Rugby World Cup, 2019 – A Preview

 

Roll up, Roll up – It’s Rugby World Cup Time

Here we are then. Following the greatest Summer of cricket in living memories, we have been allowed 5 days off before the next sporting treat takes over our lives: Rugby World Cup 2019 is here and starts today. The hosts Japan take on their neighbours Russia in the opening game.  The following day the rugby world will stop as the Southern Hemisphere behemoths, NZ & SA, meet in the group stages for the first time. From then on it’s just rugby, rugby and more rugby until 2nd November when a winner will be crowned.
 
So, clear the diary, lock up your chores in the cupboard you are least likely to open, get comfortable and enjoy the show. It will be the best yet. The hosts will make sure of that.

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William Web Ellis Trophy

To whet your appetite, we have been lucky enough to collar our own rugby correspondent in Belfast, David. He has written a review of the teams he feels are likely to feature in the closing stages. He was duty bound to pick Ireland as one but loyalty is a blinkered beast…
 
Over to you David – and apologies to Scottish fans. Can’t imagine why they don’t feature in his thoughts. He hasn’t spoken of Australia (can’t blame him for that), France (not got long enough to write that) or Argentina and Japan only get a cursory mention. However, within his chosen few there lies the eventual winner.
 

Ireland

Somehow going into the World Cup as the number 1 ranked team in the world only weeks after the demolition at Twickenham at the hands of Mr Jones and his boys.
 
From an Irish perspective a couple of wins against Wales have steadied the ship, but the worrying manner of that defeat against England (ed. twice that is David) and how we were battered up front doesn’t breed confidence, especially with a potential date in the quarters against the Springboks and their Space Jam pack looming.
 
Negatives aside, we do have a relatively easy group to navigate and our big hitters should be well rested for a massive clash with either NZ or SA in the quarters. Stockdale is one of the world’s most dangerous wingers with ball in hand, and one of the oppositions best players when kicks come near him, James Ryan has blossomed into one of the world’s best locks. Murray and Sexton, on their day, are still arguably the world’s best half back combo.
 
Ultimately, the ideal scenario is our Rory getting the dream send off, beating England in the final and lifting the trophy as a teary-eyed Joe Schmidt looks on. 
 
(Editor’s note – such lyrical optimism from David. Forgive him, he knows no different).
 

South Africa

I think there’s little doubt that the Rugby Championship winners are the form team in the world now. A return to form for the Springboks should send a shudder down the spine of most teams with aspirations to win the trophy. 
 
They seem to have few weaknesses. Equipped with a bruising pack, Handre Pollard at 10, who essentially becomes another No. 8 within 5 metres of the line and the electric Kolbe and Mapimpi out wide.  This is complemented by the steady head of Willie Le Roux marshalling it all from 15 and, in this writer’s opinion, the world’s best 9 in Faf (the Shetland pony) de Klerk, they look a side timing their run perfectly and without many weaknesses.

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Faf de Klerk strides onto the pitch for his RWC opener for the Springboks

Naturally, the Springboks are never far from controversy. Following a steroid scandal and Eben Etzebeth seemingly losing his mind, there have been a few hiccups with preparation. However, they were the first team to arrive in Japan, and put the tournament hosts to the sword in their final warm up game.
 
Their open fixture vs New Zealand, in what could well be a dress rehearsal for the final, is a mouthwatering clash and one of the games of the tournament. The winner perhaps rightfully laying claim to being the tournament favourite. In my eyes, they are the team to beat. 
 

New Zealand

New Zealand head into the tournament with a few doubts surrounding them for maybe the first time this decade. A heavy loss at the hands of rivals Australia, although quickly avenged, raised eyebrows. Not to mention the draw with the Springboks, a game where they were outplayed and in typical ABs fashion found a result anyway.
 
They still have the world’s most talented player in Beauden Barrett, someone who can turn a game in the blink of an eye.  The AB’s management seem to have gone away from the idea that playing the world’s best fly-half at full back would make them a better team. Who knew eh?*
 
This will be Kieran Read’s last stand as captain and the uncertainly surrounding Brodie Retallack’s shoulder is an issue. They’re almost unbeatable with him in the side and the tireless Ardie Savea is phenomenal to watch.
 
In the back line, the centres could be an area of weakness, especially if the oft injured Ryan Crotty isn’t there to marshall the defence. Sonny Bill will fill the no. 12 shirt in his usual no arms, aim for the head fashion. It seems Anton Leinart Brown will be his partner. They’re not exactly Nonu and Smith!
 
Of course, they are the team everyone fears the most and as a result have an incredible knack for pulling out a result from seemingly unwinnable situations. Maybe, just maybe, they are vulnerable heading into this tournament. I’ll likely be proven a fool when a smiling Read lifts the trophy, but I see a semi-final exit and a swift rebuild (as usual) for the reigning champions.

*It turns out that Steve Hansen has ignored David and gone for Beauden at full back. Possibly as his brother is not up to much out there and Damian McKenzie is a bigger miss than we might think. Who knew eh, David?!
 

England

From an Irish perspective, the less said about England after the historic pummeling of my Emerald heroes at Twickenham (which nearly spoiled my summer holiday), the better. England head into the World Cup with a great chance of being in Japan for the duration of the tournament.
 
With a monstrous pack, and the nagging problem of recent years at openside well and truly cured they are looking good. Up front,  the dynamic Jamie George sets the tone in the front row, the human freight train that is Billy Vunipola is basically impossible to stop at the gain-line. England also possess maybe the deepest set of locks in world rugby, led by Maro Itoje. Whisper it quietly to my Irish brethren, England may be able to lay claim to tournament’s best pack. 

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Billy lining up a Frenchman. Owen Farrell hiding his arms behind.

Of course, the X factor that could lead England to glory, is the enigma that is Manu Tuilagi. For a long time, he has been one of the most talented players in the world. However, he tends to lose his way a bit in big moments. The rest of the world are hoping he finds another boat to jump off on camera. If he doesn’t disappear during games and doesn’t do something silly off the pitch England really could upset the Kiwi-cart.
 
Having said that, everything rests on the shoulders of the skipper, Owen Farrell. Luckily for England fans it rests on his shoulders and not his arms since he doesn’t appear to know how to use them.*
 
England should have a straight forward run to the quarter finals where Wales or Australia will await them. I’d imagine they’d be favourite there too. If seeing a smiling Rory Best lift the trophy is my dream scenario then seeing Eddie Jones get his smug little claws on it is the nightmare.
 
Only time will tell, but England should be a real force in this tournament, and will cause problems whoever they match up against.
 
*Oh David, do stop it! The Irish no. 10 has many peccadillos to irritate the ‘neutral’ too.
 

Wales

Wales enter the World Cup on a great run and have to be considered the form team in the Northern Hemisphere. Though a few stumbles, against both Ireland and England, in the warm up games have raised a few concerns. They are a big threat to anyone that lines up opposite them in the tournament. Their pack is solid from front to back, with Ken Owens leading the front row, the incredible Alun Wyn Jones anchoring the middle, and a plethora of back row options to choose from, they look a formidable outfit. The missing Toby Faletau will be a loss but strength in depth in the back row might trump his brilliance.
 
The back line is full of game breakers.  Gareth Davies is extremely dangerous round the fringes, the hard-nosed Hadleigh Parkes providing the grit, Jonathan Davies providing the magic and an electric back 3 where four does not fit. Alongside Liam Williams, a fit again Leigh Halfpenny and Josh Adams where is George North going to fit in. Halfpenny will assume the goal kicking so who will miss out?
 
The combination of Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell make a great combination at 10. Biggar being the steadier hand and Patchell often providing a change of pace off the bench – not bad for someone who looks like Prince Harry if he’d grown up near a nuclear plant.
 
Wales are among the favourites for the tournament. Something that our own Mike Pyrgos agrees with. At their best, they may be our strongest offering from the Northern Hemisphere. They’ll certainly be the most miserly in defence.
 
Although, the Aussie Pooper may have a say in who tops their group and meets England in the quarters! My prediction for the Welsh is a deep run to the semi-finals, with some truly stunning rugby played, but alas they will come up just short.
 

The Greatest Show on Earth?

Thank you David. A masterpiece in balanced journalism!
 
For the rugby fan there is nothing better. As David put it in a weak moment, ‘It’s better than Christmas. It would be like the big day only with all your favourite people appearing down your chimney one by one at 20 minute intervals throughout the festive period.’ Additionally, for the rugby romantic, to see it staged in a so called Tier 2 nation is heartwarming. About time too you might add but we all know governing bodies take time to get with the program and have endless budgets to meet and sponsors to satisfy.
 
What of those Tier Two nations? Firstly it would be nice if the media stop referring to them as minnows. It is a bit patronising. They may well be smaller but it genuinely helps no-one. It would be better still if one of them makes it through to the last eight. Everyone talks as though this is the most open tournament since the inaugural event in 1987. In certain aspects it is; namely the winner could possibly come from six or seven sides. However, the quarter-finalists are more or less set in stone with only one of (of the usual suspects) England, Argentina or France to miss out on the knockout stages.
 
Japan could on the back of home support come through and beat Scotland in the closing match. Unlikely but worth hoping for if you’re not a Scot! Fiji beating Wales? Yes, please. Actually while they are at it perhaps they could beat Australia too.
 

And the winner is…

England of course. And why? Their team is just about on target to peak and England won the cricket World Cup so that is a good a reason as any. Plus, sport has a way of bringing people together when we least expect it and possibly need it most. So, England v New Zealand final on 2ndNovember it is. England to win after a very tense period of extra time. Heard that one before…

 

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