Much can change in the space of 12 months. Just ask Boris Johnson. Or, indeed, Vladimir Putin. In politics, as well as rugby union, it pays to assume very little. If anyone a year ago had predicted yellow and blue Ukrainian flags fluttering in every British town or Liz Truss becoming the UK’s next prime minister they would have been quietly escorted from the building.
Which is why the world’s leading rugby nations should assume nothing a year out from the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Right now you would probably back France to beat New Zealand on the tournament’s opening night. But if there are untimely French injuries or a Parisian monsoon would you put your chateau on it? Call it the Truss Effect. Because if the past two months have shown anything it is that the rugby world has rarely been less stable or predictable.
The margins at the top level have also shrunk to near invisibility. Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales have all enjoyed at least one victory over a southern hemisphere nation inside the past two months. But how much does that prove? Argentina have just beaten New Zealand one week and lost by 50 points the next. The Wallabies had South Africa on toast in Adelaide only to be reduced to smashed avo in Sydney seven days later. And so on.
Remember, too, the zigzagging journey taken by South Africa to the 2019 title, clinched by a thumping final win over England in Yokohama. A year previously, under the same management and with a similar squad, it was a different story. In the Rugby Championship the Springboks were beaten by Australia and Argentina and ended up losing as many games as they won.
Few mentioned that minor detail when Siya Kolisi was hoisting the Webb Ellis trophy aloft. It will be the same if another southern hemisphere side manages to win the 2023 edition. The Boks, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina have all had their downbeat days but a champagne moment or two in France can not be ruled out.
Why so? Because the leaderboard has never been so tightly bunched and winning seven games on the bounce has become tougher than ever. Take England, drawn in a supposedly comfortable pool with Argentina, Japan, Samoa and Chile. Which version of Pumas will emerge? The warriors who stood so tall defensively in Christchurch to register their first Test win in New Zealand? Or something slightly less intimidating?
The simplistic theory is that if England beat Argentina at Twickenham in November they will be odds-on to do likewise in Marseille next September. It is not an argument that convinces the passionate Agustín Creevy, the erstwhile Pumas captain still hoping to feature at the World Cup when he will be 38. “It’s not the same,” he says firmly, explaining why a World Cup game in the south of France will be appreciably different from an autumn international in south-west London.
“When you play in the World Cup you have a lot of emotions in your body that you don’t have in a ‘normal’ Test match. The team that wins will be the one that can control them best. It’s going to be an interesting game.”
Creevy is not just saying all this for effect. Having been around the block in both hemispheres, he is genuinely convinced Argentina will be a substantially stronger proposition in a year’s time. “We are going to become better and better,” says the London Irish hooker.
“We have a lot of things to develop but the young boys we have are amazing. We’re not perfect – in the scrum we need to work a lot – but we want to be the best version of us. I am optimistic. We just need to believe and trust in ourselves.”
In fairness,the home unions will be saying something similar. Keep Johnny Sexton on the field and Ireland can dream big after their stunning tour of New Zealand. Imagine Wales with all their best players fit. Or Scotland turning promise into consistent achievement. Or England finally settling on their best, most effective combinations. They are ranked fifth in the world and need to locate an extra gear this autumn.
Sitting in Ellis Park the other week watching the Boks tackle the All Blacks, Eddie Jones will have been reminded of the extra physical and mental intensity required to outflank two nations who, between them, have lifted the past four World Cups.
In that sense, England’s encounter with the All Blacks in November will be a useful barometer of their present standing. Jones cannot have failed to notice the rise of Samisoni Taukei’aho as New Zealand’s frontline hooker, the continuing impact of Ardie Savea or the attacking threat of Rieko Ioane, who looked deadly against the Pumas in Hamilton. No frills, straighter running, more energy … even non-vintage New Zealand sides look decent when they have front-foot ball to play with.
There can be no guarantees for anyone, though, that France 2023 will pan out as anticipated. Old-fashioned luck will always play its part, not least in terms of key playmakers staying fit. No one wants to see France without, say, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, with the brilliant Racing 92 centre Virimi Vakatawa, sadly, already likely to be non-runner.
High-profile reshuffles at the top can also be transformational. Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika have already returned to the dancefloor, hoping to wrongfoot their previous employers. Others, Jones included, have been holding a few things back. The only certainty? The 2023 Rugby World Cup will be a tournament like no other.
Big season ahead
It is no secret British club rugby is not flush with money, even if some of the alarming financial figures relating to loss-making Premiership sides are being vigorously disputed. It is equally obvious, though, that people’s disposable income will be reduced this winter. Already, The Breakdown is hearing of clubs being invited to apply for as many tickets as they wish for the Six Nations game between England and Italy in February, with the initial Rugby Football Union ballot having been undersubscribed.
Adult tickets for England’s games against Argentina and Japan start at a punchy £76. Balancing the books is clearly important but the product on the field also has to be attractive, particularly with a football World Cup and a rugby league World Cup looming. If British rugby union wants to expand its audience and market share, the next 18 months feel highly significant.
And finally …
The good news is that some things never change. The familiar clatter of studs down the corridor, the freshly cut grass, even the first peep of the referee’s whistle … an addiction to sport can be hard to shake.
This year, though, there is no overlooking the darker side of modern rugby, ranging from the consequences of repeated head injuries to the abuse of match officials and racist, sexist or homophobic behaviour. So here’s the Breakdown’s simple aide memoire for players, coaches and supporters: 1) If in doubt, sit them out; and 2) Be kind. Here’s to an enjoyable season for all, on and off the field.
Still want more?
Brian O’Driscoll tells Donald McRae about his new documentary on sport and mental health.
Michael Aylwin previews the new Premiership season with many clubs desperate for money.
Angus Fontaine analyses how Australia were demolished by South Africa.
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