The 2015 Rugby World Cup kicks off in just one day with host nation England facing the flying Fijians in what’s set to be a thrilling opening match at Twickenham. It’s rugby’s best facing off in the penultimate tournament of the year and is sure to bring with it entertainment, comradery, excitement, upsets, injuries, and drama. But only one team can walk away with the coveted title, which for the past four years every team has been working hard towards – Rugby World Cup champions.
You’ve got it ladies; it’s kind of a big deal! And whilst you may not know much about rugby and your ‘care factor’ may be marginal at best, I can guarantee you that the men in your life will be all over it like mud on a front rowers face! So I’m here to share with you some tips for social engagement with rugby-mad males to make your life a little easier over the next six weeks while the Rugby World Cup plays out.
What we’re dealing with here is a case of ‘fake it ‘til you make it’, and I want to firstly arm you with some handy background information on the RWC (that’s short for Rugby World Cup) should you wander into the path of a rugby enthusiast. Preparation is key and it pays to have a few helpful facts which you can nonchalantly pass off with the wave of your hand, “Oh, you’re watching the rugby? Wow I can’t believe it’s been four years since the last World Cup, doesn’t time fly!”
The RWC is a once in a four year event with the inaugural competition taking place in 1987 where host nation New Zealand beat France 29-9 in the final at Eden Park, remarkably the most recent final in 2011 was a case of history repeating itself as we saw host nation New Zealand once again face their nemesis France in a nail-biting clash. The tension which gripped Eden Park was so thick you could cut it with a knife, mainly because of the ‘chokers’ tag that seems to haunt New Zealand come RWC time and the immense pressure to win at home, but with a huge sigh of relief reportedly ringing out from every corner of the country, New Zealand walked away with top-honours marginally defeating France 8-7 and securing the cup for just the second time in history despite being the favourite team going into the tournament each time.
We’re now entering the eighth World Cup tournament with England co-hosting the event for the third time, but having only won it once before in 2003 against Australia you can expect there is also surmounting pressure for this host nation to deliver a win to its people. The person who’ll particularly feel like his head is being squeezed in a vice is England coach Stuart Lancaster. He’s changed the landscape of the team since their 2011 campaign and even recruited former South Sydney Premiership winner Sam Burgess as England’s answer to Sonny Bill Williams playing him as a hard-hitting centre, but will it be enough to get past both Australia and Wales in the pool matches?
To break it down further so you have a clearer understanding of just how the competition is structured, the top 20 countries in the world are divided into four pools of five teams creatively named Pool A, Pool B, Pool C and Pool D. Each pool is a single round-robin of ten games, in which each team plays one match against each of the other teams in the same pool. Teams are awarded four points for a win, two points for a draw and zero points for a loss, a team scoring four or more tries in one match will also secure a bonus point. The two teams which finish top of each pool will advance to the quarter-finals and compete in a knock-out competition until there is only one team left standing.
TEAMS TO WATCH
When it comes to teams to watch, you’re certainly spoilt for choice, but none are more highly-anticipated as front-runners to get their hands on the Webb Ellis Cup (the official trophy awarded to the winning team) than defending champions, New Zealand. The All Blacks, as they’re more commonly known are New Zealand’s national team and coincidentally they wear all black, so you won’t mistake them for any other team in the tournament. They’re led by possibly the best captain the sporting world has ever seen, Richie McCaw.
Now this is where I must insert a disclaimer and let you all know that not only am I a huge All Blacks supporter, but I’m also an honorary member of the Richie McCaw fan club. Richie really deserves a post of his own to cover all his career achievements; He’s international rugby’s most-capped Test player having run out onto the field 142 times for New Zealand of which he’s been victorious in over 90% of those clashes, and taken top-honours as the IRB (International Rugby’s Governing body) Player of the Year a record three times.
If you hear a Kiwi pray to God, they’re actually praying to Richie who took on his God-like status after leading New Zealand to victory in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. And just when you thought this guy must have his head so far up in the clouds, you’ll be surprised to learn Richie famously turned down a Knighthood offered to him by New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key in 2012, as well as declining an invite to the Royal wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, preferring to concentrate on the Rugby World Cup and world domination.
Richie is also known in rugby circles for pushing the boundaries of the breakdown and occasionally being offside at a ruck, naturally I have no statistics to back this up so I’m not even sure this has ever happened! My tip here ladies is first confirm the nationality of the person you’re engaging with, if you detect a Kiwi accent then all you need to do is praise Richie and his leadership skills, the more superlatives you use the better! Think of words such as, “magnificent, formidable, remarkable and stellar” to give you a few ideas. If you’re conversing with any other nationality in the world, just call him a cheat and ask if he’s been spotted offside yet.
Another team to watch out for sitting pretty at No.2 in world rankings, yet seemingly overlooked as a genuine threat in this competition is Australia. Their confidence is sky-high thanks to victories over the All Blacks and the Springboks in The Rugby Championship and their new coach, Michael Cheika has a proven track record as the man for the job having previously won the biggest tournament in Europe with Leinster and the Super Rugby Championship with the Waratahs. He’s managed to turn around a less than average Australia squad in a little over a year and made them true World Cup contenders.
So ladies, if you’re Australian be proud of your men in gold! They’ve come a long way in a very short time, so far along in fact that former New Zealand back Mike Delany considers them the dark horse of the tournament. Delany says Australia look to be building and don’t have the same pressure on them that both the All Blacks and England carry, they have a tough Pool to get through but the team is also a lot more balanced now thanks to Cheika’s influence as coach.
If you’re a fan of the Emerald Isle, Leprechauns, shamrocks or maybe just a lover of the colour green, Ireland is your team. Having reached as high as No.2 in the IRB Rankings earlier this year off the success of their Six Nations win, they’ve proven they can mix with the best and this could be their year to reach the finals. Historically Ireland has never advanced past the quarter-final stage of the World Cup and the key to their game will be to top their pool to avoid facing New Zealand in the quarters. However, former Irish scrumhalf Isaac Boss tells me he’s quietly confident they have the ability to cause an upset and pip New Zealand at the post, however I can’t help but wonder, have they peaked too soon?
Fancy a little je ne sais quoi? Then say bonjour to Les Blues! The French Rugby Union team has all but been written off as a fierce contender for World Cup honours recently due to an unimpressive finish in the Six Nations but as a Kiwi I can put hand-on-heart and say this team, more than most others, makes the tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Seemingly flying under the radar, this deadly attacker stalks it’s prey, usually New Zealand, and when the time to kill is right, they make no mistake of missing the heart of a nation. Am I being over-dramatic? No. France famously overcame all odds to end New Zealand’s World Cup dreams prematurely on two occasions, the 1999 semi-final and the 2007 quarter-final. They are powerful and have a great World Cup history having appeared in three finals, but are yet to win. This could be their year to cause a major upset so expect the unexpected!
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH
The stage is set for a showdown of old vs. new – Stars will rise, points will be scored and familiar but formidable faces will get set to do battle one final time. If you don’t remember anything I’ve taught you about the RWC, remember at least one of these names:
Julian Savea (New Zealand)
Watch out for the lethal All Black winger, he’s scored 30 tries in 35 Tests and earned himself a nomination for World Player of the Year. He’s both powerful and quick and this World Cup will see him have the opportunity to equal the record number of tries, or even go one better than some of the greats before him.
Nemani Nadolo (Fiji)
He has a reputation as one of world rugby’s most feared players and given his gigantic proportions (he stands 1.94m tall and weighs 125kg) coupled with his versatility at both wing and centre, plus throw in speed, agility and his ability to kick goals, it’s no wonder why! He’s achieved a lot in the past two seasons playing with the Crusaders and has made it clear that Fiji are not just in the tournament to make up numbers, they’re there to stamp their mark.
Sam Burgess (England)
One of the most talked about players of the World Cup, Burgess made a high profile switch from NRL to Rugby Union less than a year ago with the goal of being selected to represent England at the Rugby World Cup. Goal achieved. Although his selection has drawn much scepticism from experts, England coach Stuart Lancaster feels he’s earned his place in the team after impressing in their 10-week training camp. He’s been played in both the forwards and the backs but is set to make his World Cup debut at centre. Not only is he quick but he also brings power and physicality to the game. Burgess says the transition from league to rugby wasn’t as easy as he expected and there’s been areas of the game he’s struggled with, but the more time he spends on the field the better his transition is becoming.
Nehe Milner-Skudder (New Zealand)
An emerging player to watch, Milner-Skudder only has two Test caps to his name but is already predicted to be one of the tournaments top try-scorers after his two tries against Australia on debut. New Zealand will want to protect their star winger Julian Savea for their bigger games which means Milner-Skudder could fill his boots in the pool matches against the likes of Namibia and Georgia, and if they don’t pick him up early, we could see him run in multiple tries. And if I still haven’t validated why you should remember this name, Sonny Bill rates him as one of his favourite players, point made.
Thierry Dusautoir (France)
Not only was Dusautoir crowned 2011 IRB Player of the Year, but he also won man of the match in the World Cup final against New Zealand, which is an incredibly mean feat when you’re not from the winning team. Dusautoir plays with passion and displays consistently excellent form and inspirational leadership. This will be his third World Cup but he’s yet to revel in the splendours of a win, anything is possible and expect to see Dusautoir step up to the challenge.
Israel Folau (Australia)
He was already a household name in Australia for his achievements in Rugby League and it wasn’t long before he had AFL bosses knocking on his door waving wads of cash in his face enticing him to code-hop. His stint in AFL was short-lived before he once again switched codes to join forces with Australia and score two tries on debut against the British and Irish Lions in 2013. His impact on the game was sudden and he’s considered one of the most dangerous attacking players in the world. He recently became the only back-to-back winner of the John Eales Medal, the highest honours bestowed in Australian Rugby. Having already scored 18 tries in 33 Tests for Australia, expect to watch that number grow skyward as we witness his prowess during the World Cup.
Dan Carter (New Zealand)
Dan, Dan he’s our man, if he can’t kick it, no one can! Another of New Zealand’s favourite sons, Carter has been one of the best five-eighths in the world for a long time. Two-time recipient of the IRB Player of the Year award, Carter will be sure to impress with his golden boot and is a strong contender to secure top point scorer in the competition. Sadly for legions of fans throughout the world, Carter is retiring from International rugby at the conclusion of the World Cup, but never fear, it won’t be the last time you see him strap on his boots as he’s signed a lucrative three-year deal with French team Racing Metro.
MY HIT PREDICTION
I think this World Cup we’ll see Richie McCaw become the first captain in history to win back-to-back titles in a finals clash against our big brothers across the ditch, Australia. The days of New Zealand peaking too soon are over and they have every positional base covered. I know what you’re thinking, a Kiwi making this call, how biased, one-eyed, delusional and predictable! And maybe to an extent you’re right, I read an article Dan Carter wrote for The Players’ Tribune which was so profound in its accuracy, “Rugby is often compared to a religion in our country, but that may be cutting it short. Religious people may waver in their faith from time to time, but New Zealand’s passion for rugby is truly constant”.
When asked for his predictions, former Fox Sports Rugby Correspondent Gerard Middleton said he’s going with his head rather than his heart and agrees that New Zealand are the champions of the game. Middleton said New Zealand’s experience will get them over the line and included in that experience is not only their depth of talent, but the experience of losing the World Cup in 2007 when they were dramatically sent packing by France in the quarters, their earliest exit from the tournament in history.
Anything can happen in a World Cup and Julian Huxley knows this better than most after playing for Australia in their quarter-final loss to England in the 2007 World Cup. Huxley said the only good thing about Australia being knocked out of World Cup contention by England in the quarters was that New Zealand got knocked out by France in the very next game. To him it was validation that no team is unbeatable, if the top team in the world can be knocked off their perch, anyone can. At the end of the day the last team standing will be the one that makes the least mistakes.