We are now within a year of the Rugby Union World Cup. Rugby’s premier tournament will be heading to both England, and Wales (Cardiff) next September – and a legion of hungry, expectant fans will arrive with them. Defending champions New Zealand will be looking to claim their third world title, and are rightly the favourites with BetFair to do so. However, just because you are the best team in the world does not guarantee you success, the All Blacks reigning supreme at this World Cup is fancied but by no means a foregone conclusion. So who are the teams that could get their hands on the iconic Webb Ellis Cup?

 New Zealand

World Ranking: 1

Coach: Steve Hansen

Captain: Richie McCaw

Star Player: Dan Carter

There’s ruthless and then there is New Zealand. The Kiwis 22-test unbeaten streak recently came to an end at the hands of South Africa. Despite the streak being no more the fact that it grew to the size that it did is, quite frankly, amazing. For a team to be so dominant in the modern era of any sport is almost unheard of.

New Zealand are the best team in the world, period. In Coach Steve Hansen they have a forward thinking, attacking-minded tactician. The Kiwis do concede a fair amount of points, but that is fine, they have never been one for defending. They buy into the whole ‘attack is the best form of defence’ ideology, which worked from December 2012 onwards. Teams are too busy trying to keep the Kiwis out rather than pressing on the front foot.

Ask anyone who follows the game and they will all tell you the same, Dan Carter is the greatest fly-half of all time. Put the ball down anywhere on the pitch and he will stick it between the posts. On the international stage Carter has scored a staggering 1,442 points. He is the All Blacks go-to guy when they are struggling; he has the talent to carry this already uber-talented side.

Dan Carter

Dan Carter by Geoff Trotter

Then there is Richie McCaw who proves that age is just a number. The 134-cap veteran will be nearing 35-years-old next September but that means nothing, he is still one of the best flankers in the game today.

You would be mad to have anyone else as favourites other than New Zealand. As a collective unit they take on juggernaut characteristics, they are practically unstoppable.

 England

World Ranking: 3

Coach: Stuart Lancaster

Captain: Chris Robshaw

Star Player: Mike Brown

England will be seriously fancying their chances for next year’s World Cup. The hosts are in really good shape and will be a force to be reckoned with.

Firstly, they have the home advantage. In five of the last seven World Cup competitions, the host nation has reached the final – so history would suggest that home support is one of the catalysts behind rugby success. Having a rumbustious crowd behind you can only benefit one side, the home side. England themselves will only be playing at the larger stadiums – assuming they make the final they will only play away from Twickenham once, and that’s against Uruguay. Twickenham will very much be the 16th man, how much of the 82,000 capacity stadium will be allotted to away fans: not much. With the collective mass behind them, England will find another level, while many opponents may actually go inside themselves. Playing in an environment like that can really get to a player, especially when the fans are trying to get to you. Home advantage is absolutely massive.

Stuart Lancaster also deserves a lot of plaudits. Taking over from Martin Johnson, who had managed over England’s shambolic 2011 World Cup showing, Lancaster set about rebuilding the side. Gone were the deadwood and the elder statesmen who are in the side based on namesake not talent. In their place was an influx of exciting, young, hungry players. It was these that Lancaster built his side around. The English RFU deserve credit too, they did not appoint Lancaster to bring short term success – i.e. the Six Nations – but to win the 2015 World Cup, something that England can do. The squad that Lancaster selects for the World Cup will be the same one that has been used for the past four years. The players will have an intrinsic knowledge of one another, something that all successful teams possess, having been together so long. But what differentiates England from, say; New Zealand is that this is a young side with an intrinsic knowledge of one another. And although younger doesn’t always mean better, it does beg the question.

Captain Chris Robshaw has really developed into a leader. He shirks away from no challenge and is so often for England their last line of defence. Robshaw has no problem in making himself a sacrificial lamb if it is for the good of the country.

chris robshaw

Chris Robshaw by Fearless Fred

Courtney Lawes is a beast in the middle of the park, while the tries that Mike Brown and Johnny May contribute with are also well appreciated. Chuck in players like Dylan Hartley, Chris Ashton, Joe Launchbury, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi, Billy Vunipola and Joe Marler and you soon see just how strong this England side is.

 

They would have spent four years building towards this moment. Preparation wise, nobody has put any more in than England. Combine this with home support and you do get the feeling that England are going to be the biggest obstacle to the Kiwis.

South Africa

World Ranking: 2

Coach: Heyneke Meyer

Captain: Jean de Villiers

Star Player: Bryan Habana

The 2007 World Cup winners are always in the mix for success. They will be buoyed by the fact that they have finally beaten New Zealand, their first win in six attempts. Psychologically, that will be massive. Now they know that they can beat their Southern Hemisphere rivals, something that will be hugely important if the two were to face off in the knockout stages of the competition.

Heyneke Meyer may not be the most experienced of international coaches in the world, but his services in the domestic game have often been highly sought after. He has had roles at Leicester Tigers, as well as the Blue Bulls, the SWD Eagles and the Northern Bulls. Since taking over the national role in 2012, Meyer has proven that he can cut it on the international stage.

As for the squad, it is everything that we have come to expect of South Africa… the perfect melange of power and pace. This highly talented squad is capable of beating off opposition in every position. In Bryan Habana, the Springboks record try scorer with 56 tries, is one of the most lethal wingers in the world. His unbridled pace make him one of the hardest players to stop in the rugby universe. But, not only is he fast, he is nearly 15 stone of muscle, meaning, if you are quick enough to get into a position to stop him you are going to need the muscles to bring him down. So many people lack one or the other, it is for this reason that Habana is such a danger. He’ll either outrun you or just run right through you.

Jean de Villiers is a solid captain. The 33-year-old is a good old-fashioned centre who loves nothing more than bullying the opposition. Like all great skippers he is willing to bleed for his country, and has no problem in getting nasty if the situation requires it.

South Africa, as always, have a very good squad. However, it probably isn’t good enough to overcome the Kiwis, while, on paper it is better than England’s they will not have the home support behind them.

Australia

World Ranking: 4

Coach: Vacant

Captain: Stephen Moore

Star Player: Israel Folau

The Wallabies are in disarray. They have been since the Lions Tour of 2013. As a result of their 2-1 loss to the British and Irish Lions Robbie Deans was replaced by Queensland Reds’ Ewen McKenzie. This was supposed to be the start point of a rebuilding process, but now even this has come of the rails with McKenzie recently resigning.

From the outside looking in you can see that Australia are in the pits. They are going to have to find a new coach, who will have less than a year to get some sort of team spirit in the Wallabies dressing room. Whoever the chosen one is will also have to find some sort of cohesive and successful playing style to make the trip to England worth the expensive airfare. Something is telling us that this is not going to happen.

On the other hand, all is not lost for Australia. While above the squad is a mess, the squad itself is extremely talented. Israel Folau is in the top-five fullbacks in the world. During the Lions Tour he proved that, often being the only Aussie to offer some sort of resistance. His record of 15 tries in 25 appearances is very healthy; any incoming coach will know they need to build this team around Folau, who is without question Australia’s greatest asset.

Folau

Israel Folau by davidmolloyphotography.com

Quade Cooper is a necessary evil for Australia. The fly-half can have an acid tongue but his foot is much more deadly. Getting a coach that gets along, and get the best out of him is imperative. If Cooper is functioning at an optimal level then the Wallabies do give themselves an outside chance.

Ireland

World Ranking: 5

Coach: Joe Schmidt

Captain: Paul O’Connell

Star Player: Jonathan Sexton

Ireland aren’t considered by many as contenders but that is doing them a gross injustice. Joe Schmidt showed us just how well drilled his side were in the 2014 Six Nations, where he led them to victory. He also managed the side to a 2-0 victory in their summer tour to Argentina.

Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement after this year’s Six Nations does leave a huge void, in both position and talent. Ireland don’t have any experienced centres but they do have talent. Captain Paul O’Connell is a brute, Jonathan Sexton is one of the best kickers in the game today, and Simon Zebo has made a good account for himself in his eight appearances for Ireland.

The competition may not be held in Ireland but there will be considerable support coming over from the Emerald Isle, will it be enough to see Ireland progress past the quarter-final stages; a feat they are yet to achieve, here’s hoping.

Wales

World Ranking: 6

Coach: Warren Gatland

Captain: Sam Warburton

Star Player: Leigh Halfpenny

2011 saw Wales lose the World Cup semi-final 9-8 to France, a game that is still contentious among Welsh fans due to captain Sam Warburton’s dismissal in the 18th minute. Since then, Wales have experienced both high points and low points – this year’s Six Nations being one of the low points.

Again the Welsh will be able to draw on huge home support but they have been put in an extremely ugly group, they are going to need to garner more points than either England or Australia to make it to the knockouts.

Halfpenny

Leigh Halfpenny by fromthevalley-

With players like Leigh Halfpenny, Alun Wyn Jones, George North, Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts, Gethin Jenkins and James Hook, Wales certainly pack the talent to make the quarter-finals, but it is going to require a gargantuan amount of work.

Wales’ record against Southern Hemisphere sides does not make for the best of reading – too often do they get beat. Their clash with Australia is going to be hugely important.

The excitement may not yet be palpable but as the months wind away we will soon be gripped by World Cup fever. Who will prevail is unknown, what is, it won’t be easy