Rugby’s in rude health

Six teams have a chance of winning the World Cup, which shows how strong the global game is, writes MARK KEOHANE in Sport Monthly.

In the professional era there has never been a Six Nations weekend as stunning, as memorable and as inspiring as the final one in this year’s tournament.

England, Ireland and Wales can score tries. Their players have the skills. Their players have the ability to match the best in the southern hemisphere; if not consistently, then definitely at home on an afternoon when the gods smile kindly on those in the northern hemisphere.

It was also the weekend the rugby world so desperately needed to instil in them the confidence that this year’s World Cup is no two-team occasion, but one in which six teams can win the title.

New Zealand, South Africa and Australia are all good enough to beat each other in a one-off and claim World Cup honours.

But Ireland, with 11 wins in their last 12 Tests; England, splendid in their destruction of France at Twickenham; and Wales, finally showing the attacking form of the 2011 World Cup, are capable of being the main attraction.

England at home will always be a contender, but it was the performances of Wales and Ireland that inspired.

Only the All Blacks in recent past have gone to Italy and won with flair. The Italians know their strengths and limitations. They’re a team that plays negatively and to minimise damage. Few teams have managed to hammer them, but Wales produced a second-half exhibition the equal of anything produced by the mighty men in black.

It was so needed. Wales have promised so much since 2011, but delivered nothing when it mattered in matches against Australia and New Zealand. There was the 12-6 success against the Springboks, but that was a Bok team devoid of their overseas-based players – all 10 of them.

Wales’ win against Italy would have reinstalled belief in the players, the coaching staff and a passionate nation desperate for the glory days of the early-1970s.

Ireland have always been capable of a one-off miracle but have never had the consistency of the past two seasons. The Kiwi head coach Joe Schmidt has found a recipe and a formula that has propelled Ireland to a top-three team.

Schmidt’s Irish have beaten Australia and South Africa comfortably in Dublin, have gone to Paris and won, dealt with Wales and England, and should have had a historic first win against the All Blacks in 2013.

The All Blacks produced the greatest escape in the professional era to string together 25 passes in a passage of play that took the game two minutes into stoppage time and broke the hearts of every Irish rugby supporter. Ireland will feel they lost the game but the neutral observer will promote the virtues of New Zealand’s brilliance with ball in hand and credit them for winning the Test.

Once Ireland gave up possession with 30 seconds to play, it was up to New Zealand to still win the game. They kept the ball until Ryan Crotty scored and they won the match 24-22 thanks to Aaron Cruden’s touchline conversion, which required two attempts after the distraught and desperate among the Irish prematurely charged the initial conversion attempt.

The win showed you the quality of these All Blacks, but Ireland’s display in 2014, when they beat the Springboks and Australia and then won the Six Nations, was also a celebration of the quality of the team since Schmidt was entrusted with making them an international force the equal of what he had done with Leinster in Europe.

Ireland are a very good side. Wales are a good side and England, in scoring 55 points against France, showed just how good a side they could be.

There hasn’t always been a belief among the northern hemisphere teams that they were capable of playing the width of the pitch and of using skill ahead of brawn to fashion wins. That last weekend of the 2015 Six Nations surely has crushed any insecurity or doubt in the northern hemisphere.

Historically, England have been the only northern hemisphere team to threaten the big three of the southern hemisphere. They have also been the biggest letdown when spoken of as favourites.

But there can be no more excuses from within the squad when it comes to attack because the display against France, coupled with what was produced against the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2012,  was proof that with an attacking mindset comes something special.

It was a marvellous weekend, but it can’t be limited to a once-off memory. That has to be the challenge of the players, and the public must have an expectation for more of the same.

Seldom has a World Cup pooled three potential winners in the group stages and one of England, Australia and Wales will not make it to the play-offs.

Wales, before thrashing Italy, were the favourites for an early departure but now the pressure is on Australia in this season’s Rugby Championship to match the performances of England and Wales.

Australia showed improvement at home against New Zealand and South Africa, but were poor when touring the northern hemisphere. They dealt with Wales, which seemed more out of habit, but struggled against France, Ireland and England. The excuse of a new coach won’t have substance in 2015. No excuse will carry much weight.

Australia are renowned for conjuring up the impossible at World Cups. They were awful in the lead-up to the 2003 World Cup and conceded 50 points to the All Blacks in Sydney in that season’s Tri-Nations. 

But they beat the very same All Blacks in a semi-final and took an England team, among the finest ever assembled, to extra time in the World Cup final. England won thanks to a Jonny Wilkinson drop goal but the quality of the two teams and their four-year history spoke of a greater points differential. That is the beauty of the World Cup; alternatively the curse, as New Zealand so often experienced. Four years of domination can be undone in 40 horror minutes.

The All Blacks, courtesy of their incredible 2011 World Cup campaign, are no longer chokers. This group of players have won 45 and drawn two of their last 49 Tests since the start of the 2011 World Cup. They have won everywhere and won with as much grit as they have grandeur. But in a one-off they are as vulnerable to the quality of South Africa, Australia, England, Wales and Ireland as any other team in the competition.

Every one of the leading six teams can lose in a one-off situation. The All Blacks are still leading the pack but it’s a pack that has never been as strong in numbers and one that isn’t more than a score behind New Zealand, especially in the northern hemisphere.

The All Blacks remain a class act and the symbol of excellence because no other team can match them for sustained intensity and results. No other international team in world sport has a record as good and no other team wins 80% of their matches, home and away.

Applaud the All Blacks for what they have achieved and continue to achieve, but also applaud the chasing pack for the strides made in the past 36 months.

Rugby, in the professional international era, has never been as healthy in a World Cup year. The sport finally has a tournament that can be called a World Cup because of the quality of players and number of potential victors.

England, as hosts, will be magnificent. The tournament will lack for nothing in terms of hype, support and in quality of stadia. But the hype now has substance because of that magnificent finale to the Six Nations.

It isn’t a public relations exercise to promote the virtues of an England side that gets it right. It certainly isn’t wrong to speak of Ireland as potential winners and in Wales the threat of what could be finally has a highlights tape to reference.

Whoever wins the World Cup will deserve it because this is one that won’t be fluked because of a round-robin draw or an absence of all-round quality.

Ladies and gentlemen, purists of this wonderful game, we finally have a contest to determine the world’s best.

Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images

– This article first appeared in the May issue of Sport Monthly magazine