Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Gavin Mairs: Bright kick-off is sure to have an All Black finish

When the curtain rises on the sixth Rugby World Cup in Paris tonight, the unfolding drama will be unrecognisable from inaugural tournament 20 years ago.

Now, two decades on, the Rugby World Cup is widely regarded as the third biggest global sporting event behind the Olympics and the football equivalent.

Its growth has been phenomenal. Ticket sales have already surpassed the two million mark and are expected to top 2.2million spread over the 48 games.
The predicted television audience is four billion, up from 3.4 in 2003, with hospitality packages exceeding 100,000 for the first time in the tournament's history. That number exceeds the amount of sales for 1999 and 2003 combined.

And when the curtain falls at the Stade de France on October 20, the IRB is expected to rake in a healthy profit of over £90 million as a surplus to reinvest in the game.

But while rugby continues to grow in the most unlikely of places - Rwanda, Madagascar, the Balkans and China are among the game's new outposts - the glitz and glamour of the next six weeks will not paper over the problems of mis-matches that have been exacerbated by professionalism.

The IRB are investing heavily in bridging the gap in order to make the tournament more competitive but the most sensible option going forward is to reduce the number of competitors from 20 to 16, which would also provide for a shorter, more intense, tournament.

But that is a discussion for another day. The more immediate question is: just who can stop New Zealand?

Graham Henry's side, the masters of lethal counter-attacking blitzes and masters of the breakdown, have dominated world rugby for three years. They possess galaticos like Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Joe Rockocoko and a burning desire to end the 20 years of hurt since the All Blacks were last champions.

And yet there is a nagging feeling that they are a side that has already peaked and there is the painful history of World Cup bottlers to overcome.

On current form, France, with the huge benefit of home support, look like the best-equipped side to stop them. Bernard Laporte's side have an awesome strength in depth, a fearsome pack and world class strike runners like Yannick Jauzion. If they beat Ireland in the pool stages, they look odds-on to go all the way to the final.

Reigning champions England remain in a state of shambles, and the latest injury to Jonny Wilkinson is another cruel setback. The English pack as ever is a formidable unit but they remain one-dimensional and won't be able to bully teams into submission as they did four years ago. They will do well to progress beyond the quarter-finals.

That will be dependent on whether they can beat South Africa in the pool stage in what is one of the key encounters. The Springboks have the power up front to trouble anyone and sizzling talent out behind but their tactical nous remains their Achilles heel. Get that right and they will be serious contenders.

So too, the Australians who are past masters at peaking their cycle for the World Cup. Behind a suspect scrum is an awesome array of attacking talent and they will feel they still have a psychological edge over the Blacks on the big stage.

That leaves the Celtic Nations and Argentina. It is hard to understate just how important Ireland's crunch encounter with France is.

Should Eddie O'Sullivan's men triumph, they will have the momentum and belief to take them to the last four and possibly beyond. Lose it and the sweat will be on to stay in the tournament by defeating Argentina, with the All Blacks lying in wait in Cardiff. To do so, Ireland will need to be injury-free and at their very best. And they owe the French one for Croke Park last season.

Argentina are currently ravaged by pre-season injuries and still seem short of options if their juggernaut pack do not take complete control. Another early exit looks on the cards.

Scotland meanwhile, will not be looking forward to their pool clash with Italy for the runners-up spot behind New Zealand and even so will not get past the quarter-finals.

In contrast, Wales have the bonus of home advantage for their pool showdown with Australia and could well spring a surprise, despite their woes in August.

While the mis-matches may spoil the early viewing, this promises to be the most hotly-contended World Cup of the lot.

Still, it has to be New Zealand.