Who looks the most likely to relinquish the southern hemisphere stranglehold on the World Cup?
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Two rounds gone in the northern hemispheres premiere rugby competition and the question isn’t who out of the six teams could win the World Cup as much as who most certainly won’t.
With a little over seven months to go until the opening ceremony in Twickenham it is becoming more evident who out of the top Europe sides can mount a serious challenge to the three super powers below the equator.
France have taken one step forward and ten steps back since Philippe Saint-André took the reins from the lamentable Marc Lievremont in 2011. Tinkering mystro Saint-André has surpassed the high rotation record of his predecessor and continually manages to under utilise an extremely talented group of players. The emphasis seems to be on brawn not brains with this current crop of players topping the scales. One wonders how far this team could go under the guidance of a more accomplished coach but with the current setup it is unlikely they will mount a serious challenge.
Wales’ stock has fallen significantly since their Grand Slam win in 2012 and where once Warren Gatland was tipped to lead the Lions in 2018 and maybe return to one day coach the All Blacks it seems now he is used as cannon fodder for their below par performances. Wales will most certainly be a team to watch but based on their current showing they have a long way to go to emulate their semi-final heroics at the last tournament.
Scotland look a far more rounded side under the tutelage of Vern Cotter but still a long road must be traveled before they are competing at the very highest level. Poor Italy can never seem to catch a break and two wins in their pool in the World Cup will be a reasonable achieved.
Now onto the big two in respect of this year’s competition and Ireland are the team on everyone’s lips as golden coach Joe Schmidt continues the revolution of a once disheveled side under Declan Kidney to the world-beaters we see now. They are a team who seem to have forgotten how to lose and have evolved into a very impressive squad.
Much praise must fall at the door of the coach and his coaching staff for the work they have done but this is an Irish squad with real quality right across the park. On their day Jonny Sexton, Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Jamie Heaslip and Conor Murray could all be considered the best in the world at their respective positions. That is not to say they all are but their names are most certainly in the mix, which is a huge credit to Irish rugby not to mention the long list of other hugely talented players within the current setup.
Reigning world champions New Zealand will fear the rise of this Ireland side under Schmidt. The All Blacks last gasp victory in Dublin in 2013 will act as a reminder to them just how dangerous this they can be. That game came early on in Schmidt’s tenure and the team has made huge progress in the meantime. Victories over South Africa and Australia show just how far they have come with their recent victory over France creating an air of expectancy from fans rather than previous jubilation. With a challenging but manageable group and a possible passage to the semi-final without facing one of the big three, Ireland will certainly be in with a great chance.
On to the hosts England and the transformation from World Cup laughing stocks in 2011 with off field antics and poor performances tainting the reputation of then coach Martin Johnson to the hugely combative and an almost likable outfit we see now under the new regime. It is clear with hindsight that the appointment of Johnson was ill informed but the same cannot be said of current coach Stuart Lancaster. He has assembled a quality coaching team in Graham Rowntree, Andy Farrell and Mike Catt and together they have made this England team a real force to be reckoned with.
England have lost the Six Nations Championship only on points difference in the last two years. They have a ferocious pack and may have potentially uncovered a real gem in in Jonathan Joseph, although it is too early to tell if he has the consistency to keep performing in the biggest games. Their scrum seems to progressing at a rate of knots under Rowntree and given the huge advantage they will have with hosting the competition they will be one of the front runners come September.
With hosting it however comes huge and sometimes crippling expectation as seen by the All Blacks at times in 2011 and given that both Australia and Wales stand in England’s way of progression from the group it is by no means a given they will progress. One thing is for certain though this England team has the best chance of any previous England team, since Johnson lifted the Webb Ellis trophy in 2003, to overcome the southern hemisphere challenge and claim the title for the northern hemisphere once again.
The Six Nations has been largely captivating in the opening two rounds. It has had hugely entertaining moments and some more stagnant contests. There is no doubt from witnessing these early exchanges that the two nations mentioned, Ireland and England possess the necessary fire power to relinquish the strangle-hold the southern hemisphere nations have on the Webb Ellis trophy come October and claim it for themselves.