It’s nearly four years since legendary All Black Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis trophy aloft at Twickenham. Now the time has come to do battle again – but who are the main contenders and how will Ireland fare at Rugby World Cup 2019?
It’s pure heaven for rugby fans – wall to wall international egg chasing between now and the beginning of November. Add the PRO14 to that from next week and there’s no reason to leave the house between now and Christmas at least.
This year’s World Cup promises to be a fascinating tournament, not least because there is no clear runaway favourite as in years gone by and the game itself is arguably in as good a state as it has ever been with all the top club and international sides playing open, running rugby.
The main contenders
As always, New Zealand are the favourites to make it a remarkable three World Cups on the trot and the bookies have them at very short odds indeed. But they haven’t looked as invincible in recent times as in years gone by. Ireland, South Africa and Australia have all beaten them over the past twelve months and others, most notably England, have run them close. They are justifiably favourites for what they have achieved in the four years since that October day in south-west London, but they are vulnerable.
They have been subjected to plenty of criticism in the media at home over the past few months and will be feeling the pressure as they head into the tournament. If they arrive back in Auckland without the Webb Ellis in tow, they know the critics will be merciless. Careers will be ended.
They take on another one of the tournament favourites in South Africa in their opening game in Yokohama on Saturday (EXCLUSIVELY LIVE on eir sport 1 from 10.15am). Realistically, it's a game both sides can afford to lose. However, they will be keen to lay down a marker and take full control of their destiny. After a difficult couple of seasons which included a record 57-0 defeat to the All Blacks, the Springboks appear to be returning to form at exactly the right time.
Former Munster coach Rassie Erasmus is now in charge and has moulded them into a fit and fiercesome unit. They won the Rugby Championship for the first time in ten years last month and are genuine contenders in Japan. Their match with New Zealand on Saturday is likely to determine the outcome of Pool B and who Ireland will play in the quarter-finals should they qualify. It's hard to know who to cheer for......
England are another side in with a very real chance of winning the tournament. They looked very strong in their warm-up games which included a record 57-15 thumping of Ireland at Twickenham. However, they lost to Wales in Cardiff which suggests that there are vulnerabilities that can be exploited. We saw this on the last day of the Six Nations when Finn Russell decided to revert to open rugby as England's 31-7 half-time lead was overturned as Scotland fought back for a 38-38 draw in what is the highest scoring draw in international rugby history. England simply had no answers and were unable to adapt to Scotland's changed game plan.
If opposition sides can get them out of their comfort zone, they can look very ordinary indeed. That said, Eddie Jones has a powerful and very talented squad at his disposal who have the ability to tear through opposition defences at will. England have a very good record at the World Cup and will take some stopping. However, they are in the so-called 'Pool of Death' alongside France and Argentina, two sides who also have excellent World Cup pedigree.
France are something of an unknown quantity and head into the tournament on the back of an extensive rebuilding process. They can be dangerous on their day, but it's hard to see them doing any real damage at the business end of this tournament. However, they have some dangerous players, particularly in their back line, so you never know. Argentina made it to the semi-finals in 2015, but it's hard to see them matching that achievement this time around.
Australia, Wales and Ireland
That leaves Australia, Wales and Ireland as the only other teams with even an outside chance of winning the tournament. Australia have been up and down since making it all the way to the final four years ago, but mostly down and cannot be considered realistic contenders. They have david Pocock back in their ranks after almost a year out of the game with injury, but the Israel Folau incident is indicative of the disruptive off-field distractions that have plagued Michael Cheika's tenure as Wallabies coach. They can be great on their day, but too many teams have the beating of them and, provided they get out of a tough group that includes Wales and dark horses Fiji, it's hard to see them going beyond a quarter-final against most likely either England, France or Argentina.
Things were looking very rosy for Warren Gatland's Wales following their Grand Slam triumph in March. Following their defeat of England in Cardiff in the warm-up series he even felt confident enough to suggest that Joe Schmidt was under pressure dealing with an ageing squad. But back-to-back defeats to Ireland, a tournament-ending injury to Gareth Anscombe and assistant coach Rob Howley's departure from the camp following allegations of improper betting and it is Gatland who is under pressure.
How will the squad react? Will they be galvanised by recent events or will the pressure be too much? In captain Alun Wyn-Jones, they have a real leader and his qualities will be required to steady the ship. If they make it out of their pool, which they should do, they will face one of England, France or Argentina in the quarter- final. That will be a tough ask but this side is capable of going at least to the last four if not further.
So much has been written about Ireland over the last few years, with their maiden victory over the All Blacks back in November 2016 fuelling talk that they were real contenders for Webb Ellis glory. So much has happened in the interim, including a Grand Slam, a series victory in Australia and another win over New Zealand, but there have been a few wrong turns too.
A poor Six Nations this year and a record hammering by England in the warm-up series have undermined confidence to such an extent that you could never be sure which Ireland you were going to get from one game to the next. However, two excellent performances against Wales to finish off the warm-up series has offered renewed hope.
The sneaking feeling has always been that this squad can mount a serious challenge if they avoid injury and play to their potential. They enter the World Cup for the first time having beaten all the main contenders over the past couple of years. They should fear no-one. That said, they are vulnerable in certain areas and need things to go their way or getting past the quarter-finals will be beyond us yet again.
But Joe Schmidt has been building towards this moment for the past four years. It will be the pinnacle of his career as a coach and he will leave no stone unturned in his quest for glory. He believes in the squad and they believe in him. Let's hope they can give hime the send off he deserves.
By Kieran O’Daly
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