Ireland’s win over Italy at the weekend told us little about the eventual destination of the Webb Ellis trophy this year – for that you had to look to the other side of the world.
Not long before Carlo Canna kicked off at Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon, Michael Cheika’s Australia shook the sport with a comprehensive victory over New Zealand in Perth’s stunning Optus stadium, a record win by the Wallabies over the All Blacks.
Scott Barrett was sent off on the stroke of half time, but Steve Hansen’s men were not at their best even before that and South Africa’s 46-13 win over Argentina later that day saw the Rugby Championship trophy make its way to the Boks for the first time since 2009.
With Ireland possibly facing either New Zealand or South Africa at the quarter-final stage, this shake up makes things a whole lot more interesting.
When Ireland broke new ground with their 38-3 hammering of Allister Coetzee’s Boks in November 2017, the two time winners looked a side that would hardly test Joe Schmidt’s side in the knockout stage.
But the arrival of former Munster boss Rassie Erasmus has turned the Boks around in spectacular style, with their draw in Wellington last month following victory in the same ground last year.
“Two years ago no one would have given South Africa a chance whereas now they look very strong,” said Leo Cullen, the Leinster boss.
“They’re strong physically and have good clarity in their mind in what they are trying to do, they’re very strong defensively and their defensive pressure is creating a lot of opportunities in attack.
Cullen, preparing for his fourth season in charge of the province, joined the wider rugby world over the weekend in wondering who will leave Japan with the trophy in November.
The All Blacks remain the bookies’ favourites, with South Africa joining England as second favourites and Ireland widely seen as fourth favourites despite a disappointing Six Nations campaign earlier this year.
“Wales were going to go to number one if they had won but they got beaten by England’s, not quite second string, but you get what I mean,” Cullen said of the weekend’s action. “On the same day Australia beat New Zealand comfortably so there are lots of teams that can win the World Cup, genuinely win it, and I don’t think that was the case in the past.
“New Zealand look vulnerable,” he added. “They played Argentina (in July) and Argentina had so many chances to win that game, but ultimately didn’t do it.
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“In the New Zealand v South Africa game, South Africa had the better of the first half, New Zealand the better of the second half. South Africa came up with a big moment at the end to snatch a draw.
Scotland and Japan join Samoa and Russia in Ireland’s Pool A, and Cullen praised Jamie Joseph’s host side after they reached a highest ever ninth place in the world rankings after their weekend win over USA to win the Pacific Nations cup.
“I think everyone has respect for Japan and what they are doing, they are beating decent teams,” he said.
“Maybe not quite the top tier but they are pretty efficient in what they are doing.
“Scotland on their day, you can see what they did against England in the first half versus the second half [of their 38-38 Six Nations draw]. It depends what team you want to judge. The one in the first half didn’t look great; the one in the second half looked very, very good.
“It is about how teams adapt in Japan. The conditions are so different and alien. How teams adapt to the environment over there will play a big part in the ones that progress and the ones that don’t.
“You can see with so many teams at the moment it’s on the day, who gets their preparations right, the combinations, the selection and all the little bits.”
Closer to home, Leinster begin their pre-season this Saturday with the visit of Coventry RFC to Donnybrook.
With a host of Ireland stars on international duty in Portugal, Leinster will give game time to a host of young talent, with James Lowe, Scott Penny (both shoulder operations) and Jamison Gibson-Park (hamstring) missing. Cullen expects to have the trio before the season starts, with Barry Daly and Adam Byrne set to return this weekend.