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Rugby's World Cup in danger of becoming cakewalk for southern hemisphere giants

While football's ongoing bun fight in Brazil keeps us glued to our armchairs for another few weeks, thoughts inevitably turn to the rugby equivalent, which will kick off in just over 14 months' time when England host Fiji at Twickenham in the opening clash of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

big question: will a  European team feature in the final of next year's Rugby World Cup? Picture: Getty Images
big question: will a European team feature in the final of next year's Rugby World Cup? Picture: Getty Images

It is a prospect that quickens the pulse, not least because the tournament will have a focus and intensity that was absent on the two previous occasions when these islands hosted the event. In both 1991 and 1999, backroom horse-trading between officials meant that matches were spread across five different countries, but next year's event will be staged almost entirely in England, with just a few quick jaunts across the Severn for games at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

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Yet, while that concentration of fixtures ought to be a strength, it is also, unquestionably, a potential weakness as well. For as much as you might have struggled to stifle a snigger as Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, et al made their early exits from Brazil it would be a massive blow to the tournament as a whole if the England rugby team suffered a similar fate next year.

The fact is that an event on this scale is enhanced if its hosts maintain an interest into the business end of things. And yet it is by no means a foregone conclusion that England will be able to do that, bracketed as they are in the same pool as Wales and Australia.

Of course, it is a rank absurdity that the sides positioned third (Australia), fourth (England) and sixth (Wales) in the current world rankings should all be in one group, but the injustice of the scenario will be of less concern to England coach Stuart Lancaster than the mechanics of negotiating safe passage through to the knockout stages. All the more so after their 'Blackwash' summer tour produced three straight losses at the hands of New Zealand. England kicked off the June series with an admirably feisty display as they went down 20-15 in Auckland, but the wheels had worked loose by the time they reached the third game, in Hamilton, where they were probably flattered to lose by just 36-13. To all intents and purposes, England spent the trip going backwards.

For anyone who views world rugby as a power struggle between the two hemispheres, the June Tests made grim viewing. Scotland, England, Wales and France played a combined total of nine games against the SANZAR [South Africa, New Zealand and Australia] sides, without a single victory achieved. Ireland and Scotland registered wins against an understrength Argentina outfit, but even Italy, who seem to be in freefall at the moment, had a nightmare time, losing to Fiji, Samoa and Japan.

The recent toils and travails of the Six Nations sides give the lie to the notion that the gap between the SANZAR big three and the Europeans would diminish as professionalism took hold. The fact of the matter is that an ever-widening chasm appears to be opening, and there is a clear danger that next year's World Cup will become something of a cakewalk for the southern hemisphere giants.

It is worth remembering that the SANZAR nations' grip on the Webb Ellis trophy has only been loosened once - in 2003, when England achieved a tumultuous victory in Sydney. In the build-up to that triumph, Clive Woodward's England had clocked up nine consecutive wins against Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Yet, since the last World Cup, in 2011, Six Nations sides have won just four of 38 clashes with SANZAR sides. The most recent blow to northern pride was Scotland's 55-6 thrashing by the Springboks in Port Elizabeth last Saturday. Given the restrictions on the Scots' selection options - the match was played outside the official international window, so only home-based players could be chosen - it is questionable whether the game deserved to be accorded full Test status, but it will stand in the record books regardless of those circumstances.

Following the 51-3 hammering by Wales in the Six Nations, it was another stark reminder of how far off the pace Scotland are at the moment, even as recent wins against the USA, Canada and Argentina have given them a toehold in the top eight of the world rankings once more.

Yet, when he sits down to examine the 2015 World Cup schedule, new Scotland coach Vern Cotter must surely view it with more satisfaction that Lancaster can muster. The Scots were placed among the third seeds when the draw was made, but they have since overtaken Samoa in the world rankings. Scotland's clash with the Pacific Islanders in Newcastle on October 10 next year already has the look of a qualification decider.

That same evening, England will play their final group game, against the yet to be decided winners of the African qualifying competition. If England have lost to Wales and Australia by that stage, the match could well be a dead rubber, their elimination already confirmed.

That scenario might appeal to many, but the tournament will be the poorer if it comes to pass.

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