Monday, 7 September 2015

"Put the 'rucking' rugby on, ¡por favor!"

The bars/tiendas are stocking up. Replica jerseys of the competing nations are being sold on the street. There's giddy excitement in the air. Yep, Rugby World Cup 2015 is almost upon us and Colombia is gearing up for it with gusto.

OK, I might be in dreamland there. Yes, the tiendas are stocking up, but that's a never-ending process. Yes, replica jerseys are being sold on the streets, but they always are and there's not a rugby one to be found. And yes, there's giddy excitement (or is that nervousness?) in the air — in a land with so many gorgeous (flaky as some may be) women about, that's inevitable.

Paul O'Connell (and son) after his last home game for Ireland.
Ireland's talismanic leader, Paul O'Connell. (Photo from Facebook.)
Considering there isn't a Colombian link to rugby union's showcase event — not one that I know of anyway — that the tournament will pass off without registering much of a beat in these parts isn't surprising. There's also the fact that rugby is very much a minority sport here. It is played in some universities and elsewhere but it's generally expat-led. The vast majority of football-mad locals have no idea of what rugby is about nor, understandably enough, do they have any interest in it; indeed even those who actually play it here don't seem to get it.

Thankfully, via ESPN Latin America, the battle for the Webb Ellis trophy will be broadcast on TV in the region. The only snag is convincing my local tienda owner to put it on; a Spanish football second division match would take precedence over the likes of Ireland-France. Perhaps I can arouse the locals' curiosity sufficiently enough to get them slightly interested (and supporting Ireland of course) in order to watch the games.

There's always the internet or an interested party's house (somebody who has a TV that is), but it can be nice to watch these things in a bar/tienda, if you could just get people not to interrupt your viewing.

As for the competition itself, well despite the genuine effort that will come from the other nations involved (20 in total), you can be pretty certain that the winner will come from one of the top-seven ranked teams in the world. Those are, in current order; New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, Wales, Ireland and France.

There are those who say you could narrow it down even further, to simply one — New Zealand. That's being a little disrespectful to the others, especially previous winners South Africa, Australia and England, but there's no doubt that the All Blacks, like always, are the team to beat.

What makes them more formidable this time around is that what had been a recurring theme for them in renewals prior to 2011 — cracking under the pressure of expectation — doesn't appear to be part of the equation this time around. Winning on home soil four years ago, their first global triumph in the professional era, has only added to their aura of invincibility.

Yet, the bookmakers aren't about to pay out on them just yet. Of the chasing pack, it could be argued that the big Northern Hemisphere sides come into this as strong as ever. And that it is being held in England and Wales, that should be a help to both those sides, as well as Ireland who go into the tournament as the best team in Europe for the past two seasons.

The All Blacks perform the Haka before the 2011 World Cup final.
Formidable: the All Blacks. (Photo from Facebook.)
Indeed expectations for the latter — although tempered somewhat by previous demoralising experiences when hopes were high as well as warm-up defeats to Wales and England which have left some doubts — are that at least a maiden semi-final can be reached. In this regard, defeating France in the pool stage and thus avoiding a potential last-eight clash with the All Blacks could be key to attaining that goal.

That brings us on to the South American powerhouse in the mix, Argentina, Ireland's other possible quarter-final opponents. Los Pumas in many ways have been world rugby's breath of fresh air in recent years. While they have long been producing top-class players, it had been difficult for them to maintain consistency against the more traditional rugby-playing nations.

A lot of this was down to their geographical isolation and relatively poor organisational structures back home, meaning their most talented plied their trade miles from Argentina. Both drawbacks still exist but their merited inclusion to the Rugby Championship (formerly the Tri-Nations) in 2012 has seen them play Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on an annual basis.

Such tests have only helped to improve their competitiveness — note their historic first ever win over South Africa this year. Were they to meet Ireland in the last eight, they'd certainly fancy their chances of another World Cup success against their old foes.

South America has another representative in the shape of Uruguay. Their best hope will be to keep losing margins respectable in what is the toughest pool in the tournament with England, Australia, Wales and an unpredictable Fiji expected to lead the charge, perhaps in that order.

So who can we expect to see going head to head in the Halloween final? Well, at this stage it would be a shock if the All Blacks weren’t there. Who will join them is a far trickier prediction. Depending on how the pools go, we could end up with an Australia-New Zealand final. Ireland had been touted as potential finalists, but as mentioned their lead-in games have watered down such thoughts. The smarter money might be on hosts England, with fortress Twickenham giving them an extra edge, making the final cut.

But as anyone who has ever kicked a rugby ball knows, it can bounce in strange ways. Perhaps France have been saving themselves for this moment; a coup de foudre of sorts, on enemy territory? The next six weeks or so will tell a tale.
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