Excitement is building up in the rugby world as the start of the sport’s showcase event rapidly approaches in Japan on Sept 20, 2019. The big question is which team will lift the Webb Ellis Cup in the final of the Rugby World Cup at International Stadium Yokohama at 8 p.m. on Nov 2.
With all international rugby matches completed for 2018, the world rankings give some idea how the 20 participating teams are likely to do. New Zealand’s All Blacks ended the year in the No. 1 spot, closely followed by Ireland. Wales are third, followed by England, South Africa, Australia, Scotland and Fiji, rounding out the top eight positions.
But that doesn’t mean those countries will be the quarterfinalists. France (9th), Argentina (10th) and host nation Japan (11th) cannot be dismissed. After Japan’s spectacular win over South Africa in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, anything is possible … and playing at home will be a plus for the Brave Blossoms who are in Pool A with Ireland, Scotland, Russia and Samoa. If Japan can beat Russia (ranked 19th) in the tournament’s opening match on Sept 20, and defeat 16th-ranked Samoa, it will only need one more victory over either Scotland or Ireland to advance to what would be a historic quarterfinal berth.
The 20 teams are divided into four pools. Pool A has Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Russia and Samoa. Pool B consists of New Zealand, South Africa, Italy (ranked 15th), Namibia (22nd) and Canada (20th). Pool C is made up of England, France, Argentina, USA (12th) and Tonga (14th), while Pool D brings together Australia, Wales, Georgia (13th), Fiji and Uruguay (17th).
Some of the pool games will be tremendous battles — the difference between finishing first or second in a pool will be crucial to a team’s chances of reaching the final. In Pool A, the Ireland-Scotland clash, and Japan’s games against those two teams will be the highlights. In Pool B, the New Zealand-South Africa game in Yokohama on just the second day of the tournament is worthy of a semifinal in itself. England is favored in Pool C, but will have its work cut out for it against France and Argentina. Australia and Wales will battle for top honors in Pool D, although Fiji is capable of an upset.
On current form and rankings, and barring upsets, the quarterfinals are likely to be England vs Australia; New Zealand vs Scotland (or Japan, the host nation hopes); Wales vs France (or Argentina); and Ireland vs South Africa. The semifinals, both to be played in Yokohama, could then be England vs New Zealand and Wales vs Ireland, resulting in a final between the world’s top two ranked teams — the All Blacks and Ireland, also in Yokohama.
Of course, a lot can change between now and Sept 20. There is still a lot of rugby to be played — the Six Nations in Europe in February and March, the Rugby Championship in the southern hemisphere in July and August, some international warm-up games and plenty of club rugby.
So where do things stand with the major teams? Here is a look.
The All Blacks had only two losses in 2018 — one to South Africa and the other to Ireland, so they will be favored to win their third World Cup in a row. Their only other close encounter was a one-point win over England at Twickenham, marred by a controversial refereeing decision. The team has a wealth of players to choose from and will have learned from their loss to Ireland. Coach Steve Hansen has announced he will retire after the World Cup, so he will no doubt want to go out on a high note. Their Sept 21 battle with South Africa will decide who goes through as the Pool B winner.
Not only did Ireland win the Six Nations in 2018, they took their three-match series against Australia 2-1 and beat the All Blacks in November, by smothering the New Zealand attack, something very few teams have been able to do. The Irish resurgence — 11 wins in 12 games in 2018 — has been masterminded by their Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt, who also will retire after the World Cup. With world player of the year flyhalf Johnny Sexton in top form, the Irish will certainly be one of the favorites and should top Pool A. But after beating the All Blacks, they will be under a lot of pressure to maintain their level over six weeks of the tournament, plus they have never reached a World Cup semifinal before.
Wales won their three November tests against South Africa, Australia and Tonga, ending 2018 with nine consecutive wins, which will please coach Warren Gatland. He has been bringing in new players and changing combinations and it has paid off, with Wales finishing third in the world rankings in 2018, four places higher than they did in 2017. Gatland coached the British and Irish Lions on their 2017 tour to New Zealand which resulted in one win, one loss and one draw, and he has applied the strategy he used on that tour to make Wales play a more running game. In 2018, they averaged three tries per match. They will be favored to finish top of Pool D, ahead of Australia.
When Australian coach Eddie Jones took over after England’s exit from the 2015 World Cup, the team notched 24 wins from their next 25 games. Then they had a poor 2017-2018 season. After losing 2-1 in a three-match series in South Africa last summer, England bounced back with home wins over South Africa, Australia and Japan, and lost by a point to the All Blacks. England’s next big test comes with the Feb 2 opening Six Nations clash with Ireland. England has been without many players due to injuries, and Jones will be hoping for better luck. He says the team is in a good place, heading into the World Cup. He also knows what to expect in Japan, having coached the Japanese team and lived in Japan for many years. On form, England should finish atop Pool C.
The Springboks, under new coach Rassie Erasmus, had a mixed year in 2018, winning only half of their 14 games; the highlight being a victory over the All Blacks in Wellington. The team also beat the visiting English side 2-1 with a powerful forward display and strong set pieces. However, in other games, they faltered at crucial points with unforced errors and basic mistakes. The Boks have been at a disadvantage by not having their overseas-based players available during the year, but they will all be available for selection for the World Cup, and barring any injuries, South Africa will bring a full-strength team to Japan.
Australia had a poor year in 2018, winning just four of 13 games. It seems to have been all downhill for the Wallabies since they lost the 2015 Rugby World Cup final to New Zealand. The team has lots of talented players in David Pocock, Will Genie and Israel Folau, but despite that, they let themselves down with mistakes, indiscipline, inconsistency for the full 80 minutes and an inability to convert try-scoring opportunities into points. Australia was in a similar rut heading into the 2015 World Cup, and however else they perform in their other games, the Wallabies always seem to lift their game for World Cups. They will probably advance from Pool D as the runner-up behind Wales.
The Scots are ranked 7th in the world, having chalked up home wins in 2018 over England, France and Argentina. Their track record away from home hasn’t been so great, though, with the team suffering a humiliating loss to the U.S. in Texas in June. Coach Gregor Townsend will need the Six Nations to work out his best combinations in the backs, and needs an especially strong forward pack. Scotland’s lack of consistency mean they will probably finish runner-up to Ireland in Pool A, but host team Japan is quite capable of springing a surprise when they meet in the last pool match in Yokohama on Oct 13.
France only won three of their 11 games in 2018, and lost for the first time to Fiji. The team lacks confidence, consistency and doesn’t seem to have been learning any lessons from their losses, which must be causing sleepless nights for coach Jacques Brunel. Even team captain Guilhem Guirado publicly said, after the loss to Fiji, that the French players did not respect the Tricolors jersey But the French style of play is unpredictable and they are capable of beating anybody on their day. On current form, they are unlikely to beat England, so in order to finish second in Pool C, they will have to outfox Argentina.
Argentina had a bad year in 2018, with a bizarre loss to Australia in the final game of the Rugby Championship at home their low point. The Pumas were leading 31-7 at half-time but seemed to be on another planet in the second half as the Wallabies recovered to win the game 45-34. They then embarked on the November tour to Europe where they lost to Ireland, France and Scotland. Coach Mario Ledesma and the Argentina Rugby Union have stuck with the policy of selecting home-based players, rather than calling on Europe-based players who have more experience. Those players may make the difference between an early return home or advancement to the quarterfinals in Japan.
As the host nation, Japan has huge expectations to advance to the quarterfinals and coach Jamie Joseph knows it. They have been given the best possible start by playing Russia in the tournament’s opening game, which they should win. Samoa will be a tough game, while Scotland and Ireland present an even bigger challenge. Japan’s forwards lack the brute strength to take on the sport’s big guns, but Joseph has plenty of non-Japanese born players at his disposal, headed by captain Michael Leitch. Japan can play with a lot of razzle-dazzle and they love to run the ball but the team’s paper-thin defense has let the Brave Blossoms down on many occasions. If they can beat Russia and Samoa, then somehow upset Scotland or Ireland, they will advance from Pool A.
Meanwhile, the other teams in the tournament — Fiji, Italy, Russia, Samoa, Tonga, Namibia, Canada, USA, Georgia and Uruguay — are not going to let the heavyweights have it all their way. The gap between rugby’s Tier One and Tier Two nations has been closing in recent years with margins of defeat not as big as before, so we are unlikely to see the massacres that the first few tournaments saw.
Whatever happens, the Rugby World Cup promises to be a great tournament and fans who have never been to Japan before will find plenty to do in between games in all the host cities.