If you put a gun to the head of Brian O’Driscoll he will predict that England will win the World Cup, and if there is to be an upset from left field to snatch the Webb Ellis Cup, it will be France.
The much-decorated Irishman is at pains to single out England as the side that will break New Zealand’s grip on the treasured trophy but he believes that the Eddie Jones-coached side has the firepower to break the Kiwi hegemony.
“Ireland are no fans of England but if I was put on the spot, I would pick England to win the World Cup,” said O’Driscoll, speaking on behalf of Land Rover, official worldwide partner of Rugby World Cup. “Having watched them demolish Ireland 57-15 a few weeks ago, it is ominously clear that they have developed a powerful offloading amongst their pack that is very difficult to defend.
“England have strong game breakers in the likes of Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola that smash their team over the advantage line to create momentum whereas other teams have to go through a lot of rucks before they create something.”
The rise of England over the last four years is remarkable given they could not get out of their Pool in the World Cup staged in their country in 2015.
For that matter, neither could any of the northern hemisphere teams that year, but O’Driscoll is not so sure that the southern hemisphere clean sweep of the quarter-finals meant the European teams were, as a whole, weaker.
“If you look back to the last World Cup, Scotland would have been there but for a refereeing call that went against them against Australia. Scotland should have been in the semis, and then Ireland were on course but had an off day against Argentina.”
O’Driscoll says the lesson to come out of the last World Cup is that countries not only have to be more positive about how they score points but also have to ensure they have strength in depth.
“I think there has been a big wake-up call in that it is not enough to have a strong starting 15 or even match 23 - you need a strong pool of 35 or so if you want to go all the way. New Zealand won the 2011 World Cup in Auckland with their fifth-choice flyhalf,” O’Driscoll pointed out.
“The gap between New Zealand and the rest of the world was vast in 2015, even in the final between the All Blacks and the Wallabies. New Zealand was far and away the best team in the world and the challenge was for the rest of the world to embrace a positive, attacking brand of rugby. That has happened. It is not a case of the All Blacks becoming poorer but rather the rest of the world has caught up.”
There is a strong possibility that O’Driscoll’s beloved Ireland will meet the Boks in a quarter-final, and that the match will be a far cry from the last time the teams met, in Dublin in 2017 when the Boks were embarrassed 38-3.
“The Boks didn’t fire a shot that day and that was sad because world rugby needs a strong Springbok team,” O’Driscoll said. “You don’t want it to be fait accompli that New Zealand wins every time they play. Rugby needs a strong England, Australia and South Africa while others such as Wales and Ireland need to step up.”
The former British and Irish Lions captain says that the Springbok recovery began with defence coach Jacques Nienaber.
“Fixing a struggling team starts with defence. It is the easiest part to fix,” O’Driscoll said.
“The Munster players raved about Nienaber when he was under Rassie at Munster. If you shore up defence and concentrate on not giving away penalties, then straight away teams have to work hard to score, and you are in the game, and that is what has happened with the Boks under Rassie.
“Also, the Boks have added a huge power game that teams are finding difficult to deal with,” the 40-year-old added. “To be frank, it is welcomed that the Boks have that brutal edge back. They became too sanitised, they were unrecognisable from the Boks we knew. To be honest, it is great to see that their nasty edge is back.”