With the competition starting on Friday, Stuart Barnes takes an in-depth look at the key talking points of Rugby World Cup 2019.
From New Zealand’s selection question marks and Ireland’s ability (or not) to adapt to the conditions in Japan to Scotland’s ‘slighter’ game and Fiji potentially springing a few surprises on sides, Barnes covers it all…
1. The four-year wait is over. The 2019 tournament kicks off Friday with the hosts, Japan, facing Russia. More on that later. It is a game that feels like a warm-up with the main action taking place the next day.
For all the talk of the closing gap between the hemispheres, if I had to predict a final it would be a repeat of Saturday’s main match, New Zealand versus South Africa. In their last three matches there has been little between them. A draw and a win for each side by two points. It could not be tighter.
New Zealand have not looked invincible as they did in 2015. But have they been preparing for this showdown? Who will play 10 for the All Blacks and will they find a way to get around – or through – the rapid fire Springbok defence? Barrett – 10 or 15? A key question. The elements. Will New Zealand’s lithe and leaner physique suit them more in what are expected to be humid conditions?
2. The result, if it is tight, might not worry either side excessively. It will take quite a thumping for them to lose their self-belief because of one game. The Springboks will remember beating England 36-0 early on in Paris and we know how close the 2007 final was. New Zealand thrashed France in 2007 and were fortunate to sneak victory in Auckland. Whatever the result Saturday, the implications are greater for the teams that will face them later in the competition.
3. Which brings us nicely to Sunday’s showpiece game, Ireland versus Scotland. Joe Schmidt’s side enter the competition as the world’s No 1-rated team. Having mentioned the fact, let’s now ignore that nonsense. Ireland may have won three of their last four games but 2018 was disappointing.
So much depends on the half-backs. For a relatively small population base of rugby players, to have the luxury of the world’s leading nine and 10 in 2018 was quite something. How they utilised that constant churning pick and drive game, those incremental gains, one after the after. But Murray and Sexton have not been near those levels for over a year. I am uncertain whether the high octane energy of Ireland will be suited to the likelihood of humidity.
4. Scotland are different. They play a slighter game. They have, in Finn Russell, a fly-half who can create a try without the exhausting and endless Irish phase game. In Hamish Watson they possess an openside who will have the Southern Hemisphere fans saying, `Who is HE?’
Ireland are not strong on the openside…there is the recipe here for a shock. In a pool with threats like Japan in particular but Samoa too, getting out of the pool is everything but whatever happens, whoever makes it will surely be set to face South Africa or New Zealand. I wonder whether Ireland might just be better off against the three-time world champions who they have twice beaten recently and scared not so long before that. Ireland, I don’t see as world champions, but someone will spring a shock and who knows, the All Blacks in the quarter-finals?
5. Back to Saturday and another major match up between two sides with a habit of leaving their woes behind come a World Cup. France meet Argentina. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that either could beat England but that is not expected. This will be seen as their key game. The one that puts the quarter-final place within their reach.
France have a pack to inflict damage on Argentina but again, perhaps they might be a little too lumpy if humidity is factored into the equation. France are struggling for a fly-half to control affairs but they have a fine prospect in Antoine Dupont at nine. Argentina have class at 10 in Nicholas Sanchez but a scrum constantly in retreat. France will be favourites but as a betting proposition, leave well alone!
6. Another intriguing game taking place on Saturday (I think) is Australia versus Fiji. Everyone loves Fiji; their dazzling, dancing antics, the mesmerising moments they have brought to the competition. Neutrals will be rooting for an upset.
Australia are a dark horse. Whether they have the depth or the ability to go all the way is one thing but they could surprise a few sides again, as they did when they reached the final in 2015. I’ll be fascinated to see what Michael Cheika decides to do with his back row.
George Smith, the great Aussie open side, thinks David Pocock should be on the bench for Fiji while Owen Finnegan, World Cup winning blindside, says get your best both on the field. There are a few teams with the ‘two 7s conundrum’ heading into the competition, not least England.
England duo doubtful for Tonga
Joe Cokanasiga and Mark Wilson have emerged as doubts for the start of England’s World Cup campaign due to knee problems.
7. England should be far too strong, fit and organised for Tonga on Sunday. The Islanders will be much better than they revealed in that 92-7 defeat against the All Blacks but England will win both this and the USA game on Thursday easily. Jones and his warm up selections are set to make sense when the team for Tonga is revealed…but then again.
We have an open training session today in Kitakyushu. Look at this queue of people 3 hours before the session starts! Incredible support here. 馃憣馃徏 pic.twitter.com/dyZKF5j5dz
— George North (@George_North) September 16, 2019
8. Wales will watch the Australia versus Fiji match avidly before sending their team onto the field and into the scrums against Georgia. The Georgians two defeats at the hands of Scotland do not suggest they will scare a Wales side that have travelled without Rob Evans.
Wales will want to win well but I would not be surprised to see little in the way of set moves from the Welsh back-line. I think a few things behind the scrum are being held back. For the sake of my Welsh friends, I hope so. Defence can take a team a long way, but to the title?
9. Japan have the perfect start to the tournament. They might well be nervous, taking global centre stage on Friday, but in Russia they have an opposition that will not punish any understandable stage fright. It could be a tough tournament for Russia. For Japan the pressure is on. Three wins in 2015, a quarter-final place is expected according to my old sparring mate, now Japan coach, Jamie Joseph. It’s quite a pool, Japan, Scotland, Ireland and Samoa. Good luck, Russia. You just might need it.