All hail the world rankings. That much-mocked system of musical chairs, from New Zealand to Wales to Ireland to Uncle Tom Cobley, is the proper indicator of an essential truth as Rugby World Cup 2019 fast approaches – namely, that no one has a clue who will win it. And for that we can be thankful.
The labyrinth calculations that have taken place over recent weeks, a sort of Duckworth-Lewis with studs on, with a constant turnover of first seeds (currently Ireland, for the first time in their history despite having had only a middling 2019) serves to remind us that this World Cup is shaping up to be the most closely contested on record with half-a-dozen genuine contenders… and the French.
Those who roll their eyes at the thought of our Gallic cousins having a claim on the Webb Ellis trophy in Yokohama on Nov 2, were obviously not in New Zealand in 2011 when les Bleus were a basket case for much of the tournament only to lose by a point, 8-7, (courtesy of dodgy refereeing) to the All Blacks in the final. New Zealand were the best team in that tournament: France were the better team on the day.
But, yes, we can also consider France to be no-hopers on their form of the past few years: clueless, slipshod, off the pace and off message. Only the French can do this. Knowing them, they probably landed in sunshine and fair winds in Tokyo, while the rest of the teams were battered and delayed by Typhoon Faxai. Perverseness is their calling card.
The “Big Six” have no such fault lines. True, they can suffer the occasional setback, but even if the likes of the Wallabies have hit the skids on occasions, their 47-26 victory over New Zealand in Perth last month is a pointer to their potential potency. The Australia cricket team were no great shakes 12 months ago. The Wallabies are twice World Cup winners and two-time runners-up. They a team for a tournament.
The prospects of New Zealand, South Africa, England, Wales and Ireland are based on more solid foundations, track records that stretch back over the past four years to the World Cup in England, won by the All Blacks.
There is little sign that this event will be a procession to the podium for any of the leading lights. It may have taken some Dan Carter stardust to be sprinkled over the Twickenham turf in the final against Australia to take New Zealand clear and become the first side to retain the trophy, but there was always a certain inevitability that the glory would be theirs.
The gap has closed and while it is equally a pity that the gap between tier-one and tier-two countries seems as wide, if not wider, as ever, the knockout stages when the best eight teams fight it out promise to be ultra-competitive.
Carter was a stand-out act of 2015 and if the appalling news last week of Chester Williams’ death from a heart attack at the age of 49 served to remind us of anything, it is to seize the moment by cherishing these athletes performing in their prime. That is the overriding hope for many of us as we prepare for seven weeks of action in Japan, that the players reach their respective peaks of excellence for these are the days of their youth and pass by in a blink.
We might wish too that the action is rousing, engaging and surprising, and that the tournament is slick, as well as fun.
Given there were pictures of 6,000-7,000 Japanese fans at Springbok training in Kagoshima, as well as several hundred waiting outside New Zealand’s hotel in Kashiwa for the All Blacks’ delayed arrival, it suggests that the locals will get behind the tournament no matter how their own team fare.
We all yearn for a repeat of the Brave Blossoms’ stunner over South Africa in Brighton, and that sort of moment may have traction on the final weekend of pool action when Jamie Joseph’s team face Scotland in Yokohama on Oct 13.
It would be a notable upside to RWC2019 if the tier-two countries were not just fodder for the big boys. If a World Cup is to have credibility then it needs contests across the board.
Any sport that has terrestrial TV exposure – and every one of the 48 matches in Japan will be on an ITV channel – will have to do something seriously wrong if it is not to leave a sizeable imprint on the public consciousness. Rugby has a captive audience over the next couple of months and it would be a wasted opportunity if, by Nov 2, we do not have a latter-day Williams or Jonah Lomu in our hearts as well as in our mind’s eye. There is a trophy to be won but, more than that, there are kids to inspire and a global audience to thrill. Move over cricket.
It is rugby’s turn.