The Rugby World Cup gets under way this month with New Zealand bidding to win the tournament for the third successive time and Simon Mail looks at the contenders in this year's competition...
"New Zealand have shown uncharacteristic frailties over the last year which indicate the favourites could be toppled at the World Cup."
New Zealand showing uncharacteristic frailties
The record-breaking All Blacks are attempting to become the first team to win three consecutive World Cups and are unsurprisingly favourites in Japan. But there have been a few signs recently suggesting New Zealand may not be the force of previous tournaments and it will take an exceptional effort to defend the trophy once again.
At their best, New Zealand are renowned for their relentless attacks and exceptional offloading game. This was evident in their crushing 36-0 home win against Australia last month with wing Sevu Reece excelling with a try in just his second appearance. Fly-half Richie Mo'unga and scrum-half Aaron Smith were also on target as the All Blacks retained the Bledisloe Cup and they hammered Tonga 92-7 in their final warm-up game with wing George Bridge scoring four tries.
Nevertheless, New Zealand have shown uncharacteristic frailties which indicate the favourites could be toppled at the World Cup. The All Blacks surprisingly finished third in the Rugby Championship, with just one win from the reduced three-match competition. Their 47-26 defeat last month in Australia was a setback and worrying for their fans despite finishing the game with 14 players after Scott Barrett's red card.
Steve Hansen's side were also beaten in Ireland last year and their air of invincibility has been eroded by those recent defeats. Captain Kieran Read is one of three players in their squad, along with Sonny Bill Williams and Sam Whitelock, to have won the World Cup in 2011 and 2015 in England. The defending champions face a tough start against South Africa and an early defeat is certainly not out of the question.
South Africa have momentum on their side
Less than two years ago, the Springboks appeared to be in turmoil with little hope of challenging for the World Cup. Times have changed though and Rassie Erasmus' appointment as head coach in March 2018 to replace Allister Coetzee has sparked a dramatic turnaround in their fortunes. South Africa are now in a position where they are considered one of the most likely winners should New Zealand slip up.
The start of South Africa's resurgence began last summer after an impressive 2-1 series win at home to England. This is not a Springboks team purely built on forward power and scrum strength as they demonstrated in their 42-39 victory over Eddie Jones' side. Sbu Nkosi scored twice in this win and the 23-year-old wing has made a major impact during his short career with the Springboks after scoring seven tries in his first eight Tests.
Further evidence of two-time champions South Africa's revival was delivered last September after a stunning 36-34 win against New Zealand in Wellington. This victory was a huge boost to their belief on the big stage and the Springboks confirmed their progression by topping the Rugby Championship after finishing unbeaten this summer. This included a 16-16 draw in New Zealand and South Africa will have no fear when facing the holders again in their World Cup opener.
Erasmus has selected a squad blessed with a wealth of experience allied to young talent. Led by forward Siya Kolisi and backed up by the likes of Eben Etzebeth, Handre Pollard and scrum-half Faf de Klerk, there is great depth to this South Africa squad. The Springboks are undefeated in 2019 and with momentum on their side have to be taken seriously as contenders. South Africa also appeal at 5/2 to upset the All Blacks and top Pool B.
England with no excuses this time
When Eddie Jones took charge of England after their miserable group stage exit as hosts four years ago, the target was always to lead the team to World Cup success in Japan. There can be no excuses this time after England's shambolic performance on home soil in 2015. Expectations certainly have not lessened for the 2003 winners with their status as second favourites to triumph.
Jones made a huge initial impact as he guided England to back-to-back Six Nations titles during an 18-match winning run. Their first defeat in Ireland in March 2017 stalled their progress and in truth England have not been the same since. On their day, England look unplayable but there have been too many off days to have complete faith in their chances at the World Cup.
England produced a mesmerising performance in their final warm-up game at Twickenham in their record-breaking 57-15 win against Ireland last month. The brute power in their team, particularly the backline, with Manu Tuilagi and Joe Cokanasiga running the show, overwhelmed their opponents. Cokanasiga scored his fifth try in just six starts and the wing looks a tempting bet at 10/3 to score the most tries for England at the World Cup.
The role of captain Owen Farrell will be crucial to their World Cup challenge with the Saracens fly-half a key component of their backline. The decision to hand scrum-half Willi Heinz a place in the squad after just one cap was a surprise with Ben Spencer overlooked. Jones has a dynamic group of forwards with Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola offering strength and athleticism which could propel England to the latter stages in Japan.
Australia look too inconsistent to feature
The Wallabies have a rich history in the World Cup with two victories from four appearances in the final. This certainly does not appear to be a vintage Australia team, having been widely written off, but the side have the experience and know-how to go the distance in a tournament. Michael Cheika guided Australia to the final in London four years ago and despite their recent problems cannot be counted out in Japan.
Australia have struggled to push on following their performance at the last World Cup and last year was a low point under Cheika with the team beaten at home to Argentina. The Wallabies did though claim an impressive 47-26 victory against New Zealand last month with utility back Reece Hodge scoring twice. Hopes of a resurgence were dashed the following week after a chastening 36-0 defeat to the world champions in Auckland.
The loss of Israel Folau is a significant blow to the team after the full-back was sacked for his offensive social media posts. Cheika has largely gone with experience in Japan with forward Michael Hooper captaining the side. Adam Ashley Cooper has been selected for his fourth World Cup while influential flanker David Pocock will be a major asset assuming he is fit to feature after a long-term calf injury.
Australia are in the same group as Wales and there is no doubt Cheika's side will face a difficult challenge to finish ahead of their rivals in Pool D. A realisation of the Wallabies' current status in the game is shown by their standing as sixth favourites to win the World Cup. As they showed against the All Blacks, Australia are capable of excellence but have not performed too many times lately to be considered strong challengers for the trophy.
Wales have been elevated to a new level
Their time at the top of the world rankings this summer may have been short lived but Wales come into this year's World Cup with their best chance of success. Warren Gatland has elevated his team to a new level and surpassing their runs to the semi-final of the competition in 1987 and 2011 is a realistic target.
Gatland bows out after the end of the tournament and truly believes Wales are good enough to win the World Cup. Their self-belief should be close to an all-time high after a 14-match winning run which saw them clinch the Six Nations Grand Slam. This success was built on an outstanding defence, nurtured by coach Shaun Edwards, which will make them a tough team to breach in Japan.
Wales suffered a setback in the buildup to the World Cup after a knee injury to Gareth Anscombe ruled the fly-half out of the tournament. It leaves Dan Biggar as the likely starter and will be tasked with running the backline. Alun Wyn Jones will captain the team and the lock will be hugely influential in leading Wales' World Cup challenge.
No longer are Wales viewed as plucky outsiders with Gatland's team favourites to top the pool ahead of Australia. After suffering 13 consecutive defeats against the Wallabies, Wales ended this miserable run with a 9-6 victory in November. It marks a shift in momentum and Wales will have no fear when they meet at the end of September. Looking at Wales' recent record, backing low-scoring matches looks the way to go with their frugal defence suffocating opponents. The side only conceded 65 points during the Six Nations and will focus on their biggest strength again in Japan.
Ireland's crown has slipped since 2018 highs
After defeating the All Blacks in Dublin last November, Ireland were viewed as the most likely challengers to New Zealand at the World Cup. This win came after a Grand Slam triumph in the Six Nations but Joe Schmidt's final year in charge of the team has not gone smoothly. Ireland failed to impress during their limp title defence, finishing third, leaving the team with significant improvement needed to contend in East Asia.
Ireland's record at the World Cup is surprisingly poor with the team never getting past the quarter-final stage. If Schmidt can help the team rediscover their 2018 form then a semi-final spot could be within their sights but there must be concerns. Ireland's defensive strength has been eroded this year with the team shipping 57 points against England last month although back-to-back warm-up wins over Wales moved them top of the volatile world rankings.
There is no doubt Ireland are still heavily reliant on the ability of Johnny Sexton with the Leinster fly-half's game management crucial to their hopes of success at the World Cup. Captain Rory Best will retire after the tournament and the hooker has come in for criticism for recent performances, with their lineout struggles, including at Twickenham. Wing Jacob Stockdale will be a huge threat for Ireland, boasting a record of 16 tries in 21 Tests, which suggests he is a strong bet at 6/4 to be top Ireland tryscorer.
Ireland's passage through to the knockout stages looks pretty safe with the team in a relatively gentle group featuring Scotland and Japan. The challenge increases significantly in the quarter-finals though with New Zealand or South Africa probable opponents and once again Ireland's hopes of breaking through the last-eight barrier could fall short.
Scotland can make last eight
Scotland have progressed from the pool stage in all but one of their World Cup appearances and Gregor Townsend's side will be expected to reach the knockout stages again this year. That is not a given though and the team's inconsistency makes predicting their campaign difficult. Scotland have been struggled for success away from home and competing in Japan will be a true gauge of their progress under Townsend.
During the Six Nations, Scotland were punished for a lack of ruthlessness although they did finish the tournament with a memorable 38-38 draw against England at Twickenham. Finn Russell is a crucial player for Scotland with the Racing 92 fly-half a huge creative outlet. Full-back Stuart Hogg is another game changer and these two players have the ability to trouble the best teams.
With playmaker Russell orchestrating Scotland's attacks, the team have the offloading game to threaten opponents and Townsend wants his side to play a quick brand of entertaining rugby. Stuart McInally will captain Scotland, in his first World Cup appearance, with the hooker given the responsibility ahead of John Barclay and Greig Laidlaw.
Scotland face a difficult opener against group favourites Ireland and their hopes of qualifying for the last-eight could come down to their final match against hosts Japan. Townsend's side should be strong enough to progress to the quarter-finals but Scotland will need to improve their away record which has exposed weaknesses in their brittle defence.
France likely to exit in the quarters
France are one of the great imponderables in world rugby with the team as capable of producing Gallic flair as they are a ghastly showing. Jacques Brunel is tasked with coaxing consistency from his team but there has been precious little during his reign over the last 18 months with successive fourth-placed finishes in the Six Nations.
Brunel has selected a squad with a mixture of precocious youth and experience. Back-row forward Louis Picamoles will compete in his third World Cup while dynamic prop Demba Bamba and talented fly-half Romain Ntamack and dangerous wing Damian Penaud are several of the players which helped France win the Under-20 World Championship last year.
France have pedigree at the World Cup, having finished runners-up three times, including most recently in 2011. Their pool is not easy with England favourites to finish first and France likely to compete with Argentina for second place. But France have never failed to progess from the group stage and there is enough individual talent for them to maintain this record. Backing France to lose in the quarter-finals, in all likelihood to Wales or Australia, appeals at 7/4.
Japan should not be dismissed
World Cup hosts Japan have never reached the knockout stages but the Brave Blossoms have their best chance of achieving this feat on home soil. One of the most remarkable moments in World Cup history came four years ago when Japan, under the guidance of Jones, stunned South Africa in their 34-32 win and Japan will believe their development can continue with qualification for the quarter-finals.
Head coach Jamie Joseph will place his faith in Michael Leitch with the experienced back-row forward leading Japan's World Cup challenge. Their previous weakness was their lack of fitness compared to the elite nations but Joseph has focused their preparation on high-intensity training to enable their speedy, unstructured game to last the full 80 minutes.
Japan will realistically be competing with Scotland to join Ireland in the last-eight of the tournament. With only one win in 11 matches against Scotland and beaten 45-10 in their World Cup meeting four years ago, Japan have it all to do but the hosts should certainly be competitive. New Zealand, England and South Africa are their only defeats in the last eight matches and Japan should not be dismissed as no-hopers to qualify.
Our verdict on the outsiders
Ireland are expected to dominate Pool A with Scotland favoured over Japan to claim second spot. Russia are also in the group and this will be only their second World Cup appearance after making the pool stage eight years ago. Their recent 85-15 hammering against Italy does not bode well for their chances of a first win and Samoa should finish above them. The team have twice reached the quarter-finals but this does not look a vintage group with veteran fly-half Tusi Pisi the exception in a relatively inexperienced Samoa squad.
Italy have gone four years without a victory in the Six Nations and Conor O'Shea's side have it all to do if they are to make an impact at the World Cup. Pitched in a daunting group alongside the favourites New Zealand and much-fancied South Africa, Italy will be hoping to finish the best of the rest. Their opener against Namibia should give them a chance to make a winning start.
Namibia lost all four matches in the World Cup four years ago and it could be more of the same in Japan. Canada are also in the pool and come into the competition off a five-match losing run. There is a huge disparity in this group and it looks a question of whether the All Blacks or the Springboks finish top with the other following them into the quarter-finals.
Argentina have twice reached the semi-finals of the World Cup including four years ago after dumping Ireland out in the last eight. The Pumas are never easy opposition but they have misfired badly this year going into the tournament off the back of a nine-match losing run. Their opener against France will be crucial to their hopes of progressing but their current form does not offer too much optimism.
USA have never made it out of the pool stage and it is difficult to make a case for them breaking new ground in Japan. Tonga will entertain with their powerful backline, featuring Telusa Veainu, capable of producing moments of magic but their first match against England could be a reality check for the Pacific Islanders.
Australia and Wales should fight it out for top spot but Georgia will be hoping to demonstrate their development with a strong showing in Japan. Georgia are renowned as a physical threat although the team disappointed during their two warm-up defeats against Scotland. Head coach Milton Haig has turned to veteran forward Mamuka Gorgodze, after a two-year absence, in his fourth World Cup.
Fiji have twice reached the quarter-finals although their most recent run to the last-eight was 12 years ago. With a victory against France in Paris last November and five wins from their last six matches, Fiji, with individual stars such as forward Leone Nakarawa and outside centre Semi Radradra, will feel they are capable of upsetting the two pool favourites and pushing for a quarter-final place. Uruguay complete the group and the South Americans, who face a difficult opener against Fiji, will be targeting success against Georgia.
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Get more Rugby World Cup 2019 tips insight from the panel on Rugby...Only Bettor, Betfair's tournament podcast. Episode one is here
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