I've just watched the defiantly quaint Springbok send-off gala in Jo-burg, complete with gold trimmed Boy's Own blazers and every squad member wearing his tasseled cap. It was a relief from the Gaygear soccer uniforms they and others will don post Sept 7th. Thoughts naturally turn to who might win the RWC 2007? The town of Paarl on South Africa is not large, which is why you have never heard of it. They have two main schools there, Paarl Gymnasie and Paarl High. I watched as the two school teams slugged it out on Supersport TV. The crowd was merely twenty thousand. If passionate addiction to rugby would bring home the trophy, surely the Springboks would carry it off easily.
I am not sure that will happen. The build-up of the Wallabies and All-Blacks has been enveloped in a dark cloak of secrecy and we know next to nothing of their post Tri-Nations XVs. Ireland, who promised so much, appear woeful and exposed for depth, Wales are a shambles, Scotland awful and the less said about England the better.
The team that has impressed most is home ground France and by the length of a punt at that. Their tough build-up of two games against England and one with Wales were easily won. Everything about them looks complete, polished and even easy. More ominously, they appear complete for the sort of European pitches the Australians and South Africans in particular are not used to. As for depth they have been able to put out close to 45 different players without their pulse rate rising above 72 bpm. Formidable and frightening Frogs would be an apt moniker.
Naturally the Brazil of rugby, the All-Blacks, remains firm favorites. Just like Brazil, they sometimes fail to deliver, are prone to choking and can fall apart. They have problems at centre unless Mauger is fully fit and their line-out does not impress any more than No 10 Dan Carter's 2007 form. They however do possess a great backrow, superb strikers like Rokokoko and perhaps overlooked , the finest bench of impact players of all. Their ability to double the game's tempo in the second half is incomparable. Thus they will be finalists if the rounds go according to form but may have peaked in 2006 when they needed to do so this RWC year.
Their opponents, if they reach the final, are likely to be the Springboks or the French and I tend to think the latter. South Africa has the best scum half in the world (Du Preez), the most lethal winger (Habana), a massive, skilled presence in the second row and, at least until wonder boy Pierre Spies developed embolisms, a backrow of exceptional lethality with Burger and Juan Smith. Their build-up and lack of racial interference from politicians has been smooth and unexpected. What counts against them is a fade-out tendency in the last quarter and an inability to punch attacking holes with their backs. They can poach intercept tries, in this they are masters. Yet with the defensive styles employed in RWC ties, snatch-and-grab opportunities may not be there for them. Will they get past England? Probably. Will they pip the French on a home ground semi? I think not, but unlike the 2003 Boks, they are well capable of beating any team and going all the way. One more problem is that since “nobody has ever met a nice South African”, the refs tend to single them out for decisions in the 50/50 phases.
England retains a formidable pack but outside one J.Wilkinson seem impotent and clueless in the backline. If they don't get by the Boks who seem to freeze whenever they face England, then a dumping in the quarter-finals is their likely fate. To win the World Cup you need world class players. In 2003 they had perhaps four. This year, Wilkinson included, they have none.
With no European nation save France likely putting a hand up, Argentina remain dark horses who could upset any team, starting with France in the opening RWC match on Sept 7th. However, the Argentina team is not as good as it was a year or two ago and the momentum towards the Pumas XV becoming a Top 5 ranked rugby nation has slowed.
Australia has a veteran team and is renowned for their clever and even sly rugby. With George Gregan as the most capped rugby international of all time, his sublime partnership with fly half Stephen Larkham plus the skills of centre Matt Giteau and fullback Chris Latham, Australia will be the equal of anyone. Masters of gamesmanship, sledging and referee tweaking, nobody should underestimate the Australian ability to dominate a match psychologically, even one they otherwise deserve to lose. Their biggest block to a final spot will probably be a semi against the All Blacks but they, like South Africa, have no fear at all of the favorites and could easily swing the upset of the tournament.