“Last man standing” is a phrase often associated with the Rugby World Cup, now just over four months away, but this year that could hold truer than in any of the previous eight tournaments.
Injuries are always a concern and the implication is that the team which has the fewest will be best placed at the end of a gruelling six weeks – especially the last three weekends of knockout play.
By common consensus, the 2019 World Cup is going to be the tightest yet because of a resurgence of northern hemisphere nations. The depth of a squad, rather than the number of star players, will be decisive.
Whereas previous tournaments tended to hinge on which of South Africa and Australia, and perhaps one of England, France, Ireland, Scotland or Wales, would challenge New Zealand, this year all these countries, plus Argentina, will fancy their chances of going all the way.
The timing of the tournament from September 20 to November 2 has created a situation where there will almost be a World Cup before the World Cup involving the southern and northern hemispheres.
On the face of it “North” would appear to have the better of it with less intense fixtures than “South” who will have to complete the Super Rugby tournament and the Rugby Championship before heading for Japan.
Super Rugby, depending on how far a team goes, ends on July 6; the Rugby Championship starts on July 20 (SA vs Australia at Ellis Park) and ends on August 10; and the World Cup gets underway on September 20 (SA vs New Zealand on September 21).
A number of warm-up matches have been added and the Springboks and the All Blacks would appear to have the most sapping schedule, both in matches and flying time, before that big opening fixture between the two.
South Africa’s programme in the Rugby Championship includes long flights to Wellington and Argentina plus additional matches against the Pumas (in Johannesburg) and an excursion to Japan to play the home side in a warm-up game on September 6, intended to rekindle the joy and fervour of the upset of the 2015 tournament.
In all probability the Boks will then return home to put the finishing touches to their preparation and doubtless coach Rassie Erasmus is hoping that experiencing the “foreignness” ahead of the tournament will help his team to settle in more quickly when they return to Japan.
The All Blacks will have to fly to Buenos Aires, back to Wellington (to play the Boks) and then to Perth for their Rugby Championship game. Their one warm-up game will be against Tonga in Hamilton on September 7.
With the Six Nations having ended in March the northern hemisphere teams have arranged a number of warm-ups to stay in shape, including some testing home-and-away fixtures.
Impressive Six Nations champions Wales are cock-a-hoop having achieved the Grand Slam and coach Warren Gatland has arranged for his men to take on England (home and away) and Ireland to keep them sharp.
Apart from the Welsh, Eddie Jones’ England will also have matches against the Barbarians, Ireland and Italy while Scotland and France have arranged a double header with Georgia and Italy also thrown into the mix.
The casualty rate these days is such that there “will” be injuries rather than there “might” be and the coaches will be crossing their fingers that these will not strip them of a key player such as an Alun Wyn Jones for Wales or a Johnny Sexton for Ireland.
The next four months will fly by. Only time will tell whether the South’s more intense programme with trophies at stake, including a lot of travel, will be more advantageous than the practice matches lined up for the North.
A run of injuries could wreck all the best laid plans but once the World Cup starts there will be no room for lamenting poor luck, and that’s why the All Blacks still loom as favourites. They have the greatest depth and thus the best chance of realising Jake White’s oft-repeated mantra on the way to winning the Webb Ellis Cup in Paris in 2007; “all you have to do to win the Cup is win seven matches in a row.”