Ireland arrived in Japan officially ranked the best team in the world. In the fortnight preceding the World Cup start Wales held the official world ranking as number one. New Zealand, after one week of the World Cup, are back at the top and in the familiar position they’ve known for the past decade.
But the team that is putting down a marker is Eddie Jones’s England.
I was impressed with England’s display against the United States. Jones had made 10 changes to the team that brushed aside Tonga 35-3. The United States, under South African-born coach Gary Gold, are no mugs.
They’re a decent side, but England absolutely terrorised them in the opening 10 minutes, playing with power and pace.
England have depth matched only by New Zealand and South Africa, but it is in crucial areas where England shade the All Blacks and Springboks for depth. England also have a lot more potential for variation in their midfield and George Ford, at flyhalf, offers alternatives to the Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi 10/12 axis.
The intensity with which England played in the opening quarter would have been noticed by the other World Cup contenders, which realistically number no more than six teams.
England’s draw has been a very good one. They started against the physical challenge of Tonga, but knew that Tonga, collectively, would offer no more than the odd big hit.
The United States match would allow for England to play with more fluidity and also more expansively. They did.
Argentina will provide a measure of how close England are to South Africa and New Zealand because it is an ‘apples for apples’ comparison.
Argentina this year have played the Boks and All Blacks in the Rugby Championship, but I expect England to match the Boks’s demolition of the Pumas a few months ago.
England’s final group match is against France and I don’t see anything but a convincing England win. Most critics have favoured a New Zealand/South Africa final but if there is a team that can topple the All Blacks, then it is England in the semi-final.
England were desperately unlucky to lose 16-15 to the All Blacks at Twickenham less than a year ago and on balance they are a better match 23. The only thing that no one can factor in is the possibility of one moment of All Blacks genius, as we saw in their win against South Africa last weekend.
It will be a difficult next few weeks for the Springboks because they have to play Namibia, Italy and Canada to complete their group fixtures, but their eyes will only be on the quarter-final against Ireland.
The Namibian match will provide some much needed game time for the likes of Frans Steyn and Lood de Jager, who both could feature prominently in the play-offs but when you see how easily Italy hammered Namibia and Canada, you know that there is nothing one can read into a Bok win tomorrow, no matter by how much.