The Rugby World Cup begins on September 20, and although New Zealand start as favourites, there's another five nations firmly believing 2019 could be their year to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy.
Those hopeful nations are England, South Africa, Ireland and Wales, all of which on their day are capable of beating the mighty All Blacks and going all the way to glory in Japan.
However, all have revealed their vulnerabilities over the past 18 months, which, if not remedied, could allow New Zealand a relativity simple walk to their third consecutive World Cup triumph and fourth overall.
So to try and decipher this World Cup conundrum, let us take a look at how the pools and knock-out stages could pan out.
Winners: New Zealand
Finalists: Wales / South Africa
Pool Winners: Ireland, New Zealand, England, Wales
- Scotland to be eliminated at the group stage at 9/2
- Japan to be eliminated at the quarter-final stage at 9/2
- England, New Zealand, Ireland & Wales all to Win their Groups at 10/3
Odds correct of 1430 GMT on 3/9/19
Key match: Japan v Scotland, Sunday October 13
I've predicted Ireland to win Pool A with a 100 percent record. The best team in the world in 2018, they have a history of peaking between World Cups, and that fear is very real again after a poor Six Nations campaign that saw two defeats and a loss of their crown. However, expect them to be much better in Japan and they will have too much for their pool rivals.
Second place is a big call and in reality could be any of Japan, Scotland and Samoa, with the latter the least likely option. Going for Japan ahead of a good Scotland side could be labelled a heart over head decision, but is it?
One, the Brave Blossoms are only three places below Scotland in the world rankings and have just won the Pacific Nations Cup.
Two, Japan finished just two points behind second placed Scotland in their 2015 World Cup pool. Their defeat to the Scots was partly, and rightly, blamed on an unfair four-day turnaround from their previous match, which meant they ran out of steam in the last 15 minutes, where Scotland scored three tries.
Three, Scotland do not enjoy playing away, which is always a problem in World Cups. Italy and Argentina are the only tier one sides defeated away from Murrayfield in the last two years, while they suffered a shock loss in the USA in June 2018. In World Cups played outside of Europe they've won nine, lost four and drawn one.
Four, Japan have been waiting for a World Cup on home soil their entire rugby lives. This is their moment to shine and packed passionate home crowds will add at least 10 points to their scoreboard per game. Yes, they are the only tier two nation to host the tournament, but the home nation has only failed to qualify for the knockout stages once.
Five, value. Rugby World Cups do not often offer great value, as if you are the bigger, better side them 9.9 times out of 10 you win, so upsets are rare. However, there is some value here, as Scotland are 9/2 with Sky Bet to be eliminated at the group stage, and Japan the same price to be knocked out in the quarter-final. So a small wager on each could bring a little profit.
Quick guide to the Pools
- New Zealand
- South Africa
Key match: New Zealand v South Africa; Saturday September 21
This whole World Cup could be decided in just the third match of the tournament as back-to-back champions New Zealand take on the 2019 Rugby Championship winners South Africa. Whoever wins will top their pool and set up a likely eventual semi-final with England. The loser will come second and have to face the likes of Wales and Ireland in the knock-out stages. Remember - no team has won the World Cup after losing a group game!
Despite a rocky warm-up, where they lost their Rugby Championship crown thanks to a defeat to Australia and a draw with South Africa, I'll back New Zealand to see off the Springboks in this one, as their experience should see them through early in the competition. I think those poor results have helped focus minds and force the All Blacks to work harder on their few weaknesses, which they seem to have done judging by their 36-0 beating of Australia and 92-7 annihilation of Tonga in their last two outings.
Both will win all of their remaining games, so Italy will expect to finish third by seeing off Canada and Namibia. The big battle will be between those to sides to avoid the pool's wooden spoon, with Namibia looking for their first ever World Cup win.
Key match: France v Argentina, Saturday, Saturday September 21
"The pool of death" is the only one that will see a true world force go home in the group stages. England may not be the finished article Eddie Jones envisioned at this stage of their journey, but they are head and shoulders above Argentina and France, who have both deteriorated in the last two years, and have been very impressive in their warm-up matches.
So the battle is for second and will come down to who beats who in just the second game of the whole tournament. This is a tough call. France won their last meeting in November 28-13 on home turf, but take this out and you see how close it is. The last four results between these two nations up to 2016 read two wins apiece; their last six are three wins each; and the past 10 matches are level at five all.
Both of these nations can turn it on in a World Cup, France reaching the final in 2011, and Argentina unlucky semi-final losers in 2015, but I'm backing Los Pumas to take second thanks to their tougher preparation in the Rugby Championship and the fact they've halted their recent decline, while France are still on their's.
In the build up to Japan, France have beaten Italy and Scotland, and also lost to the Scots, while Argentina have lost four straight matches, but against far sterner opponents in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, losing by four, six and six points respectively. My one worry is that Argentina's last game was on August 17, with France's on August 30, but with this being their opening match of the tournament I believe Los Pumas will still be up to top Test conditions, while France could be off the pace.
Key match: Australia v Wales, Sunday September 29
While being tested by their other pool opponents, Wales and Australia are almost certainties to finish first and second, but which order is the main debate, along with which way around they will want to finish. If New Zealand lose their opening game to South Africa, and are set to finish second in their group, then actually finishing second in Pool D could be better, as they'd avoid the All Blacks until the final.
In my Six Nations ante-post angle I tipped Wales to win their group and then went each way to win the World Cup, inspired by their record backing 14 match winning run and a Six Nations Grand Slam. They grind out results, which is how most World Cups have been won - think England in 2003 and New Zealand in 2011. However losing fly-half Gareth Anscombe is a major blow, meaning they are without a major creativity spark and will be more predictable to defend against.
Australia for the last 18 months have been poor, losing 12 of their 18 games since November 2017, but typically of them a World Cup seems to be inspiring unforeseen form, as seen in their hammering of New Zealand in August. However I still think this papers over the cracks, and Wales should beat them, as they did in Cardiff in November.
Australia showed in their 36-0 loss to the All Blacks that they struggle to breakdown stubborn defences, also only managing one try against Argentina in June, and can become one dimensional once in the opponents' 22. Wales' defence is one of the world's best, conceding just seven tries in the 2019 Six Nations. In fact they've only leaked more than eight tries in the competition once since 2010. So I think this will be the key difference when the two sides meet.
Fiji, the flair team of any World Cup, are unknown quantities and on their day could shock either Wales or Australia, while Georgia will not be walkovers and will be in most contests until at least half time.
QF1: Winner of Pool C v Runner up of Pool D - England v Australia
As long as England win their group they will face one of two old enemies in Australia or Wales, both of whom love to beat England. Australia always raise their game against the Red Rose, especially at World Cups. They beat England 33-13 in 2015 to knock them out at the pool stage, defeated them in the 1991 final at Twickenham and even in the 2003 final pushed Sir Clive Woodward's side to the last second of extra time in England's one and only World Cup success.
England have won their last six matches against the Wallabies; eight of the last 10; and 10 of the last 12 meetings. Eddie Jones appears to have his former side's number and having faced both France and Argentina in their pool England should be more battled hardened.
QF2: Winner of Pool B v Runner up of Pool A - New Zealand v Japan
Winner: New Zealand
Regardless of the make-up of this quarter-final - South Africa/New Zealand v Japan/Scotland - this will be a fairly comfortable ride for either southern hemisphere giant. Scotland would prove a sterner test than Japan, but either way this would be the end of the road for either.
QF 3: Winner of Pool D v Runner Up of Pool C - Wales v Argentina
Wales are another home nation that have a mixed knock-out stage record. They reached the semi-final in the inaugural tournament in 1987 and again in 2011, but have lost the other three quarter finals they've competed in. But this is a different Wales - stubborn, tough, streetwise.
Argentina are not the side they were in 2015, when they should have reached the final, and have lost their last four matches against the Welsh, and won just once in the past eight meetings.
QF 4: Winner of Pool A v Runner Up of Pool B - Ireland v South Africa
Winner: South Africa
Calling a game this tight at this stage is like tossing a coin. With both sides facing their toughest test of their groups in their opening matches a lot will depend on, one, injuries, and, two, which are more battled hardened and less rusty, as both will rotate their squad in the pool matches. This would be their first meeting since 2017, and that's two years where both nations have seen a lot of change. Their last four meeting read two wins apiece.
At this point I'd back South Africa due to the fact they've enjoyed a better 2019 to date and have a high standard and harder preparation for the tournament. Added to this, Ireland have never reached a semi-final.
Winner of quarter-final 1 v Winner of quarter-final 2 - England v New Zealand
Winner: New Zealand
If you are going to beat New Zealand then before the final is the best place to do it, as highlighted by South Africa getting so close in the 2015 semi, losing by just two points. As good as Ireland and Wales are, I feel only South Africa and England have the game to beat the All Blacks on the biggest stage of the them all. Having said that, England have won just one of their last 16 matches against the World Champions, which was back in 2012.
Winner of quarter-final 3 v Winner of quarter-final 4 - Wales v South Africa
Another game that could be decided by a coin toss. Injuries could be a key decider in this. At this point, I'll continue to back Wales as they are further along in their development and overall journey than a rejuvenated Springbok, who might look back on the tournament and feel it came a year or two too early.
The Boks have a supreme confidence and an all round game to win a World Cup, but they could lack the consistency and defensive steal to go all the way. Wales have the unity, the belief in each other, consistency, experience and defence that could finally see them reach their first final.
New Zealand v Wales - odds: 9/1
(Alternative final - New Zealand v South Africa - odds: 7/2)
Winner: New Zealand
Take out the quality of each side, the All Blacks experience of competing in the previous two finals could be the deciding factor here. Wales, or any other nation, appearing in the final will see every one of their players competing in their first World Cup final, and that could prove debilitating for some, which will swing the match in favour of the much more experienced All Blacks favour.
Having said that, the opponents will be underdogs and have nothing to lose, so can literally throw everything at Steve Hansen's side. Australia were just four points behind with 16 minutes left in the 2015 final, before losing 34-17, while France lost 8-7 in the 2011 finale.
Wales last win over New Zealand? 1953! That's 30 straight wins for the All Blacks. A World Cup final would be the perfect place to break such a bad record, but in the hottest of cauldrons could Warren Gatland's side really do it? Time will tell.
If it is South Africa instead, they've beaten, lost by two points, and drawn with New Zealand in their last three meetings, and they will not fear their opponents like others might. The Kiwis experience should again decide this one - the All Blacks have won every final they've competed in - but it would be a brutal and fascinating contest, with an exciting young Springbok side not taking a step backwards.
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