630 players. 48 matches. 20 teams. One month. Ever since Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy, fans have been clamouring for the next Rugby World Cup and as the biggest tournament in the game heads to the Land of the Rising Sun, the one thing we can predict is that it will be close.
It is not an understatement to suggest that this might be one of the closet renewals of the tournament in it’s history. New Zealand still set the standard, but each of their SANZAR Southern Hemisphere rivals have managed to push the All Blacks to the limit, with both South Africa and Australia managing draws or victories against them and Argentina playing well against them in two Rugby Championship matches this year.
The gap between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere has also closed; 5 of the 6 nations have won a test in the Southern Hemisphere since the last World Cup, and the Sanzar Nations have replied in turn too. Long story short, there are a good 11 teams who, on their day, can hope to beat anyone in the World, the All Blacks included, and that should make for a phenomenal tournament.
Wales have never won a Rugby World Cup, but this might be one of the best chances they have of getting their hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy. Beaten at the quarter-final stage four years ago by Duane Vermeulen’s audacious pass behind his back to scrum-half Fourie du Preez, they come into this tournament with one of the best years in their history behind him and all the experience they could hope to have.
Warren Gatland’s side have sometimes been too functional for their own good but over the last three or so years they’ve found an attacking system that suits with Dan Biggar able to find two very sizeable but creative centers in the shape of Hadleigh Parkes and Johnathan Davies. Gareth Davies is a livewire scrumhalf who can inject pace into the game and George North gives them one of two world class wing options. Liam Williams has more fitness questions, but he will have time to get into stride during the pool stages – Wales start on Monday, and then face Australia after.
Wales’s pack is the equal of most in the world. Alun Wyn Jones has had more World Cups than most players have international caps, Jake Ball is a tremendous carrier, and in Ross Moriarty, Aaron Wainwright and Justin Tipuric there should be enough for plenty of go-forward; A front row of Nicky Smith, Ken Owens and Tomas Francis packs punch.
Wales’ previous bug bear had been their record against Southern Hemisphere sides but in the last year they’ve beaten Australia – their first victory in 13 years against the Wallabies – and also South Africa. Both those sides will be more refreshed going into a World Cup, but now Wales have overcome that mental burden they should have nothing to fear and most of their games with the Wallabies were extremely close calls in any case.
Ideally they would top their pool with Australia and Fiji, but even if they don’t, do they really have to fear England on a neutral ground? After that, a likely semi-final with the All Blacks approaches, but you have to beat the best to get to the trophy, and it’s unlikely Wales would be 12/1 for that game.
South Africa would be another potential semi-final according to the betting, but Wales have beaten them on neutral ground since the last World Cup and shouldn’t be afraid.
Having said that, the Springboks’ decision to appoint in Rassie Erasmus has proven to be an inspired one and they are arguably the world’s in form side, bar Wales. Since Rassie’s first Rugby Championship they have beaten every Tier 1 nation bar the Welsh, including a 36-34 success in New Zealand last year. They should have competed the double, somehow losing a 32-10 lead in Pretoria, but they drew in New Zealand again in July with the last try of the game and they won this year’s Rugby Championship to boot, albeit a shortened tournament.
The team that Eruasmus has available to him just oozes with quality. A backline of Willie le Roux, Cheslin Kolbe, Lukhanyo Am, Damian de Allende, and Makazole Mapimpi, give Handré Pollard and Faf de Klerk some of the fastest and most powerful runners in World Rugby to hit. Then there’s the backrow of Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit, and Siya Kolisi that has rolled over the opposition on many occasions and the
Lock duo of Franco Mostert, and Eben Etzebeth can cause havoc at lineout time. Frans Malherbe, Malcolm Marx, and Steven Kitshoff rival the All Blacks upfront and this side, which is able to play free flowing and power based rugby, looks to have timed their peak at the right time.
Playing New Zealand in their pool – and as the first game – is a perfect way to start the tournament, and means they can’t meet again until the final. The toughest game they’d have until then according to the betting would be England, but South Africa’s recent head to heads should encourage them on a head to head basis.
The All Blacks will obviously take a huge amount of beating, and the 7/4 on offer with Betfred will really tempt many people here. However, over the course of such a tournament, when the smallest amount of luck can decide a one score game, others may offer better value and they do not appear to be as clear of the field as they were in 2015 when they won in England with such style – ironically being pushed closest by South Africa.
England are the only other side in single figures. When Eddie Jones’ men get it right, they can take on any side on the planet, and their depth is enviable. They must avoid a defensive collapse of the kind that saw Scotland come from 31-7 down at Twickenham, or when New Zealand came back to win 16-15 having been 15-0 down and also the second half slumps that cost them so badly in South Africa when they last travelled there. They will take a great deal of beating, but on balance they can be taken on.
So too can Ireland, who were arguably the best side in the world just over a year ago but who look to have peaked too early as other sides have managed to work out Joe Schmidt’s gameplan. They have exceptional players in the shape of Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, 12 Jacob Stockdale, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, CJ Stander, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best and Cian Healy, but they have struggled to put pace into their game for nearly a year now and have found both England and Wales matching them in the power stakes. Also, the collapse of their lineout, even in warmups, is a major worry.
The medical staff have worked miracles to give Joe Schmidt such a powerful hand, but have they peaked a year too early? The evidence points to yes.
Scotland have a huge amount of talent, but a wretched away record has not been fixed and that simply does not bode well for such a competitive tournament, even if thry ought to quality from the group.
France, with assistant coach Fabien Galthie assuming a leading role, have improved in the warm-ups but those results are not rock solid and they were just fourth in the Six Nations. Argentina were semi-finalists at the last World Cup and often raise their game, but they have won just 8 of 40 test matches since the last World Cup, and Italy have consistently filled the bottom spot in the 6 Nations and it’s hard to imagine them changing their fortunes here.
Japan shocked South Africa at the last World Cup and their home advantage cannot be underestimated. Also, facing Ireland and Scotland’s probably the most preferable in terms of a Tier 1 draw too – don’t count them out for progression.
3 pts South Africa (4/1 general)
2 pts each/way Wales (10/1 general)