Wales, England and Ireland have a chance of glory in Japan – the Six Nations trumps the Rugby Championship for preparation
Before the start of the Six Nations this month, Ireland were regarded as Europe’s prime challengers in the World Cup. Then it was England after their emphatic victory in Dublin and denuding of France at Twickenham, but in the third round the odds on the favourites New Zealand becoming the first team to win the Webb Elis Trophy for a third consecutive time shrink.
Wales’s toppling of England in Cardiff, together with Ireland’s scratchy win in Rome, is perceived as making a second European conquest of the world more possible than probable. “Wales won by default in ‘rubbish’ Six Nations clash with England,” blared one headline in New Zealand this week. The rubbish referred to the lack of space either side manufactured with the ball in hand, but matches in the knockout stage of a World Cup can be just as claustrophobic.
The All Blacks will not be breathing any easier and there is South Africa to add to the power mix. There have been three major coaching tactical triumphs during the season in Europe: Joe Schmidt masterminding Ireland’s victory against New Zealand in the autumn when his side played with a relentless intensity throughout; Eddie Jones bouncing back Schmidt’s gameplan to his rival in Dublin, and Warren Gatland doing much the same to Jones last weekend while devising a canny possession game and denying England lineouts through a low penalty count and kicking that kept the ball in play.
There was not a response on the field from the losing side in any of the matches: even the All Blacks could not think their way out of trouble. A common theme in the three Tests was that the underdog prevailed each time, and by a full beard rather than a whisker. It is why Ireland and England are no more and no less likely to prevail in Japan than they were a couple of weeks ago.
They need certain players to be fit, but so do New Zealand, and what the Six Nations is showing is that it has developed as a better way to prepare for the World Cup than the Rugby Championship, which has been dominated by New Zealand this decade. One reason that Ireland and Wales have closed the gap with the major southern hemisphere nations is that, unlike at the start of the professional age, they are no longer exposed in terms of strength and conditioning; neither are they blinded by emotion.
Wales are regarded as an outside bet for the World Cup despite a run of 12 successive victories, but they are not a side anyone will be anxious to meet in the later stages of the World Cup, as Sir Clive Woodward remarked at the weekend. A country with a relatively small playing base and a regional system that has yet to take root has under Gatland become resilient enough to overcome the loss of players such as Sam Warburton (who on Friday is the subject of a BBC Wales documentary on why he had to give up rugby at the age of 29), Rhys Webb, Taulupe Faletau and Leigh Halfpenny. Like Schmidt’s Ireland, it is about fitting into a system honed in hours on the training field.
Gatland’s ability to squeeze the best out of his team has made him the media favourite to replace Eddie Jones as England’s head coach, whenever that may be with the Australian contracted until 2021. England sounded out Gatland, who had enjoyed a trophy-rich stint with Wasps earlier in the decade, in 2007, a few weeks before Wales called him, but did not follow it up.
Jones has hardly been a failure, but he will be judged on the World Cup. Gatland remarked at the weekend that England had developed a habit of not delivering when it mattered, which was slightly harsh considering it was the third round of the Six Nations and they had already won in Ireland. The same was said about England in 1999, 2000 and 2001. And then came 2003.
Gatland will be in demand when he leaves Wales after the World Cup and the Rugby Football Union, even at a time when it is cutting back, will be able to offer him a greater salary than anyone else. The question is whether the fit would be right for a coach whose career has been spent at teams who were not mainstream: Connacht, Ireland, Wasps, Waikato and Wales. All of them punched above their weight under him, collectively strong and compact.
England, the country everyone likes to beat, would be different, as would its domestic system. Gatland is the overlord of Welsh rugby where, as in Ireland and New Zealand, the national team is at the top of the pyramid. Jones has to deal with a powerful union of clubs who have become emboldened by an infusion of cash from a private equity company. There could be trouble ahead. Jones has largely remained above the politics, but non-interference has not been an approach taken by Gatland.
For the moment, his eye is on the grand slam. Wales’s final two matches are in Scotland and at home against Ireland, as they were in 2005 when they romped to victory at Murrayfield before achieving their first victory over the men in green in Cardiff for 22 years, momentum taking them through.
That is unlikely to be enough in a season of flux. Ireland may have struggled to re-establish their balance after the manner of their defeat against England, but Schmidt will come to Cardiff armed with a plan. The title may look beyond Ireland with England’s final two matches at home against Italy and Scotland, two teams who between them have conceded 35 points or more at Twickenham 13 times in the Six Nations, but they will not lack motivation against Wales.
There is little to separate Ireland, England and Wales who are all capable of beating each other home or away. It all comes down to the day itself and the coaching team that prevails tactically. The one that goes furthest in the World Cup will be the team, including New Zealand, that is able to adjust on the hoof and make itself heard above the noise.