England can retain the Rugby World Cup, insists Woodward

They’ve had four years of misery since that glorious day in Australia in 2003 and nobody seriously expects them to win it again. Or do they? Plus a look at the weekend fortunes of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy.

What’s Online:

There may not be too much confidence among the fans, but the man who guided England to the 2003 World Cup is convinced they’ll beat South Africa in their key Pool A game next month.

Not only that, he believes they can actually become the first nation to win the William Webb Ellis trophy twice in a row.

Brian Ashton’s fallen heroes (England’s sorry form has seen them drop to seventh in the world rankings) open their campaign against the USA in Lens on Saturday week. But although they look likely to qualify for the quarter-finals, the match against the Springboks in Saint-Denis on September 14 is expected to decide the group.

Apart from the morale-boosting aspect of a victory over Jake White’s Springbok hard-men, winning Pool A is likely to set up a relatively easy quarter-final against Wales, rather than a repeat of the 2003 final against the Wallabies.

And Sir Clive Woodward – knighted for the qualities that inspired that historic triumph Down Under four years ago – believes England can cash in on the fact they have had the ‘Indian sign’ over the Springboks in recent years.

He assured the Daily Mail: ”We have the players to beat South Africa – I know we have. They can win that game and go all the way like four years ago. It’s 50-50. Win and the World Cup will take off, lose and it will be very difficult but it’s not doom and gloom.”

Along with hosts France, Ireland have long been touted as the Northern Hemisphere’s best hope of winning the tournament, but their flawed 23-20 victory over Italy has delivered a sobering reality check.

Irish threequarter Girvan Dempsey is relieved that a near full-strength team misfired in last Friday’s game at Ravenhill and not during the World Cup itself. “We were predictable and one-dimensional,” he admitted. ”We have to ask more questions of the opposition. But it’s a lot better to get that performance out of our system.”

It took a dubious try from Ronan O’Gara deep into injury time to settle a tense, error-strewn clash which Italy deserved to win. Ireland’s main Pool D rivals France and Argentina will no doubt be delighted. But Dempsey knows a vast improvement will be required in France. “It was a proper Test match, the first of the year for many players,” he said. “There’s no panic at the moment but we will have to cause France and Argentina more problems because they’ll be a lot more potent.”

For Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan, there was little consolation in victory. “The one good thing is that we showed character to come back at the end,” he said. As for Italy, they were convinced they were robbed. ”We won today because we saw on the video that O’Gara lost the ball over the line,” insisted coach Pierre Berbizier.

Wales would appear to be little more than World Cup also-rans judging by their 34-7 pounding by France in Cardiff on Sunday. The World Cup hosts, having completed an impressive double over England in the past few weeks, are looking a good bet to win the crown for the first time – certainly at the 10-1 odds I got a couple of weeks ago! (Sorry, but you’ll only get 7-1 now).

But at least the Welsh will have battered captain Gareth Thomas back for their big Pool B clashes. The Cardiff Blues back will bear the scars of Sunday’s game for some time, however, having had 20 stitches in three facial cuts.

Despite the French humiliation, coach Gareth Jenkins promises that Wales will be ready for their opening game against Canada in Nantes on September 9.  “We are not where France are at the moment, there was a lot of creative effort from us but not the clinical edge we need ” he said. “But we’ll be ready for Canada, I’ve no doubt.”  After the Canada game, Wales face group favourites Australia, followed by Japan and then Fiji.

Scotland’s 27-3 home defeat by South Africa suggests they have no more chance than the stuttering Welsh. But head coach Frank Hadden believes his gamble of playing just two World Cup warm-up games has paid off.
“We didn’t pick up too many injuries and can take a massive amount from the game,” he told BBC Sport. “South Africa have played 10 games in the build-up, so they are a lot match sharper than we are. They defended fantastically well and, in a game of not many chances, they were decisive.”