Japan will have the eyes of the world upon it this Friday as the Rugby World Cup 2019 kicks off.
This is rugby’s ultimate prize. When you think of the all-time greats of the game, your mind goes to the sublime Kiwi sides of 2011 and 2015, Martin Johnson’s white orcs and ‘that’ Johnny Wilkinson drop goal of 2003, the hard-as-nails Springbok pack with the likes of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield in 2007; Larkham, Gregan and Burke with the Aussies in ’99, and the nation-uniting 1995 South African side with François Pienaar receiving the William Web Ellis Cup from Nelson Mandela. The World Cup is rugby’s route to immortality.
England take the field against Tonga in their opening game on Sunday, but what chance do Eddie Jones’ men have of winning the trophy? In my opinion, this is their best opportunity since that 2003 vintage. There are a number of factors why England could win – and as many why they won’t – but here are three key reasons why 2019 could be England’s year.
Who are the number one side in the world?
Coming into the tournament, there is usually a clear favourite to win the World Cup, and they are usually wearing all black. 2019 is a little different – you would probably still have the Kiwis as the stand-out side, but it is not as clear cut as in years past.
New Zealand have had an indifferent 12 months by their own high standards – third in the Rugby Championship with a loss to Australia and a draw with South Africa – they no longer sit atop the world rankings. That was Wales for a short period, who climbed there off the back of a 14-test winning run which included a Six Nations Grand Slam, before being overtaken by Ireland. The Irish go into the World Cup as ‘officially’ the number one side courtesy of back-to-back warm up game wins over the Welsh and a strong Autumn where they beat New Zealand for the second time in three meetings. But then England have beaten Ireland twice in a row – home and away – beaten the Welsh (and lost twice to them), the Aussies and South Africa at Twickenham.
No wonder the top of the rankings has seen more change in the past month than the previous decade.
There is no clear favourite for Japan 2019. At least five teams go into the competition knowing they are capable of beating any of the others should they meet in the knock-out stages. No hoodoo, no fear – this tournament is there for the taking.
Japan is ‘neutral’ territory
This isn’t really true of course. Japan will be representing themselves with great pride as the hosts of the tournament; however, for all the progress in recent years and valiant play on the pitch, no one truly expects them to win the trophy – memories of the Brighton miracle aside.
There will be no home advantage for any of the tier one sides, something which is always a helping hand in professional sport.
In fact, if any of the top teams is getting a boost from Japan it might be England, courtesy of Eddie Jones. A national hero thanks to his work as coach of the Japanese team and the 2015 victory over South Africa; the former Suntory Sungoliath coach knows Japan’s culture and climate and that experience will be invaluable to his squad.
England has world-class talent
For a long time, England have been looking for world class players. Players that if rugby-playing aliens invaded tomorrow and challenged the Earth to a game, like some oval-ball version of Space Jam, would be called upon to defend our planet’s honour.
The theoretical target set by the likes of Sir Clive Woodward was to have five such players in the team going into the World Cup. Going into 2015, arguably only Mako Vunipola was worthy of discussing in that context. In 2015, had the aliens landed you would probably just have picked the All Blacks team and tried to shoehorn David Pocock in somewhere.
Four years on, and England now have a healthy number of truly world-class players. Alongside Mako, his brother Billy, Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May would all have a shot at making a world XV. While the likes of Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson would also be part of the conversation.
This team, in my view, is comfortably the best England side since 2003. There have been good sides and great moments over the years since – reaching the final in 2007, beating Australia away in 2010, New Zealand at Twickenham in 2012 – but with hindsight they were anomalies or false dawns.
Looking at this England team now, and it is tough to see the glaring weaknesses previous generations possessed. From one to 15, they are stocked with powerful ball carriers – something that was missing as recently as two years ago – their forwards are comfortable with ball in hand, they have a rock-solid set piece, genuine ball-scavenging opensides to call upon, a blend of creativity and brawn in the centres, and guile and gas in equal measure in the back three.
There have been tough times along the way; an exhausted 2018 team finishing fifth in the Six Nations and losing 2-1 to South Africa away. It has taken some very late changes by Jones – jettisoning the likes of Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown, moving back to the Ford/Farrell axis, trusting the inexperience of Tom Curry or Joe Cokanasiga – but England suddenly look like a very, very good team.
Come Sunday and four years of hard work will suddenly be exposed. Jones had a plan and he has stuck to it – will it bring home England’s second world cup of 2019? For the first time in many years, I not only have hope but belief it will.
By Henry Ker