Peter Bills on rugby

Peter Bills is a rugby writer and commentator

Peter Bills: Northern arrogance masks mediocrity

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William Servat is the best hooker in Europe. Photo / Richard Robinson
William Servat is the best hooker in Europe. Photo / Richard Robinson

England's 2003 Rugby World Cup star Will Greenwood tips England to reach the final of this tournament.

No matter that England are playing no rugby worth talking about against anyone half decent. No matter that they have gone backwards since swatting Australia aside at Twickenham last November. No worry that, as the world game has moved on - certainly in Australasia - England have moved back.

Don't you just love the arrogance of the Poms? Australia blitz the All Blacks with some stunning play at Brisbane. New Zealand have been playing the best rugby in the world for most of the past four years.

But good old England turn up at a World Cup, push out their chests and intone, "We can beat this lot. We'll reach the final."

Welcome back to the colonial era.

Now for the reality about the Northern Hemisphere countries. England will attempt to grind out a succession of victories which have as huge a kicking influence as a bag of crisps soaked in salt.

The idea of consistently unleashing fullback Ben Foden and flying wing Chris Ashton is largely anathema to England.

A rigid focus on a big, powerful forward pack and a kicking No 10 will be their modus operandi. If that is all they can do down here for the next six or so weeks, you have to hope it all goes pear-shaped fairly early on.

For the last thing the game needs is a repeat of the kicking fest that was the 2007 Rugby World Cup. If that happens, viewers worldwide will turn away in boredom.

The Northern Hemisphere side most likely to play some decent rugby are the French. France have been all over the place for three or more years. They have stuttered and stumbled like one of those old Citroens, and their players lost faith in coach Marc Lievremont.

Yet suddenly, last month, France reminded us they could still play dynamic rugby. Granted, it was only in patches but, even so, there were spells in their two warm-up games against Ireland when you actually thought they might do something at this World Cup.

France have slipped into this tournament under the radar. They're comfortably settled at their delightful base, they've been running happily on the beach and no one is talking about them. That suits Thierry Dusautoir and his men just fine.

Like England, France have big forwards, especially in the front row where William Servat, the best hooker in Europe, is a true warrior. But unlike England, they have backs who can light up the night sky and they look as though they want to use them at last.

Vincent Clerc, Cedric Heyman, Aurelien Rougerie, Maxime Medard and Francois Trinh-Duc have "legs", as they say in the business. Dimitri Yachvili looks the preferred option at halfback and can be a deadly kicker.

Everyone assumes that if England play France in the quarter-final, they will beat them again. Personally, I'm not so sure.

Wales come as the in-form side of the Northern Hemisphere. And it's true, they have some talent. But they also face a series of three, 80-minute muggings at the hands of South Africa, Samoa and Fiji. It might be a question of who is left standing.

Ireland put a brutal stop to England's Grand Slam aspirations in Dublin last March. But, like their foes that day, they seem to have gone backwards since, losing their last four international games.

You don't win World Cups in warm-up matches but if you lose them all, you could mislay the confidence that is essential to go far in this tournament.

For Wales v South Africa early on, read Ireland v Australia. For me, it will be two Southern Hemisphere wins that will leave both the Northern sides facing a likely quarter-final exit.

Ireland do have some hugely talented players. But they will miss injured flanker David Wallace and they're still dithering about who to pick as first choice first five-eighths, Jonathan Sexton or Ronan O'Gara.

In Ireland's case, the sum of the parts may well not match the whole.

Scotland will be organised, feisty and proud. They will also play to their strengths, which means a tight, pressure-related game aimed at inducing mistakes by the opposition. No surprises there. But they could make life difficult for England in Auckland on October 1, especially if it is a wet night.

Italy are talking up their chances of beating Ireland, which they should have done in Rome in February. But I don't see it happening this time.

Most of the rugby played in the Northern Hemisphere for the past four or more years has been best suited to staging on a garbage tip. I suspect this tournament will be come-uppance time for most of those sides.

- NZ Herald

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