Like all rugby fans, I was looking forward to this week’s draw for the World Cup pools but what puzzles me is why it seems the current fashion in rugby is to exaggerate everything. Whether it’s the Lions tour, the World Cup draw or the summer tours, everything seems hyped to the extreme.
With the RWC draw made, I couldn’t help thinking; am I the only one who can’t understand all this talk about England having a tough draw and ending up in a group that nobody wanted? Yes, England face France and Argentina in their group – but why does that make it tough?
In the last World Cup England faced Wales and Australia. Those two teams were improving fast going into that RWC, and over the years had played England regularly and beaten them on a number of occasions.
In contrast, Argentina have played England 20 times and won just four games, three against weakened England sides on tour in Argentina and once at Twickenham in the dying
vestiges of Andy Robinson’s reign as team manager – but never in World Cup.
Yes, they are an improving side now they compete in the Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship, but they are still way off the mark of the majority of other tier 1 teams and struggle to get consistent wins, almost like a slightly better Italy.
With England currently ranked 2nd in the World Rugby list, I would have been breathing a sigh of relief at the draw if I was Eddie Jones, even if Argentina at 9th are the highest ranked of the tier 3 selection group.
Add England’s tour to Argentina this summer where Eddie will get some first-hand experience of where the Pumas are in their development against his ‘mixed bag’ of current and future England players, and you have a recipe for (at worst) a second place in the pool.
I say second place but England should be quietly confident of getting the top spot given the other tier 1 team they will face is France.
Currently France are a side trying to redefine themselves after years of under-achievement playing a style of rugby that doesn’t suit them. Although they will improve, they are going through a major structural change in playing and management since Guy Noves took over the team and Bernard Laporte the federation.
With the current infighting between the Top 14 clubs and the federation as Laporte attempts to force his vision of the future for French rugby on the clubs, it looks like the French will not be making any real progress for some time. All of which leaves England as clear favourites to make it out of the pool stage of the competition and yet still they are labelled as in another ‘group of death’.
The reality is it may be a group of death but this time it will be the England team that deliver the killer blows.
World Rugby had a busy time in Kyoto, what with the World Cup draw and finally making some sensible progress on restricting player poaching by increasing the residency qualification period from three to five years.
Although this should be seen as a welcome first step, I don’t think it will actually stop the movement of players from the smaller, poorer nations to the bigger paying nations at the top of the professional tree.
In truth, the change in rule might actually make matters worse as desperate unions trying to hold on to their tier 1 status poach teenage players from younger representative sides of the minor nations.
Here in England most players are picked at a very young age, U13-U16, then whisked off to a school of rugby or academy, and set on the road to the professional game even though many don’t make it. For minor nation players the move to another country as a young teenager in the hope of playing professional rugby will not be a new phenomenon because of the increase in residency qualifications, as it has already occurred for years.
Probably the most famous is our own England captain Dylan Hartley, who didn’t make the grade in his native New Zealand so came to stay with his uncle in east Sussex at the age of 16.
Although Hartley never needed residency qualifications because his mother is English, he would have made the new five year residency after winning his first cap some six years later.
The point is, extending the qualification period by just two years will impact only on a small number of older players. Most players who make the move do so to play club rugby where wages are higher than at home with little or no thought of playing internationally until it is offered to them by desperate unions.
With the change delayed until 2020, a year after the next World Cup, I imagine a number of unions are already preparing to send talent spotters off to the U16 competitions in South Africa and the South Seas.