Rating the 5 Major Rugby World Cup Contenders After Their First Fixtures

Stephen GillamContributor IIISeptember 11, 2011

Rating the 5 Major Rugby World Cup Contenders After Their First Fixtures

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    Yes, it's an early stage to read into how the biggest contenders are looking in their respective quests to add the Webb Ellis Cup to their cabinet.

    And it may also seem like a big presumption that there are five serious contenders for the tournament. So let me justify myself.

    The big five are, and have always been, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, and France. With no disrespect to the likes of Ireland, Wales or Samoa, to win a World Cup a side will often have to play against three of those teams and that kind of effort is incredibly difficult.

    What follows is my own analysis of how those five teams performed in their first outing, in relation to how they should have, and what areas look important for the tournament.

1) New Zealand (beat Tonga 41-10)

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    Severity of the match: 

    Honestly, New Zealand were always expected to win this one. And win it comfortably.

    The last time these two teams faced each other in a World Cup, the kiwis emerged victors 91-7. With Tonga's reputation for strong tackling, the main concern was emerging unscathed.

    Team Performance:

    After a strong first half performance, the Men in Black began to falter in the second.

    Tonga did well to disrupt the ball and apply extended pressure. To be fair, New Zealand held the line for a long time, but the try felt almost inevitable.

    The scoreboard could have looked a lot more convincing, but I'd expect a stronger team to be fielded against Japan.

    The Big Issue: 

    In a word: Israel Dagg. The man is a real X-factor for New Zealand and against both South Africa in Port Elizabeth and Bay of Plenty in Rotorua he showed that his kind of dynamism isn't dependent on form.

    The main topic of discussion is whether he should replace Mils Muliaina as the starting fullback, and he strengthened his case over the weekend. Personally, I'd like to see him started at the left wing at least once before the knockout stages as I haven't been too impressed by Zac Guildford's game time.

    Team Rating: 7/10.

    They won the game comfortably and escaped without injury, but still looked slightly unpolished.

2) France (beat Japan 47-21)

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    Severity of the Match:

    Pool A is the easiest pool to qualify for the second round in for a team with outright victory in mind. As with New Zealand, nothing short of a convincing victory for the French would have sufficed.

    Team Performance:

    Despite their large half-time lead, I wasn't convinced that France showed the dominance they needed to.

    The second try, in particular, was enabled only by a Japanese mistake, and they looked rattled with a 4-point lead and 20 minutes on the clock.

    But in saying that, they won their penalty, managed to resettle themselves and pick up three late tries, so at least they can play a full 80 minutes.

    The Big Issue:

    The French struggled to control the match in the way they should have.

    For a team that doesn't have a reputation for touring well, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, they'll need to perform consistently at a higher level than they did for most of that match. But as with New Zealand, they should begin to look more efficient in the upcoming games.

    Rating: 6/10.

3) England (beat Argentina 13-9)

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    Severity of the Match:

    This game would be regarded by many as the decider for first and second placings in the pool. Granted, Scotland can still say something about that, particularly in Wellington against Argentina.

    Team Performance:

    Let's be honest here, England didn't win that game. Argentina lost it with their absent penalty taking. England did well to claw the win back and Ben Young's try was efficiently worked.

    But their famed pack was well matched and the backline was nothing short of flat and uninspiring.

    Jonny Wilkinson looked a shade of his former world-class best. Suffice to say, his kicking form has to pick up, but his tackling—while committed—was weaker than in the past and his passing/running game was almost nonexistent.

    The Big Issue:

    From an admittedly Southern Hemispheric perspective, it would appear that a lot of the focus of English rugby has been directed to the franchise game.

    To easily name players like Nick Evans, Clarke Dermody (the captain of London Irish) and Francois Louw, the Guiness Premiership has a decidedly international flavor to it, and I feel that may have hindered the development of local talent.

    Rating: 6/10 because of their late rally.

4) Australia (beat Italy 32-6)

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    Severity of the Match:

    A win to Australia was both predictable and expected. Italy, while improving significantly from past Rugby World Cups, were always going to struggle against the new Tri Nations champions.

    Team Performance:

    A stupidly conceded penalty from Italy was the only reason they didn't take a 6-3 lead into the break. But the backs started firing under some improved decision making and a reasonable forwards base.

    Most importantly, the game showed they can win even when Quade Cooper isn't at his best. Despite what the commentators were saying, a lot of Australia's best plays relied on some hard work from the other backs.

    Adam Ashley-Cooper's try, for example, owed at least as much to a well chosen line as it did a flat pass.

    The Big Issue:

    Again nothing new, but Italy demonstrated how you must beat Australia: by working hard up front and taking the ball to them.

    The All Blacks found this in Brisbane, too, when their strongest period came from grinding the ball forwards and not trying anything clever. When Italy came out with a similar attitude, the Wallabies looked rattled.

    My question is this: what would have happened had Australia been playing England?

    Rating: 6/10 once they finally got moving.

5) South Africa (beat Wales 17-16)

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    Severity of the Match:

    As with England, this game was potentially to decide first and second place in the pool.

    After their disappointing Tri Nations form, the Springboks needed to start strongly against one of their strongest opponents before the knockout stages.

    Team Performance:

    After coming out firing in the first five minutes, the Springboks were lucky to emerge with a dubious win after a goal was disallowed and the referee accidentally opened a gap in the Welsh defense to enable the winning try.

    If they can rekindle the form they showed in the opening stages and maintain it

    The Big Issue:

    This was only the third game this squad has played together, and they clearly still need work. For me, what will define this World Cup for South Africa is whether the team can start playing together more efficiently.

    Rating: An unconvincing 4/10.