Fresh from an extended Christmas break spent polishing my oval-shaped crystal ball, here are some predictions for who will win what in the year ahead.
What do you think?
Wooden Spoon: Italy
After an incredible year in 2018 that included a Six Nations Grand Slam, Ireland remain the team to beat this year. They face England and France in Dublin, with the Wales match in Cardiff looking like the trickiest fixture, excitingly scheduled for the last match of the tournament.
Back to back Grand Slams going into the World Cup? I think so.
Bonus Prediction: Nigel Owens to sin bin Owen Farrell for a no-arms tackle during the England v France game.
Heineken Champions Cup
Sarries are looking like they’ll qualify for the quarter-finals among the top seeds, giving them home-country advantage if they make the semi-finals, and with the final in Newcastle, I think they’ll regain the title this season.
Bonus Prediction: English fans to erroneously complain that the Irish sides perform better in Europe because the Pro14 is less competitive than the Premiership.
Winner: Exeter Chiefs
Picking the top two is easier than choosing the relegated team at this stage. With Exeter out of Europe, they’ll be better able to manage their resources to target domestic success, whilst the workload will catch up with Saracens if they go all the way in Europe.
At the other end of the table, Newcastle have away games in 4 of the next 6 rounds, and the pressure is likely to crank up during that time. Worcester have more favourable fixtures in the short term, and I expect Bristol to pick up another couple of wins during the Six Nations, with other teams adversely affected by international selection. It’s going to be tight, and a more exciting race than the one at the other end.
Bonus Prediction: Players to be so exhausted by the end of the season that everyone will remember with incredulity that the season will soon be even longer, with next year’s final at the end of June.
Ireland’s top two provinces are leading the way in their respective Pro14 conferences, and I suspect it will be an all-Irish affair in the final at Celtic Park.
Bonus Prediction: Talks to begin on South African teams taking part in the European Challenge Cup.
It’s easy to pick the nationality of the Super Rugby winning team, but harder to choose between the five New Zealand franchises. The Crusaders have won two titles in a row and appear to have the most settled squad with the fewest departures going into the 2019 season.]
Bonus Prediction: Everyone to continue bemoaning the lack of integrity in the competition format.
Rugby World Cup
This looks to be the most competitive Rugby World Cup yet. The All Blacks will be the team to beat as always, but at least four other teams will believe they can beat them. In projecting the pool standings and subsequent fixtures on the Superbru RWC knockout calculator, I had Ireland, New Zealand, England and Wales as pool winners and then semi-finalists, with England beating New Zealand and Ireland beating Wales to reach the final.
Bonus Prediction: None of the minnows will cause an upset. It’s still a two-tier world of Rugby, even if Tier 1 is becoming more competitive again.
What do you think? Share your predictions in the comments below.