The warm-up games are over, the final squads are announced, and the four year countdown to the Rugby World Cup in Japan is almost at an end.
In what looks like one of the most open World Cups in history, we take a look at the contenders and pretenders in our pool by pool guide. We also make our outright predictions and try to find some of the best bets available over the next month and a half of rugby.
Had the World Cup been held this time last year, Ireland would have been justifiably one of the favourites to win it all. Joe Schmidt’s side had conquered all before them in 2018, including a 6 Nations Grand Slam, a tour win in Australia and victory over New Zealand in Dublin. Jonathan Sexton had just picked up World Player of the year and Ireland may very well have been the best team in world rugby.
That all seems a long time ago now. The official line from the camp is that the world cup has been the primary focus for 2019, but there is no way that crushing defeats to England and Wales in the six nations were part of any unfurling masterplan. Throughout the campaign, they looked off the pace and bereft of any new ideas. It seemed that the process which made them unstoppable for a year had now been worked out, and Schmidt had very little to fall back on.
Their final warm-up against Wales offered a little hope that things are beginning to improve again, and they still have a squad that is rich and deep in talent. Questions remain though, over how much damage this year has done to the psyche of the team as they begin a tricky pool campaign, with a monster lurking in the quarter finals.
Scotland have been transformed in the last two years into an unpredictable, attacking side since the appointment of Gregor Townsend as head coach. Spearheaded by the wonderfully talented Finn Russell at fly half, Scotland managed an entertaining 38-38 draw at Twickenham in this years six nations as well as good performances last autumn against Argentina and South Africa.
Since their seismic victory over South Africa in the 2015 World Cup, Japan have continued their rise to become one of the ‘best of the rest’ in the rugby world. They will be targeting a quarter final on home soil, and both Ireland and Scotland will have to be on their game to avoid falling victim to a world cup shock.
Despite Ireland’s recent struggles, they are taken to continue their fine form against Scotland and win Pool A.
Japan may cause a surprise in a shootout against Scotland and advance to the knockout rounds for the first time in their history.
Ireland 1st – Japan 2nd
Perhaps the two best teams in the world at present. New Zealand and South Africa clash in what is the highest profile pool match of any in World Cup history. Their last three meetings have ended in one win apiece and a draw, with an aggregate points score of zero. Simply put, there is very little between these two sides at the moment.
Although not exactly struggling of late, New Zealand have certainly taken a step back from their mesmerising form that has seen them win the last two World Cups and three of the last four Rugby Championships. Beaudan Barrett is an outstanding talent, but he has not come close to replacing Dan Carter’s skill from placed balls, and fly half is an area that there is still some uncertainty about. At their best they are irresistible, but their price looks a bit short in the outright market, considering their performances so far this year.
South Africa appear to be peaking at just the right time. Fresh from their first ever victory in the Rugby Championship, where they beat Australia and Argentina convincingly. They haven’t lost a game since a narrow defeat to wales last autumn. Since his appointment in 2018, Rassie Erasmus has transformed the Springbox from a team that lost 53-0 to New Zealand in 2017, to a team that can compete technically and physically with any team in the world.
Expect the clash on the 21st September in Yokohama to decide who finishes top of the Pool, and with so little between the sides, a chance is taken on South Africa at 9/4 to win Pool B.
South Africa 1st – New Zealand 2nd
South Africa (+6) (V New Zealand) – 21/20
A fascinating Pool featuring three tier 1 nations. Eddie Jones’ four year plan with England appears to be coming together at just the right time. The Pool favourites have had an excellent year, beginning with wins over Australia and South Africa in the Autumn. An unlucky 16-15 loss to New Zealand was the only blemish of the series. That was followed by a 6 nations campaign where their only loss came against Grand Slam champions Wales.
They look to be the pick of the northern hemisphere sides in terms of physicality, a trait that will serve them well in a potential semi final clash with the winners of Pool B. Added to their size and strength, they have an excellent game manager in Owen Farrell, and a try scoring sensation in Johnny May.
Argentina and France both seem to come alive at World Cup time. But with only one place in the knockout rounds likely to be in play, one of these will be going home at the pool stage. That has never happened to France before, and they are preferred to win their head to head encounter with Argentina on the opening weekend and finish second in this very competitive pool.
France (Vs Argentina) – 17/20
England 1st – France 2nd
Australia and Wales will feel they have this pool between them, but in Fiji and Georgia they face opponents capable of causing trouble at this level.
Wales come here as 6 Nations and Grand Slam champions. Up until their final warm up loss in Dublin, they were ranked as world number one. Those rankings are clearly questionable, but what is clear is that Wales have racked up a number of big victories over the last twelve months, and they come here thinking that they can win it all in Warren Gatland’s farewell as head coach.
Although recent injuries have dampened expectations in Wales, their defence is still excellent, and under Gatland the team takes precedence over any individual, available or otherwise. Their attritional style of play will get them out of this Pool but expect it to catch up with them at the Quarter final stage.
Australia looked to be in big trouble a couple of months ago. Having lost to Wales and England last Autumn, they began the Rugby Championship with a 35-17 defeat to South Africa. Hope was rekindled however in a shocking victory over New Zealand in August, before being crushed 36-0 by the same opposition a week later.
Talented and unpredictable, they have the ability to outrun their 12/1 outright odds. Their clash with Wales will likely decide who tops this pool, and if they get a lead early on, expect Australia to cause an upset and face a winnable quarter final with the runner up from Pool C.
Australia 1st – Wales 2nd
While so many of the knockout permutations are dependant on who finishes top of Pool B, both South Africa and New Zealand have the potential to make a run to the final from either side of the draw.
Ireland, despite their recent tribulations, remain the best side in the northern hemisphere. The quarter final meeting with a Pool B monster looks like it could be the end of the road for the Irish, but if they get through that, anything is possible.
Expect England to top their pool and beat either Wales or Australia in the Quarter final. Nobody will relish meeting them at the semi final stage.
South Africa are expected to be around until the final week of the World Cup, and with so many of their points coming from penalties, take their world class fly half Handre Pollard to be the tournament’s top point scorer.
Handre Pollard (top tournament point scorer) – 4/1
South Africa (outright) – 4/1
Wales (stage of elimination) – Quarter Final 6/5
Japan (stage of elimination) – Quarter Final 5/2
South Africa Vs Ireland (Final) – 22/1