As a rugby-mad New Zealander and a fervent supporter of the mighty All Blacks, I both love and loathe the Rugby World Cup.
I love it when my team is winning, of course, but when my team fails to live up to its formidable reputation and we go limping out of the cup like, well, England has at this one, I always tell myself “it’s only the Rugby World Cup; it’s world rankings and winning records that matter most of all”.
But I’m particularly excited about this World Cup. Already, just a few weeks in, it’s looking like the 2015 iteration could well be the best Rugby World Cup ever. Here’s why…
5. The minnows are fighting back
When I woke up to the news that rugby minnows Japan had managed to topple rugby heavy weights South Africa, I thought I was still asleep. Seriously, has there ever been a bigger upset in the world of sport?
To put it into context – South Africa have won the Rugby World Cup twice (1995 and 2007), whereas lowly Japan hadn’t won a World Cup game since 1991. It’s no wonder that Japan is now everyone’s second favourite team at this World Cup.
Meanwhile, speaking of upsets, Georgia beating Tonga was another big one at this World Cup. The Tonga team aren’t push-overs, having beaten eventual finalists France during pool play at the last World Cup. I’m sure I speak for all New Zealanders when I say I was impressed by their gutsy effort recently against the All Blacks.
If the Rugby World Cup is only as strong as its weakest side, then this must surely be one of the strongest competitions since the first Rugby World Cup in 1987.
4. Pool of Death
To have England, Australia and Wales in the same pool at this Rugby World Cup has breathed new life into a competition that, let’s be honest, usually only gets interesting during the sudden-death playoff stages.
It’s unlikely to ever happen again, too; there’s already been talk from World Cup bosses about ensuring dog-fights between top tier rugby nations never happen during the pool stages of the competition ever again. That would be a real shame – but of course I would say that, I’m not an English rugby supporter.
Which brings us to the third reason why this might be the best Rugby World Cup ever…
3. England is out
When former All Black lock Ali Williams hit the headlines just before the 2015 Rugby World Cup kicked off for telling a French newspaper that England are the team everyone wants to beat, I’d bet that most players quietly agreed with him.
England have the greatest resources of all rugby-playing nations, the most players, the biggest fan base, and, easily, the most obnoxious media. Seemingly at every global sporting event the British press build up their team, only to kick them when they fail. It’s particularly bad during Football World Cups and in the lead up to The Ashes.
So on one level I do feel bad for the English rugby team, but on another level it’s hugely satisfying to see them drop out of their own World Cup. Plus it means that one of the minnows will sneak through to the playoffs.
2. There’s no clear-cut favourite…
As the number-one ranked team at virtually every Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks are usually raging favourites to win. That they’ve only managed to win it twice, despite the team’s winning record against every rugby nation, is a source of much frustration for New Zealanders and much mirth for English rugby writers.
However, I’d argue that the 2015 Rugby World Cup is unique in that it’s much harder to choose a clear-cut favourite at this late stage in the race to the playoffs. Of the major nations, any team could win it – except England, of course (just had to rub it in one more time) – which makes for an excellent, highly competitive tournament.
Two-time World Cup winners Australia look pretty good (it might be worth placing a little wager on them via William Hill), as do Ireland, France, and even Wales (provided they don’t suffer any more injuries). Meanwhile, the Argentinian team is a dark horse at this competition, and you mustn’t ever write off South Africa, despite losing to Japan.
And then, of course, there are the mighty All Blacks.
1. …but I still think the All Blacks should win
Okay, so the All Blacks haven’t exactly set the world on fire so far in the competition. The team’s handling and decision making has been poor, Dan Carter has looked like a shadow of his former self, and we’ve yet to get out of second gear against weaker opposition – but I still think that we have the best team in the competition, man to man.
Besides, at other tournaments (I’m thinking of the 2007 Rugby World Cup in particular) the All Blacks have played top-class rugby from the outset and blown away their opposition, only to fizzle out when things got tough during the playoffs. Perhaps this time the opposite will be true, and we’ll fizzle during pool play but explode to life when it really matters.
At least I’m hoping – praying – that this will be the case. Go the All Blacks!