Many countries have now named their squads for the Rugby World Cup in September, and it’s a good opportunity to evaluate the styles of rugby that will be on display.
The top nations will have had one eye on France 2007 since Australia 2003, and have been building their teams and developing their game plans. Each national coach will have a different idea of what it takes to win the Webb Ellis Cup, and there will be a fascinating mixture of playing styles on display in September and October.
The Tri-Nations in the south and the warm-up Test series in the north have provided us with a number of clues as to how the top 6 challengers will approach the tournament.
The defending champions have named a squad that suggests they will focus on forward power as they attempt to defend their title. Expect to see a big forward pack, with giants in white shirts running directly into the heart of the opposition defence, and look out for Jonny Wilkinson kicking for the corners and taking any opportunity to score points with his boot. Their backs have been selected for their size and defensive prowess, rather than their cunning attacking abilities and their line will not be easy to breach. The English ‘ten-man rugby’ will not be the most exciting to watch, but it means they will be competitive.
England’s Pool A opponents will also employ the power game. South Africa is known for its physicality on the rugby field, with its huge, aggressive forwards living on the edge of rugby law. The Springboks will look to blitz their opponents at the breakdown, forcing turnovers and allowing them to release their flying back three on the counter-attack. Butch James at fly-half will look to kick behind defences, knowing that his forwards will chase and apply pressure in the opposition territory and any mistakes will be punished with a score. The inimitable Schalk Burger will lead the ruthless forwards and Bryan Habana will offer the greatest threat on the wing.
In contrast to England and South Africa’s forward-dominated approach, the Wallabies will look to play their matches away from their pack. Australia’s front five is lightweight compared to some other teams, and John Connolly’s men will aim to use their hugely experienced backline. Captain Stirling Mortlock will control the game from centre, and fly-half Stephen Larkham will launch wave after wave of attacks, releasing the likes of Lote Tuquiri at pace to put defenders on the back foot and create gaps for the next phase.
Ireland will also focus on their strength in the backs – the exciting centre pairing of Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll has the potential to dazzle opponents with quick feet and speed off the mark. However, their pack is not to be underestimated – with Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan, they have two of the best locks in world rugby. Fly-half Ronan O’Gara will kick for the corners, looking to use the lineout as an attacking platform from which to deliver quick ball to the quick men out wide.
Bernard Laporte’s France team is notoriously unpredictable and as the host nation, and with an unforgiving rugby public, the pressure on the side will be immense. Judging by their display against England on Saturday, they will be solid in defence and very difficult to break down. They have a phenomenal back row, a powerful front five and in Serge Betsen, they have one of the strongest opensides in the tournament. Expect ‘les bleus’ to soak up attacks by ferociously defending at the fringes of a breakdown, and then pouncing on any mistakes. David Skrela at fly-half will be unforgiving in his goal-kicking, while Yannick Jauzion, Aurelie Rougerie and Clement Poitrenaud will be difficult to stop in attack.
The All Blacks are favourites, and when considering playing styles, it is easy to see why – they seem to have it all. Traditionally, their strength has been their back line and their tendency to attack at ferocious speed and offload to the seemingly endless queue of support runners. This will be their main weapon, but they have the ability to adapt their style to whatever it takes to win. If they need to keep it tight and slug it out up front against South Africa and England, they can – as they showed in the final match of the Tri-Nations. New Zealand have the strongest front row in the world, Chris Jack is an outstanding lineout jumper and Richie McCaw will dominate at the breakdown. If the game opens up and they need to put width on the ball, Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu are the ideal candidates to do just that.
In 2003, England won the World Cup by employing the right strategy at the right time, knowing what it would take to beat each side in whatever conditions were thrown at them. New Zealand look as if they now have that quality and the trophy is theirs for the taking.
By James Hutchison