Rugby World Cup
Fifteen fearless predictions for RWC 2015
Tom Hamilton and Sam Bruce
December 5, 2014
Aaron Cruden looks to have the inside running as the All Blacks' first-choice fly-half © Getty Images

The November Test action has come to an end with players from the southern hemisphere finally at home resting up after a long year and those in the north now back at their clubs across Europe.

Only the All Blacks and Ireland managed an unbeaten campaign last month with Joe Schmidt's side, in particular, grabbing the headlines in the final cross-hemisphere window before Rugby World Cup 2015. But what, if anything, can we garner from the last month's action?

ESPN's Tom Hamilton and Sam Bruce put their thinking caps on and came up with a list of 15 predictions for Rugby World Cup 2015. They key stats have been provided by Opta Stats

Argentina: Pumas loom as potential surprise-packets

They did it in 2007 in a memorable march to third and Argentina appear to be a reasonable chance of a semi-final appearance again next year. They should qualify behind the All Blacks in second spot in Pool C, barring a potential banana-skin game against the unpredictable Tonga, which would likely set them - judging by the November action anyway - a quarter-final showdown with Ireland. Joe Schmidt's side are on the rise and would start favourites but having never been to a World Cup semi-final, the men in green may get the jitters. Playmaker Nicolas Sanchez is world-class, and his three drop goals in the shock 18-13 victory over France show he has the temperament for the big stage.

Key stat Argentina will need to improve their defence and lineout if they're to be a threat at RWC 2015; they ranked last for tackling success (85%) and lineout success (80%) of the nations featured here.

Australia: Scrum shambles won't have ceased

Can the Wallabies win the World Cup with a scrummaging performance like their one against England at the weekend? No. Can they improve it enough in nine months to at least achieve parity? Unlikely. That's the stark reality for Wallabies fans who, despite a 10-match winning streak over Wales, are now seriously fearing a first-ever pool-stage exit; considering the fact they'll also face England before the knock-out stage. The return of world-class hookers Stephen Moore and Tatafu Polota-Nau will make some difference; it just doesn't look like being enough.

Key stat Not that you needed proof but Australia had the second worst scrum success rate in 2014 at just 79%.

England end Autumn fixtures with win over Australia

Australia: Cheika to stick with Hooper as skipper

While champion lock Victor Matfield looms as a likely replacement should Springboks skipper Jean de Villiers not recover in time, the decision on who wears the captain's armband for the Wallabies is a little more clouded. Michael Hooper has done an admirable job since being thrust into the role and, as recently as Monday, has the renewed support of coach Michael Cheika. Stephen Moore was the man originally touted for the role before he was cut down by injury but Hooper looks the man most likely.

Wallabies captain moved by Hughes tributes

England: Slammin' Sam will feature

If England go for a game plan of brute force for the World Cup, in a similar vein to their performance against Australia, then Sam Burgess fits the bill perfectly. He has only played 17 minutes of union but Stuart Lancaster was left purring by how he has taken to the 15-man. England say there will be no fast-track for Burgess but they have dangled the carrot of him playing for the Saxons in January in front of his nose and if he continues to learn the game at a rapid-rate, Lancaster will find it hard not to fast-track him into World Cup contention.

Key stat: England are in great shape in two key areas ahead of next year's tournament; their goal-kicking success (82%) was second only to Wales while their powerful lineout won 92% of their own ball.

England: Robshaw to lead Red Rose on home soil

Despite the ever-present noise from a certain openside over the Channel, Steffon Armitage will not make the World Cup squad and Chris Robshaw will captain England into the competition. Robshaw played well during the recent November Tests - he had a better tackle completion rate than Richie McCaw - and will keep his spot at No.7 and first in the line when he leads the team out against Fiji on September 18, 2015.

Robshaw hails morale-boosting win

France: More of the same from Les Bleus

France are always an unpredictable entity when it comes to World Cups. In 2011 they were poor in the Pool stages but still managed to reach the final and but for the boot of Stephen 'Beaver' Donald, they could have won the whole thing. But their duality was illustrated perfectly in the November series as they played some wonderful rugby against Fiji and Australia - with Teddy Thomas at the forefront - only to then be out-thought and kicked by Argentina. They will get through their Pool but lose in the quarter-finals to New Zealand.

Key stat France struggled to open up defences in 2014 with only Italy and Scotland averaging fewer clean breaks.

Ireland: Take the 10/1 - it looks good value

That's the price you can get on Ireland to win the World Cup at the moment. The spine of their team is full of world class players with Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip, Paul O'Connell and Cian Healy all wonderful talents. Even without Brian O'Driscoll they were magnificent in the recent November Tests and with a good knowledge of the English rugby fields, they will feel right at home. Their coach Joe Schmidt is also well versed in the nuances between southern and northern hemisphere rugby.

Key stat Ireland have made a number of improvements under Joe Schmidt, most notably their attack. The Irish averaged 29 points per game this year, second only to New Zealand.

Joe Schmidt has worked wonders with Ireland's attack. © Getty Images

Italy: No knock-out swansong for Parisse

Sergio Parisse will be 36 the next time the World Cup comes and even he, the Italian maestro, cannot dodge Father Time. Parisse has done more for Italian rugby than any other - he is a wonderful player - but the team seem to be too far off the pace at present. They had a miserable November series and despite Parisse sometimes single-handedly dragging Italy from game to game, even he will not be able to guide them into the quarter-finals of the competition for the very first time.

Key stat One win from 11 games in 2014 says it all for the Azzuri; they'll be making up the numbers at RWC 2015.

New Zealand: Cruden the pick of All Blacks' perfect 10s

It's the greatest luxury in world rugby; four fly-halves all capable of delivering at Test level. That is unless you're All Blacks Steve Hansen, who has to decide between Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden and now, it seems, Colin Slade. The latter is at the longest odds, but could still win a place in the 32-man squad because of his versatility. As for the others? It's serious flip-a-coin territory - a three-sided one if you've got it. And they may just need them all four of them you know. For now, we've got Cruden as the pick of the bunch

Key stat: The only real negative for the All Blacks this season was their goal-kicking success rate, which sat at just 68%. Only Italy (65%) kicked at a lower rate.

New Zealand: Nonu gets the nod through Smith combination

It may not be quite as well stocked as their No.10 options but one spot further out the All Blacks also boast an embarrassment of riches. Sonny Bill Williams made a sparkling return to the 15-man game last month while Ryan Crotty is a solid option should injury strike; like it did for Ma'a Nonu during the Rugby Championship. The enigmatic Nonu probably remains the front-runner, particularly due to the fact he's combined with Conrad Smith in the All Blacks midfield for the best part of a decade. Williams will push hard and has that special touch while Crotty will be there as the third option; and who can remember him having a bad game?

Sonny Bill Williams will battle Ma'a Nonu for the All Blacks No.12 jersey © Getty Images

Samoa: Politics to derail islanders' campaign

In the last World Cup, the players went from door-to-door in Samoa raising money for their team. After the tournament came to an end, their captain Mahonri Schwalger said they never saw a penny of the 6m tala they raised. It looks, unfortunately, like Samoa will be engulfed in more infighting with their union as its chairman Tuilaepa Sa'ilele, who doubles as Prime Minster of Samoa, shows no sign of agreeing to the players' demands for changes in the management. It is such a shame - imagine how good Samoa could be if they had equal-footing.

Scotland: Cotter revolution continues to quarter-finals

Despite only being in the tentative stages of the Vern Cotter revolution at Scotland, they showed enough about them in the November Tests to suggest they will be well equipped to qualify from their Pool. The smart money would be on them finishing second behind South Africa and triumphing in the winner-takes-all game against Samoa on October 10. Their centres will also garner plenty of praise with Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar and Matt Scott set to impress.

Key stat Scotland will be looking to build on an improving attack in 2015 while their lineout - which was the most successful of the November series at 97% - is a genuine force.

South Africa: More Cup heartache awaits de Villiers

It's easily the biggest injury concern to come out of the November action; Jean de Villiers' dislocated knee. The inspirational Springboks captain seems to be cursed when it comes to World Cups, having suffered an injury in the lead-up to, or at, each of the last three tournaments. Early suggestions are he'll be sidelined for at least eight months, which would have him slated for a potential return around July next year. But knee injuries often take far longer to rehab than expected, and with the World Cup kicking off in mid-September the veteran centre looks to be too short on time.

Key stat: The set-piece is always crucial come World Cup time and the Springboks appear to be well placed. They ranked second for lineout success rate (91%) and third for scrums (88%) in 2014.

Springboks predict 'exciting' World Cup

South Africa: Meyer's decision a question in styles

The Springboks have two rising fly-halves in Handre Pollard and Pat Lambie with coach Heyneke Meyer using both men throughout the back half of the year. Pollard, who rose from the Junior World Championship to Test game-breaker in a matter of months, is a special player; one gifted with an all-round game not often seen in the Republic. Lambie, too, can run the ball; but his strength is his stability at playmaker. And then the old warhorse Morne Steyn is still hanging around; and his aerial assault has already claimed major successes. Meyer must decide on what style he wants to play; expect a few changes between now and September.

Wales: Williams will be Welshman to watch

Although he does not walk into Wales' team with Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert and George North their current first choice back three, Liam Williams is likely to get his chance at some stage or other in the World Cup. The competition has a bizarre knack of turning fringe players into stars and Williams has all the ability to be a key player for Warren Gatland's side.

Key stat: Wales will need to improve their second-half scoring ahead of next year's event; they averaged just 8.4 points and 0.8 tries after the break in 2014.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton and Sam Bruce are Associate Editors of ESPNscrum.

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