As another test year draws to a close, all eyes will soon turn to Japan as the world’s best converge on yet another Rugby World Cup.
So often the possession of those lying South of the equator, the destination of the Webb Ellis Cup from next year onwards is a tough one to call.
This year’s autumn internationals proved to be the last opportunity for the northern hemisphere nations to test themselves against their rivals from the South.
Frequently these encounters have been seen as an opportunity for the northern hemisphere sides to test themselves against the very best in the world, with the gulf in class between the North and the South clear to see.
As a British or Irish rugby fan nothing really comes close to matching the atmosphere and intensity of a home nations clash, but when the likes of Victor Matfield, Dan Carter and Matt Giteau strode into town it was often an exciting occasion to watch your team go toe-to-toe with some of the best sides in the world.
For a long time back then it seemed as if all home nations fans would travel to these matches in defiant hope rather than expectation. Each side given ‘a punchers’ chance’ of winning against one of the big three from the South. Occasionally one side from the North would take a big scalp but in truth most of the time, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia would return home from their whistle-stop tours with more wins than losses.
How times have changed?
A quick look at the world rankings will tell you that ‘The Big Three’ are no more.
New Zealand may remain the dominant force at No1 in the rankings, but you have to go as far back as fifth to find the next southern hemisphere side, South Africa. Sandwiched between lies Six Nations rivals Ireland, Wales and England and with Scotland rapidly breathing down Australia’s necks in sixth, soon four of the top six sides in the world could hail from the North.
A stat that would be unheard of a couple of years ago.
As if to show evidence that the gulf in class between the northern and southern hemispheres has diminished, this year’s autumn internationals saw all three of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia succumb to at least one defeat from their European tours. New Zealand and South Africa may have saved some face for the South with narrow wins over England and Scotland respectively, but with both South Africa and Australia going down to two defeats each to Wales and England, along with Ireland recording their first win over New Zealand on home soil, it is fair to say that the North got the better of the South this year.
In 2015, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia were able to call upon experienced world-class players such as Richie McCaw, Fourie du Preez and Drew Mitchell with their big-game knowhow and experience being the difference between them and their northern hemisphere rivals, in a Rugby World Cup that promised so much for the European nations but ultimately ended in disappointment.
In 2018, the likes of Jonny Sexton (Ireland), Maro Itoje (England), Jonathan Davies (Wales) and Stuart Hogg (Scotland) are all capable of walking into most international teams in the world and could provide many challenges for southern hemisphere opponents in next year’s tournament.
So who is in the running for next year’s crown?
There is a case to say as many as six teams have a chance of becoming world champions.
Given their woeful form this year, Australia may seem the longest of long shots but the Wallabies possess a strong record in World Cups with two titles as well as multiple final and semi-final appearances – a record which Ireland would bite your hand off for – and achieved something in 2018 that no other side did in beating Ireland – all be it eventually losing the three-test series 2-1.
As the top-ranked side in the world and reigning world champions, New Zealand will once again be the side to beat in Japan but having beaten the All Blacks twice in their last three encounters and with a Six Nations Grand Slam and series win in Australia under their belt this year, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland side are fast emerging as the biggest threat to New Zealand’s crown, with World Player of the Year Jonny Sexton in mesmeric form alongside other star performers including Peter O’Mahony and Jacob Stockdale.
After two Six Nations titles in his first two years in charge, Eddie Jones suffered his first real set-back as England coach as his side lost five consecutive test matches, yet after a promising autumn campaign that included wins over South Africa and Australia despite missing some key players, should they find effective partnerships in the back-row and midfield by the time they land in Japan they will be as formidable an opponent as anyone next year.
Warren Gatland’s Wales finished a highly-productive year with a ninth consecutive test win after victory over South Africa – a run which included a first win over Australia in ten years. Gatland gambled on resting key players for the summer tour to Argentina, yet was rewarded with some top-class performances from a young and in-experienced squad that has helped build a greater strength in depth. With competition for places fierce, complacency is unlikely to settle in amongst the players despite their strong run of form, and in the past Gatland’s Wales sides have often peaked at World Cup time.
South Africa under new coach Rassie Erasmus may still remain something of a work in progress, as seen by defeats to England and Wales in the autumn, but the Springboks still managed to win a test series against England and became the first South African team to win in New Zealand for nine years. They may be behind the likes of England and Wales in the reckoning now, but unlike their rivals this South African team has yet to fulfil their potential, an ominous thought going into a World Cup year.
Scotland, France and Argentina seem the most likely sides to complete the quarter-final line-up and whilst all three of those sides will fancy their chances of beating any of the ‘top 6’, whether they have the quality and experience to back up those wins and keep progressing in the knock-out rounds is hard to say.
Challenging Pool stages
Predictions as to who will come out on top in Japan are even more difficult when you consider the quality of the groups for next year’s tournament.
Ireland and Scotland look likely qualifiers from Pool A, although hosts Japan are no strangers to World Cup shocks and Samoa will not roll over for anyone.
Pool B looks more of a formality with New Zealand and South Africa doing battle for top spot, but Italy will provide stubborn opposition.
England may look favourites to top Pool C, but alongside France and Argentina in the ‘Pool of Death’ they will need to be mentally focused and near their best right from the off just to qualify for the quarter-finals, whilst Wales and Australia can expect some bruising encounters against Fiji and Georgia in an attritional-looking Pool D.
Whilst the gulf in class between Tier One and Tier Two nations has decreased in recent times – evident by Fiji’s autumn win in France – the quarter-final line-up remains a fairly predictable outcome and should remain so in 2019, with perhaps Japan and Fiji the most likely to upset the established order.
However by the time the knock-out action kicks off, there is no way to say who out of the big guns will be in top shape.
After encounters with hosts Japan and their fleet-footed style of play, will the Irish and Scottish be ran off their feet by the time they meet the All Blacks or the Springboks?
What will Wales’ body-count be after physical encounters against the imposing Fijians and Georgians?
After do-or-die tests against Argentina and France just to qualify will England players be mentally shattered before the knock-out stages?
Ireland and New Zealand will want to avoid meeting as early as the quarter-finals so will be desperate to top their pools, although with Scotland and South Africa as pool rivals that may be easier said than done.
The same could be said of England and Wales, with neither Eddie Jones nor Warren Gatland likely to be satisfied meeting each other in a quarter-final, yet they may have no choice given the tough matches in their respective pools.
With most of the top nations capable of beating each other on their day, it is fair to say that for the first time ever this World Cup will truly be a level playing field between the North and South and coupled with some punishing-looking pool matches there really are no guarantees as to where the Webb Ellis Cup will end up, making the 2019 edition arguably the most-openly contested tournament in history.
At times in Ireland’s famous Dublin win over New Zealand last month, the atmosphere felt like a World Cup knock-out match, a low-scoring encounter with a tense finish that will have given Ireland huge belief ahead of the World Cup.
To come out on top in Japan, the winners will have to match that intensity throughout the tournament, but in a World Cup with big test clashes right from the off picking a winner really is anybody’s guess.
By Jon Davies
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