Who’s in the best shape for the Rugby World Cup 2019?

Rugby Union’s autumn internationals have come to a close, and the results have set up an interesting World Cup in less than a year’s time. The Southern Hemisphere giants have dominated the tournament since its inception in 1987 (only the England side of 2003 could break their monopoly), but the fixtures played in November suggest the traditional giants of the game will face their biggest test yet in Japan.

Climbing to the top of many bookmakers’ odds for the tournament following November’s tests has been Ireland, and it’s easy to see why. This year, they’ve won their third Grand Slam and a first series win in Australia in the summer, capping off the campaign with a victory over New Zealand in the autumn.

‘The lack of experience in the latter stages of the World Cup is the key question mark against Ireland’

This Ireland team has proved itself capable of taking on and beating any team in the world, with an ability to break teams open with slick attacking play and defend resolutely to shut their opponents out. Jonny Sexton may be in the latter stages of his career at 33, but his masterful displays from fly half suggest he may be playing his best rugby yet. His control of games will prove crucial if his team are to go beyond the quarter-finals for the first time ever. That lack of experience in the latter stages of the World Cup is the key question mark against Ireland, but their form in 2018 means they are unlikely to get a another chance like this.

Across the Irish Sea, however, there are also strong contenders for next year’s tournament. First up, Wales. A first ever unbeaten autumn campaign built on a stingy defence and a clinical, if not prolific, attack, has given the side a huge confidence boost, with a first win over Australia since 2008 particularly crucial ahead of their meeting in the pool stages next year. Aside from results, the depth developed in the past year is a major plus point for Wales’ chances.

‘Wales boasted a strong line-up that could compete with the world’s best’

A whole host of players with a great reputation at regional and club level have now proved themselves capable at the international level. This depth meant that even with a long injury list this autumn, especially in the back row, Wales could still boast a strong line-up that could compete with the world’s best. That simply isn’t something the team have produced in recent years. Add to that the experience and skill of the likes of George North, Taulupe Faletau and Alun Wyn Jones, Wales will prove tricky for any opponent next year.

England’s 2018 has been much more mixed than that of Ireland and Wales, but they will still be a contender in 2019. A disastrous fifth placed finish in the Six Nations followed by a series defeat to a South Africa team in transition piled the pressure on Eddie Jones, but three wins from four in the autumn seem to have eased that pressure. Although some dodgy refereeing decisions on Owen Farrell tackles helped the side out against South Africa, England’s performances did show some signs of improvement, with the four tries scored against Australia a particular highlight.

However, England’s struggles to get anything going in attack or defence in the first half against Japan is a reminder that they are still liable to poor patches in games, which could prove decisive in tight knockout games at the World Cup. A relatively kind draw in the pool stage could give them momentum for a good run at the tournament, but they’re yet to show the consistency that Ireland and Wales have.

The Southern Hemisphere sides are too strong to be discounted though. Of course, New Zealand will be the team to beat. Having become the first team to successfully defend the Rugby World Cup in 2015, the All Blacks have had a relatively testing period, losing to Ireland in 2016, the Lions in 2017 and South Africa and Ireland in 2018. They’ve also struggled to settle on key combinations in the back row, centres, and back three, which will need to be eradicated by the time the tournament in Japan comes around.

‘The All Blacks will give those Northern Hemisphere defences the sternest of tests’

But it’s important not to overstate the case against New Zealand. For any other team, four defeats in three years would be far from a disaster and it only downgrades the All Blacks from overwhelming favourites to just favourites for another World Cup. With the incredible talent in their squad, the likes of Beauden Barrett capable of anything in attack and a wealth of exciting options in the rest of the backs, the All Blacks will give those rock solid Northern Hemisphere defences the sternest of tests. Whilst this New Zealand side might not be as good as its 2015 counterpart, they’re still the strongest contenders for next year’s tournament.

On the other hand, Australia, New Zealand’s neighbours, look to be going through a tough time, after winning just four of twelve test matches in 2018. Their reliance on David Pocock in defence and Kurtley Beale in attack was evident when both were absent against England, and the uncertainty over coach Michael Cheika’s future won’t help the Wallabies’ cause. However, their World Cup pedigree, not least when they went from a crisis ridden 2014 to reach the final in 2015, means Australia can still have hope for a good tournament in Japan.

Overall, the Northern Hemisphere can go into next year’s World Cup with more confidence than ever. Ireland, Wales and England have all shown they’re capable of taking on and beating the best that the Southern Hemisphere has to offer and can rightly consider themselves amongst the tournament favourites. However, the quality of New Zealand makes them the team to beat in Japan despite recent defeats, whilst Australia’s tournament pedigree compared to the Northern Hemisphere means they can’t be discounted.

Alex Riggs

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Featured image courtesy of George Olcott via Flikr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here. 


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