World Cup watch: Home Nations

After all the build-up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup, it is finally time for the talking to stop and the action to begin. Twenty teams matching up in Rugby Union’s showpiece event, all hoping to embrace victory on the biggest stage. For teams such as Uruguay, Namibia and Romania, the opportunity for unknown players to test themselves against some of the game’s greats is a dream come true. While for teams such as New Zealand, England and Wales the opportunity to compete with their main rivals for the sport’s biggest prize and win the World Cup remains the ultimate objective. Arguably the most difficult World Cup to call in history – with as many as six or seven teams in contention for the title – the 2015 tournament is set up perfectly for six weeks of rugby as hosts England prepare to welcome the Rugby world. So with the World Cup on British soil for the first time in 16 years, what better time for the home nations to usurp the Southern Hemisphere giants and be crowned world champions. So how will the home nations fare?

England

Tournament hosts, England come into the tournament as second-favourites for the title behind reigning champions New Zealand. Led by coach Stuart Lancaster, England have been a consistently solid team under Lancaster and have enjoyed victories over all of the major rugby nations -with the exception of South Africa – during Lancaster’s tenure. Drawn in the so-called group of death alongside rivals Wales and Australia, Lancaster’s team will have to hit the ground running from the start if they are to make it out of such a difficult group. However, over the last few years, England have proven themselves capable of beating any side on their day and have the players to back it up. Under Lancaster, England have always had a pack strong enough to match anyone in the world, but have been criticised at times for showing a lack of imagination amongst their backs. The introduction of the likes of George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Mike Brown has brought an extra-dimension to this current England side as seen during this year’s Six Nations where England played a more entertaining brand of rugby that saw them fall agonisingly close in their pursuit of the title. Lancaster will need captain Chris Robshaw to galvanise his team-mates to play in a similar fashion if they are to go all the way and with the backing of home support, anything is possible.

Wales

A team full of proven winners, Wales go into this year’s tournament as another of the sides to watch out for. With many Welsh players having enjoyed success over the last few years, Warren Gatland’s team will be confident that they can make their mark in this tournament at the crucial moments. Lions head coach for the victorious tour of Australia in 2013, Gatland will be looking to build upon the last World Cup four years ago, where Wales captivated fans with their  wonderful attacking rugby taking them to the semi-finals where they fell just short of a first World Cup final. Inspired by their achievement, a team led by young captain Sam Warburton returned home determined to avenge their near miss. Using their disappointment as motivation, they went on to win the Grand Slam in 2012 and retained their Six Nations crown a year later with a resounding victory over England in Cardiff. A game based on getting the ball out quickly to powerful runners such as Jamie Roberts and George North has yielded much success and the effectiveness of this game-plan seen previously will be needed if Wales are to make it out of a tough-looking group. Injuries on the eve of the tournament to key players Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny are huge blows for Gatland’s side but with talented players such as Liam Williams and Gareth Davies to come in, Wales will still prove to be a difficult side to turn over.

Ireland

The reigning Six Nations champions for the last two seasons, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland side have been the dominant northern hemisphere nation since the Kiwi coach took over in 2013. Schmidt has come in and re-energised an Ireland side who seemed to be losing their way under previous coach Declan Kidney. Led by the talismanic Paul O’Connell, Ireland have shown their qualities in both attack and defence under Schmidt and victories over South Africa and Australia, along with their Six Nations triumphs, recently saw them rise to second place in the world rankings (unchartered territory for the home nations of late). With arguably one of the best fly-halves in world rugby, in Jonny Sexton, pulling the strings behind an aggressive pack, Ireland have also proven to be tactically superior than many of the other nations competing in this year’s tournament and for this reason remain arguably the most likely to dismount the southern hemisphere giants. Despite this, with defeats to both Wales and England in recent warm-up games, the Irish come into the tournament with a little less momentum than some of their rivals, but in a group missing all three of the southern hemisphere big-guns, should still canter through and be ready for the bigger tests that lie ahead.

Scotland

A side seemingly shorn of confidence and pride following their dismal showing at this year’s Six Nations, Scotland are unlikely to mount a challenge for the Webb Ellis Cup. Vern Cotter’s arrival last year looked to have brought a more steely edge to the Scottish game with an impressive set of autumn results providing a platform ahead of the Six Nations. However after encouraging performances in defeats to France and Wales, the Scots imploded with a last-minute defeat to Italy at Murrayfield setting in motion a run of results which saw England and Ireland comfortably dispatch them. From here it seemed as if Cotter’s side had fallen back into the same trappings that have seen Scotland suffer at international level for years. A solid pack too often let down by backs with little imagination and poor decision-making, looked once again to be Scotland’s weakness. However following some encouraging performances in warm-up defeats to Ireland and France, along with an emphatic victory over the Italians in Edinburgh, Scotland come into the tournament renewed with confidence that they can make it out of a group containing South Africa, Samoa, Japan and the USA. If Scotland are to progress they must embrace the talents of young players such as Jonny Gray, Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, and if they do they should be able to make it out of their group and could cause quite a stir in this, the most difficult World Cup to call.

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