Is there an official time to get excited for the Rugby World Cup in Japan? Maybe not. However, no one will condemn you for dusting off your old-school jersey and revisiting YouTube for endless clips and highlights of England 2015. That is, of course, you are an England fan. The Red Rose had a pretty awful tournament last time out, and have to suffer the unwanted statistic of being the first nation to be knocked out of a World Cup in the group stages.
A lot can happen in the years between tournaments, however. Changes of coaches, backroom staff, a team’s fortunes, and even a crop of players can lead many fans to find new reasons to remain optimistic. Such changes are part and parcel of the game we know and love, yet the one thing that seems to remain the same is the dominance of the world’s greatest ever international rugby team, New Zealand.
2018 was an incredibly interesting year in the world of rugby. While the reigning world champions picked up their sixth Rugby Championship title in seven years, the emergence of Ireland as a real force to be reckoned with culminated in the men in green beating the All Blacks at home for the first time in their history. Coached by the sage-like Joe Schmidt and lead by talisman Johnny Sexton, Ireland established themselves to many as the number one team in the world with the win.
Of course, if one country has traditionally under-performed in the World Cup, it is the Irish. In fact, they have never made a semi-final in the history of the tournament. With another meeting with New Zealand or South Africa awaiting them in the quarter-finals in Japan, will they choke once more? Just across the water, Wales appear to be building consistency and strength in dept, and Scotland are showing steady signs of improvement.
Of course, South Africa are beginning to return to their place at the top table of rugby’s giants, while Australia – even with their poor form – will be hoping for a good showing. the mercurial French can shock anyone on their day and Argentina are far from a team to write off.
With the usual suspects fancying their chances, it looks as though Japan 2019 will be a very interesting tournament. However, there are a small number of teams that will be expecting more from themselves come September 20.
2018 was certainly a great year to be an Irish rugby fan. An impressive Six Nations Grand Slam campaign saw the Irish pick up their third in history and the first since 2009. While the “golden generation” of the mid-2000s had promised so much but delivered relatively little, the current crop of stars – buoyed by an effective blend of youth and experience – showed their potential in the Northern Hemisphere’s premier international rugby competition.
In the summer, Ireland beat Australia by two tests to one to claim their first-ever series win “Down Under.” In the recent Autumn Internationals, the world’s second best team according to the IRB Rankings completely dominated the All Blacks, becoming the first international team to prevent them to score a try since the 1995 World Cup final. There is clear optimism in Ireland and everything seems to be clicking for them.
The country’s premier club team, Leinster, roared to a Pro 14 Championship and European Cup double, making it an incredible year all-around. Many of the province’s standout stars, including Sexton, Taidgh Furlong, James Ryan, Cian Healey, Rob Kearney, and Robbie Henshaw will be hoping to remain fit for the World Cup in Japan. Leinster’s strength in depth means that most of these guys will be routinely rested (and the team will likely win most games, anyway).
This strength in depth is something that Ireland’s national team has in abundance. There has never been this immense level of strength in the Emerald Isle, which is something that has injected serious optimism into fans. For example, the Irish were missing key players such as Conor Murray, Henshaw, Sean O’Brien, and Dan Leavy, yet still dominated the All Blacks. This win was incredible, in part, for this reason.
As incredible as Ireland’s victory over New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin was, the All Blacks are still the best team in the world. Yes, they were outplayed, outmuscled, outsmarted and pretty much owned by Ireland, but there is more to be done to topple the men from the “Land of the Long White Cloud.” New Zealand will surely fancy their chances if they meet Ireland at the World Cup.
In all fairness, the men in black had traveled to the Northern Hemisphere not long after the Rugby Championship. They had visited Japan (although they did field a weakened side) before touching down in a tussling game with England the week before visiting Dublin. Even the least magnanimous and overzealous supporter has to recognize that this could have been a factor in their performance against Ireland.
This is not to take anything away from Joe Schmidt’s side, however, as they fully deserved their win. If anything, it did establish the fact that the top two teams in the IRB World Rankings are the obvious favorites for the World Cup in 2019. However, with Ireland having flattered to deceive in so many tournaments in the past – and with the All Blacks winning the prior two – New Zealand’s impressive band of players are the ones to beat.
Consequently, Ireland and New Zealand might end up meeting a lot sooner than most fans would hope. With the way the group stages are set up, this could be as early as the quarter-finals. The most highly anticipated fixture in the World Cup will be between these teams, but it is important to remember that there will be plenty of rugby to be played between then and now.
The Rugby World Cup will kick off on September 20 in Japan. Prior to the start of the tournament, a lot of rugby will be played. Now, fans do not want to entertain the idea that some of their star players could be in injured in that time frame, but it is possible. At very least, players could suffer a loss of form that could lead to a change in a particular position.
In terms of the Northern Hemisphere, the 2019 Six Nations will definitely provide teams with a platform to show what they can do. Ireland will be overwhelming favorites heading into the tournament, but Wales, England, Scotland, and France will be eager to boost their own credentials before the World Cup. Perennial whipping boys, Italy, will be unlikely to do much apart from hoping to steal a win.
Of course, there will be competition in the Southern Hemisphere prior to the World Cup. New Zealand and Australia will face off in the Bledisloe Cup in August 2019, while Argentina and South Africa will also have plenty of opportunities to warm-up ahead of the big event. Make no mistake: things can change in rugby, and some tend to gather serious momentum
Yes, that may sound ridiculously obvious. However, in the Rugby World Cup, what you may think is a foregone conclusion can have a habit of coming back and biting you on your behind. A shock defeat here or there can really change the way the tournament plays out and this could be vital for one team vying for the cup. There are a couple of very interesting scenarios that could happen in Japan in 2019.
As previously mentioned, Ireland are expected to win Group A which means they will likely face South Africa (who are expected to finish as runners-up to New Zealand). However, if Ireland lose to Scotland, they will likely play New Zealand (who are expected to win Group B). If Ireland beat Scotland and defeat Japan and Samoa – and South Africa beat New Zealand – Ireland and the All Blacks will meet in the quarter-finals.
Over in Group C, England, France, and Argentina will be battling for a place in the knockout stages. Any of these three teams could win all of their games, leaving it down to a dogfight for second place. Regardless of what happens, one of the English, French, or Argentines will be sent packing in the group stages. There is big potential for a shock here and England will surely not crash out in the group stages again, right?
Group D also features a potential banana skin for Wales and Australia in the form of a rejuvenated and refined Fiji. Although the Welsh are tipped to win the group, Fiji have a tag of being their “bogey team” (2007, anyone?) and are more than capable of putting it up to the Dragons. Australia, who have looked a shell of themselves over the past few years, will certainly be cautious of their threat.
After each team has played the other, there will be just two teams to progress from each pool. As you can see, there is some pretty healthy competition for the top spots in each group, although Ireland and New Zealand will be expected to take Pool A and B, respectively. Pool C is a head-scratcher, while Pool D favorites, Wales, will be hoping to have enough to down the Aussies and Fiji.
There are four pools in total at Japan 2019 and they look like this:
Pool A: Ireland (Winners), Scotland (Runners-Up) – Ireland are gunning to make a major statement at this World Cup and will not fear New Zealand or South Africa. As such, they will be going for the jugular against Scotland and, even in the case of injuries, will have enough to get the job done. Scotland will be too strong for the rest of the group but will find playing arguably the strongest team in the world a challenge too far.
Pool B: New Zealand (Winners), South Africa (Runners-Up) – South Africa beating New Zealand be a shock, although not incredibly far-fetched. However, the All Blacks will have their own point to prove and will likely have too much for the resurgent Springboks. Rassie Erasmus’ men should find the rest of the group fairly easy to overcome, however.
Pool C: England (Winners), France (Runners-Up) – England suffered a major downturn in fortunes, but they should be close to returning to full-strength come the World Cup. France are also showing steady signs of improvement and dealt with Argentina with control, in Paris this Autumn. The Pumas always come good in the World Cup but will likely be pipped by the English and French this time around.
Pool D: Wales (Winners), Australia (Runners-Up) – Wales are finding some excellent rhythm and are developing an expansive style of play that will be well-cooked by the time the World Cup comes around. Having beaten Australia for the first time in 10 years in Autumn, the monkey is well and truly off the back. Fiji may push both teams to their limits, but expect a stronger Australia in Japan.
Rather than break down the knockout stages, I believe it is far more exciting to focus on the 5 teams that have the best chance of winning. Japan 2019 is poised to be one of the most exciting tournaments in some time, with a lot of teams feeling as though they have enough to break the dominance of the All Blacks. In reality, a dark horse such as France or Argentina could shock everyone, but this is unlikely.
As things currently stand, there are five teams that have the best chance of getting their hands on the cup. Let’s take a look at each team in a little more detail.
Finding themselves ranked in third place in the IRB World Rankings, Wales are a team that will have a lot of confidence heading into the World Cup. Semi-finalists in 2011, if not for a rush of blood to the head by Sam Warburton – and a slightly harsh red card by referee Alain Roland – the Welsh might have made it to the final against eventual winners, New Zealand. One wonders if they would have even been crowned champions.
In 2018, Wales had a horrendous number of injuries heading into the Six Nations. Ironically, the replacement players that came in brought in a fresh approach that saw them blast Scotland away 34-7 in the opening game of the tournament in Cardiff. A narrow defeat to England saw hopes of a championship challenge dampened, with a defeat to Ireland ending all hopes. Wales did beat France in their final game, however.
A first win in ten years over Australia in Cardiff in the Autumn Internationals was well received, especially following their series win over Argentina in the summer. There is growing optimism among fans that their expansive game and strength in depth makes the future bright and the team itself will fear no one, even with the retirement of their beloved captain, Sam Warburton.
When it comes to the World Cup, Wales will need to reach an extra gear to find themselves in a position to take the trophy back to Cardiff. While they have cause for optimism, it is unlikely that they will be considered strong enough to go all the way. If they can convincingly beat Australia and make it past their quarter-final opponents, however, they are good enough to challenge anyone on their day.
The only team to have ever brought a Webb Ellis Trophy back to the Northern Hemisphere, England are always in with a shout. The unfancied English surprised everyone – including themselves – with an appearance in the final in 2007, which shows that they have the track record in the competition to consider themselves in with a chance.
2018 was not the year that they would have wanted, however, as they finished in fifth place in the Six Nations and suffered a surprising collapse overall. A mostly disappointing tour to South Africa in the summer was frustrating for the Red Rose, although they did pip the Springboks in London in the Autumn. The English also came remarkably close to beating New Zealand, only for Sam Underhill’s try to be ruled out for offside.
The narrow defeat to the All Blacks will have come as a kick in the teeth to England, especially given the praise and adulation afforded to Ireland following their victory over the reigning World Cup kings the following week. Eddie Jones may have a lot of work to do in bringing the best out of his group of players, but one task that will be much easier is firing them up ahead of the upcoming Six Nations.
England are always a dangerous team when under the radar. A trip to Dublin in February will give them the chance to silence the critics by beating Ireland at the Aviva, with the added perk of having no pressure to do so. If anything, this team can take solace in the fact that they are not being heralded as world beaters by their national press (who have a habit of putting too much pressure on teams ahead of major tournaments).
Referring to South Africa as the dark horses for the World Cup may seem crazy, given their proven pedigree and tradition of showing up at major tournaments. With two titles to their name, the Springboks are never a team to be written off. Although the country has experienced a weird downturn in their fortunes over the past few years, former Munster coach, Rassie Erasmus, seems to be bringing the best out of his players.
Yes, there is a long way to go before South Africa can claim to be the best – or even the second best – team in the world, but there is quality there. For the first time in a while, fans are enjoying watching their team play and have confidence in the abilities of star players like Faf de Klerk, Handre Pollard, and Willie Le Roux. There is increasing optimism that the Springboks may have a trick or two up their sleeves in Japan.
Yes, they lost to England by the narrowest of margins and in controversial circumstances. England’s Owen Farrell might have considered himself extremely lucky not to have at least handed the South African’s a penalty that might have seen them won the game. However, they are certainly playing like a team that has a couple of levels to reach before their first pool game in September.
So, can we consider South Africa dark horses for the World Cup? I am confident in suggesting that there are only two other teams on the planet that will be in a better position than the Springboks when the tournament kicks off: New Zealand and Ireland. As it happens, they will play the All Blacks in the group stages and will likely face Ireland in the quarter-finals.
As we mentioned above, Ireland are enjoying an unprecedented period in rugby. A Six Nations Grand Slam, a series win in Australia, and a first home win over the All Blacks has helped Ireland solidify their place as a true giant of rugby. While Kiwi coach Steve Hansen recently declared them as the best team on the planet, it is unlikely that this was anything but an effort to take pressure off New Zealand ahead of the World Cup.
Regardless of whether Ireland are considered the best, second best, or even eight best team heading into the tournament, there will be pressure. 2015 was seen as the year that the country would finally make the semi-finals of a World Cup, only to be completely outgunned by a rampant Argentina. The problem, it seemed, was that Ireland could not survive with the significant injury count suffered against the French.
In 2018, Ireland is a different beast. Joe Schmidt, who is undoubtedly the best coach in the world, blooded a huge amount of talent that sees the Northern Hemisphere’s powerhouse stacked with talent. Against New Zealand, Ireland had lost their first and second-choice openside flanker, only for Josh van der Flier to start and play out of his skin. More than this, Conor Murray – arguably their best player – was also injured. Oh, and don’t forget the absence of another key player, Robbie Henshaw.
In Sexton and Murray, Ireland have the best half-back combination in the world. In Taidgh Furlong, the best tighthead. Peter O’Mahony is the best 6 on the planet, while 22-year olds James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale are incredible talents. This team seems to have it all, and in depth. Make no mistake: Ireland have their greatest chance of ever winning a World Cup. The question is, can they handle the pressure?
There is little anyone can say about New Zealand that has not been said before. They are the greatest professional sports team of all time and have consistently been the number 1 rugby outfit on Planet Earth for a number of years. There is no team that has dominated a sport so ruthlessly as the All Blacks and their back-to-back World Cup wins rightly sees them head to Japan as the favorites.
Although legendary players like Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, and Jeremy Kaino have retired, Kieran Read, Beauden Barrett, Rieko Ioane Brodie Retalick, and Ardie Savea are world-class players. While New Zealand may have lost the battle against Ireland, it was a non-competitive game and will likely serve as inspiration when there is a little more at stake, in the World Cup.
There was a period in New Zealand’s history where they seemed to screw things up for themselves at vital moments. Yes, they have three World Cups to their name, but they could have – and should have – had more. The 1991 semi-finals, the 1995 final, the 1999 semi-finals, the 2003 semi-finals, and the 2007 quarter-finals were all games the team was expected to win.
Regardless, 2011 changed all that. 2015 merely solidified the fact that they were habitual winners on the biggest stage. In 2019, the world will be expecting a big showing from the men from the “Land of the Long White Cloud.” Will they deliver? It seems highly likely that it will take something very special to stop the All Blacks from claiming their third successive World Cup.
It seems written in the stars for Ireland. They have been transformed from a team of unquestionable talent but aching inconsistency to a band of players who win habitually. Joe Schmidt’s philosophy has been adopted as gospel by his players and it is evident to see in their performances. The other problem Ireland has traditionally suffered from – strength in depth – is no longer an issue. In fact, they have arguably the strongest depth of any team on the planet, including New Zealand.
Defense coach Andy Farrell has worked wonders with the team, too. Following England’s decision to sack him and Stuart Lancaster – who has also gone on to enjoy incredible success in Ireland with Leinster – Farrell can claim to be the only coach in the world to have a hand in preventing New Zealand scoring a try (on two occasions, including his work with the British and Irish Lions in 2017).
With a tremendous coaching set up, truly world class players, the right blend of youth and experience, confidence, and a track record of winning, 2019 could be the greatest year in Irish rugby. They fear no team, as evidenced by their triumph over the All Blacks in Dublin, and will certainly back themselves to get the job done. Prediction: Ireland
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