It’s just 34 days and counting until Twickenham welcomes the Rugby World Cup to England, with the hosts kicking off proceedings at their famous London home against Fiji.
As is customary, the participating nations are currently taking part in a host of warm-up games in the weeks ahead of the tournament, as their respective coaches look to fine-tune their final 31-man squads ahead of the August 31st deadline.
Unlike in football, where World Cup matches are mostly played against non-competing nations who closely match tournament opponents, rugby has no need for such subtlety. After all, why play a side who closely resembles your World Cup opponents, when you can play the real thing?
It all means that this weekend’s fixtures resemble World Cup matches in all but name, as England host France, Ireland play Scotland, Argentina welcome South Africa, and favourites New Zealand face Australia in a head-to-head that could well mirror the final in just over two months time. Here are three key things to watch out for this weekend:
1. Twickenham to cast a hawk-eye on England’s experimental midfield
Bath’s Sam Burgess only made the switch from Rugby League less than a year ago but he’ll be handed his international debut tomorrow in England’s 100th meeting with France, as Stuart Lancaster looks to plug the gap in midfield left by the absence of Manu Tuilagi.
While he’ll play at centre, an intriguing sub-plot is in the making as alongside him at outside centre he’ll find Exeter’s Henry Slade, the 22-year-old thought to be his direct rival for a place in the final squad, with England 7/2 second favourites to win the tournament.
Just as eye-catching for the fans as the internal battles on the pitch will be the new technology perched to the side of it, as Hawk-Eye makes its own England debut at Twickenham with the intention of helping TMO’s with any contentious decisions (think Mark Cueto in 2007) and also for the use of medical teams. Should the trial go well, the tech used successfully in cricket and tennis will get the go ahead for the World Cup.
The experimental feel also extends to the visitors (20/1 outsiders for World Cup success), with captain Thierry Dusautoir missing with a knee problem, and key half-backs Sebastien Tillous-Borde and Frederic Michalak also out injured. Boss Phillipe Saint-Andre has also opted to leave out the 11 players who featured for Top 14 finalists Stade Francais and Clermont, meaning the home side are rightly favourites at 1/4 to take the victory ahead of the return fixture a week later.
The sides last met in March, when England secured a fine Six Nations win by 20 points, with the final score of 55-35 just short of what the home team needed to win the tournament. Fans will be hoping for a similar high-scoring affair, with a comparable performance from England warranting the -9 handicap bet on offer at 10/11.
2. Ireland to cement their role as World Cup dark horses
Ireland are overwhelming 1/7 favourites to defeat the visiting Scots in Dublin, coming off the back of an impressive victory over an admittedly second-string Welsh side last week.
Nonetheless coach Joe Schmidt will make changes to his team as he looks to trim down his squad, with Andrew Trimble ruled out through injury, but Marty Moore and Luke Fitzgerald back again after missing the Cardiff trip.
Now ranked second in the world, with consecutive Six Nations wins under their belt and drawn in Pool D with France, Italy, Canada and Romania, Schmidt’s side look a good bet to finally beat their World Cup best performance, with a first semi-final the minimum sought after six quarter-final defeats from seven tournaments. The Irish are 7/1 to win the World Cup.
3. Wallabies to pile the pressure on the All Blacks
It seems that no World Cup can arrive without bringing with it a debilitating amount of pressure on the world’s number one side.
As ever, the All Blacks will begin the tournament as favourites, valued at 11/8, but following last week’s 27-10 defeat to a resurgent Australian side, questions are being asked about just how much longer legends Dan Carter and captain Richie McCaw can go on as they endeavour to become the first nation to win back-to-back World Cups.
Michael Cheika’s Aussies make the trip to Eden Park this time round with six changes to the team, with Matt Toomua rewarded with a starting berth at inside-centre for his scintillating sub appearance last week. With New Zealand starting to show some cracks, a punt on their Trans-Tasman foes (7/1 to win the World Cup) to record a second victory inside a month looks the best pick of the weekend at 4/1.