ONLY once in the seven pre­vi­ous World Cups has a Euro­pean side claimed the Webb El­lis Tro­phy, but de­spite the fact they are hosts, the team in ques­tion, Eng­land, now face a strug­gle just to reach the knock­out stages of the cur­rent one.

Given the level of in­ter­est so far, it would be bad for the tour­na­ment, as for any ma­jor com­pe­ti­tion, to see the home na­tion elim­i­nated early.

It would also be a first, be­cause no host World Cup has ever been with­out a host na­tion at the semi-fi­nal stage.

In 1987 both New Zealand and Aus­tralia got that far, with the All Blacks win­ning the tour­na­ment; in 1991 we had that Scot­land-Eng­land semi-fi­nal; in 1995 the Spring­boks went the dis­tance at their first at­tempt; in 1999, with the old five na­tions shar­ing the du­ties in their fi­nal year be­fore be­com­ing six, France got in among the South­ern Hemi­sphere big three, shock­ing the All Blacks in the semis; in 2003 Aus­tralia lost the ex­tra-time fi­nal to Eng­land; in 2007 France avoided the po­ten­tial em­bar­rass­ment of ex­it­ing their own tour­na­ment on for­eign soil by shock­ing the All Blacks once more in a quar­ter-fi­nal in Cardiff; and in 2011 the All Blacks again pre­vailed in Auck­land.

In fair­ness, even im­me­di­ately af­ter their de­feat by Wales at the week­end, which meant they now face a do-or-die en­counter with cur­rent South­ern Hemi­sphere cham­pi­ons Aus­tralia, the book­ies have not yet lost faith in Eng­land, con­tin­u­ing to make them sec­ond favourites. While it is a tru­ism to say they are rarely wrong, how­ever, that says more about bet­ting pat­terns than it nec­es­sar­ily does about ex­pert views and the prospect of so many loyal English­men hav­ing con­tin­ued to back the team even af­ter the mis­takes made against Wales may do their team no favours when they re­turn to Twick­en­ham. Par­ti­san­ship is one el­e­ment, but the prospect of English­men los­ing their money to for­eign visi­tors is quite another.

Which brings us to the ques­tion of immigration and just how ben­e­fi­cial it could prove to be for these World Cup or­gan­is­ers should Eng­land fail to get through. For all that there have been up­sets, it looks like the tra­di­tional con­tenders will be there or there­abouts come the knock­out stages, with the South­ern Hemi­sphere big three and three of the Home Unions likely to fill three-quar­ters of the quar­ter-fi­nal slots, with France and Ar­gentina also well po­si­tioned.

Even the most ra­bid of right wingers are un­likely to com­plain about the prospect of in­creased queues at Calais gen­er­ated by free-spend­ing French rugby sup­port­ers, while there is no short­age of Aussies, Ki­wis, South Africans, Scots or Welsh in Eng­land.

How­ever Sun­day’s ev­i­dence was that if any team is po­si­tioned to take over as sur­ro­gate hosts it must be the once re­viled Ir­ish.

Many can still re­call the ob­jec­tion­able signs “No dogs, no blacks, no Ir­ish” on premises in Lon­don and the ten­sion gen­er­ated by ‘the trou­bles’ pro­longed an un­easy re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ir­ish im­mi­grants and English author­i­ties. There was, though, not the slight­est sign of any­one clad in green be­ing the least bit un­wel­come at the hostel­ries sur­round­ing English sport’s most fa­mous venue on Sun­day.

The Wem­b­ley Arch was lit green in their hon­our as a record World Cup crowd as­sem­bled for one of the tour­na­ment’s least com­pet­i­tive matches. It was an im­pres­sive show of sup­port by those with Ir­ish con­nec­tions and of­fered an in­di­ca­tion of what might be ex­pected if, hav­ing tra­di­tion­ally dis­ap­pointed at World Cups, they can reach the semi-fi­nals for the first time.

If Eng­land go out on Satur­day, how cu­ri­ous it will be, then, in these ref­er­en­dum-dom­i­nated times, that the stan­dard bear­ers for home hopes may be­come the Euro­pean cham­pi­ons who nor­mally play their home games in the cap­i­tal of a coun­try that opted out of be­ing part of the UK a cen­tury ago.


IS the glass half empty or is it half full? Ire­land and Scot­land are the only two teams in the World Cup to have ac­crued full points from their open­ing matches, but Ire­land and Scot­land are the only two of in­ter­na­tional rugby’s orig­i­nal big eight to have played the bot­tom two seeds in their pools.

The way sup­port­ers re­act to the sit­u­a­tion is al­most like a so­cial experiment in be­ing Celtic. As Scots anx­iously as­sess just how good the Samoans were in de­feat to the Spring­boks and whether the two time cham­pi­ons are now any­where close to get­ting back to their for­mi­da­ble best, in Ire­land there is only con­fi­dence of progress and of top­ping Pool D as they pre­pare to take on Six Na­tions ri­vals France and Italy in their re­main­ing games.

HOME FROM HOME: The Ir­ish sup­port have made Wem­b­ley their own

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