Spectator sport

Whisper it, but could England win the next Rugby World Cup?

20 March 2014

3:00 PM

20 March 2014

3:00 PM

There are many eternal questions. Why do all aircraft, no matter how much your ticket cost, where you’ve come from, and what time you land, always dock at a gate requiring a walk of not less than 47 miles to the terminal? Why was there no running water in the taps on my train to Cheltenham on Friday? And why, beyond being an idiot, did I back Lord Windermere in the Gold Cup, but only for a place, thus depriving myself of several hundred quid? I suppose being an idiot does it.

Now add another question, but whisper it: could England actually win the 2015 Rugby World Cup? They just failed to win the Six Nations because Ireland scraped a thrilling victory over France in the best and last game of a brilliant championship. England should have eyes now only on next September. They do need to win their World Cup pool, which would give a relatively easy path to the final. But if they come second, South Africa and New Zealand lie in wait on a very rocky path to glory. Standing in England’s way at the group stage are potential elephant traps in the shape of Wales and Australia. Wales could be the greater hurdle, because they only ever seem to care about beating England, hence their appalling record against southern hemisphere opposition. That group match should be thrilling. And painful. Squadrons of Welsh players started the third Test for the Lions in Sydney last summer. How many would you put in a Lions team now? Four or five, maybe.

Home advantage always helps and the rediscovery of the Twickenham roar, when HQ was in danger of becoming a cemetery, has been immensely important. Stuart Lancaster, who is turning out to be a hugely impressive leader, has done an impeccable job of re-engaging his players with the nation and with their own history: from making them write on their jersey what it means to them, to putting the names of every other player in that position above the pegs in the Twickenham dressing room, and parking the team bus in the car park — an idea he nicked from Toulon — so the players have to walk through the crowd.

Are all Lancaster’s replacements good enough? You don’t win a World Cup with 15 players (the All Blacks won the last one with their fourth-choice fly half) and Lancaster is developing a rich squad in more or less all positions. When Marlon Yarde and Christian Wade are fit, there is clearly good competition on the wings, and the back row, too, with Billy Vunipola and Tom Croft to come back. There are worries about the hooker, though (replacement Tom Youngs can’t throw or hook, which could be a worry), and scrum-half, where Danny Care has been a revelation, but Lee Dickson less so. And it’s a pity George Ford has only had a few minutes so far as Owen Farrell’s understudy.

Hurrah for Ireland, though! They were worthy winners, but will the milking of Brian O’Driscoll for one last season be damaging? The Six Nations winners now only have a handful of matches to blood a new centre partnership, and Gordon D’Arcy is starting to look his age.

And here’s a thing, as football starts to flood the back pages again. During the England-Wales game, the BBC idiotically decided to interview footballing show-offs Joey Barton and Robbie Savage at half-time. They said how impressed they were by how hard the players collided. They could have added how they never go to ground in simulated pain, how they shake hands and call the referee ‘Sir’, how the players accept decisions or how the crowd applauds when an injured opponent is carried off, and how rival fans can be trusted to sit next to each other and drink while watching their sport. Truly a civilised game.

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