There is a lot to be gained at this Rugby World Cup, but who are the teams that have the most to lose over the course of the tournament?
By Will Macpherson
This should be the greatest Rugby World Cup ever. There, I’ve said it.
I’ve joined the hype brigade. Biggest, best, brashest, any which way you square it, it’s massive: all that money, those marketers, the stadia.
Even the conversation will be bigger than ever, and more people will be talking about it. This is, after all, only the second World Cup since Twitter was really a thing, and the internet – especially on our phones – has gone places we could barely have imagined since 2011. Hashflags are a gimmick, but they’re pretty cool.
Right now, for the players this tournament represents a vast desert of opportunity, just space to fill with wins, real-life memories and that-ever-so tenuous concept of “legacy”.
It’s time for them to make legends of themselves and they can do that in many different ways. There’s going full Wilko, and creating the history with the champagne moment. There’s doing a Pienaar, and becoming a cultural icon.
You can do a Stephen Donald, and be a bolt from the blue, you can do a Rupeni Caucau and score some iconic tries, or you can burn a legend, like Takudza Ngwenya. With 20 teams of wildly differing ability there’s space for all-time greats, cult heroes and everything in between.
The truth is though – and this seems sacrilegious to type just hours before the tournament begins – that most won’t. Pick through the pre-tournament nonsense, and it dawns that most will leave disappointed, some as failures, bottlers, and letdowns. Some, of course, have more to lose than others.
The All Blacks have a title to lose. They have been ranked No.1 since before the last edition of the tournament and you can count their defeats since then on one hand, and you wouldn’t need a couple of digits.
They’re the best team, and anything less than landing at Auckland Airport in early November with Will Webb Ellis in tow constitutes a failure. Having never won it outside New Zealand, that they have that cross to bear too; most of their records are very welcome, but that one hangs heavy – fail to win the thing and Aussie taunts last four years longer.
Australia, mind, have as much to lose as anyone. Their recent history doesn’t make for terribly pretty reading, and Union has lost ground to every other footballing code in the country in the last decade.
Aussie Rules is on the charge and looking unstoppable, the NRL is beamed worldwide and taking chunks out of former union strongholds and football is flying too – the A-League’s standard is rising and kids are growing up wanting to kick a round ball not an oval one.
Throw in the fact that that the ARU is a shambles that can’t keep hold of its best commodities because it can’t pay them what they are worth, and the sport really isn’t looking in great shape in Australia.
A big tournament for the Wallabies then? Sure is, but life isn’t going to be easy. There’s that torrid pool, for starters. But capturing attention back home is going to be tough too, with antisocial kick-off times (the showpiece 8pm kick-offs in the UK are 5am in Australia), while the major Australian media outlets will be watching from home after a rights dispute.
Column inches, you’d suspect, won’t be bulging with all the fun of the fair, which will do no favours for the many Aussies back home wanting a taste of the tournament. That said, Wallaby fans will travel in numbers, as they always do. The future of the sport in their country is on the line, so that wondrous backline better step right about now.
Finally to England. Here, there are huge amounts on the line. As Ali Williams made crystal clear earlier in the week, everyone loves to beat England because they’re seen as uppity and arrogant. Matt Dawson, as you no doubt saw, has done them no favours on that count.
But Stuart Lancaster has insisted that this batch are not uppity and arrogant, and he’s probably right, although there was certainly something paradoxical about him saying those words while sat next to a roaring fire in a 19th century country house in Surrey.
The focus under Lancaster has been on culture and legacy, which is admirable, but they are a green team and it would be a surprise to see Chris Robshaw lifting the trophy on October 31. With a home World Cup such a unique, once in a generation (and perhaps once in a lifetime now, given the emerging markets World Rugby are taking the game to), that seems a shame.
Creating legacy is very difficult if you don’t play well, and there’s a good chance England will not make it beyond the pools, at which point the tournament could well go a little flat. Win the thing, and the sport can go places it has never been before and finally shed the rather elitist, Barbour-wearing, prawn sandwich-guzzling image it currently holds in the public consciousness.
It’s the biggest Rugby World Cup ever, and there’s never been more to lose.