After a glorious summer dominated by the successes of England’s cricketing heroes, football and rugby have returned to our screens and back pages, fighting for supremacy in the national sporting consciousness.
The Premier League has produced several shocks already, none more unexpected than newly-promoted Norwich’s victory over reigning champions Manchester City.
One man who would have appreciated the Canaries’ victory is Eddie Jones, who, four years after orchestrating his Japanese side’s staggering triumph over South Africa in Brighton, is back in the land of the Cherry Blossoms plotting a way to guide England to World Cup glory.
With the other three home nations also travelling with high hopes, fans will be anticipating an autumn of early mornings in which rugby takes centre stage as their nation makes an assault on the trophy.
However, with Southern Hemisphere nations having won seven out of eight tournaments and with no Northern Hemisphere teams reaching the semi-finals four years ago, a triumphant march to victory is far from assured.
South Africa arrive as serious contenders having won the Rugby Championship for the first time in a decade. Under the tutelage of Rassie Erasmus and the inspirational captaincy of Siya Kolisi, they have compiled a side built upon an unrelenting front five, complemented by a flair-filled backline. The energetic Faf de Klerk and the calming presence of Handre Pollard guide the ship from half-back and will make them confident of going all the way.
They find themselves in the same group as New Zealand, who arrive on the back of a disappointing year in which they slipped to third in the Rugby Championship. However, their demolition of Australia in Auckland showcased the ruthlessness in attack that makes them a constant threat. The magical Beauden Barrett will be key to this, with his move to a less familiar full-back role allowing him to dovetail with young playmaker Richie Mo’unga to set the backline alight.
While those two heavyweights battle it out in Pool B, Scotland and Ireland will compete with the hosts for a quarter-final place ahead of Russia and Samoa in Pool A. Although Scotland possess some of the tournament’s most exciting players in Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg, Joe Schmidt’s well-oiled machine, which clicked back into order against Wales in the warm-ups, is likely to see them grab top spot. From there, they will be aiming to emulate England’s team of 2003, responding to those who doubt whether they deserve their ranking as the world’s best.
Yet, with the All Blacks and Springboks lurking in the quarter-finals, it is likely to be another year of disappointment for both Celtic nations, leaving England and Wales with the greatest hope of a British team reaching a semi-final.
Wales will be keen to build on their Grand Slam success to see Warren Gatland off with another piece of silverware. Yet, with Rob Howley being sent home on the eve of the tournament and Gareth Anscombe forced out with injury, they may struggle to ignite their often-disjointed attack and unleash George North and Liam Williams. This may see them miss out to Australia in their pool and set up an almighty quarter-final against the English that would leave the victor only two wins away from being crowned champions.
On such an occasion, Jones’s local knowledge and World Cup experience may prove vital in guiding a talented, yet often callow, side to glory. With a core of Saracens players used to winning silverware and a power-based attack that averages four tries a match this year, they will be certainly be determined to banish the ghosts of 2015 and, if they beat Wales in Oita, the momentum may power them towards a second title.
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