In the aftermath of the Rugby World Cup draw in London on Monday, I couldn’t help feeling that talk of fixtures and form was all a little premature, a bit like crowning the royal embryo as the future King or Queen, as some papers are doing today.
I understand the need to conduct the draw so far in advance of the tournament – the draw determines the fixtures, around which much of the logistics are based – but the discussion around the makeup of each pool is almost meaningless with nearly three years to go.
After the draw was made, the coach and captain from each of the main countries was subjected to repetitive media questions about the quality of the opposition in their respective pools. Their response was almost unanimous and the questions were easier than ever to fend off with a straight bat.
“It’s pretty hard 3 years out to predict where you’re going to be at, but having the host nation in your pool is exciting and there will be a lot of buzz about that game” said Robbie Deans, the Australia coach.
Fellow Kiwi Steve Hansen followed suit. “Everyone is going to test you at a World Cup. Tonga has already shown that they can beat France, and if you don’t respect a team, you’ll get your rear end spanked. Nobody has a god-given right to get through to the quarter-finals.”
And South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer, a man notorious for giving nothing away to the press, replied, “If you want to win the World Cup, you have to win all seven games, and that’s the approach we’ll take.” He also noted that, “three years is a long time in a South African coach’s path, so firstly we’ll have to get to the World Cup.”
England coach Stuart Lancaster was no different, noting that “every pool has tough sides to beat, and they are all tough pools…but I guess it was fate that Wales and England would be drawn together.”
But Lancaster also declared that his plan is for England to be a different team in 2015. “I want England to be a top 2 side by the time the World Cup comes around, and if we get there, it makes it all seem different.”
This is the most pertinent point amongst all the ‘no easy game’ cliches, because if you are one of the best sides in the competition, nearly every route through the tournament looks more benign. The coaches and players know this, but there were no questions about development plans over the next three years, defining an approach to unlock any defence or blooding young players to give them experience.
England were drawn with South Africa in their pool in 2003, but it didn’t seem to be a huge concern, because England were the best side in the world. They had beaten every team, had huge experience and knew how to win matches. New Zealand go into nearly every tournament in that position, and they don’t really care who they have in their group.
Both Wales and England could feasibly be ranked above Australia by the time 2015 comes around, Ireland may be ahead of France, whilst Samoa could be in the top four. The point is that you just don’t know, and the focus must be on becoming one of the best sides in the world rather than worrying about who is or isn’t in your pool.
Performances and progress over the next couple of years will be significantly more indicative as to who will do well in the Rugby World Cup, and there are reasons for optimism for all of the home nations.