The World Cup is going to be so open in Japan, with lots of the top teams all at a similar level. Of the main contenders, everyone has been beaten in the last few weeks — which makes things even more interesting.
There is no doubt that the warm-up matches in the Southern Hemisphere — particularly New Zealand’s Tests with Australia — have had much more intensity than the ones up here. That will stand them in good stead.
I look at New Zealand and Australia and think they have an advantage because their coaches are so experienced. Steve Hansen and Michael Cheika know what it means to go to World Cups.
Clive Woodward believes New Zealand and Australia will have a big advantage at World Cup
The experience of New Zealand coach Steve Hansen could give All Blacks an edge in Japan
If South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus copes with the pressure Springboks will be a threat
How Rassie Erasmus, the rookie South African coach, copes with the pressure of the World Cup will very much dictate how the Springboks go, but make no mistake, they are real contenders. The same can be said for Wales. Having such an experienced coach is huge.
Their coaching team reminds me of my England group of Andy Robinson, Dave Alred, Dave Reddin and Phil Larder.
Like Warren Gatland, Rob Howley, Robin McBryde and Shaun Edwards, we were together for a number of years, which really helped as we were all on the same page and knew what each other thought when it came to running a Test team — especially with the issue of selection.
Warren Gatland has a settled and secure coaching staff which England lack – that could be key
Wales are so settled and secure. Eddie Jones and England do not have that, having brought John Mitchell in for Paul Gustard last year.
Gatland will be delighted with Wales’s preparation so far. They needed the loss against England to sharpen their minds and played well in Cardiff on Saturday. He has also handled the No 1 in the world rankings question well in the media.
He is not bothered about it at all, but it really does show how good a coach he is. Wales were ranked 10th in the world when he took the job in 2007, so to take such a small nation to No 1 is remarkable.
The stand-out result for me in recent Tests is France’s 32-3 win over Scotland this weekend. I am still worried about France. Like Australia they are almost always good at World Cups, they seem to thrive there, so that is a dangerous prospect for England in their pool.
Knowing France, however, you have to save your verdict until next week when they play Scotland at Murrayfield. They could easily lose that by 30 points!
To see Gael Fickou and Wesley Fofana in the centres makes me worry for England — when the two teams meet in the pool it is going to be an amazing game that will have a huge impact on the tournament.
Wesley Fofana will provide a very real threat when England meet France in the pool
With Wales needing to play Australia, New Zealand facing South Africa and Ireland playing Scotland at the pool stage, it is going to be a huge start to the tournament.
However, the only real surprise I see in the pool games is Argentina potentially beating France or England, which would change everything.
Pace will win World Cups, power won’t. England have a quick team if they decide to select it, as long as they put the right back row out — with Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola combining — to rival Australia and New Zealand.
The one theme I have noticed across these rounds of matches is the lack of catching quality under the high ball. Australia are struggling in that department without Israel Folau, Elliot Daly was bombarded in Cardiff and even Leigh Halfpenny dropped one.
England have pace in their squad and must select it if they’re to trouble the best nations
If I were coaching a top team today the first person I would call is my old kicking coach Dave Alred. It amazes me he is not involved with a big side.
He was a kicking coach for our whole team and spent so much time with all our players teaching them not only to kick but how to catch properly. Having spent so much time working in Aussie rules he is without peer.
We did loads on getting them to jump high and lift their leg up — Jason Robinson, Josh Lewsey, Ben Cohen and the others were fantastic under the high ball.
The other man I would bring in would be Ben Ryan, the former Fiji sevens coach who won gold at the 2016 Olympics. He is so good at coaching the skills of the game. It’s an own-goal from all the top international team not to have those two involved, but especially England.