At work the other day we had a French temp working with us. After introducing myself I started casting around for a subject that we might have in common. His English is rudimentary and my Francais non-existent. I asked him through the challenges of the language barrier if he plays rugby. He said no but that he watches it when he can. So I asked him how he thought France would go in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. His response was honest: France – if send their A-team to play their A-game can lift the World Cup, but he thought they might send their A-team only to have them play their B-game.
I thought it was a fair call. It occurred to me that the World Cup is only a few weeks away and I pondered what I knew of French-New Zealand rugby matches at the World Cup. France bet New Zealand in 1999 and the country went through a collective mourning period for weeks (though I was pretty much over the gloom after 24 hours). France did it again in 2007 and everyone called for the then All Black coach Graham Henry’s head. He survived and after a couple years of some indifferent rugby by his charges saw New Zealand lift the Webb Ellis Trophy on New Zealand soil for the first time in 24 years, against none than…. France.
At that point the supervisor wanted me for something, so the conversation was interrupted. When I restarted it a bit later, a colleague originally from Japan joined in. Japanese admire the All Blacks and are quite keen on rugby. My colleague had watched the New Zealand-South Africa match between two of the most formidable nations on the rugby scape of global sport. New Zealand had been patchy, though we had won the match 27-20 in the end. I asked him what he thought of it and he said we were scratchy.
And I should be honest as I am about the prospects for the All Blacks at this Rugby World Cup. I find it refreshing, that unlike cricket, no one country seems to have a real strangle hold on the Webb Ellis trophy. It changes hands at every world cup with New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and England all having lifted it in the last twenty years. Any one of these nations along with France should be on the short list to get to the Semi Final stage at least – noting New Zealand exited at the Quarter Final stage in 2007.
New Zealand is strong. But we also have weak spots. On one hand we have a line up of experience many other nations can only dream about, but on another many of those players are in the twilight of their careers with retirement or playing for a lucrative European club. Many such as Conrad Smith, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Daniel Carter know that there is only so much longer that their bodies can sustain the physical nature of the game and the attendant injuries. All have been concussed at some point or another.
And there are some exciting up and coming nations in the competition as well as some regular competitors who regularly make it out of pool play but don’t advance past the Quarter or Semi Final stage. Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy and Argentina all fit into this category. Others to feature include Japan, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. Although this last group is not likely to trouble the big powers in the Semi Final stage, Tonga upset France in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The small island nations also bring a bit of entertaining flair sometimes lacking in the bigger powers, because they play as much for family and pride as for doing as well as they can in the competition.
So, roll on the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The few weeks left before it starts should be a good gauge of where the major powers are (not) at.