Mind Games: Rugby vs soccer

2014-06-25 10:00

If you want to know what gets people going, tweet it.

Thinking I’d have some fun with soccer fans, I put out an old saw about the difference between rugby and soccer: “Soccer players spend 80 minutes trying to show they’re injured – rugby players spend 80 minutes trying to show they’re not.”

And I could not believe the reaction. A flurry of retweets, the usual rude reactions from those who take things too seriously and, of course, the pedants who needed to point out that a football game lasts 90 minutes – as if I didn’t know.

Some even posted pictures to illustrate that rugby players are tougher than footballers and one former Springbok suggested that the “soccer sissies” needed to be caught up in just one ruck to be introduced to some “manliness”.

With the soccer World Cup writhing, clutching and wincing, sorry, errm, in full swing in Brazil, there is one argument that rugby cannot win over soccer.

The big difference struck me again after coming to the realisation that England just might be the best-placed team to win next year’s rugby World Cup.

Where the soccer World Cup can potentially be won by upward of 12 nations, the Webb Ellis Cup can realistically be won by just five contenders – New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England and France.

So even while the rugby World Cup is easily one of the 10 biggest sporting events in the world – after Fifa’s World Cup, the Olympics, the Super Bowl, F1 and, thanks to India’s numbers, the ICC Cricket World Cup – it is part jamboree and part serious competition.

While this assessment will incense the like of Wales, Argentina, Samoa and even Scotland – and one would never deny the likes of Fiji, Italy, Canada, the US, Tonga, Japan, Romania and Georgia their moment in the sun – there is no denying that they pretty much make up the numbers.

If any of them prove me wrong at Twickenham in just more than a year’s time, I won’t promise to eat my hat – seeing as golf caps tend to have quite hard and probably inedible visors – but I will publish an abject apology in these hallowed pages.

The eighth rugby World Cup is now 452 days away and there is an undeniable sense in the internationals currently on the go that the focus has switched from the match at hand to what needs to be done for a team to arrive in London in the best nick possible.

There are key factors that have to be present for a side to win the tournament ranging from the abilities of the coach, the leadership of the captain, the presence of a fair number of players at the top of their powers, a supreme goalkicker, a good run with injuries, exceptional fitness and great esprit de corps, and already the signs are there as to which team might have all the necessary qualities.

It was Bob Skinstad who said it’s “written in the stars” about the aura that enveloped the 2007 Springboks when they won in France, and to me the team closest to having that indefinable force at the moment is England.

In Stuart Lancaster they have a coach who knows what he’s doing and who clearly has won the respect of his team; Chris Robshaw, probably still hurting at being overlooked by the British Lions last year, is an inspiring leader in the mould of Martin Johnson; and the team will have gained great benefit from having toured New Zealand this year, are underpinned by a few years of top juniors now reaching senior levels and will, of course, be at home.

Against this, the Springboks and the All Blacks are looking for a few more miles out of old engines, the Wallabies are still struggling to re-establish the depth they had under Nick Farr-Jones and John Eales, and France have allowed foreigners to impede their home-grown talent.

To me, England look to be the best long-term bet for the World Cup in 2015.

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