Rugby rules: the big kick-off

On Friday evening next, at 8 pm Irish time, millions of people all over the globe will be glued into the events unfolding in Paris when the 2007 Rugby World Cup kicks off with what could be one of the games of the tournament – France versus Argentina.    The strides the finals have taken, since a very insipid opening in 1987, is extraordinary, and so for the next 5 or so weeks we will have knowledgeable discussions about rucks and mauls, scrums and line-outs, knock-ons, and odd-shaped balls, and all kinds of rugby terminology – for most of us rugby is a game, that like cricket, is almost impossible to understand – however that will not stop us from enjoying the spectacle that’s about to come our way, or indeed from being a public house expert on all facets of the play.   So who is going to win the Webb-Ellis trophy? One of the biggest weaknesses is the fact that while 20 teams are taking part in the finals, at most about five have any chance of actually winning it. This also results in a number of mis-matches.     In two of the groups the qualifiers for the knock-out stages look totally straightforward, i.e. England and South Africa from Group A and Wales and Australia from Group B. However the remaining two groups are harder to predict – either Italy or Scotland can accompany the All Blacks from Group C and unfortunately it’s any two from three in our group – take your pick from Argentina, France and ourselves. As the hosts, it would be unthinkable that the French wouldn’t make it through,  and so it will probably come down to a straight fight between the other two.   From the Ireland perspective, our recent poor form has been well documented – most observers seem to accept that it’s just a little blip on the radar, and that everything will come together once the real action starts. I have seen predictions this week that we will make the semis at least and maybe even the final itself ; I am not so sure.    In the key matches in the group, both France and the Argentinians will target our scrum -this is a definite area of weakness, and having seen how the Italians destroyed us up in Belfast, each of those packs will be licking their lips in anticipation. As bad as things are now only God alone could help us if anything should happen to the Bull (John Hayes). Paul O’Connell has gone off the boil since Munster’s Historic Heineken victory, which is 15 months ago now and we need him to come good in France. The other essential player in the pack is David Wallace, another who is coming back from a long and serious injury – if he is any way short of his best, we will struggle to win any ball on the ground. Over the last few years, the Irish backs have been, rightly, regarded as among the best in the world – however ,we have also found out how much we depend on Brian O’Driscoll and whenever he’s not there we simply aren’t the same team.    Of course all the right noises about his fitness are coming from the Irish camp – let’s hope it is not just a propaganda exercise. If all the pieces fall into place, we could make a fair shot at making at least the semi-final – at this stage I would be very happy if we get out of our group, and by finishing second, get a crack at the All Blacks in Cardiff on Oct 6 th .    So here goes with my last eight predictions: 1 All Blacks v Ireland 2 Scotland v France 3 England v Australia 4  South Africa v Wales. My semi-finals are New Zealand v Australia and France v South Africa. Finally, on Oct 20 th the All Blacks will be crowned champions of the world by beating France 29-24 in a memorable and fitting end to what we all hope will be a wonderfully entertaining World Cup.    Don’t all rush to the bookies but if I’m right the drinks are on you!