RWC BallKainotophobia is the fear if change (not the fear of being munched by an All Black blind side) and there certainly seems to have been more than a fair share of that in the English press since Stuart Lancaster announced that he was changing England’s backline around for Wales’ visit to Twickenham. There certainly seems to have been a mass panic about Lancaster’s decision with Lancaster himself having to deny that he hit the panic button (irony seems lost on some of these journalists) but in all honesty Jonathan Joseph’s injury left him little choice. He could have replaced Joseph with Henry Slade but a backline with the 13 and a half stone Slade and the even lighter George Ford would have been a gamble when Wales’ Centre’s weigh in at a combined 33 stone. Replacing Joseph with Sam Burgess is even more of a no brainer when you realise that he will be the heaviest back on the pitch. The decision to replace Ford with Farrell caused even more consternation, but once again when you take into consideration Farrell stands 3 inches taller than Ford and weighs over a stone more than Ford (Wales outside half Dan Biggar is 6 feet 2 and weighs just over 14 stone, so Farrell is bigger than him) it’s hardly that surprising particularly when allied to the physical attributes you remember how Ford’s game suffers when there’s no creative influence outside him.

Anyway, this apparent controversy is all rather irrelevant when considering who will win the game, here’s where the game will be decided –

• Mostly in the front rows AND more importantly in how the all French officiating team will interpret who is dominant at scrum time(against Fiji Joe Marler was driving at some rather questionable angles and not always being penalised)

• Health is going to have a rather important role to play in deciding the victors, Wales’ injury problems have been greatly documented but England don’t have any real Wing cover on their bench, so nobody can afford early injuries

• The line out has been a particular worry for England since Dylan Hartley’s exclusion and for Wales for an even longer period of time and with driving maul’s becoming impossible to referee or stop a solid 5 metre line out results in either a try or penalty try 99% of the time.

• The first 20 minutes of the game will be crucial. Wales didn’t take the lead against Uruguay until the 16th minute of the game while England have started their last 3 games at Twickenham a lot stronger than they have finished them.

• Continuity will suit Wales, all their conditioning work should benefit them in multi phase play, if Jerome Garces allows play to play to flow (he refereed the 66 point thriller between South Africa and Japan, so that could be an omen for Wales) *takes tongue out of cheek*

• Turnover ball may well be the thing that allows either side to score tries and the inclusion of an 18 stone outside back could well help England at the breakdown. Alternatively if Wales can use turnover ball quickly England’s scramble defence may be their weak point. (I’m expecting Barritt to defend in the 12 channel since he is England’s defensive Captain and it would be difficult for him to orchestrate out in the 13 channel)

• Finally, back to fear again, the team who can get over the fear of failure will be the victor. The fear of making mistakes on the field and the ramifications that a loss would have for either team’s prospects of qualifying for the knock out stages of the tournament are huge.

I’m not one for sitting on the fence (nobody wants splinters in their bum an all that) but it’s difficult to pick a clear favourite here, England are always difficult to beat at Twickenham so I suspect they’ll take the victory, however both teams have made changes from their last run outs so they could both take a while to find any fluency and as I said the opening 20 minutes could well decide the outcome.

First things first

RWC Ball
“You only get one chance to make a first impression” may or may not be a quote from the lips of Oscar Wilde before it was appropriated by any number of career advisor’s but it is definitely applicable to England as they look to impress in the Rugby World Cup opener at Twickenham on Friday night.
Fast starts are something that England have excelled at during their warm up games at home having scored 12 points in the first 14 minutes versus Ireland last time out and 12 in the first 18 minutes against France previously. The middle section of those games has been frankly alarming from an English point of view though, against France they failed to score between the 18th and the 45th minute and when they played Ireland they score between the 14th and the 47th minute. If Fiji can weather the early storm they are sure to face, or score some points of their own in the first 20 minutes, which neither France or Ireland could, they could well make a packed Twickenham a very nervy place and any unrest in the crowd may add to the pressure that young George Ford will be right to feel.
Ford’s last competitive game at Twickenham was a 16-28 point defeat at the hands of his rival for England’s 10 shirt Owen Farrell’s Saracens side. In that game Ford recorded a perfect kicking record slotting home 3 penalties and a conversion but his Bath team lacked “big game nous” (according to Sir Ian McGeechan) and couldn’t cope with the intensity that Saracens played with. Now Fiji may not exactly fit the bill when it comes to “big game nous” but they won’t want for intensity. Certainly in recent seasons at Bath Ford has struggled to show his trademark flair when faced with a defence that blitzes from out to in and with Leicester’s Vereniki Goneva lining up at Outside Centre for Fiji don’t be surprised to see a few penalties conceded in the middle of the pitch early on as their line speed is sure to test Jaco Peyper’s offside line. George Ford’s kicking from hand will have to almost perfect too or his England teammates face the prospect of having to stop Fiji’s sizeable back 3 (Nadolo 6ft 4 and weighs well over 19 stone, his wing partner Nayacalevu is 6ft 4 and 16+ stone and fullback Talebulamaijaina is a positively 6ft tall and 15 stone 6 lbs) after they’ve had a decent chance to build up some momentum.
There is more than a chance that the outcome of the game (and that of most of the close matchups at the tournament) will be dependent on the official’s interpretation at scrum time and this may well be a problem for Fiji, not because they will necessarily have an inferior scrimmage, but because perception is often 9 tenths of the law when it comes to referee’s decision making. England’s scrum will be far from full strength with the omission of Dylan Hartley and Alex Corbisiero who you could argue would start for any International side if they were 100% fit (a mischievous person may suggest they leave bigger hole’s in the home team’s first XV than Halfpenny and Webb do in Wales’). A trend that seems to be prevalent amongst officials (naming no names but particulalrly ones whose name starts with “R” and ends with “oman Poite”) recently is an almost willingness to penalise Loose Head props at scrum time and with Fiji’s starting number 1 Campese Ma’afu playing all of his recent rugby with Nottingham (after a rather lacklustre spell with Cardiff Blues) in the second tier of rugby in England Peyper may well decide that he’s a weak spot and any pressure coming through the Fijian front row may well result in Ma’afu being the unlucky man to get penalised (although England Tight Head Dan Cole is no stranger to a good talking to from a referee lately as officials seem to have wised up to his particular quirks). Overall discipline is a problem that has blighted Fiji on occasion although with just 1 loss in their last 7 games (which has seen them move up to 8th in the World Rugby rankings <if you believe in that sort of thing, it should be pointed out that they haven’t played any of the teams above them in the last 7 games>) they may be finding a way to channel their passion into the sort of intensity that may worry England.
I can only really see 2 possible outcomes in this game, either England will maintain their tradition of strong starts at Twickenham and blow Fiji away early doors or Fiji will provide an obstinate opponent in the first 20 minutes and we could be in for a nail biter. Incidentally if the game goes is closer than Stuart Lancaster would like going into the last 25 minutes the players available to him from the bench may not be much help because with the exception of Richard Wigglesworth there’s very little creativity available to him since he appears to have picked players who can defend better than the starting players (Farrell for Ford and Burgess for Joseph). Fiji on the other hand can call on the Ospreys’ Josh Matavesi, the powerful Asaeli Tikoiriotuma and back rower Peceli Yato who wouldn’t look out of place in Fiji’s backline, he can seriously shift for someone who is 6ft 5 tall so they may well score some tries late on in proceedings.

It’s the end of the World as we know it, or is it?

Pragmatism seems to be in short supply in Wales since that fateful Saturday afternoon just past in the Millennium Stadium. A coaching team who would keep someone who struggled with injuries at the start of the season and who had enough strapping to stock a small pharmacy on his right leg was still on the pitch at all 70 minutes into a meaningless warm up game but as they say hindsight is a wonderful thing and as Sophocles (he of Oedipus Rex fame) said “I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect”. The reaction to both Leigh Halfpenny’s and Rhys Webb’s injuries has been slightly hyperbolic to say the least, Shane Williams said Wales is “in mourning” which rather exaggerates the fact that 2 people will be back up and walking in a week or two although it does tie in nicely with Wales battling to progress from the “Group of Death” at the Rugby World Cup (I’m still predicting very little, if any actual death occurring in Pool A during October). Dan Biggar described Saturday afternoon as “disastrous” and while that may a little extreme as Biggar has known Leigh Halfpenny for a considerable time (they both played youth rugby for Gorseinon) and he’s been Rhys Webb’s Ospreys teammate since 2007 so his emotion is justifiable. Empathy for 2 people who must be ridiculously frustrated at missing the chance to play in World Cup games in the Millennium Stadium is understandable but “mourning” when both players are 26 years old and have the chance to play in 2 more World Cup tournaments (lest we not forget Halfpenny appeared in the 2011 World Cup).
The severity of both injuries serve to remind just how precarious how the career of a professional rugby player is and while both players should resume their playing career’s there are some who are not so fortunate. This shines a rather dim light on the introduction of “Gatland’s Law” which would preclude any player who plays outside Wales from being selected for the national side (although players who moved away from the principality before the rule was announced are apparently exempt) because players who do move outside Wales to ply their trade will be earning vast sums whereas those who sign “centralised contracts” with the WRU simply won’t because the WRU don’t generate enough revenue. Halfpenny himself is rumoured to be earning around £600,000 a year playing for Rugby Club Toulonnais (and he won the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup) compared to the £270,000 a year that Sam Warburton receives from the WRU after signing a centralised contract which runs to 2017. When injuries can occur as a result of wear and tear like Halfpenny’s did on Saturday planning for the future may well become more important to players than representing their country.
Finally, whilst seeing your friends and somebody who you’ve spent the majority of your time with since July must be traumatic for all involved it should prove to unite the squad and remind them of their common goal and how fortunate they are to be in a position to attempt to be the first Welsh team to won a Rugby World Cup. As Sam Warburton pointed out in his post match comments on Saturday Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny both missed the second Test in South Africa last summer and barring a last second mistake that game was one of the best performances any team in a red shirt has given in recent memory. Whoever is called up to replace both Webb and Halfpenny in the squad will know they have big boots to fill and that motivation alone will mean they can’t fail to make a positive impact. If Liam Williams is fit enough to play in any of the Pool matches he will bring more dynamism and attacking flair than Halfpenny traditionally displays and bringing in the Pro 12’s top scorer in 3 of the last 5 seasons as a goal kicker Dan Biggar isn’t a luxury many nations have. If Liam Williams isn’t available early in the tournament then Wales will have choose between Matthew Morgan and Hallam Amos who are both exciting young talents and will be largely unseen by most opponents whereas Halfpenny is revered around the world so the art of surprise may well work in Wales’ favour.
If I was Warren Gatland I’d be asking not just Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny to be involved with the squad during the World Cup (obviously not on match days) but I’d also ask Jonathan Davies who was injured before the training camp even started if he’d like to talk to the squad. You can coach conditioning and drum game plans into players as often as you like, but camaraderie and team spirit are something that only a group of players can engender between themselves.