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Nations across the world have been busy making their final preparations for the Rugby World Cup, which is now just around the corner and the excitement is certainly building. The Northern Hemisphere has enjoyed the rest and recuperation time since the end of the regular season, but is happy to see rugby back on their TV screens and for fans to get a glimpse of their favourite teams in various World Cup warm-up matches. Southern Hemisphere teams have just finished playing their final tournaments before the World Cup - whether that be in the Pacific Nations Cup or The Rugby Championship, all sides gave their fans and critics alike something to talk about.
The Men’s World Rankings seem to have never been closer, with four teams in contention for the top spot before the various matches over the weekend of 17th/18th August. In the end, Wales took it for the first time, demoting New Zealand to second place, after being number 1 since 16th November 2009. Being English, you might be forgiven for thinking I am a little biased in what I am about to say, given that England dropped to fifth with their loss to Wales. However, I’m not entirely sure World Rankings mean a lot at this stage in the World Cup cycle. The major talking will be done on the pitch between 20th September and 2nd November and I, for one, am far more interested in and concerned with the results of those matches. Feel free to disagree, it is a topic of much debate.
Also creating a discussion - not all positive - is the need for World Cup warm-up matches. As in, is there one? You’ll have heard Eddie Jones shrug off any concerns about potential injuries by saying “a rugby player’s got to play rugby” and, to some extent he’s right. What’s the use of drill after drill in training if a player isn’t match ready? But, is it worth the risk to a player’s World Cup chances if, like Gareth Anscombe, your tournament is over before you’ve even got on the plane? Perhaps it’s a lose-lose situation: if you play full international warm up matches then you run the risk of injuries, but if you don’t then you go into the tournament underprepared. It’s not just the players who benefit from the warm up time either: coaches and officials get the chance to be rid of the ‘rustiness’ even a few weeks away from the sport can cause. Pascal Gauzere certainly came in for some harsh criticism from both sides when he took to the middle for Wales v England. Hopefully, he has left his mistakes in Cardiff and Japan will be a different story.
Moving away from the Northern Hemisphere now, the Pacific Nations Cup and The Rugby Championship both provided vital match time for teams taking part in the World Cup. Although there was arguably more at stake during these matches than the Northern Hemisphere’s warm up matches, the focus on the World Cup was just as intense. Whilst every team wanted to win, half an eye was always looking ahead to the end of September. Rather fittingly, given their rise in rugby popularity and, of course, their title as RWC hosts this year, Japan came away victorious from the Pacific Nations Cup. Their third title in the tournament, but only the second team to win in five years with Fiji having won the previous four.
In The Rugby Championship, there was a bit of a shock as New Zealand seem to have underperformed by their standards. A shortened tournament to allow for recovery time before the World Cup begins, they managed just one win, one draw, and one loss to finish third overall. South Africa topped the table with Australia second and Argentina taking fourth place. It has been noted (mainly by New Zealanders but not exclusively) that nobody has ever won The Rugby Championship - or the Tri Nations before Argentina joined in 2012 - and the Rugby World Cup in the same year. Is that a good omen for New Zealand or just a coincidence?
Sadly, with the list of injured players growing, there will be many across the world that miss out on rugby’s greatest competition. Some might make it back in time but will certainly be underprepared, others may miss out on the opportunity altogether. Of course, injuries are part and parcel of playing rugby - if you don’t want to get hurt, you probably shouldn’t be playing - but it really is a shame to see players who have worked so hard to fall at the final hurdle. Currently, in danger of missing out or not getting the proper preparation due to injury are:
Ireland - Joey Carberry; Sean O’Brien; Dan Levy
Scotland - WP Nel; Fraser Brown; Hamish Watson; John Barclay; David Denton; Ryan Wilson; Finn Russell; Huw Jones; Stuart Hogg (Scotland have the longest list by far, but all players are expected to be fit by the start of the tournament)
New Zealand - Brodie Retallick (expected to still be picked for the squad but likely to miss the first couple of matches)
England - Tom Curry; Dylan Hartley; Sam Simmonds
Wales - Gareth Anscombe; Taulupe Faletau
Of course, the list could get longer and there are still warm-up matches yet to be completed, but for now, only time will tell.
One thing is for certain, over the last few weeks there has been a clear sense that rugby is most definitely back and the 2019/20 season is not one to be missed!
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