year in succession and got their World Cup warm-up preparations well and truly back on track.
It was a badly needed result following their 47-26 defeat in Perth to the same opposition a week earlier which led to some scathing criticism in the press from pundits and former players alike. It was a consummate exhibition of pace and power as they ran in five tries, including one from Sonny Bill Williams who responded to last week’s jibes about his place in the squad with a sublime showing at centre.
A week is a long time in sport and this result will give the All Blacks the perfect boost heading into the tournament as they look to win it for the third time in succession. For Australia, meanwhile, it’s an entirely different feeling as the nagging doubts about the squad and its management will re-surface yet again.
The Wallabies face two tough opening games in Pool D – against dark horses Fiji and then Wales. A defeat in either of those games could seriously derail their prospects and see them all but eliminated from the tournament by the end of September. Head coach Michael Cheika has his work cut out over the next couple of weeks to restore confidence and belief within his squad. World Cups only come around every four years and this will be the last chance for many players and the only one for some. If they don't put on a good showing in Japan, Cheika will surely be given his marching orders.
France under the radar
Not much has been seen or heard of the French since the end of their disastrous Six Nations campaign which saw them beaten by Wales, Ireland and England (a 44-8 humiliation at Twickenham). They looked in total disarray and were written off as non-runners in the World Cup stakes.
However, on the evidence of this showing in Nice, they appear to have made significant progress since as they ran out convincing 32-3 winners against a hapless Scotland side. Jacques Brunel’s men ran in four additional tries following Alivereti Raka's second minute opener, including two from veteran winger Maxime Medard either side of the break.
The teams meet again at Murrayfield this weekend where we should learn more about both outfits. Have the French really improved enough to be a threat in Japan – remember, they are in the ‘pool of death’ with England and Argentina – and are Scotland as bad as last weekend suggested?
Scotland have adopted a free-flowing brand of rugby in recent times which shows both strength and weakness in equal measure. They rightly received plenty of praise for the nature of their comeback against England at Twickenham to secure a draw in the Six Nations. However, it should be remembered that they did concede five tries in that game. In fact, they have shipped an average of four tries per game in 2019 and they simply will not be able to compete at the World Cup if those stats continue.
Another problem for head coach Gregor Townsend is that they are becoming something of a ‘home’ team as their 'away' performances bear no resemblance to their performances at Murrayfield. Given that all their games will be ‘away from home’ in the World Cup, that is a serious issue.
Of all the former Five Nations countries – Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland and France – the Scots look the least prepared so far. Undoubtedly, we will see a different, more competitive Scotland at Murrayfield this weekend (it will be an interesting examination for France too), but it will do little to persuade the critics that they are going anywhere but the wrong direction.
Meanwhile, the Irish squad return from a week of warm weather training in Portugal to take on England at Twickenham this weekend ahead of back-to-back clashes with Wales. Joe Schmidt has whittled the panel down to 40 following the departure of John Cooney, Finlay Bealham and Mike Haley, with another nine set to miss out between now and the September 8th deadline when he must name his final squad for the tournament. All three of these games will be very physical, with no quarter asked or given on either side. Let’s just hope there aren’t any more injuries!
Speaking of injuries, there was bad news for Ulster forward Marcell Coetzee who has been ruled out of the World Cup after sustaining ankle and head injuries in South Africa’s 24-18 win over Argentina at the weekend. It’s very tough on the back row star who, after an injury-plagued opening campaign for Ulster following his move to Belfast in 2016, was hugely influential in the province’s drive to the knock-out stages of both the Champions Cup and PRO14 last season. We wish him well.
By Kieran O'Daly
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